A Letter from Ohio

Joseph Robitschek holding daughter Hedvika, bottom right, wife Libuse bottom left, before WWII

In the fall of 1945, Joseph Lucas from Ohio in the United States wrote a letter to the Municipal Office in Pacov, a town located 100 kilometers southeast of Prague. Lucas asked for information about his mother. He also inquired about the two houses and agricultural land that his family owned in Pacov. The municipal office – now called the National Committee — in Pacov registered the letter on October 10 under the number 3629/45. 

The committee’s answer, which left Pacov on November 5, 1945, said “the real estate is occupied, and the rent is paid to the Land Office in České Budějovice.” It further stated that “As regards the requested report on the fate of your mother, this was given to you by Mr. R. Brock,” a renowned composer and cousin of Lucas. Brock moved to Pacov during World War II, presumably to keep a lower profile than was possible in Prague where he previously lived. The reply by the National Committee, while informative about Lucas‘ properties, avoided stating a terrible truth about his mother. And it was not the first time the committee had fielded these questions. Several months earlier, a man called Metoděj Morávek had made a similar inquiry. 

But who was Joseph Lucas? The answer comes in the final part of that earlier letter from Morávek to the Municipal Office. Lucas was actually Joseph Robitschek, born in Pacov in 1901. Upon arriving in the U.S., he changed his surname to the masculine form of his Catholic wife’s maiden name Lukášová, saying it would be easier for Americans to pronounce. 

The Robitschek family lived in Pacov for generations. In the town’s Jewish cemetery, there are the old gravestones of Joseph Robitschek’s great-grandfather Simon Robitschek and great-grandmother Katharina. Simon Robitschek was born in Pacov in 1823.  So the family had probably already been settled in the town for a long time and worshipping at the local synagogue. 

How was Joseph Robitschek able to outwit the Nazis and get to the United States during World War II? The explanation came in a second letter to the town from Metoděj Morávek. A Prague resident, Morávek was a cousin of Robitschek’s wife. He wrote that Joseph Robitschek managed to travel to Belgium in 1939 at the very beginning of the war and his wife and daughter later followed him. After the occupation of Belgium, the family fled to France, then to North Africa and from there reached the United States in 1942. But as we will see, it was not easy.​

Before Joseph Robitschek left occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939, he converted to Catholicism and had his daughter Hedvika baptized in Prague‘s Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on Jiřího z Poděbrady Square. These arrangements appear to have been made by his wife’s cousin Morávek, an office manager by profession, and Morávek’s son Jaroslav, a lawyer. Joseph and his wife Libuše  were then married in a Catholic ceremony, 10 years after they first wed in a civil union.

Josef Robitschek’s father Bernard Robitschek on the family farm in Pacov before WWII

While Joseph was doing all he could to escape Czechoslovakia, his widowed mother Cecilie Robitschková, age 61, stayed in Pacov. Joseph’s father Bernard Robitschek and his sister Hedvika Robitschková died before the Second World War and are buried in the Pacov Jewish cemetery. This meant Joseph Robitschek’s mother was left without immediate family in Pacov. Together with the town’s 95 other Jews, Cecilie was sent to Terezin in November, 1942. 

On January, 20,1943, she was put on transport number 746 and taken from Terezin to Auschwitz, where she was murdered. One of the last letters her son wrote her was from Tangier in North Africa in 1941. Miraculously, an envelope with her address was preserved in a Prague philatelic shop and posted in an online inventory more than 70 years after her death at Auschwitz. How the envelope got to the shop and whether Cecilie Robitschek ever received it are unknown.

When Joseph Robitschek mailed his mother that letter, he, his wife and their daughter were partway through their escape from Nazi Europe. That he was able to flee was due to his expertise as a chemical engineer specializing in industrial ceramics. In pre-war Czechoslovakia, he was the supervisor at a factory near Pilsen and he established professional contacts throughout the world. 

One of them was with a businessman in Belgium, in the small town of Baudour near the French border. Large deposits of clay were located in the area and thanks to this, large-scale production of ceramics and porcelain developed there. Factory owner Raoul Amand threw Joseph Robitschek a lifeline in 1939 by offering him a job in his plant. Four months after the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia, Robitschek obtained a passport on July 31, 1939 in the Czech town of Rokycany. However Belgian authorities refused to grant him an entry visa. A handwritten note in a file on the family in the Belgian National Archives indicates the main reason was his Jewish origin and the fear that he would not be able to return to occupied Czechoslovakia after his visa expired. 

