Dagmar White was born in Prague in 1926. Her father, Antonín Hasal, was a high-ranking officer in the Czechoslovak Army, and so Dagmar and her siblings grew up between Brno and Prague, depending upon where her father was stationed at the time. When WWII broke out, Dagmar’s father joined the underground resistance group Obrana národa [Defense of the Nation]. Dagmar says that when ‘things got too hot,’ her father escaped and joined the Czechoslovak Army in France and later the Czechoslovak government-in-exile. He served as President Edvard Beneš’s military adviser and chief of the military chancellery. In 1942, following the assassination of Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich, Dagmar, her mother, Josefa, and brother, Milan were arrested in their Prague apartment as part of the Gestapo’s Action E. They were taken to internment camps for political prisoners so that they would not, says Dagmar, provide help and shelter to parachutists sent from Great Britain.
Dagmar and her mother spent the next three years in Svatobořice internment camp in southern Moravia, where they tilled the land, washed the uniforms of wounded and dead German soldiers, and made grenades. Dagmar’s brother Milan was jailed in Brno, in dormitories which provided law students accommodation in peacetime. Dagmar says that towards the end of the War, many inmates at Svatobořice were released, but that she and her mother were moved north, alongside another 120 or so prisoners, to another camp at Planá nad Lužnicí. On May 5, 1945, partisans freed the prisoners at this camp. At the end of the War, Dagmar moved back to Prague and was reunited with the other members of her family. Her father returned from London as commander of the liberated territories and became transportation minister in the cabinet of President Edvard Beneš. Dagmar attended Charles University in Prague and the Prague Conservatory and trained to become an opera singer. Following the coup in 1948, her family found themselves under surveillance, says Dagmar, and decided to leave. They crossed the border on July 2, 1948, whilst a Sokol slet was taking place in Prague and diverting police attention. Dagmar says the family was helped by the U.S. Army in Germany; they were accommodated in Frankfurt at the IG Farben building (which served as U.S. Army HQ) until a special military plane flew the family to Washington, D.C. Dagmar’s parents settled on Park Road in the capital, while Dagmar went to University of Kansas to continue her studies.
After completing her degree at KU in Lawrence, Dagmar graduated from the Juilliard School of Music in New York City, and then received a master’s degree in music education from Columbia University. She moved to Bogota, Colombia, for her first academic post and found herself there at a period of great cultural activity, she says. It was in Colombia that she met her husband Lewis White – an American diplomat. The couple married in 1954. As a result of her husband’s job, Dagmar lived subsequently in New Caledonia, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua (where she taught at the national conservatories) and Morocco. In each location, she conducted choirs and continued the pursuit of her musical career. She has two children. Today, Dagmar lives with her husband Lewis (Jack) in Vienna, Virginia. A long-time member of the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences (SVU), she chairs the organization’s Christmas bazaar. She founded and directed the local Vienna Light Orchestra in which she sang many of the title roles. Dagmar continues to organize musical programs at the Czech Embassy.
“He was a Russian legionnaire. In Russia, the czar encouraged colonization, especially in Ukraine, and so lots of Czechs went there, and some ancestors of my father’s settled down there. They were very prosperous – they had a hops farm. Before the outbreak of WWI my father went there to work as an accountant on the hops farm of his relatives. And when the War broke out, he immediately joined the Česká družina – the cradle of the Czechoslovak Legions – and those people who joined so early were called the starodružníci (the old joiners). And so he fought from 1914; he went through the ranks, came back as a colonel, brought his regiment home – he was commanding the Second Rifle Regiment of Jiří z Poděbrad (George of Podebrady), and he didn’t come home until 1920 because he fought in what the legionnaires called the anabáze; they fought on the long stretch of the Trans-Siberian railway all the way from Ukraine to Vladivostok. And then he came back. When the legionnaires were demobilizing, he became a regular army officer and from then on he went up through the ranks.”
“He had his officer’s saber and some weaponry from WWI and, as a memento, it was mounted on a board and displayed in the room. And of course, you could not have any arms. Any pretext – any weapons found were punishable by death. [That was the case with a] friend of my father’s on that farm where we were during the mobilization. So, my mother was a tiny little lady, she was short, and she had lots of guts. And one day, she took these arms off, put them in a bundle, and at night – if they would have caught her, it would have been horrible – she went though Prague and dumped them in the Vltava River, because we didn’t want to [give the Nazis any pretext]. Since father was already in hiding, it would have been another pretext.”
