Hana Ludikar is one of the few surviving members of the Free Czechoslovak Air Force Association, a group remembering the Czechoslovaks who fought with Britain’s RAF during WWII that was co-founded by her late husband Marcel. In this special programme, she tells us all about a life deeply impacted by the events of modern Czech history.
Now in her mid-80s, Hana Ludikar has had a fascinating, at times dramatic, life. When her economist father Ladislav Feierabend became a minister in the Czech government in exile during the war the repercussions for her relatives were severe.
Things again grew dark when the Communists came to power in 1948, prompting the Feierabend family to make an escape that is like something right out of a spy novel.
Soon afterwards the young Hana settled down in the UK, where she made a life with her new husband General Marcel Ludikar, a Czech airman who had taken part in important operations during the war, including the sinking of the German supply ship the Alsterufer.
General Ludikar died in 2003, having lived to see the fall of communism, receive a top honour from President Václav Havel and secure the official rehabilitation of his wartime colleagues.
But Hana Ludikar is still very much going strong, and was excellent company when I visited her recently at her home on the outskirts of London. We first discussed her father, to whom she is still clearly devoted, and how he came to be a member of the wartime exile government.
“Even then my father was fairly well-known in economic and political circles. He never was interested in politics, but he was really well-known as an economist.
“After Munich, President [Edvard] Beneš, before he left the country, called him and asked him to become a member of the government. Which father was very reluctant to take, because he wasn’t a politician, as I said.
“However, he thought it was his duty, so he did become minister of all sorts of things – eventually of agriculture.
“At the same time, he was head of one of the resistance groups and was still in contact with Beneš. He was telling him what was happening in Prague, what was happening in the government and so on. And Beneš always replied to him.
“Then in January 1940…”
He was a member of the first Protectorate government?
“He was immediately captured, arrested and investigated – and he told them everything. So of course my father just had to leave the country immediately, because he knew very well what would happen.
“He had a very adventurous escape, through Slovakia, Hungary and Yugoslavia. Then he went to France, where he joined Beneš again. And after the fall of France he went with Beneš and the whole group of Czechs to London.”
Where were you all of this time?
“We stayed… father would have loved to have taken us all, but it was so sudden. There was absolutely no time to take four people suddenly, so father escaped on his own.
“Anyway, he became minister of finance, eventually, under Beneš.”
Do you know, how were conditions for the Czech government in exile, especially in the early days? How were they received here in London?
“They were received very well, actually. Beneš was tortured by Munich, all his life. What he wanted was to renew the republic as it was before the war. And he did manage that, eventually.
“However, he brought Communists into his government and father – this was late 1944, 1945 – could see where the politics was going. He warned Beneš. And he eventually resigned.”
During this time when your father was in London were you much in contact with him? And were there repercussions for you, being the family of a member of the government in exile?
“Yes. We had to move out of our house in Prague. We moved with my grandparents into a small flat in Dejvice.
“And for two years we children were sort of under house arrest. We were supposed to stay at home, not go out with our schoolmates or take part in any parties or anything like that. However, on the whole everything went all right.
“But then after [the assassination of Nazi governor] Heydrich they arrested my mother, my grandfather Feierabend, who was 82 by then, my uncle, father’s brother, his wife and two cousins.
“And for some unknown reason, we never found out why, though they had arrested cousins and so on, they left us children more or less alone.
“Mother and Aunt Maňa were sent to Ravensbrück and all the men were in Dachau.
“But they all returned in 1945. Even grandfather, who was 85 by then, managed to come back.
“He was really, really ill. It was the Americans who sent him, with my cousin, in an ambulance back to Prague very, very quickly.
“When they reached the outskirts of Prague my cousin said, Here you are grandfather, we’re back in Prague.
“Grandfather said, I’m glad, I can die in peace now. And he died about three weeks afterwards.
“Father wasn’t allowed to come back early. They wouldn’t let him. They didn’t even allow him to come back for his funeral. Which was sort of the beginning of it all.”
Did you receive any mail from your father? Or did you perhaps hear him on the radio? I know there were broadcasts from the Czech government in exile.
“Not at all… He did broadcast, but not very often, because he knew what the consequences for us would be. So we knew that he was safely in London.
“Immediately after the war he was in contact with us. He thought that mother had died in the concentration camp, so he was really very pleased that she didn’t [laughs].”
Tell us about your reunion with your father after the war?
“They brought him by plane to Plzeň. Instead of going straight to Prague they had, I don’t know, a lunch somewhere in Plzeň.
