“After my graduation exam in 1938, it was after the stormy Munich events, they put the beginning of the new term off about, I think, fifteen days. Then I personally experienced March 15th, November 17th, and Jan Opletal's burial in Prauge. I used to live in the dorm just on the same floor where Opletal lived only a few doors next to my room. He was about to finish his medicine studies and he had 'einschlick', a single room. Students finishing their studies used to have single rooms. We 'foxes' who were in the lower years, we were called 'foxes', we used to have twin-bedded rooms. Opletal came from Moravia, a very smart guy, so we used to chat with each other. When we came after holidays he said: 'Oh, guys, I lived with a South-Bohemian chap Fatka. He was a very religious student and he used to go to St. Ignác church every Sunday.' So he said: 'Boys, I have to tell you something about Prague as well. You came here from villages so be careful not to fall into some Prague city underground.' So from this point of view, Opletal was very good and he was a great friend too.”
“It was the first march to the task force. We were in the barracks the first winter, we were under constant surveillance of the SS (the Protection Squadron). They came every now and then and we had so called physical training, which was squatting with your arms stretched forward, rolling on the road, trotting to and fro. We, the student blocks, were sent to work in March. I was sent to one of the worst task forces, which was called 'Klinkerwerk'. We were building a dock and a brick factory at the canal near the camp. Every day there marched about two or three thousand prisoners under strong wardens always with their pointing guns or machine guns. When I went for the first time, it was in March, the road was muddy, the canal was on the left hand side, a young fir-tree wood reaching up to the height of ten metres, it was often that the wardens started shouting: 'Hier liegen!' ('Down here!') I didn't know what was going on but I saw everybody falling down on the road so I quickly felt down too. I saw a prisoner in front of me running to the wood. He thought he would get lost and therefore saved in the forest. Of course they saw him because we were on the road. Phut, phut. Aimed, shot. Aufstehen! (Get up!) And we continued to work to the task force.”
“We suddenly came to Dejvice, some of us recognized it already. We came to the gate of the barracks in Ruzyně. We, Hlavka's men, (students from Hlavka's dorm) were very lucky that we got there as the first. They were lucky that we had to jump off the cars in front of the gate and we shot running through the gate. Of course the SS men stood along both sides and beat us. But we ran standing as far as the riding-hall. They stood us in the columns of five, the whole block of Hlavka's dorm was in the columns of five. And I was quite tall so I stood in the first row at the side. All of a sudden the Gestapo came. He grabbed me by my shirt and jacket and he shouted in my face: 'Willst du für den Beneš sterben?' ('Do you want to die for Beneš?') And I said to myself: 'You brute if I could only smack in your face I'd give you the answer right away.' I had to stand to attention and I had to put up with it. He thrashed me with his strong hands, he must have been trained. Then he went on.”
“Some colleagues and I got ready and we went out into the streets at about three o'clock. The streets were already bustling with people. When we came there after three o'clock, Václavské Square was crowded with people. They protested against the Germans and we shouted: 'May live the Czechoslovak Republic, may live president Beneš!' People also shouted: 'May live Stalin!', because they used to say that it was only the Soviet Union that was going to help us in 1938. It was very dramatic and emotive. I lived out those days with great involvement and I remember what an encouraging event it was. To stand in the crowd and shout the chants against the Nazis, against the occupants. The Czech police on horsebacks pushed us away from Václavské Square to the side streets. I was pushed with the crowd into Vodičkova Street. The street was full and the police among us shouted at us. 'Go on, out of the centre!' And we replied: 'Yes, we are going on, may live the Czechoslovak Republic!' In the end the German police and the German leaders, the Prague Gestapo, saw that the Czech police was not able to restore the order. So in the evening in the dark already, they sent the German police on motorbikes, three-wheelers and foot police who started shooting at the crowd. It was very suspenseful and we were trying to get out of the centre. Out of the reach of bullets. When I came back in the evening I missed a couple of friends who did not come. They did not return and I waited with thrill to get to know what had happened to them. Then we learned in the dorm that our colleague Jan Opletal, who was a member of the student autonomy, was shot and that he was in the hospital in Karlovo Square. We were waiting with thrill how it would end up with him. But despite all professor Jirasek's effort who tried to save his life with his team, Opletal died.”
“The next experience was the day on February 10th, 1940 when an SS man came to the student block 52 fluegel (wing) B. We were lying on the straw mattresses on the floor sweating as I said. And the SS man was doing his round in the camp, he started hammering on the window shouting: 'Aufmachen, Fenster aufmachen!' ('Open, open the windows!') He came to the barrack and stepped over the threshold with his wellington boots on. And he started shouting: 'Alles raus!' ('Everybody out!') No getting dressed, we simply went outside the barrack like we were indoors and he let us cover with snow out there. Completely, we were in our shirts covered with snow. It took ages, some were suffocating some were praying. And I said to myself that it was impossible that the nation of Goether, Schiller, and Beethoven was capable of anything like that. It was a nation that ran totally wild.”
“I missed a few friends in the dorm in the evening...”
Ladislav Bém was born in Bartovice at Ostrava on December 27th, 1918. He came from a poor miner’s family. Having finished his primary school, he studied at a high school, from which he successfully graduated in 1938. In the same year he started at the Technical University in Prague. Hlávka’s dorm became his home. After Jan Opletal, a student of medicine and a resident of Hlávka’s dorm as well, died during the suppression of the demonstration in October 1938, a wave of students’ protests followed. Students sang the Czech anthem at his burial, even despite the ban. Next, they barricaded themselves in the building of the Czech Technical University in Karlovo Square. After a short time the Gestapo came for them. Ladislav Bém and the other students were arrested and then deported to the concentration camp in Sachsenhausen. Three cruel winters awaited him as well as slave labour and humiliation from the wardens. After his return home in 1942 he worked in workers’ professions. His father was arrested by the Nazis, but fortunately survived the war. After the liberation Ladislav Bém finished his studies at the Technical University in Ostrava and started working in the mines in Příbram. He worked also for example in the uranium mine in Jáchymov where he was the head of one shaft. Eventually he ended up as a mining inspector in Karviná region. He got also engaged in the physical education club. He had a public presentation in the spirit of the Prague Spring in 1968. Nevertheless, he remained a member of the KSČ (the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia) after 1968. However, he retrospectively evaluates the Communist regime with skepticism.