Life is an adventure. Something to be experienced and enjoyed. I often ask, ‘How does it get any better than this?‘ When I ask that question, magic happens.
For many years I didn’t feel like there was much of that unless you count raising three boys an adventure, which I often do. Having twins has made most days an experience beyond anything I’d known. Then in 2015 I embarked on a new adventure – traveling to Europe. Since that trip and the choices I made because of the experiences I had, life continues to be ever changing and some days I don’t even recognize myself.
Who am I today? That is a question I often ask.
We all make choices in life to pay attention to some things while ignoring others. To stay isolated versus being with new people. We stick so much to our family stories and who we ‘believe’ we are and our family members are, that we often shut out the possibilities of what could be. We often close ourselves off to the possibilities of experiences, people, jobs, travel, and healing that could change us in ways we desire but are too afraid to embrace. I speak from experience.
Yet when we take that one chance, our entire reality can change. I took that chance after my first trip to Europe and it led to meeting the most amazing man, who is now my husband. Johan offered up several places for us to go on honeymoon. One was Prague. When he offered this as a possibility, my entire body and soul lit up and started dancing and yelling, ‘YES LET’S GO THERE!!!’
Feeling there were reasons beyond my immediate understanding of why I had to go to Prague, I was completely aware there was something greater than myself at work here. I knew without a doubt this trip would change my life and the lives and souls of others. I also knew it would bring me home.
My Czech Family
This was my first trip to the Czech Republic. Our plane ride from Amsterdam to Prague was short and my heart beat faster as we got closer to Prague airport. Seeing the land of my ancestors made me almost cry as I heard their voices welcoming me home and reminding me I was not only here for myself but also them.
All of my family lines, which I have traced back to the early 1800s in most cases and 1600s in another line, were in what was Bohemia, then Czechoslovakia. All of those who emigrated, came to Chicago. Where did my ancestors come from before where my research ends? I’m starting to figure that out after not looking at my genealogy for several years. I’m also waiting for a DNA kit to arrive so I can learn more and hopefully have some questions answered. Many who heard my surname, Holik, welcomed me home. It felt so good to be welcomed home.
What surnames make up my family?
Holik from Senetín and before that, Ledec nad Sázavou
Rataj/Ratay from Pisek
Brouk from Holovousy, Chric,
Schubert/Subrt & Kocka from Hresilavy and Chric
Tregler & Svihlik from Kladno, Motycin near Prague
Kokoska/Kokaska from unknown at this time but likely near Osek as he married a Priban.
Priban from Osek where the family lived for over two centuries
Zajicek from Pilsen
Hammer/Hamer from Drakov, Kraj Tabor
Johan and I stayed at the K+K Hotel in Prague just down the street from the Powder Tower and Municipal Center. This hotel was full of Art Deco, which Johan loves. Seeing so much Art Deco and Mucha art in Prague, I’ve now become a fan. We arrived late afternoon and there were two main things I wanted. Kolacky and for dinner – either roast duck or roast pork with dumplings and sauerkraut. Of course I wanted to see some sights, but Czech food was high on my list.
We ended up walking first to the Powder Tower and passed some WWII war memorials on the buildings as we walked. Next to the Tower is the Municipal Center, which is filled with Art Deco. Simply gorgeous. One can spend hours looking at all the details and stained glass and mosaics. We were in need of a snack so headed into one of the restaurants in the building called Kavárna, which had a cart filled with cake options. Of course we each chose a different cake so we could sample two options.
After enjoying our cake and coffee and exploring a little more of the building, we ventured out …. destination unknown. Thankfully Johan is a master navigator and we can walk all over a city and he always knows where he is and how to get anywhere we want to go. I’m not always so great at this.
Having made only a short list of things we ‘must-see’ on this trip, we were happy to see where our feet took us and what showed up along the way. Our walking took us down a long road to the Old Town Square where we found Our Lady of Tyn Church. This was on my list of things to see. We arrived after 5 p.m. so it was closed. Outside there was a sign for a classical music concert the following evening. How amazing would it be to hear that in a centuries old church? We bought tickets and I asked, ‘How does it get any better than this?’