“But we didn’t know actually. We were expecting him any day but when he came to Prague he just rang the bell – and there he was with two little suitcases.
“It’s very difficult to describe our reunion. Mother was home by then. She walked all the way from Ravensbrück. We were corresponding with father, but that was all.”
Did your father continue in politics after the war?
“He did, actually. But the Communists didn’t allow his party, the Agrarian Party. He never had a function – he was just an ordinary member.
“But the Communists didn’t allow more than four parties, and not the Agrarians. So he eventually joined the National Socialists. He didn’t want to go to Parliament or anything and just make propaganda for that party.
“Of course the Communists and the Social Democrats had together 51 percent in Parliament. They also had the most important ministries, like Interior and Agriculture.
“Anyway, during the first elections, this was a year, or perhaps not even a year, after the war, they gained an awful lot.
“Then there was supposed to be another election in 1948 and it was quite clear by then that the Communists wouldn’t win. So instead they just took power, in February 1948.”
I understand your family then made a rather dramatic escape from Czechoslovakia.
“Yes, we did [laughs]. The Czech Gestapo, I call them, came to the house and father was in.
“Father didn’t sleep at home. Because my brother had said – he was quite rude to him [laughs] – You must be an idiot, actually; if you sleep here and they come in the middle of the night you’re a sitting duck.
“So he slept at friends’ places and then came back during the day.
“And there he was, sitting in the house. My brother and myself had this signal that he would go to the front gate and see who it was who rang the bell. And if was suspicious, he would put his pipe in his mouth.
“So they stood there for a while talking, he and the chap who had got out of the car, and I didn’t know what was going on.
“Then suddenly the chap pushed my brother away and went straight up the steps. Three more men came out of the car and my brother showed me his pipe. I said, Father, just run!
“So he just about had time to put his coat on and he ran through the neighbour’s garden.
“They searched the house from top to bottom but had they looked outside they would have seen his footprints, because there was snow on the ground [laughs]. But fortunately they didn’t and he escaped.
“Then father waited for six weeks, hiding again, because he refused to go on his own. He said, I’m going to wait until a route is found by which we can all go together.
“There was an underground network, already. One night my uncle came and said, Pack your things, you’re going tonight. Actually we had little suitcases all prepared
“We met father in Prague. We went in two cars. The route was to go on the River Elbe [Labe], hidden on a boat all the way to Hamburg, meaning going through the Russian-occupied part of Germany.
“I sat in one car with father and a chap named Tonda, whose name we never learned – he didn’t want us to tell us his name. In the other car were my mother, my brother and a chauffeur.
“When we got to Ústí nad Labem, Tonda sent one car home; he said it was better that way. Then we went to the river, but there was no boat there.
“Tonda thought, They must be waiting for us at the next port, at Dečín. And the boat was really waiting for us at Dečín.
“This couple, Mr. Novák and his wife, had a little cabin in the boat. And on the side of the cabin two boards were loose and we squeezed in between. One was behind a bed and the other was behind a wardrobe, so you couldn’t really see anything from the outside.
“They sat us there and said, You mustn’t move, you mustn’t sneeze, you must be absolutely quiet.
“Then the Russians came on, because we were moving into the Russian zone, and Mr. Novák gave them some drinks so that they wouldn’t concentrate on what they were doing [laughs].
“Then when they were gone we could get out. We didn’t have to stay hidden. We could move around the tiny, small cabin.”
Tell us about your arrival in London and meeting your husband.
“Afterwards I remembered Marcel quite well, actually.
“He said [later], Of course I remembered you, but I wasn’t interested because I’m not a cradle snatcher [laughs]. I was 15 then.
“Anyway, we went to a talk in London and whom did I say there, but my husband, future husband? I went up to him straight away and that was it!”
What was his story? He had been in the Czechoslovak Air Force here in the UK?
“Yes. He joined as a student actually. He went with a group of students after the occupation of Czechoslovakia, in the summer of 1939, to Bulgaria.
“After two weeks or so the group went home but Marcel wanted to do something for the Republic, so to speak. We never spoke about patriotism or anything of that kind, but that’s what it was.
“He went on his own through Turkey and Syria all the way to Lebanon. There he went to the Czech Consulate and he was enlisted and enrolled in the Czech Army.”
What did he do during the war?
“They were brought back by the French to France. There was a camp in Agde. And when France fell in 1940, they were all shipped here, to Cholmondeley.
“He stayed in the army for a year or so. Nothing was happening. They were just sitting there.