“They called it Action E, the Gestapo – E as in exulants [exile]– you know? They rounded up most of the families who had anybody fighting abroad, to hold us as political prisoners to prevent us from giving aid to Czechoslovak parachutists sent from Great Britain to attack and sabotage the German occupation. Somebody had to hide them and they wanted to prevent that. So they arrested us all and put us in the camp.”
Do you remember that day when they came?
“Oh yes, and my sister, Milica, she was tiny. She was six years old – she’s what, six and a half years younger than I am. So, they took Milan, my brother, my mother and myself and then kicked Milica out of the apartment and left her standing with the keys to the apartment on the street. And that was it. They took us, and so some neighbors then contacted my aunt and she took her in.”
“My mother was always so feisty and I don’t remember what she did but I think some of the gendarmes tried to help, and I guess they caught one smuggling out her letter. So, the punishment place was the morgue. When somebody died, they had the tables for dissecting – it was very primitive and filthy. She was put into the morgue for two weeks. She picked up there an infection in her leg which really was very nasty. But it didn’t break her spirit. And every so often, the Gestapo would come to the camp which they controlled from Brno. They would line us up, and these goons would go and touch our heads, and do some sort of a genetic exam of the shape of our heads to see whether we are Slavs or what we are – they were always looking for Jews. It was frightening.
“And finally in 1945, when the front was coming from the east towards Moravia, suddenly they opened the camp and I thought ‘Oh my god, they are going to shoot us!’ But they let most of the camp go except 120 people, among them was I and my mother, and they lugged us further north, again to keep us as hostages in another camp. We were there just a very short time and by May 5, when there was already the uprising in Prague, the partisans came and opened the gates, because sometimes the SS people were shooting people just as revenge. And they didn’t want that to happen to us. So they opened the gate and let us out.”
Czechs in D.C.
“My parents lived on Park Road, our first ambassador Hanak (he used to be our ambassador to Turkey) – he bought a house there. And then all the Czechs suddenly started buying houses there. There were so many of them that they started to call it Prague Road. And it is just the sort of tail of Park Road before the bridge, and if you cross the bridge and go through Rock Creek Park, you come to the Czech Embassy. It’s right there. It’s a very beautiful place, and now the town, I mean Washington, D.C., about three years ago started to put historical markers everywhere to show how each section developed and the diversity of people living there. There is a large historical marker with my father’s picture, my daughter in the Czech national costume, and other photographs of all the Czechs living there to show why they started calling Park Road ‘Prague Road.’”
“Culturally at that time Colombia started to develop a wonderful symphony orchestra, as a matter of fact, lots of players came from Germany, the conductor was Estonian, and so they were just building up the momentum there – the cultural momentum – and it was wonderful. And I was sitting right in the middle of it!”
And do you remember what performances you had there?
“Two times I was a soloist with the National Symphony Orchestra, in one I was singing French impressionistic music, in the second one all Wagner like Elsas Traum and Senta’s aria and so forth. And then we had chamber music groups in the Museo Nacional. I had a television program with another Czech soprano, she was a coloratura and I was a heavy-type soprano, sort of leaning towards more dramatic, more mezzo. We had a television show sponsored by a Colombian tobacco company. The singer was Adela Geber, they ended up in the United States too, and her husband was a painter. So, when the announcer was telling the story, he was sketching the characters as the announcer was talking, and then we were singing the major arias or duets and so forth. And then we had another chamber music group with flute and harp and voice, so I was singing constantly.”
“In a way, the time is sort of passing, I would say. The SVU was so important during the Cold War. It was practically your patriotic duty to get involved and be involved. But now that the republic is open, the travel of the artists and everything comes here unhindered. And we can go there at will whenever we want. I think the point has been taken out of it a little bit, and we just have to try to rope in somehow younger generations. You know, I know it with my children, or any of the children of the [exiles]. At this time, they are building their careers, They are so involved with their living and their careers that they do not have time for SVU. During the Cold War, we worked hard to uphold the good name of Czechoslovakia, we felt it our duty to work on this. We will see how long [SVU] is going to last.”