Walking back to the square we admired the gorgeous architecture on the buildings, watched people as they made their way through from one place to another. Watched street performers and heard bits of music. We made our way across the square to another church (I love churches) and found St. Nicholas Church. They were having a concert that evening at 7:30 and were going to play something from my favorite composer – Dvořák and his From the New World! I may have gotten VERY excited over the possibility of hearing this in a church so Johan agreed we could get tickets. Two concerts, two nights in Prague! ‘How does it get any better than this?’ It didn’t take long to find out! We kept walking the square and soon found the Old Town Hall and when we walked around the side, there was the Astronomical Clock! Needless to say, I kept asking the question the rest of the night and amazing things showed up.
By this time it was getting close to 6:00 and we needed to find some dinner before going to the concert. As luck would have it, we found The White Horse restaurant which had outdoor seating. It was very noisy and getting chilly, so the hostess suggested we eat in their cellars. That sounded interesting and less noisy so we agreed. We walked down two levels of old stone stairs and ended up eating in the Roman Cellars. It was magical! And of course, they had roast duck, dumplings, and sauerkraut! It was a lot and I ate it all. Delicious!
After dinner we went to St. Nicholas Church to hear the concert. The music, atmosphere, lighting, and history all brought ghosts from the past to join us to enjoy the magic of the music and space. The group consisted of violinists, cellists, and a bass. They played Ravel’s Bolero, Dvořák’s Symphony Number 9 in E Minor, Pachelbel’s Canon, and some Mozart, Bach, and Vivaldi. Many times tears came to my eyes as my heart swelled with the rise and fall of the music in that sacred space. It was an amazing way to close out our first day in Prague.
Prague at night is magical. The buildings, art, lights, people, music. We enjoyed the way the Old Town Square looked after the concert on our walk back to the hotel. Little did we know one more surprise awaited us…..champagne and chocolates from the hotel staff wishing us a happy marriage.
Our first partial day in Prague was incredible. So many emotions and experiences and a profound sense of being home. Where would the next three days take us? Who would we meet? What would we see and experience? How would our lives be changed? What did my ancestors have in store for me beyond the magic provided this first day? Stay tuned to find out and learn some travel tips in the final article.
© 2017 World War II Research and Writing Center
This is a guest post written by Bert Eggen.
A little history about the American War Cemetery in Margraten, a little village in the South of the Netherlands and our special bond with Mississippi.
The use of this cemetery started at the end of 1944. At any moment in 1945 there were about 18.000 American soldiers buried in Margraten. The local community decided to appeal the Dutch people to adopt a grave. That meant that you regularly had to visit the grave, do some prayers for the soldier and put flowers on the grave. On Memorial Day 1946 all the graves were adopted by Dutch people and one of them was my father. He had adopted the grave of the American Staff Sergeant Earl Jenkins from Winona, Mississippi who had been killed in November 1944 in the German Eiffel Mountains. (Hurtgen Forest.)
At the end of 1949 about 10.000 of the killed soldiers had been brought back to the USA and have been reburied there. This was also the case with Earl Jenkins. He has been reburied at the cemetery near Winona , Mississippi.
At our first visit to the Jenkins family we also have visited his grave. Since that first visit, we go every year to Mississippi and visit them. From there we start our vacation-trip through the USA.
At the present time there are still 8.301 American graves and the names of 1.722 missing soldiers are engraved on two big walls.
On May 8th 2005 your President Bush and our Queen Beatrix visited the cemetery on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Europe.
John Rutherford, MIA
My wife and I have also adopted a grave. The name of our soldier is John Rutherford and he was also from Mississippi. About 12 years ago I started to do some research to find out about the families of those soldiers. Unfortunately our soldier John Rutherford doesn’t have any relatives.
Remembering Earl Jenkins
But it happened that we found the relatives of Earl Jenkins. We found his daughter Earline, his brother Clyde , his sister LuluMae and many of his nephews. Since that time, 10 years ago, we travel every year to Mississippi to visit our “new relatives.“ So it is obvious that we have a special bound with Mississippi.