“The Czech Air Force had terrible losses and they wanted volunteers, either as parachutists or airmen. So he joined the Air Force and was trained as a radio and later radar operator.
“They were chasing U-boats in the Bay of Biscay and they even managed to sink one blockade runner [the Alsterufer] that was coming all the way from Japan full of very important materials for the Germans.
“He returned home [to Czechoslovakia] in 1945. He stayed in the army – he was a captain by then.
“Like father, he was very much opposing what he could see was happening.
“Immediately after the putsch he went back to his office and was sacked. He was taken to Dejvice for interrogation. They interrogated him for 48 hours without stop.
“Eventually they couldn’t find anything against him so they let him go. He went home and his brother asked him, What do you want to do now?
“Marcel said, Well, they’ve got to take me back to the Air Force – I haven’t done anything.
“And his brother, who had also been imprisoned during the war, said, You’re an idiot. I can see. They’re exactly the same as the Gestapo – you just have to leave the country.
“So he went to Špičák, Železná Ruda [in the Šumava mountains, bordering the then West Germany].
“His brother-in-law owned a hotel there and showed him which way to go.
“They sent him [once over the border in Bavaria] among the VIPs. He said he didn’t know what he was doing among the VIPs. There were Czech minister, generals and so on – and Captain Ludikar [laughs].
“They put them into a special house which they called a golden cage. They had absolutely everything there but they were not really allowed to leave it…
“So he went to England. It was in May or June when he got here and he had his skiing trousers on. He had washed them so they shrank and that was about all that he had [laughs]. Like us he had perhaps just a change of underwear.
“He tried all sorts of things at first but he eventually asked to be enrolled again in the RAF. He started just before we got married.”
To jump forward quite a bit, during the four decades between 1948 and the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia, did you and your husband pay much attention to events in the country?
“We did. And of course our hopes were raised in 1968.
“I must say one thing. When we first went into exile, we thought, A year or two, the Czechs won’t tolerate communism, they are born democrats, we’ll be back.
“And of course that didn’t happen and we forgot all about it.
“Marcel used to organise protest processions and all that sort of thing. But we completely ignored, or didn’t think there was a possibility to go back… and then in 1968 our hopes were of course raised. But, as you well know, the Russians came in and that was the end of it. So once again we gave up completely
“In 1989 we knew it [the fall of communism] would happen because it was happening all around us.
“Marcel and I had a letter from a friend who said, The atmosphere in Prague is something quite special, you can’t describe it – you have to witness it yourself.
“So we looked at each other and said, Shall we go? Yes, we’ll go.
“This was the middle of December 1989. We went to the Czech Embassy and they said they didn’t issue visas but that if we went to the border we could get in. So we took the car and went straight back.
“We went through what used to be the Sudetenland, which was still in a terrible, terrible state. And through Plzeň, of course. The whole place was in ruins, actually.
“Half of Prague was under scaffolding. Not because they were repairing it but because it was falling down.
“Then when they returned the properties to the original owners everybody took care of it. And as you well know it’s all repaired and so on.”
It must have been a great moment for you and your husband when he was presented with a state honour for heroism from President Václav Havel.
“Yes, that’s right. My father got the Order of T.G. Masaryk, first class, and Marcel – a couple of years later, I think – got the medal for bravery.
“He said it was because he had tolerated me for that long, that’s why he was awarded [laughs].
“From then on we spent quite a lot of time there. All our properties were returned to us.
“But it was more the rehabilitation that we appreciated. Not only for Marcel, but mainly for my father.
“He is being reintroduced into the history of Czechoslovakia. The Communists really tried and succeeded in erasing his name completely. But very slowly he’s getting mentioned in various radio programmes, and so on.
“The airmen were all rehabilitated. Actually, this was one of the activities of the association and Marcel. He and other members organised this rehabilitation – that it was done for all of them at the same time. This took place in 1990, I think.”
I was reading that your husband was originally buried in London but then you had his ashes reinterred in Prague. Is that right?
“No, no [laughs]. He’s buried in Brookwood [Military Cemetery]. What happened was that the Ludikars have a tomb in Prague.
“I suggested that Marcel, his brother and his wife have their names on the headstone there. So that they are under the same roof [laughs]. Even though they are buried all over the world.”
When you’ve been back in the Czech Republic, have you ever thought that your life would have taken a very different path except for politics, except for the Communists?
“Yes. Yes. It would have been different. I’m not complaining. I had a very nice life. A beautiful life. I can’t complain one little bit.
“God knows what would have happened if he [her father] had stayed on. But for me personally, it worked out all right [laughs].”