26 Nov War and Woodstock. Peter Vodicka’s Story
Peter Vodicka ’57 was born in Czechoslovakia, spent part of his childhood in Woodstock School, (India) and presently lives in Australia! When Peter and his wife, Rachel, visited us earlier this month, he kindly agreed to an interview where he recounted the horrors of war, the security of Woodstock and life thereafter.
Could you tell us about the time you left Czechoslovakia for India?
The communist coup d’état took place in 1948 and we left Ceske Budejovice in the Czech Republic that year. I think we were amongst the last people to receive permission to leave as the borders were closed soon after. In 1938 my aunt, Berta Teller, (whose son, Leo went here for 10 years) left because she feared the Nazi occupation. At the time everyone thought she was crazy but she had a good cause to be alarmed because all of her family, except for my mother, perished in the holocaust. My mother only survived because my father wasn’t Jewish. Nevertheless she finished up in the camps. She went to Theresienstadt which was like a transit camp and from there on she ended up in Ravensbrück in northern Germany. There’s a book written about Ravensbrück recently. It was not a nice place to be and my mother never talked about it. When the war ended she and some friends managed to hitch hike all the way from north Germany through Berlin which was by then occupied by the Russians to Ceske Budejovice in southern Bohemia. When she arrived there, I didn’t recognize her at first. I was staying with my aunt and uncle until the end of the war.
In the meanwhile, Berta Teller and her family had gone to England and from there they went on to India. Her husband Fritz managed a paper mill in Ranigunj. They sent their son, Leo Teller to school here at Woodstock. My mother decided she had had enough of Europe – probably for very good reasons. Berta Teller managed to get us visas (signed, I believe, by Indira Gandhi) to enable my father who was a practicing doctor to study tropical diseases in India. She was a very persistent woman and she arranged the paperwork for us to get out. It was just an excuse because we had no intention of returning. We were amongst the last people to leave Czechoslovakia with passports. After us many people escaped across the border until the iron curtain came down and then it was virtually impossible to leave.
What do you remember of Woodstock?
I was quite happy here. As a child you’re there, you have got no choice. That’s it. I have no bad memories. It was an interesting time. I’m surprised I learned English in such a short time. When I arrived here at the age of 10, I didn’t know any English at all but when I left, I was totally fluent. My aunt had left for Australia by the time we came here so there was just my father, mother and me and my younger brother. My father established a medical practice in the Grand Hotel in Calcutta. Nowadays, we tend to preserve one’s language. In those days one wanted to speak English as quickly and as well as possible. Given that I graduated from Melbourne University law school, my early training in English has certainly held me in good stead. Well done Woodstock!
I remember Mrs Buchannan. She was very nice. I remember being in her class. I remember a few class mates. I recall one time in Ridgewood, the floor collapsed. I don’t know why I remember that.
Woodstock has changed a lot. It’s very interesting. I remember coming down the road once with a group of guys and seeing this King Cobra on the path. It was killed by some local coolies and served up for lunch!
One winter we stayed here. My mother, my brother and I, in a place called the Palisades. We had an Indian cook who could make Czech food…Czech dumplings. He had been trained by some Czech family. There was even a store up here in Mussoorie run by a Czech family.
Where did you go after leaving India?
When we left India it was either to go to Australia or America. We chose to go to Australia. My father stayed on for a couple of years here and I studied law in Melbourne University. I’m a commercial lawyer and very involved in real estate.
Where did your father practise medicine in India?
My father was the Resident doctor in the Grand Hotel in Calcutta. He was a graduate from the Charles University in Prague. He had quite an established practice. A lot of the English and European doctors had left India by 1948. At that time Bata shoes was owned and run by the Czechs. They ran their operations in Calcutta and started Batanagar where they employed a lot of Czech people. So he had a number of patients there and from the high echelons of Calcutta.
What did Leo Teller do after Woodstock?
After he graduated from here, he went to Melbourne University and then joined the Forestry commission in Victoria; he went on to get a PhD from Yale. He lived mostly outside Australia and he worked for UNESCO. In his last position he was the UNESCO ambassador to Beijing and he was there during the revolution. Leo retired in Melbourne and is no more.
Tell us more about Czech connections to India.
Apart from the famous Bata shoe Company once fully owned and run by Czechs, Madelyn Albright is Czech and was in India when her father defected after the 1948 coup and went to the US. Sir Tom Stoppard, the English playwright is also Czech. His original name is Tomas Straussler. He went to Mount Hermon school in Darjeeling, in India.
Do you remember the old days often?
Earlier this year I had a remembrance visit. Before I came to Woodstock, when I was 7 years old, we were living in Ceske Budejovice in southern Bohemia. The allies were dropping bombs and we decided for our safety to move to a small cottage on the outskirts of town. We lived there for about three months. The house was near a German military air field beyond a ridge. We couldn’t see it but we could see planes shooting at the air field. One day my cousin and I were in the field when we saw an American fighter plane right over us trailing black smoke. It crashed into the trees. In September last year my cousin’s grandson, who is a bit of a family historian, said to me, “We know who the pilot was”. He was the brother of one of America’s most famous fighter pilots–someone they named streets after–in North Carolina. There’s an association in North Carolina formed in honor of George and Bill Preddy called the Preddy Foundation which consists of largely, now USAF ex-flyers. I wrote to them saying that I saw Bill Preddy go down. I immediately got a response. They invited me over there to tell them about my experience. That was in May this year. I gave the address at the annual general meeting of the Preddy Foundation and I mentioned Woodstock. They’ve put my speech permanently on their website.
Read more about Peter Vodicka and the article mentioned above here:
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