Every year on Memorial Day there is a special ceremony on the cemetery in Margraten. On each grave are two little flags planted, one American and one Dutch flag. Now we had the plan of also planting a little flag of Mississippi on the graves of the soldiers from Mississippi. It appears that there 98 of them buried in Margraten. That is when I started to contact the Government in Jackson and informed them about the cemetery, the adoption by the Dutch citizens and my plan for the flags of Mississippi. Then things worked out very quick and very well, especially thanks to the great support of Mr. Chuck Holifield, Outreach coordinator of the Mississippi Veterans Affairs Board. In August 2013 my wife and I and some Jenkins were invited to the State Capitol in Jackson Mississippi. There was a ceremony and Governor Phil Bryant handed over 100 little Mississippian flags to me. It was a very special event for us!!!!! Every year with Memorial Day we place those little flags at the Mississippian gravesides.
Do you have questions about John or Earl? You can email Bert Eggen to learn more.
© 2017 World War II Research and Writing Center
The World War II Research and Writing Center is now booking programs through 2019, including our newest talk, Walking in their Footsteps: Traveling Planning for your WWII Trip to Europe.
Program Description: Are you ready to travel through Europe walking in the footsteps of your family’s service member? Have you done your research to know exactly where he was? If he was wounded or died, do you know where? Do you need help planning a trip and the steps that come before and after?
Over the years I’ve heard a lot of stories from people, and about people, who have traveled to Europe to walk in their family member’s footsteps. Not all stories of travel are successful. Many people do not first do the proper research to ensure the information they have is correct. Then they often waste time and money being in places their soldier wasn’t.
Having traveled in the footsteps of my family’s soldiers, and others for clients, and now also living in the Netherlands, I have a unique perspective on WWII travel. In addition to having a network of people in Europe to which I refer clients ready to travel, I also have a proven, documented research method to ensure you end up where your soldier really served.
In this program you will learn:
- How to ensure your research is accurate before you plan your trip and what steps to take if you still need to verify service.
- Tips on planning your dates, targets, and itinerary.
- Tour company and bus or not?
- Connecting with researchers, tour guides, and historians in Europe.
- What to be aware of as you travel.
- What you can do when you return home.
- Options for putting your research, photos, and travel writing all together.
© 2017 World War II Research and Writing Center
Finding Your Soldier’s History
13 January 2018 at 13:00 at Delware Company BV, Wilgehout 13 3371 KE Hardinxveld-Giessendam Netherlands
This program will be conducted in English.
Have you adopted a grave at an ABMC cemetery? Are you unsure how to locate more information about your soldier?
Are you researching a bomb crew and unsure where to find the crew’s records?
Did you locate dog tags or another item from a soldier and want to know more about his service?
Then this program is for you!
Many questions surround the service history of Americans who served in Europe during World War II. The answers will be given during this program.
- Where do I start with my research?
- What are the steps I need to take if I have some information?
- What records are available and how can they be accessed?
- How can I connect with a soldier’s family?
While this program is free, you must register for this program so we know how many to prepare for. Prior to the program you will be sent an email link to download a handout for the program. You may print this and bring it with to take notes. Coffee and tea will be available for purchase prior to the program.
To Register, please email Jennifer the following to firstname.lastname@example.org
- Email address
- Any questions you have about your soldier or bomb crew. I will answer as many as possible in my talk.
See you in January!
© 2017 World War II Research and Writing Center
This is a guest post written by Sharon Odegaard. All photos are Sharon’s and used with permission.
Prague’s beautiful old town today is what draws so many to visit. It escaped damage during WWII, so what we see strolling along the lanes and in the town square are genuinely historic shops and churches and restaurants, rather than new versions made to look old. People flock to Prague to experience history in its pure form. So many of the cities in Europe suffered from bombing, one of the closest to Prague being lovely Dresden, which lay in ruins after the war. Some cities were rebuilt in the original style, such as Dresden and Nuremberg, and others chose to start over with modern structures of glass and chrome, like Berlin.
How was Prague spared destruction? The leaders chose to surrender rather than lose their city during WWII. This is well explained on the excellent WWII in Prague tour. And we also learned about the resistance here. These men and women did not accept surrender and fought to sabotage the German war effort. The group was small and suffered from a lack of radios and contact with the Allies, but they claimed one amazing feat – the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the third most powerful Nazi leader.
Heydrich, Nazi SS Obergruppenführer and General of Police, was in charge of Prague at this time. He was ruthless in pursuit of disloyal townspeople. He earned the nickname, “The Butcher of Prague,” due to relentless arrests and murders of the locals. He was also a leading architect of “The Final Solution,” recommending that all Jews be killed. After the Jews would come the citizens of Prague, according to the master plan. Taking Heydrich out would be a serious blow to the Nazi cause and would possibly save many lives in Prague.
