Jerry Huffman’s father, Paul, served in World War II as a tank driver with the US Army. He was helping liberate Czechoslovakia from the Germans when the war ended. During the celebrations, Paul posed with a woman and child in Blatná, Czechoslovakia.
Every so often, Paul would pull out his WWII souvenirs – a couple of medals, some mementos, and the picture with the woman and child taken on the day the war ended.
Jerry says he sees tiredness in his father’s eyes in the picture, but he also sees relief. “He’s 19 years old, he’s survived a war, and he’s gonna go home.”
Paul was always grateful for the way the Czech citizens treated the US troops. He tried to go back to Czechoslovakia in 1985 to say “thank you,” but the Soviet Iron Curtain made that impossible.
After Paul passed away, Jerry couldn’t stop thinking about the woman in the picture. He wanted to find out who she was.
He spent years searching for her and was ready to quit when he asked the Czech ambassador in Washington, D.C. for assistance. A newspaper in Czechoslovakia then ran a story about Jerry’s search, and relatives of the woman (her name is Blažena Hrabĕtová) saw the story one morning while reading the paper.
Jerry had expected to hear that someone knew Blažena but that she had died years before. Instead, though, the family reached out to him to say that she was 92 years old, still living on her own, and she was excited to meet him.
Jerry was invited to Blatná during the week of Liberation Day. Liberation Day is a holiday when residents of the town dress up like American soldiers and drive American jeeps to celebrate the day they got their freedom from Nazi oppression. While there, he was able to meet with Blažena and finally talk with the woman in the picture.
Jerry told Blažena that he could see relief in his father’s face because he knew that they weren’t going to die.
Jerry says it was one of the most emotional experiences of his life. He could see in her eyes what it meant to her. She kept looking at the picture and patting Jerry’s hand.
Jerry told her that it didn’t matter how long she and his father had known each other. She had made Paul happy with her kindness. Jerry was finally able to thank her for what she did for his father. Blažena replied that the Americans had been very kind also.
Jerry said that his father hadn’t been able to say thank you or goodbye, so it was a very emotional experience for Jerry to finally say those words to Blažena and to the town of Blatná on his father’s behalf, even if it was 73 years later.
As for the boy in the photo, Ladislav Vesely, people in Czechoslovakia believe that he had left with the American soldiers in 1945 and emigrated to the US.
Paul landed in France after D-day as part of the Fourth Armored Division. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge, then on across Europe and finally to Blatná.
After the war, Blažena married, raised two children and worked as a shoemaker. She didn’t remember Paul specifically but had fond memories of how kind the American soldiers were. She washed uniforms for them, and they paid her with coffee, chocolate, and canned ham – an absolute luxury at the time.
After surviving the Nazi occupation, a time when people were murdered and where people were always hungry, it had been incredible to experience human decency again.