I read the Czech daily Mlada fronta DNES a lot, and I criticize the paper quite a bit as well. It offers probably the best overview of Czech news on any given day and often breaks stories of official corruption, without pretty much any regard for political affiliation (something of a rarity in TOL’s coverage region). Yet Mlada fronta has also become more sensationalist over the years; its exclusives are often more dependent on mysterious leaks than real journalistic footwork; and the writing in what should be news articles tends sometimes toward the tendentious instead of straight reporting.
But I have to give them credit. In a society dominated by the here-and-now – the latest scandal, the latest high-definition TV, and the latest trendy vacation spot – the newspaper occasionally runs profiles of long-forgotten heroes of World War II and/or the communist era.
One such article ran earlier this month, a profile of Vojtech Klecka, an “unknown hero,” according to the paper, who died on 26 June. Klecka could have easily emigrated to the West on any of the many occasions when he smuggled people and goods across the border in the early years of the Iron Curtain. But he stayed in Czechoslovakia and continued that risky work until he was arrested in 1949. He then served 14 years behind bars.
Klecka’s story has many interesting wrinkles. His brother ended up working for Communist military intelligence and tried to get him to cooperate, unsuccessfully, with the authorities. We also hear an amusing tale of how Klecka, on the way back from one of his smuggling trips (with a dismantled British machine gun in his briefcase), hitchhiked back to Prague; he was picked up by a car carrying a high-ranking officer in the secret police. The two got drunk on the way back and had a grand old time, neither apparently knowing the identity of the other.
But it was a single sentence early on the article that I found truly jarring. “Ten years ago, he [Klecka] and war hero Pravomil Raichl decided to take justice into their hands and demonstratively assassinate communist prosecutor and judge Karel Vas.”
Knowing how old these men must have been then (in their 80s), I had to read that over a few times to understand that this had really happened, and in 2002. This wasn’t some feel-good cutesy movie with aging stars such as Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood deciding to fly to the moon one more time before heading off to an old-age home. Raichl, who had emigrated to the United States soon after World War II, and Klecka, seriously intended to murder Vas. Raichl had even tried a few years before, but had a Winchester hunting gun confiscated on an earlier flight from the U.S.
Intrigued, I looked into Raichl’s background. He fought valiantly on the eastern front line against the Nazis during World War II; he was wounded five times and was decorated for his service. Soon after the war ended, he grew agitated about the actions of the Czech communists and, in contact with the U.S. secret service, started to organize a resistance group. Raichl, however, was soon arrested, in late 1947, and sentenced to death the following May for spying. His sentence was commuted to life in prison, and there he stayed until dramatically escaping to West Berlin in 1952. After first working with U.S. forces, Raichl was relocated by American officials to the United States after an unsuccessful attempt by the Communist secret services to kidnap him and bring him back to Czechoslovakia. He ended up in settling down with his family in Oregon, only returning to Prague after the 1989 Velvet Revolution. During one visit of those visits, President Havel awarded him with the prestigious Order of the White Lion for his services to the country.
Despite such recognition of his past deeds and his advancing age, Raichl was apparently eaten up by the thought that the instruments of the communist regime’s terror of the 1950s had consistently escaped punishment. Vas had taken part in some of the infamous, post-war political trials of opponents of the communist regime and sent hundreds unjustly to prison, according to Mlada fronta DNES. In 2001, he was finally found guilty of playing a role in the murder of General Heliodor Píka, who was sentenced to death in 1949. But Vas was freed because of the statute of limitations over the crime.
That was the final straw for Raichl. The article recounts that he and Klecka planned to murder Vase at the pension where he was peacefully living out his final years (Klecka later admitted getting Raichl a gun). The date, 25 February 2002, hadn’t been randomly chosen: it was the anniversary of the communist coup in 1948.
In the end the assassination didn’t take place. Raichl died of a heart attack a few hours before the planned murder (for more about Raichl, see this program that was broadcast about him on Czech Television).
As for Klecka, he seems to have lived a relatively calm life, surrounded by friends and family following his release from prison. There is a tendency, perhaps born from watching too many Hollywood movies, to think that war heroes end up joining intelligence agencies or going into politics, but many, of course, return to normal life and normal jobs. After getting out of prison, Klecka, a trained waiter, found it tough to find work in his profession and ended up as a security guard at the National Theater for many years. He also worked later in pubs and other restaurants, with almost all of his customers probably unaware of the past of the fierce anti-communist that had just served them a beer.
For those who appreciate stories like that one, I highly recommend visiting the Pamet Naroda project, an impressive oral history project launched by Czech radio and several other organizations. Many witnesses of the World War II and Communist era are profiled, including Klecka, and it’s comforting to know that their memories are being preserved.