The story of the assassination is more dramatic than fiction. The Czechs who killed Heydrich are memorialized at the place of their last stand against the Germans. Seven brave men held out against the Germans where they had been hiding, at the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius. Today, you can visit the National Memorial to the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror in the crypt of this church.
The crypt is quite small and is kept just as it was after this battle. Standing underground in the musty basement of the church, you can imagine what went on there.
You’ll want to know about Anthropoid before you visit the memorial. The assassination plot, devised in England in 1941 and code-named Operation Anthropoid, called for two young Czechs in exile there to parachute back into Prague and shoot Heydrich. So Josef Gabcik and Jan Kubis jumped from a plane in the dead of winter, off course due to poor weather, with Gabcik suffering a foot injury on landing. From December 1941 to May 1942, Gabcik and Kubis lived with a resistance family while Gabcik’s foot healed. They met with resistance members in Prague and maintained radio silence with England, as ordered. The mission was discussed with others, but the target of Operation Anthropoid was kept secret from the resistance. The plan to assassinate such a high-ranking Nazi official would be thought crazy and certain suicide. Gabcik and Kubis committed to the mission and did not back down.
On June 4, 1942, the plan went into motion. The Czechs would shoot Heydrich as his open-top Mercedes limousine came around a sharp corner, then run. The mission didn’t go as planned. When Gabcik jumped in front of Heydrich’s car and pointed his Sten gun, the gun jammed. Heydrich, realizing what was happening, jumped from the car to chase Gabcik. Kubis went into action with the backup plan and threw a grenade at the car. He missed Heydrich but hit a corner of the car. The paratroopers ran away through the smoke and went into hiding, knowing that Heydrich was wounded but survived, and they had failed.
The Germans reacted immediately with reprisals. Then, Heydrich died from his wounds. The Germans offered a hefty sum for any information on the young men. After three weeks, a fellow resistance member betrayed them. But Gabcik and Kubis were moved to the Saints Cyril and Methodius Church and hid in the crypt there with others who assisted in the assassination. The woman who had hidden the parachutists was killed and her son tortured until he gave away the location of the church hiding place.
The Germans invaded the church and a long battle ensued. Eventually, the Czechs in the main part of the church were killed or committed suicide. Intending to try to take the paratroopers alive, the Germans tried to shoot their way into the crypt. When that failed, they flooded the crypt from city fire hoses to flush out the men. At that point, the paratroopers knew they couldn’t escape, so rather than be captured, they all committed suicide.
Operation Anthropoid resulted in extensive reprisals, including the slaughter of the entire village of Lidice. Many lost their lives. But even those who survived the war in Prague have spoken out to honor the men who struck a blow at the highest levels of Nazi leadership. One far-reaching consequence was that Winston Churchill reacted by declaring the Munich Pact void and England embraced the Czechs as Allies for the first time. It’s interesting, too, that England didn’t claim any part of the operation but gave full credit to the Czechs.
The crypt today shows clear signs of the battle. Bullet holes pepper the walls. When you stand in the crypt, you feel how small and claustrophobic it is, just a small basement in a neighborhood church. But the bravery that took place here was beyond measure.
Thank you notes lay scattered about, tributes to these young men who gave themselves in hopes of saving others. Groups of school children and tourists come here to learn about this story of Czech resistance to evil.
The tiny museum outside the crypt tells the story of Operation Anthropoid. On display are items like Jan Kubis’ shoe and one of the guns used in the battle.
The crypt of this church tells the story of seven men who held off the German war machine in a local church for six hours. The paratroopers and those who aided and hid them gave their lives to cut off a leader who randomly and methodically killed innocents.
It’s well worth a visit and leaves you with much to mull over.
Want to know more about Operation Anthropoid? The excellent 2016 movie Anthropoid is a gripping dramatization and well worth seeing.
Questions? Comments? You can reach Sharon Odegaard at email@example.com.
Would you like to read more from Sharon? Visit her website, Exploring Our World.
A few months ago I read an article in a Holocaust Educator’s group about dark tourism. I had never heard of this until I read the article and then realized, I do dark tourism when I travel in Europe.