But factory owner Raoul Amand intervened. He urged Belgian authorities to allow Joseph Robitschek to enter the country, arguing that he was a top expert whose knowledge of technological procedures were not available in Belgium. Therefore, Amand insisted, admitting Robitschek was in Belgium’s economic interest.  

The Belgian Ministry of Justice, in charge of immigration matters, exchanged extensive correspondence with the Ministry of Industry and Labour and in the end issued Joseph Robitschek a temporary visa. By now, there were only a few days left until the September, 1939 start of World War II.  Once the war began, Belgian embassies and consulates were instructed not to issue any entry visas due to fears of a large influx of refugees.

Joseph Robitschek was incredibly lucky. But his wife and daughter still didn’t have visas. They finally received them in December, 1939 and were allowed to join him in Belgium. His daughter was nine years old at the time. So along with great luck, help from people like Raoul Amand was essential for their escape. Besides lobbying on the Robitscheks‘ behalf, Amand provided the family with lodging. 

The Robitscheks enrolled their daughter Hedvika in school in Baudour and began settling into the community. Because many people in the area rode bicycles, Libuse and Hedvika learned how; Joseph already knew. However, the quiet times didn’t last long and the family’s bike-riding skills would soon prove essential.

In May 1940, Germany invaded Belgium. After the first bombs hit, the Robitschek family fled to France, where Joseph got a job at a company outside of Paris. But the Germans entered France weeks later. The family obtained three bicycles and rode them the length of France to Marseille, taking back roads to avoid the massive traffic jams on the main roads by people fleeing the Nazi invasion.

In Marseille, they managed to secure Portuguese visas in the hopes of travelling from Lisbon to the United States. But when they tried to cross the Pyrenees, they were arrested and sent back to France. Undaunted, they eventually obtained Brazilian visas and tickets for the ship Alsina, slated to sail to Brazil. 

Josef and Libuse Robitschek with daughter Hedvika and their car in Czechoslovakia before WWII

The Alsina belonged to the fleet of the General Maritime Transport Company (Société Génerale de Transports Maritimes), founded in Marseille in 1865. The company initially just took passengers to Algiers, but soon extended its services to South America. The voyage from Marseille to Rio lasted 15 days. The Alsina and its sister vessel the Mendoza regularly sailed between Marseille and South America, with the journey to Rio lasting 15 days. They continued serving this route even into the early years of World War II. 

The day before the Robitscheks‘ departure on the Alsina, a detachment of 30 French police officers from the special commissariat in the port searched the ship. An eight-man patrol guarded it overnight. State, special and mobile police officers oversaw boarding, looking for illegal refugees and Jews. The Robitscheks were allowed on and the Alsina left Marseille on January 15, 1941. It crossed the Mediterranean and stopped for a day in the Algerian port of Oran.  Then it continued around the West African coast, arriving in Dakar on January 27. 

From that point, the passengers‘ fate started to change dramatically. The Alsina remained in Dakar for a week and the passengers started to worry. Finally, the captain announced the ship could only continue its journey if the English Navy decided it was allowed to cross the Atlantic. The passengers were confined to the ship for a month before permission came for them to go ashore and visit the port to buy provisions. 

It was a great relief, since a can of sardines, provided without an opener, had become an example of the limited onboard fare. Now the passengers could shop for eggs, jam, local vegetables and fruit. At first they could only go ashore once a week and then the restriction was lifted. But they were told that their ship tickets were only valid for three weeks and that anyone who wanted to stay aboard had to pay as they would a hotel.  However, few passengers had more cash with them and this condition was eventually waived. 

Food on board was getting poorer and poorer. Rice and potatoes ran out. Meals were usually fish with the local variety of peas, a piece of bread and a little sugar. While the Alsina occasionally went to the dock, it was not about to set sail. Passengers passed the time by getting to know each other and performing various entertainment. But some had trouble enduring the intensifying heat and poor hygiene conditions. Many fell ill. 

Not everyone aboard the Alsina was a refugee. The largest group of passengers were French who were traveling rather than fleeing Europe. But many were urgently trying to escape the continent, including the Robitscheks and other Czechs. Belgian and German Jews were also on the run. So were Spanish Republicans in exile after the defeat of the Republic. Among them was the former prime minister and 1931-1936 president Nicetto Alcalá-Zamora with his family and numerous followers, government officials and advisers, as well as Basques, parliamentarians and politicians with their families. 

