In his new book, “Reports from a Distant Place,” Frank Shatz shares stories about escaping Nazi-held Hungary and Communist-held Czechoslovakia and finding freedom and peace in Lake Placid.
The book is a hand-selected compilation of Shatz’s “World Focus” columns from the The Virginia Gazette. The columns are organized in three parts: “Under the Swastika,” “Under the Red Star,” and “In America.” The pieces he chose for this book tell the story of survival.
For 40 years, Shatz refused to speak of the Holocaust but chose to do so in the mid-1980s for several reasons. One reason was to make sure people never forget. Another was to show people that the word “Holocaust” can mean different things to different people.
“To me, the word Holocaust is a mosaic that encompasses hundreds of flashes of memory, all of them related to survival during the Holocaust but outside of the concentration camps,” Shatz wrote. “I felt a need to demonstrate the complexity of life under a murderous regime and system and show how it affected people on the run.”
Shatz was born in 1926 in Parkan, Czechoslovakia, a port city on the Danube River now called Sturovo in the republic of Slovakia. His journey to Lake Placid was far from easy. It was filled with danger, near-death experiences and the anxiety of living through the Holocaust during World War II and behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. Shatz wasn’t sure he’d make it past the age of 18, never mind reach his 80s.
Under the Swastika
Hardship began for Shatz and his Jewish family after the Munich Pact was signed by Germany’s Adolf Hitler and leaders of the United Kingdom, Italy and France in September 1938. As a result of the repartitioning of Czechoslovakia, Hungary occupied one-third of Slovakia in November 1938, including Parkan.
By 1944, Shatz was 18 years old and working in a Nazi slave camp. During a B-17 bombing run, he hid in a cornfield near Budapest, then escaped, changing into clothes that were smuggled into camp.
“I was roaming the streets of Nazi-occupied Budapest like a hunted animal,” Shatz wrote. “I had no money or identity papers — and no illusions about what would happen if I were caught. I knew I would be shot.”
Luckily, Shatz ran into a childhood friend from his hometown who was a member of the Zionist-led anti-Nazi underground. He led Shatz to the Swedish House, operated by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. He stayed there temporarily, obtained fake identity papers and joined the underground movement.
Shatz cheated death at least three times before the end of World War II. In one instance, he was getting new ID papers at a sanatorium known to hide Jews — changing his age from 18 to 16 so he wouldn’t be drafted into the army — and left moments before a death squad came and killed all the people in the building. In another instance, he was away from his apartment when it was bombed, killing all his roommates. And then, as the Soviets began occupying Budapest in 1945, Shatz was confronted by a Soviet soldier who thought he was a spy (spion). With a rifle stuck to his ribs, he told the soldier he was a Jew, not a spy, so he was asked to say something in Hebrew. The recitation of a Jewish prayer saved his life once again.
Shatz’s mother wasn’t so lucky; she died in a concentration camp.
Under the Red Star
As soon as the Soviets occupied Budapest, Shatz began using language to earn a living. He was an interpreter for the Soviet army and then began working as a reporter for a small town paper in Soviet-occupied Hungary before World War II ended in May 1945.
With his education in Budapest and at the Karlovo University in Prague, Shatz embarked on a journalism career after the war, spending much of his time as a Prague-based foreign correspondent. He met Jaroslava there.
“My wife and I were married in Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1948, shortly after the Communist takeover of the country,” Frank wrote. “As the Iron Curtain was descending, the borders were sealed off. But as an accredited foreign correspondent, I had a valid passport and could have left for the West. But without my wife. This I refused to do.”
Over the next six years, the Shatzes dreaded the proverbial knock on the door in the middle of the night from the secret police. Frank worried because he had helped some people escape to the West. That knock finally came, and after more than 10 hours of interrogation, Frank was let go. Less than a year later, in 1954, he was under suspicion again. This time, they had to flee.
“We fled Communist Czechoslovakia with only the clothes on our backs and a small piece of hand luggage,” Frank wrote. “But in it my wife, without my knowledge, had hidden my treasured copy of “The Anatomy of Peace,” by Emery Reeves, a book that has become my bible.”
After getting through border checkpoints on the train from Czechoslovakia to Sweden, the Shatzes traveled around Europe and the Middle East, arriving in the U.S. on the Queen Mary in November 1958.
“We requested to be awakened at dawn so we wouldn’t miss the sight of the Statue of Liberty,” Frank wrote. “It was, indeed, an inspiring image.”
After briefly working for Pan Am, Frank moved to Cleveland, Ohio to work for the Hungarian Daily as a foreign news editor. In 1961, an editor at the newspaper suggested the Shatzes spend a vacation in the Adirondack Mountains, and they took his advice.
“We rented a cabin in Coreys, between Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake, and fell in love with the mountains, the lakes and the way of life here,” Frank said in an email.
It was their first vacation in the U.S., and it changed their lives. By 1962, they had moved to Lake Placid and soon opened a leather-goods store on Main Street.
“To my delight, Lake Placid proved to offer more opportunities than just hiking, skiing or making a living,” Frank said. “It provided also an opportunity for international interaction.”
The Shatzes helped with the FISU Games in 1972 and then created the People-for-People Program for the 1980 Olympic Winter Games, hosting athletes from all over the world. They were uniquely qualified, as the couple speaks six languages, including English, Russian, German, Czech, Hungarian, Polish and a few other Slavic languages.
“Lake Placid has become our homestead and the source of inspiration to try to live a life worth living,” Frank said.
After the Olympics, the Shatzes decided to spend winters in Williamsburg, Va., where he began writing the “World Focus” column for the The Virginia Gazette. This column about international affairs is reprinted weekly in the Lake Placid News. Frank is also heavily involved with the Wendy and Emery Reeves Center for International Studies at the College of William and Mary. They spend summers in Lake Placid.
“To really appreciate freedom, you have to experience life first under a totalitarian regime,” Frank said. “Basically, I see myself as a survivor who thanks to circumstances and with the help of decent ‘good people,’ managed to survive and finally land in America.”
The Shatzes still like to travel, but they avoid places that remind them of the Holocaust.
“Although, we have been back to Western Europe many, many times, never to Eastern Europe,” Frank said. “It is a place with too heavy baggage of bad memories.”