Dark tourism is defined as: Tourism that involves traveling to places associated with death and suffering.
There is a great website Dark-Tourism (that seems to be offline in 2019), that explains what dark tourism is, the ethical considerations, health and safety issues, and places for dark tourism, among many other things. I highly recommend you review their main about page. (As of 25 Nov 2019 their website seems to not work but you can Google Dark Tourism to learn more from other sites.)
Also read the more scholarly description of dark tourism.
I must admit being drawn to dark tourism and the sites associated with it. Having a degree in history and background in genealogy/family history and WWI and WWII, I visit these sites primarily for historical educational purposes. A secondary reason I visit, is often I am called or drawn to a particular site to perform healing of some kind. I always seem to end up in places I never plan to be. That healing may come in the form of releasing lost souls or being witness to someone’s story (living or dead.) Sometimes just being present in a location is enough to heal whatever happened there. I do not always know exactly why I’m in certain places, but I feel the energy of it and it isn’t always good or peaceful.
I experience many things at dark tourist sites which I am often able to write or speak about later. The stories I tell often heal something in other people. Then there are places where I’m just not sure how to properly convey what happened. Perhaps those places and energies are reserved for me to heal something inside myself rather than always the souls or place I am in.
For example, I visited Dachau in 2015, on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the camp. This was unplanned and we arrived after lunch when busloads of people were leaving the commemoration ceremonies. I walked to the gas chamber and oven building and I could smell the smoke, hear the screams, feel the fear of those who were once there. What does one do with that? In this life I am not Jewish. Was I experiencing those energies and voices so I could bear witness so it would not be forgotten? Was I there to heal someone or the place in some way?
When my husband and I visited Prague on our honeymoon we took a WWII in Prague tour. That was not in our plans as we did not originally plan to work while we were there. I was ok through most of the tour until we visited the Gothic and Roman cellars under the Old Town Hall. This is where the resistance members and Prague citizens took refuge during the occupation. In one room in particular I could feel a tightening and nauseous feeling in my solar plexus, a tightening and almost being strangled feeling in my throat. I heard the voices of mothers soothing crying children and the dying. My soul almost wanted to jump out of my body and thankfully we moved on before it did. I did a lot of clearing in that space for both myself and the past.
Also in Prague I walked past the Jewish Cemetery but could not go in. Just walking past I picked up so much negative, sad, depressed, angry energy, I thought my soul would fly away. It took several minutes after I moved beyond the area to clear that and feel ok.
There are also places I’ve been which are likely classified as dark tourist sites due to the number of dead that sleep there, like Normandy Cemetery. The dark tourism site lists some (but not all French WWII sites and adds war cemeteries in their list). So many dead on and after D-day that were temporarily and then permanently buried there. This was the first ABMC cemetery I visited after several years of research into the cemeteries and war dead. It is one thing to research and another thing to walk where you have researched.
I could only cry from the moment I stepped foot on the property, through the museum in the visitor’s center and out into the area just before the steps to the cemetery itself. Once I reached the top of the steps the tears and sadness left. I heard only cheers and ‘welcome home’ and ‘we are so glad you finally came home.’ I felt happy and at peace. No more tears. Only peace.
Home. What did that mean exactly? The soldiers were definitely happy I visited. They recognize me as someone who will listen to them and tell their stories. To help their family members learn what really happened which will also bring them peace. Was I a soldier in WWII? No. The man I loved in that lifetime did die in the war though. In this lifetime, several family members fought and died. Perhaps home meant I was in a place I belonged, to bear witness, be understood in the pain I felt researching and telling the stories of the dead, and heal.
There are so many stories and experiences I’ve had in dark tourist sites and even those not considered dark. While I do avoid places that make me feel like my soul will flee and I’ll die on the spot, I don’t rule out visiting them in the future when I’ve healed other parts of my soul. The more we heal, the more the world heals.
World War II in Prague – I took this tour in October 2017 and it was amazing. Highly recommend this company.
What are your thoughts on, and experiences with, Dark Tourism?
