Helena Fabry was born in Hradec Králové, Bohemia, in 1925. Her father was a cabinet maker who, among other commissions, restored the interior of the town’s cathedral, while her mother stayed at home and raised Helena and her younger sister Věra. Helena says that around the time of the Depression, business dried up for her father and so he went to work in the carpentry department of the local Škoda factory. Helena graduated from business school in Hradec Králové during WWII and was assigned a job at the local zásobovací úřad [supplies bureau]. She remembers WWII as being ‘uneasy’ and ‘disquieting’ and says that it was her involvement in amateur theatre in Hradec Králové which helped her during this time. Following the end of the War in 1945, Helena moved to Prague to learn English, which she did for one year before taking a job atSvobodné slovo, a newspaper allied with the Beneš Party. She says she loved working as a reporter in the capital. In 1947, Helena was posted to Louny to gain more experience as a local reporter for the newspaper. There, she reported on the trials of local farmers before lidové soudy [people’s courts], which she refers to as ‘a terrible experience.’ She says her reports sparked the ire of the local Communist administration, and when the coup took place in Prague on February 25, 1948, she was told to leave Louny immediately, and expelled from the association of journalists.
Helena stayed on at Svobodné slovo, though was no longer able to write. She became involved in underground efforts to destabilize the new Communist government, encrypting and deciphering messages. In the summer of 1948, she was told that one accomplice had been arrested and that she should leave the country immediately. A guide told her to pack one suitcase with clothes meant for a week on a farm and meet him at a designated place in Prague at a certain time. Helena traveled with a small group and this guide to Sušice by train; from Sušice, they walked until they crossed the border, which in this instance took several days. The group got ‘hopelessly lost’ on their journey but, says Helena, they were able to find their way west eventually by using the stars to navigate.
Helena spent just under two years in Germany, primarily in refugee camps in Dieburg and Ludwigsburg. There, she met and married her husband, Milan Fabry (a Slovak economist who had been the political secretary of Transport Minister Ivan Pietor prior to the coup). The couple sailed to America on the General Blatchford in May 1950. Their first job was helping an elderly couple cook and maintain their summer home in Heath, Massachusetts. Later that year, the Fabrys moved to Washington, D.C., where they stayed for a short time before Milan found civilian employment with the U.S. Army, leading the couple to move back to Germany. In 1958, Helena’s husband took a job at Sears Roebuck and so the couple lived briefly in Chicago, before moving to Vienna, Austria, where he established a buying office for the firm. There, the couple’s son was born. The Fabrys returned to Chicago in 1968 and lived there for a further 15 years until Milan was transferred to Washington, D.C. There, Helena found a job at the Center for Hellenic Studies and played an active role in Czech and Slovak organizations such as the SVU (Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences). Today, Helena lives in Bethesda, Maryland.
“Yes, very much so, because that was in the ‘30s, the high ‘30s, and I remember that at that time my grandmother died, my grandfather died, work became less and less and the firm had to be sold, and my father went to work at the Škodové závody in the woodworking department, and that life was quite different afterwards. He never complained, but of course it was different work than what he was used to and what he liked. And it was shortly before the war, I remember that in ’37, ’38 especially, people were talking and afraid of the war. We in school for instance, as little girls – I was 12 years old – we were learning about first aid, and the Morse alphabet even. It was sort of a preparation for the war. And then it of course happened in ’38 that Czechoslovakia was stripped of the border areas, of the Sudety, and in ’39 we were occupied by the Nazis and became a Protektorat of the German Reich. That was bad.
“I remember my father, who was a member of the Czechoslovak legions during WWI and worshiped President Masaryk, volunteered to go and defend Czechoslovakia in 1938. I saw him, he was past 50 years old. But he volunteered, I remember him marching in Hradec with other people going to the borders. Of course, the Munich Dictate changed everything. Czechoslovakia was stripped of this part. My father, he returned, and then I saw him cry. It was bad.”
“Well, we had a group of friends in Hradec which was very nice, which sort of saved us all. And one thing which we did – well, we were for instance reading poetry or singing – but then the most interesting thing which we liked very much, and I liked very much, was amateur theatre. The group of us formed this amateur theatre group, we were reading lots of plays and rehearsing very, very, very sincerely and carefully, making our own sets. And we staged or produced [in] several theatres several performances, first on a little stage in Slezské předměstí – that was the part of Hradec where I was living – and then even in the famed Klicperovo divadlo in the Old Town of Hradec. And that was very nice, that was really wonderful. We enjoyed that very much. We were doing that for a long time.”