The refugees did what they could to spark action. Zamora sent a telegram from Dakar to President Roosevelt asking him to facilitate the reception of the ship in the US. When the world learned about the passengers from the Alsina, politicians, diplomats and international organizations intervened with the Vichy government. The Committee for the Rescue of Refugees (Emergency Rescue Committee, ERC), created in New York primarily to help refugees from France, set up a special “Alsina Committee” in whose activities Czechoslovak diplomats also took an active part. 

At the time, the United States still refused to acknowledge existence of the Czechoslovak government-in-exile, but the status of Czechoslovak embassies on their territory was recognized. The Czechoslovak embassy in Washington thus continued to function and so did consulates general in New York and Chicago and other diplomatic ouposts. From archives of the correspondence of these authorities it is clear that they were concerned about Czechoslovak citizens who found themselves in West Africa. The Association for the Support of Spanish Refugees also got involved, writing a May 15, 1941 “Memorandum about the French ship Alsina.” 

The threat of upcoming naval battles and the Allies‘ reluctance to guarantee the Alsina’s return after crossing the Atlantic probably influenced the Vichy government’s decision that the ship should take the passengers to Morocco. The Alsina sailed from Dakar around June 6 and arrived in Casablanca a week later.  Officials of the Czechoslovak Consulate General in New York immediately informed the embassy in Washington about this on June 13, 1941:

“The Consulate General has just received word that the Alsina ship landed in Casablanca today. The possibilities are open for gradual removal of our refugees on a regular basis by boat connection.“

Josef Robitschek’s letter from Ohio

According to witnesses‘ memories, right after coming ashore in Casablanca almost all of them, including the elderly and ailing, were locked up in internment camps, some of which used to house the Foreign Legion. Just the French and a select few others remained free. This situation was noted by Czechoslovak diplomats in the USA, whose letter dated June 16, 1941 stated: “According to the reports we received in recent days, the passengers from the ship Alsina ́who disembarked after arrival in Casablanca were temporarily placed in military quarters and are now being gradually transferred to the camp in Sidi-El-Ajachi.” 

Sometime in early October 1941, the hope of liberation from the camps and departure for the ocean dawned. The Brazilian consul in Casablanca renewed the passengers‘ entry visas to Brazil, which had expired during the internment in Dakar. Over 40 of them boarded the ship Cabo de Buena Esperanza (Cape of Good Hope) bound for Brazil. All the boats in the Cabo series were said to be called “white splendor” because they had bright white sides. But witnesses say the exterior belied the interior, rife with misery and disease, foul odors and food and a ship’s hospital that used old newspapers for blankets.  

When the Cabo de Esperanza reached Rio, the Brazilian authorities did not recognize the passengers’ renewed visas and refused to let them ashore. The ship continued to Buenos Aires. There, at the request of the American Jewish Committee, the Argentine authorities allowed the refugees to disembark temporarily but only at the immigration center where they “endured camp-like stays“, according to researcher Ron Gomes Casseres. He has extensively studied the voyages of the two Cabo ships, their roles in transporting refugees and what happened when the ships docked.

As for the Robitscheks, they were among about 50 Alsina passengers who boarded the Esperanza’s sister ship Cabo de Hornos soon after the Esperanza left Casablanca. The Cabo de Hornos encountered the same daunting reception experienced by the Cabo de Espereranza in Brazil. Passengers were refused landing and also turned away from Argentina. Passenger visas to Paraguay weren’t recognized, barring them from transferring to a riverboat to take them ashore. Following these refusals, both groups met at the Cabo de Hornos, which was preparing to return to Europe. Ship captain Jose L. Mayro is said to have declared that most of his Jewish passengers “would rather choose suicide than the bleak future that awaits them.”

Rescue came at the last moment, on November 19, 1941, when the Dutch government in exile agreed to let 83 refugees onto the island of Curaçao (today autonomous territory of the Kingdom of the Netherlands) for 90 days. The American Jewish Committee pledged to pay their costs during that period as the refugees looked for other places to go. Still, when the deadline passed, about 50 were left on the island. The Dutch government initially protested, but eventually tolerated their presence. Some of them stayed on Curaçao until the end of the war. 

The Robitscheks were among those who found a way to leave Curaçao, but more dangers lay ahead, according to naval historian Jos Rozenburg. After half a year on the island, they obtained American visas and tickets aboard the Dutch passenger and cargo ship Crijnssen heading to New Orleans, Louisiana in the United States. It set out on June 7, 1942 and the first three days at sea passed uneventfully. But on June 10 as the Crijnssen passed Grand Cayman island, the patrolling German submarine U-504 detected it. The sub‘s captain, Korvettenkapitän Hans-Georg Friedrich Poske, maneuvered his U-boot into an attack position. 