© 2017 World War II Research and Writing Center
Johan and I got married and went on honeymoon in Prague. Initially I thought we’d do some ancestor hunting for me. As far as I’ve researched (back into early 1800s), my family came from Bohemia – later Czechoslovakia. Then we decided no work, no war, and no genealogy. We would only be dreamy honeymooners exploring the city. However we always go with the flow and see what shows up. On our second day in Prague we stumbled upon a brochure for the tour company World War II in Prague. The brochure was exciting and well done. All you had to do was show up at the tour meeting place at the time you wished to go and pay there. How does it get any better than that?
On a rainy Sunday morning at 10:00 at the Powder Tower (just down the street from our hotel,) we met Hannah, our tour guide. There was a small group of less than 10 people which was perfect for asking questions. Our tour started at the Powder Tower and Hannah showed us a map of Czechoslovakia and the surrounding countries from 1938. She began telling us stories of how the annexation occurred and what happened to the Czech people, especially those in Prague.
After a serious history lesson about Czechoslovakia and its importance to Hitler’s war plans, we began walking to the Old Town Square where the Nazis rolled through Prague and began taking over. As we walked, Hannah stopped and pointed out different war memorials on the buildings, especially those for the resistance. Those in the resistance greeted each other with a specific hand signal, as seen in the memorials. Most of the signs we saw, with or without the hand on them, contained names of those who died in Prague fighting for freedom, many on the last days of the war as the Germans were killing everyone they could in an attempt to save themselves.
Our tour included a visit to the underground where the resistance met and many families whose houses had been destroyed, fled during the occupation. The underground took us two layers below the current Prague street level. The first level was the Gothic cellar. The second, the Roman cellar, beneath the Old Town Hall. Prague has a series of connected cellars which made it difficult for the Germans to know how many resistance members there were at one time. We had eaten the night before in Roman cellars and I had no idea then of their significance.
In the cellars I could feel the people who had once been there. Perhaps from the war and perhaps from other times. So many were silenced I discovered as I felt that energy in my throat. Others gave up their power willingly or unwillingly and were full of fear, as I felt that energy in my solar plexus. I could almost see and hear the mothers with crying children in the cellars. See the people wandering with lost looks on their faces. And the sick and dying. There were moments I wasn’t sure I could stand any longer in certain areas of the cellar due to the energy coming up. So many souls asking for peace and to be remembered.
After the Old Town Hall cellars, we walked through more of Prague toward the river. We learned the story of Heydrich’s assassination and the role of the resistance in that attempt. Hannah had photos from the war and showed them each step of the tour. We were able to have a “then and now” visual of what happened. You can see many of these photos on the tour company’s website.
We stopped in front of a building where Franz Kafka lived, which was the Gestapo Headquarters. Across the street from this was the building, which is still standing, which had radio transmitters on the roof for the resistance to use.
Prior to the end of our tour, we walked through the Jewish Quarter and learned more about the fate of the Jews in Prague. We learned how they worked with the resistance to stall production and fight the Nazis. We saw several monument stones on buildings for Jews who died, and the Stolpersteine in the sidewalks. I’ve seen more of these in Amsterdam than I did in Prague. Prague did not have a huge Jewish population during the war, but many were shipped to camps. It is interesting there are not more Stolpersteine. Our final stop was near the SS Headquarters, which was housed in the now Charles University Law Faculty building.
The tour took about two hours and our heads were filled with so much information that I asked Johan to start writing some of the highlights down as soon as we found a place for lunch. I learned so much about Czechoslovakia during the war. I’m interested in learning more, especially about the resistance and the people who lived there during the occupation.
The tour made me wonder about my own family who never emigrated to the U.S., specifically Chicago. Why did some choose to leave between 1865-1925? Why did other stay? Was there family still living near Prague during the war? My Tregler line lived not far from Prague in 1925. What about the families who lived in the country? What was life like for them? I wonder now too if any of my grandparents kept in touch with anyone in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s and beyond. They are all gone so I cannot ask.
So many questions and no answers. However, the next thing I can do is hire a Czech researcher to look over what has been done and see what else can be found. Then arrange for a guide or the researcher to take me to the places my families lived on another trip. To walk in their footsteps as I’ve walked in the footsteps of my WWI and WWII family members in Europe. What answers await me? What new discoveries? What healing will take place?
Have you ever taken a tour in Europe unrelated to your family that left you with a million questions?
© 2017 World War II Research and Writing Center