Reporter in Prague
“In Louny, I experienced some awful thing. Well, of course, the news was fine, but it was a terrible experience. There were so-called Lidové soudy – a soud [court] which didn’t have an elected judge or a prosecutor with a law degree, or a jury, or defending lawyers. It was people, this so-called soud, normal people selected by the communists in Louny to judge, the defendant usually was a farmer. It was a farming area around Louny. [They] judged and sentenced the farmer immediately for so-called ‘crime against the republic,’ meaning they were accused, for instance, of having for example just an extra goose more than they were supposed to have, or that they didn’t return the proper amount of grain which they were supposed to give to the state, to this supply office. It didn’t need to be true. It was strictly political abuse, and a political way of making the people afraid. And the judgment was swift and fast, and the sentences were harsh and immediate. Even prison terms, the confiscation of property, or at least harsh fines. I could not believe that something like that, that such abuse of power, is possible! And abuse of people! So, of course, I wrote article after article about that, and that didn’t please the communists very well at all. To this day, I think that was something that was terribly hard to take.”
Were the Communists in power in the local government?
“Yes. That’s why it was possible for these things to go on. Well, in ’48 of course everything changed. I was still in Louny on February 25, ’48, when the Communists staged a putsch in Prague. I was told by the city to leave immediately and never to return. So I went to Prague to the newspaper, where it was very gloomy, nobody knew what was happening, what will be happening. And in a few days I received a notification that I was expelled from the association of journalists, that I couldn’t be a reporter anymore.”
Crossing the Border
“We walked for several hours and came to a meadow where there were huts with hay, you know, just for hay. And there we hid for the rest of the night and the whole day. I was very afraid, I couldn’t understand that, I thought that we would be surely discovered, hiding there for the whole day. But the guide said ‘No, don’t worry, nobody comes. I do it always the same, it’s alright.’ Well it was, nobody came. So then in the evening, at night, we were supposed to continue and cross the border that same night. The moon was shining and this big meadow in front of us which we had to cross to the woods – the woods were on the other side. So we waited until the clouds came, little clouds which would make it not so clear to see. And we quickly ran across the meadow and into the woods and started to walk and walk, and walked and walked. It’s mountains, so we went up the hill. And I was very glad that I don’t have a heavier suitcase to carry. And I know it was late at night, but all of a sudden we heard dogs barking, and some voices yelling in the direction that we were going, ahead of us.
“So we stopped and turned around and went sideways and walked away from that until we knew that we were in the distance; we didn’t hear any more barking or any voices. So we walked and walked and at one point we rested. We sat down under a tree and I know that I fell asleep and when I woke up it was raining and raining and pitch dark. So we walked, but in the morning we found out that we are hopelessly lost. The woods were terribly deep. And it still was raining and raining and an absolutely dark sky – you couldn’t even see which way is west, because we knew we have to go west, but which was the west? So I remember from nature studies we knew that lichen grows on the north side of the trees, but lichen grew all around the trees because it was such an old, old woods. So we were simply lost, and the guide didn’t have a compass because he was so sure about it – he always was doing the same route so he knew that. And he didn’t have a compass, and of course we didn’t have a compass. So we didn’t know where the west is. The whole day it rained, the evening it rained, we walked a bit, we rested a bit hoping that we will somehow find the way, which we didn’t. But then at night the stars came out. And the Big Dipper came out, with the North Star. And we knew where is the west.”
“We were extremely lucky. My husband met in ’48, in Frankfurt, an American officer – Army officer – of Slovak origin who was very kind and very good, and he took care of Slovaks and so on. And he offered us an affidavit of support, because without that assurance you couldn’t get to the United States. And that was an extremely valuable and kind thing to do, because the sponsor – he – was assuring the United States that we won’t become a burden on the States. Well, you know, what did he know? It was an extremely kind thing to do. But he did that. He and his wife did that, so we had this assurance and then through the process we emigrated in May, we left Germany in May 1950.”
“I thought after Vienna… You know, Chicago was quite different in 1968. But I grew to love Chicago. It became a beautiful, beautiful city. Do you know Chicago? The [lakefront] is beautiful. You could bicycle for miles, to Wisconsin practically, on the flat land. The architecture was wonderful there. Of course, Frank Lloyd Wright to start with, but then Helmut Jahn built these fabulous buildings on Wacker Drive. It was beautiful!
“When we came the lake was not clean, but they cleaned it up and it was absolutely gorgeous. The architecture on the lake and the beaches – it looked like you could be in Rio de Janeiro! It was just marvelous, and then underground, it simply was just a very beautiful city. I liked it there very much, and I liked the theaters. And we were going a lot to the theater, also to the little theaters – Steppenwolf I remember, of course Goodman but also Steppenwolf which became very famous. We started to go to Steppenwolf theater when they were playing in a church in Highland Park, you know, in the suburbs. Well they were wonderful. Northern Lights was another one, there were a lot of small theaters which we liked very, very much. Museums, and I used to go on Fridays to the concerts, to the Chicago Symphony. The Art Institute was an excellent, excellent place to be, and the opera. I liked it there very much. So then we came to Washington and I said ‘well, Washington is a nice city.’ And I came to love Washington too – again theaters, operas, the symphony. I continue doing that.”