Saturday, December 19, 2020

Family Story of 'The Pin'

The Pin

After my mother-in-law's memorial service, Bill, her husband, insisted my daughter and I divide her extensive costume jewelry collection.   Metta had some beautiful jewelry. One-piece I received was a large (3.5") colored crystal pin with three red rhinestone flowers, the stems were lined with small clear rhinestones. There was a note in the box saying that a friend gave it to her in Czechoslovakia in 1946.  

My Bill asked his Dad (Big Bill) to tell me about the piece of jewelry, which made me curious. I knew Big 
Bill was a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge. I later learned he was part of the 78th Division's 311th Infantry which was the third infantry to cross the Remagen Bridge into Germany and also among the first U.S. Divisions to enter Berlin. The U.S. Army left Berlin in July of 1945, but the U.S. State Department asked Bill to stay, so he remained in Berlin until the end of 1946, maybe longer. He never mentioned why the State Department selected him to stay or what his job was. Once it was relatively safe, he asked his wife Metta to come to Berlin and stay with him while he was stationed there. They had commandeered a house for their lodging and had three Czechoslovakia driver-bodyguards, Jacque, Fred, and Walter. Jacque and Fred convinced Bill to take Metta for a skiing holiday in Czechoslovakia.




While skiing, they met the son of the prime minister of Czechoslovakia. Before the war, the prime minister had a business manufacturing costume jewelry. His son wanted to re-establish the business, and he asked Bill if he would be interested in becoming a salesman/partner for U.S. markets. They gave Metta a sample of the jewelry they used to make. Bill was very interested and spent an extra week there talking over aspects of the business.

Before anything could be finalized, word spread like wildfire that the Russians were taking over the country. Jacque, who Bill said was a freedom fighter and the bravest man he ever knew, turned white. Bill and Metta were rushed to their cars, a Mercedes and a BMW. Their security guards pushed Metta onto the floor in the backseat, and Bill laid on the backseat. Fred drove the Mercedes, and the BMW followed going (at times?) 100 mph for the German border.

As they neared the border crossing, they saw armed soldiers already held the gate. Fred never slowed down but drove right through the gate, busting it to pieces. It was a hundred yards to the American held gate. The soldiers fired on the two cars, riddling both trunks with bullets, but as the cars neared the American side, they stopped firing as U.S. soldiers had picked up their weapons and aimed them at those holding the Czechoslovakian gate.

They all made it safely back to Berlin, but that was the last they heard from the prime minister's son and his family even though the information was sought through American diplomatic channels and Jacque and Fred inquired through their contacts.

I now own this lovely piece of family history and will pass it along to my daughter. This past October, Bill took the pin to a jeweler. Surprisingly, he discovered the stones are not rhinestones. The red ones are semi-precious garnet stones. The white ones are diamonds. The pin is made of pot metal, a cheap metal, but one sometimes used in jewelry, and perhaps more accessible for jewelry production during the financial depression of the 30s, making jewelry more affordable. The pin has no manufacturer's identification imprint. 

While this story was told many times to Bill, the story has discrepancies. 

Recently, I've done some investigating and found some information probable and some problematic. Do I believe their story? Yes, but many of the facts are missing. I found black and white photos taken in January of 1947 at the Spindleruv Myln ski resort in the Krkonose mountains of north-eastern Czechoslovakia. It is less than five miles from Poland's border and a minimum of fifty miles to the German border, or perhaps further, considering what mountain roads would be like in the 1940s and winter. 

I  now think the pin might have been made at Jablonec Industries in Jablonec nad Nison which is about twenty miles west of the Spindleruv Myln. Jablonec Industries was well known for making jewelry and garnets were mined in the Jablonec nad Nison area. The company had faced hard times during the 30s and WWII. It is highly conceivable that Jacque, Fred, or Walter knew people in the area, including someone from Jablonec Industries who wanted to expand sales in the United States and restart their jewelry production and profits. These areas are all in what was known as the Sudetenland area of Czechoslovakia, which was populated mainly by German-speaking citizens and a highly contentious area in Czechoslovakia after the war. Those who spoke native Czechoslovakian hated the German speakers in their country and wanted these residents expelled no matter how long they had lived in the Sudetenland. 

The Czechoslovakian president at that time was Edvard Benes who returned home from a WW2 exile in England. The Russians began pulling out of Czechoslovakia in July of 1945. The last of the Red Army evacuated Czechoslovakia in December 1945. Evard remained president until 1947, dying in September of 1948. In May of 1946, Russian sympathizer and communist party rule supporter Klement Gottwald was elected Prime Minister. He is only listed as having a daughter, not a son. Neither Edvard nor Klement had manufacturing of any type in their family backgrounds. 

Big Bill and Metta did not speak Czechoslovakian or German, so may have misunderstood who the person offering the business deal was, or one of their guard-drivers might have misinterpreted the information. 

Do I think they were shot at? Yes. I saw photos of the back of the car. Were those shooting Russian soldiers? Maybe but most likely not. Maybe they were Czechoslovakian guards watching two cars speeding toward the border.  However, in traveling from Berlin, didn't Metta, Bill, and the bodyguards cross the border once already? Why was this time suspect? The Russians didn't invade Czechoslovakia until 1948. But if Czechoslovakia didn't have an adequate army, perhaps the Russians were assisting, or did they travel through part of Poland?  Were Russian troops stationed in either country after the war? Why would they attack Americans? Did Big Bill's position with the State Department raise questions? This all leaves lots of questions. Big Bill is gone, now, too, so can't answer questions, so I'll never know the true story.

It goes to show you that we all think we know about our parents, relatives, and friends, but we can't know everything about anyone. Sometimes we know their life experiences were as exciting as anything imaginable, more so than their everyday lives would suggest. Somethings are never told and get lost with time. So I want to encourage you to write down your and your family's stories. Ask those who know the stories what they remember before those memories get lost.