Shortly before sunset he launched a four-torpedo salvo and hit the Crijnssen with at least one and possibly two shots. The Crijnssen stopped its engines and those aboard, including the Robitscheks, climbed into the four lifeboats that were launched. The Robitscheks along with the others watched as another torpedo slammed the ship they just escaped

During the night the lifeboats became separated, but as the sun rose a ship approached. It was the American freighter LEBORE, who picked up 49 survivors from two of the small craft, among them the Robitscheks. The LEBORE was heading to the Panama Canal, which would take the Robitscheks closer to their goal of the United States. But the night of June 14, their first aboard the LEBORE, German submarine U-172 detected the ship about 200 miles from the canal’s entrance. 

Under the command of Leutnant Carl Emmermann, the U-172 fired a torpedo that hit the LEBORE’s number 6 hold. The LEBORE quickly started listing at a 45 degree angle, complicating the launching of lifeboats. But the crew managed to get three of them into the water. The Robitscheks found themselves in a lifeboat for the second time in four days. They spent two nights in the small craft during terrible weather, with the lifeboats rising and pitching down gigantic ocean swells, seasickness adding to anguish.

Finally, patrolling aircraft spotted them and boats came to pick everyone up. The Robitscheks and the others spent the night on the Colombian island San Andrés, where residents warmly welcomed them into their homes. Soon the American warship USS Erie arrived and took the Robitscheks to Panama, where they disembarked on 17 June.  

The Robitschek family shortly after arrival in the USA in 1942

A month later, two seats became available on a Pan Am flight to Miami. Joseph and daughter Hedvika boarded the plane. Libuše remained in Panama until mid-September, when she was able to fly to Brownsville, Texas. From there she took a train to Ohio, where Joseph had found a position as a production manager in an industrial ceramics factory. In retrospect, it took over two months for the family to travel from Curaçao, to the US, a trip that should have required less than a week. Their journey from Czechoslovakia to the United States lasted nearly three years.

In their early 40s at this point, the Robitscheks began rebuilding their lives in their new country. An initial step was changing their last name to Lucas.  Hedvika, now 12, started school. Libuše, who had a degree in chemistry, worked for a time at the same company where Joseph was employed. While Joseph spoke some English, mainly of a scientific nature, Libuše and Hedvika didn’t know it. However, all three quickly mastered it and settled into lives as Americans. 

Hedvika became a mathematician and meteorologist, moved to the East Coast and married a New York native. After Joseph retired, he and Libuše relocated to be near her and her family. They traveled widely across the United States, South America and Europe. However, they never went back to Czechoslovakia. Joseph Robitschek passed away in 1985. Libuše Robitschková-Lukášová died in 2003 at the age of 103. 

Their grandchildren, Bruce and Audrey, live in the United States. Growing up, they knew their grandparents well, or thought they did. Joseph Robitschek never revealed his Jewish origins and his mother’s terrible fate. Even daughter Hedvika who had escaped with Joseph and Libuše didn’t know.  Audrey discovered the information when she read the book The Last Palace by Norman Eisen, the former American ambassador to the Czech Republic. Describing the history of Otto Petschek’s villa in Prague’s Bubeneč, Eisen mentions a Jewish merchant named Robitschek used to operate a department store nearby. It was the first time it ever occurred to Bruce and Audrey that their grandfather might have been Jewish, rather than Catholic as their grandmother was.

The pair began researching family history, which led them to Rabbi Ronald Roth of New Jersey. Rabbi Roth and I have spent years researching the history of Jews from Pacov. He confirmed to Bruce and Audrey that their grandfather was indeed Jewish. He also broke the devastating news that Joseph’s mother Cecilie — their great-grandmother — was murdered at Auschwitz. 

Rabbi Roth has known for a long time that I have been trying unsuccessfully to search for the descendants of Joseph Robitschek for several years. He introduced Bruce and Audrey to me by email. This was followed first by a virtual meeting on Zoom and later by a personal meeting in the spring of this year, when Audrey came to Belgium with her husband. 

Together we took a trip to the town of Baudour. Raoul Amand’s factory in the former rue de la Gare no longer stands. New family houses were built in its place. The last reminder of the former factory, the tall factory chimney, was blown down around 2000. Not even Raoul Amand’s descendants could be found, so Audrey could thank them for saving her family. The search is still ongoing.

