Stephen Gaertner

* 1929  †︎ 2022

  • "I went to a private school and nothing special happened there, except that in the morning one had to do the Nazi salute and I asked my mother, 'Do I have to?' And she said, 'No, you're a Czechoslovak citizen,' so I didn't raise my hand the next morning. So they noticed that I was Czechoslovak. And then Hitler was already fighting against the Czechs, because he wanted the Sudetenland, so the children attacked me, they wanted to beat me, but with the help of my brother I defended myself. Such small events were there. Otherwise, nothing special happened there, except that our maid, also Czech, died of tuberculosis. So they did a check up, and they found out that I also had light tuberculosis. So my mother wanted to send me to Bavaria, but I said, 'It will be full of Hitlerjugend, I don't want to go there.' 'All right, I'll send you to Switzerland.' That saved my life.“

  • „I was there [at ZPA] for about two years, then there were inspections and they fired me. Without any justification. It was the communist purges, 1959, I think. Stalin was already dead, but they were still doing some political purges. So they fired me. So I asked a friend, who was a communist, quite a decent one, so I asked him what to do. He said: 'Well, it's quite the secret, but every Czech citizen is included in categories A, B, C and D. A is an active communist, B is an ordinary communist, C is an ordinary non-political person, D is a shovel. And you're a shovel.“

  • „I remember being in that square in the winter. Gottwald was there with a black leather cap, blazing that the Communists would now take power and the people were shouting. And I thought, "Well, it reminds me of the Nazis in Germany again." Those were my memories of February.“

  • Full recordings
  • 1

    Rio Vista, Kalifornie, 22.06.2021

    duration: 02:07:48
    media recorded in project Stories of 20th Century
Full recordings are available only for logged users.

My biggest life decision took ten seconds. Every age has its challenges

Stephen Gaertner upon arrival in California, 1966
Stephen Gaertner upon arrival in California, 1966
photo: Witness's archive

Stephen Gaertner was born on July 29, 1929 in Hamburg. He comes from a Czech Jewish family. Father Erich - like his brothers - spent the First World War on the front lines. In the 1920s, he moved to Hamburg with his mother Edith, where he ran a freight forwarding company. Due to health problems, Stephen travelled to Switzerland in the second half of the 1930s, where he eventually survived the war with his mother. In the meantime, his father and brother Hanuš were deported by the Nazis to concentration camps, where Erich Gaertner died. After the war, Stephen and his mother and brother settled in Prague, where the witness graduated from the University of Chemical Technology (ICT). From the 1950s, he worked as a technologist in a man-made fibre factory in the village of Rudník in the Trutnov region, from where he later moved to the Prague Industrial Automation Plant (ZPA). In the meantime, in the years 1953-1954, he completed compulsory military service in Červená Voda in the Orlické Ústí region. In the second half of the 1950s, he lost his position in ZPA due to an unsuitable personnel profile and had to accept a working-class position in the Kladno smelters. After spending 11 months by the furnaces and after a subsequent month-long compulsory military exercise, he was staff-cleared and was able to return to a professional position in the ZPA. In 1965, he was met with direct pressure to cooperate with the Czechoslovak military intelligence (ZSGŠ / ČSLA), and shortly afterwards he emigrated to the West together with his wife Věra. He eventually settled in California, where he - among others - befriended Oldřich Kýn or Ivan Havel. As a chemical engineer, he has been involved in a number of successful projects overseas. After 1989, he repeatedly visited the Czech Republic. At the time of the filming of the interview (2021), he lived in Rio Vista, California. Stephen Gaertner died on November 6th, 2022.