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During Crimea, Remember the Sudetenland

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I know all too well what happened when a great power claimed it wanted to protect its ethnic cousins in a neighboring country and sent troops to take over.

My parents were Czechoslovak citizens in 1938 when Adolf Hitler said he only wanted to take one little piece of land -- the Sudetenland -- to protect the oppressed German minority there. It is not surprising that Hillary Clinton reportedly noted the similarity between the Nazi justification to intervene back in 1938 and the Russian intervention in Crimea now.

"The condition of the Sudeten Germans is indescribable...," said Hitler. "The depriving of these people of their rights must come to an end. ... I have stated that the Reich would not tolerate any further oppression of these three and a half million Germans..."

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin agreed to appease Hitler at Munich and let him have his small crumb of Europe. Chamberlain returned with a paper he said would mean "peace for our time." It did not mean that at all. And Hillary Clinton did well to recall this sad moment in Western civilization.

Despite Hitler's assurance that all he wanted was the German-populated Sudetenland, six months later on March 15 1939, German troops goose stepped into Prague and seized all of Czechoslovakia.

The very first day, the Gestapo German police came to our apartment in Brno looking for my father, Stephen Barber. He was on a list of politically active Jews to be arrested and most likely tortured and killed. As fate would have it, that day he was in Switzerland at a Jewish conference.

Dad made it to France and joined the Free Czech Army which recruited 5,000 men ready to fight.

My mom had recently finished med school in Prague. She escaped to France by train, across Nazi Germany, lying to a border guard that she had to attend her sister's wedding in Paris.

Neither mom nor dad would ever see their parents again. All perished in the camps and killing pits of Czechoslovakia, Poland and Ukraine.

The Russian-speaking mobs of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine follow Hitler's playbook. They have been incited by Russia to justify an invasion. Sudeten Germans faced no persecution but wanted annexation to Germany.

My uncle Felix Barber was in the Czechoslovak army when the country was occupied. Troops were told to return to barracks and give up their weapons.

Instead, Felix called my dad in Paris who told him to visit "uncle Alfred," a code name for Poland.
Three years ago I visited the place he made his escape -- a ski resort in Slovakia's Tatra Mountains adjacent to Poland. Felix told me he tied animal fur to his skis to walk up the mountain. Then he skied down into Poland.

Felix waited three months in Poland until he got a visa to England, departing by boat in mid August, 1939, two weeks before Germany invaded the next on its list of small places it wanted to absorb.

In France, my mom and dad met and fell in love.

Then, in Spring, 1940, Germany invaded France. The Free Czechs sent more than 5,000 soldiers to fight along with the French, losing 10 percent in combat. When France surrendered, the Czech army and the government in exile led by Eduard Benes and Jan Masaryk, were sent south to Sete, a French port. England sent three warships from Egypt to carry the Free Czechs to Britain.

My mom had the unique luck of witnessing Hitler march into two capitals, Prague and Paris. On her journey south from Paris to meet the ships, her train was bombed. Then she walked with others fleeing the Germans and planes strafed the roads. Eventually she reached Sete and boarded with the other Czechs.

When the ships passed the Rock of Gibraltar, Mom told me she saw the mighty British fleet at anchor and realized she might really survive after all.

To avoid U-boats, the ships had to cross the Atlantic and then go up the U.S. East Coast. She could see the lights of Havana, Miami and New York. Finally they made it back across the north Atlantic to England where they married and I was born, one month before D-Day.

Dad remained in uniform with the Free Czechs. After D-Day they were attached to the U.S. Army, providing logistics to advance units and penning in German troops at Dunkirk. When U.S. troops halted in May, 1945 at Pilsen, under an agreement with Stalin to let the Soviets liberate Prague, Dad went into the city on his own and opened the shuttered Old New Synagogue, oldest in Europe, and with some Jews in the Soviet Army conducted the first Sabbath service since 1939.

Felix served in British intelligence -- ironically using his German language skills to help capture and hang some of those who had slaughtered six million Jews. When he passed away in 2005, his will asked that he be buried near his grandparents in the village of Rousinov near Brno and that his stone say they "perished in the holocaust and 36 of our family relations."

Shortly before he died, Felix wept as he recalled his murdered parents and grandparents and recited those shameful words of Chamberlin one last time -- words that sentenced his parents to death. Chamberlin said:

"How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing."

Well now you know something about Stephen and Felix and the price of history.