Eva’s Story as recorded and told by Jill Barnum
A Beautiful Image
With only the clothes on their backs, Eva and Ladislav Hanka rode a train to Czechoslovakia’s border and then trekked the remaining 10 or so kilometers through the Sumava mountains. They passed to freedom undetected by authorities guarding the Forbidden Zone. Gentle Eva is rumbling and emphatic, tapping her white waves for emphasis, “We escaped with only the clothes on our backs and an education in our heads.” That fall of 1950, when they realized there was no future for them behind the Iron Curtain, she and her young husband walked out of their homeland toward a new life. They would eventually land in Kalamazoo and become members at First Pres.
Her story begins much earlier with an iconic photo of a beaming politician holding a toddler. Sitting with Eva in her front room, I study the image on the cover of a large glossy coffee table book. Latin letters configured in the Czech language are indecipherable, so I focus on the brightly dressed girl presenting flowers to a bearded elder. Eva reveals that she is that little 3 year old girl. A tinier version of herself stoically watches Thomas Masaryk, not necessarily impressed by his status as the visiting president of the newly formed democratic Republic of Czechoslovakia. Eva retells how she was content, not a bit frightened, to climb the stage and represent her town. She was happy to wear the red lacy folk costume sewn by her grandma for the event. This statesman’s encounter with a tiny citizen becomes a nationally prized and emblematic photo. Eva says it has fueled two documentary movies, and still adorns stamps and magazines today. A framed yellowing newspaper copy hangs over the piano just to her left. There’s something eerie about this patriotic scene; it belies her people’s future suffering in the struggle for stable statehood.
At the time of our interviews, September 2022, Eva has just survived a summertime fall and surgery to repair her right hip. As we visit it is clear she is a little tired, her slavic accent rolls and tugs, “This occupation, this living under an oppressive regime, was very real. Over time this photo goes into hiding and then emerges once again!” Throughout her country’s history of intermittent subjugation Eva has witnessed this photo as either out in bookstores or tucked away in hiding. “Over and over this image of happiness re-emerges!” In our conversations she describes a distinct feeling of being left on Earth with a job to do, and this purpose is evermore heightened by her recent injury and recovery. This purpose, beyond belonging at First Pres; if it was language-d, what might it be? Imbuing her younger church family with perspective on their blessed life, or the power of a loving image or the power of hope? She inspires us with her life-long courage that walked her up onto that platform ninety-four years ago. It’s one thing to watch movies or tv series, even follow the news from Ukraine, it is another to actually survive, even grow stronger, from weathering deprivation and uncertainty. Eva isn’t boastful or stern, but she wants me to know that she thanks God every night for all the blessings, the incredible stories in her life. It’s not a complicated or particularly novel sermon message, but it is perennially needed.
Eva tracks the iconic photo’s absence from public viewing during the Nazi occupation, from 1938 to 1945, and then again during the Soviet era from 1948 to 1989. Its hiddenness from the community is a measurable gadge of oppression. She was a teenager when Third Reich tanks rolled into Pardubice; the onset of a national malaise was palpable. Her highschool felt like a military compound, doors locked, lunch-time excursions outlawed. Suddenly, their choices, their lives became the purview of the Reich who could come at any time to remove a student for a job in the government’s service. But there was a castle rock rising out of the plain northwest of town that drew their young resilient hearts; she remembers those secret excursions fondly.
Music and laughter followed them down the stone passage into the kitchen’s dark, cool silence. Eva sighed, leaned her dance weary hips against one of the massive work tables. She watches her friend’s cigarette coming to life, the fervent glow ridiculously tiny against the castle’s cavernous cooking hearth. Still Jitka is careful of the light’s power, reassuring Eva that the windows looked out onto an inner courtyard away from SS eyes. The girls talk of this and that, trade teen drama, anything but the war. For a few hours they are kids again because nobody in their right mind would be out dancing on a foggy, drizzly fall night. Definitely not in a spooky castle ruin.
Kunetice Castle is a wartime haven long in the making; its architects are both divine and human. In geological terms, Eva’s hill, called Kunëticka hora, is a laccolith formed during a primordial volcanic eruption. Their dance hall is a medieval fortress constructed in the 12th century. And where did she and her friends get the chance to dance away their trauma? Her teachers bravely sneak in dance classes as part of the high school physical education curriculum. And the owners of the castle ruins coffee shop and café invite them up and away from the city’s troubles. Under the cover of fog and rain, in the early evening low light, Eva and her friends quietly climb the winding trails, dance shoes in hand.
Near Death, Nearer God
And so Eva came of age under German and Soviet occupation. She was 21 when she left childhood behind, nearly meeting her maker in a roadside ditch. In the city streets, SS soldiers were raging against Churchill’s radio announcement of the war’s end. Incredible news out of Britain sounded from her family’s blanket-muffled radio; but this reality was slow in coming for the Czech people. “Our captors were crazed by impending defeat,” Eva explains how she found herself hiding in a ditch. SS soldiers on the move just over her head terrorized the city by setting everything on fire. Eva describes losing hope, wondering if this was the end of her short life, which began to flash before her eyes. Then terror gave way to peace. In her own beautifully accented words, “I quite enjoyed the movie of my own life that played in my head.” God’s assuring presence still ministers 85 years later.
Of course the near death phenomenon is well documented, but I am curious how this episode factors in her unique faith journey. She is almost nonchalant, shrugging, “I have always believed in God.” But no, she wasn’t always Presbyterian. A brief history lesson ensues. I am to be reminded that the Moravian protest against the corrupted church was afoot in her neck of the woods 60 years before Luther nailed his theses. Because her little town was still under the Hapsburg sway; she and her sister attended the neighborhood catholic church. No details remain about how she and her husband found a red-doored and Reformed church in Kalamazoo; it has been nearly 65 years after all. But a rye smile forms on her face as an old conversation surfaces; one she shared with David Van Arvsdale long ago. His comment about complicated humans still rings, “Czech immigrants knew they didn’t want catholicism, but they didn’t know what they wanted either.”