In August 2023, Audrey with her husband and nephew Tristan – Joseph and Libuše ’s great-grandson – came to Joseph’s birthplace of Pacov for the first time. They brought stones from the United States and placed them on the grave in which Joseph’s father Bernard and sister Hedvika are buried. 

The trio visited the synagogue, disused and dilapidated since WWII and now being restored by the non-profit Tikkun Pacov into a cultural and historical centre. Then they went to the cenotaph near the town square that lists Pacov residents who died during the world wars. It bears the name of Joseph Robitschek’s murdered mother. When her great-granddaughter Audrey and great-great-grandson Tristan placed their hands upon the engraving, it was as though a letter written from Ohio 80 years ago had finally found its destination. 

Audrey and Tristan Robitschek

Following sources were used for the article:

Ron Gomes Casseres, “The Saga of Cabo de Hornos: Fleeing the Horrors of War,” Lantérnu 26 “Cabo de Hornos”, Ron Gomes Casseres/Jos Rozenburg, published 27 November 2022, used by permission of National Archives Curaçao

Jos Rozenburg, “The 86 refugees, who were they and what happened to them after their arrival?“, “The Saga of Cabo de Hornos: Fleeing the Horrors of War,” Lantérnu 26 “Cabo de Hornos”, Ron Gomes Casseres/Jos Rozenburg, published 27 November 2022, used by permission of National Archives Curaçao

He taught well, enjoyed teaching, and kept teaching even in retirement

Dr Hugo Jokl graduating from the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Vienna in 1920.
Dr Hugo Jokl graduating from the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Vienna in 1920.

Our dad Professor Dr Hugo Jokl was born on 25th April 1891 in 207 Žižkova Street, Pacov. His father Filip (born on 18th November 1855, died on 6th January 1929 in Pacov) was the local rag-and-bone man, making the rounds of the neighbouring countryside. His mom was a homemaker. She had three boys. The oldest, Artur, became a shop assistant and later settled in Chýnov, while the middle son Richard opened a clothes store in Žižkova St, Pacov, on the site of today pharmacy. Artur and Richard married the Hermann sisters from Senožaty – Artur married Berta, and Richard, Olga.

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and the others

Our website records life stories of the Holocaust survivors. They were, as in other European towns and countries, a tiny minority of the original Jewish population. We know very little or nothing whatsoever of the overwhelming majority of the Pacov Jews. However, it is important to preserve at least those fragments that remained lodged in the memory of their contemporaries and were passed on to the future generations.

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Who knows whose ashes they were

the life story of Hanuš Bader

Hanuš Bader in Sweden

Hanuš Bader was one of the few Holocaust survivors from Pacov who had been sent to Terezín in November 1942. He survived the concentration camp in Auschwitz and Schwarzheide Labor Camp to be deported to the Bergen-Belsen death camp towards the end of World War  II where, on the brink of death, he was liberated by British troops.

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The woman who escaped the death march to Bergen-Belsen

the story of Věra Ledererová who survived deportation to concentration and labour camps and hid in Košetice near Pacov after escaping from Germany

Věra Ledererová-Kaufmannová with her husband Egon Kaufmann in 1942

Věra Ledererová (b. October 20, 1920 – 1998), was a daughter of the respected tradesman, Emil Lederer, a long-time chairman of the Jewish community in Pacov and a member of the Municipal Council. Emil Lederer was arrested soon after the occupation of Czechoslovakia in April 1940 and died in the concentration camp of Buchenwald (Bernburg) in 1942.

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All his friends kept coming up to greet him

The story of Pacov native and Holocaust survivor Leopold Pachner according to his granddaughter Zuzana Lehner and her mother Františka Adamová

Leopold Pachner

Leopold Pachner (b. September 20. 1897) was born to Anna Pachnerová, née Schlesingerová (daughter of Bernard Schlesinger and Josefina Kohnová of Golčův Jeníkov). His father, Adolf, died in 1925. Leopold had a brother who died before the war, and a sister who perished in a concentration camp.

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The only surviving member of the family

Jaroslav Lustig was born on January 13, 1911 in Lukavec near Pacov, where his father Alois Lustig ran a general store. He was married to Milena Bohumila Lustigová, née Poláčková, daughter of Emanuel Poláček and Marie, née Tellerová (b. January 13, 1910, Pacov). They had a son Jiří born December 3, 1939, in Pelhřimov. They lived in Pacov No. 437.

Jaroslav Lustig

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