I remember listening to Winston Churchill´s speech about the Iron Curtain with my father František Peller, the district attorney in Brno, but I don´t think the reality of it entered our minds there. It did not suggest the irrevocable separation of Czechoslovakia from the rest of the free world. February 25, 1948, the date of the Communist takeover changed all that.
Father said we were going into the exile. He said he was wrong when, two years before, he turned down the chance to emigrate with us to the United States, because he had wanted us to be educated in Czechoslovakia.
Six weeks passed and my parents called me and my sister, Helen, who was twelve at that time, to father´s study. Father said we were going
into the exile. He said he was wrong when, two years before, he turned down the chance to emigrate with us to the United States, because he had wanted us to be educated in Czechoslovakia. Now we had to go. He was waiting only for his contact in the Austrian Consulate to set the date when we would be picked up on the Austrian side of the border. Father said we needed to keep it an absolute secret.
On Friday, April 17, father came home from work and said there was a warrant for his arrest on the following Monday. We had to move quickly. We were supposed to catch a bus to the border town of Znojmo and spend a night there. A guide would meet us by the river downstream and show us the way to the border. We would cross on Sunday. Father managed to send word to his Austrians friends of the date and time so that our escort would wait for us. There was no time for confirmation. That same evening, I had a date with my boyfriend Jirka. Like countless young people, we spent this Friday night at the movies and then walked and talked. In front of the house Jirka kissed me lightly and said he would see me on Sunday. As he was crossing the street he turned and waved; that was the last time I saw him.
April 18 was a Saturday morning, bright and sunny, perfect for a family outing. My mother had us dress in two of everything: underwear, stockings, blouses, sweaters and over that, both my sister and I wore our good overcoats. We could not carry any luggage except handbags. Father carried two fishing rods, and mother a picnic basket. We were told to take something small that was dear to us to remember our home. I chose a small teddy bear I received when I was three, and two 16th century ivory miniatures, a corpus and a head of Christ. With a comb, toothbrush and a tiny diary, these just fit my small handbag.
We took a bus to Znojmo, and the following morning we crossed the river Dyje and arrived in Austria, or more accurately, in the Soviet occupation zone of Austria. As it was not uncommon for refugees to be kidnapped by Soviet patrols and returned to Czechoslovakia, my father´s Austrian friends took us quickly to Vienna and equipped us with “authentic” documents that belonged to a family, that was killed in an Allied air raid during the war. We had to wait more than two months before we were given a permission to move to the American occupation sector in Salzburg. Soviet soldiers inspected our documents on the train but let us go without any suspicion. Finally we could breathe freely, after so many days in fear and uncertainty.
In 1949, the Peller family emigrated to the USA. Barbara (1931-2017) studied in Kansas City, St. Paul and New York, where she met her (later-to-be) husband Václav Skypala, also a Czech émigré. Together they moved to Chicago. After raising two daughters, Christine and Madeleine, she returned to school and earned a Master’s Degree in theology from Mundelein College. She worked as the director of religious education at St. Ferdinand’s Parish in Chicago for a number of years before retirement. She enjoyed writing, the Lyric Opera, Shakespeare Theater, and the Art Institute of Chicago. She was an avid world traveler, especially enjoying trips to Tibet, Japan and Ireland.