Lieutenant Pravomil Raichl -- A Proud Czechoslovak and a Brave Enemy of Totalitarianism
It would be difficult to find a more determined opponent of totalitarian regimes in 20th century Czech history than Lieutenant Pravomil Raichl. In times when the existence of the democratic Czechoslovak state was threatened, Raichl did not hesitate to step forth from the nameless crowd and risk his life for his nation's rights and freedom.
He was born in the village of Skury, in the district of Slany, to the west of Prague in central Bohemia and was brought up in the spirit of the democratic ideals espoused by the first Czechoslovak president T.G. Masaryk. In 1939, as an 18-year-old student at the school of forestry in the south Bohemian town of Pisek, Raichl decided to join the Czechoslovak forces fighting abroad. However, while trying to cross eastern Europe, he was arrested by Soviet border guards and sentenced for illegal border crossing. He made the first of the many escape attempts he would make during his life, and was -- not for the last time -- sentenced to death. Raichl waited in expectation that the execution would be carried out any moment, but in the end the sentence was commuted and he was transported to a Siberian labor camp, where he experienced several months of hunger, deprivation, and terror.
Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941 transformed Raichl's situation and probably saved his life. In Great Britain, the exile Czechoslovak government signed a treaty with the Soviet Union. One of the results of the treaty was that units of the Czechoslovak foreign army were to be formed in the Soviet Union. In December 1941, Raicl was the ninth person to join the units being set up under the leadership of Ludvik Svoboda in the town of Buzuluk beyond the Ural Mountains in the Asian part of Russia. Raichl also provided the head of the Czechoslovak military mission in the Soviet Union, Lieutenant Heliodor Pik, with information on Czechoslovak citizens held in Soviet labor camps. Thanks to the energetic intervention of Pik, many of these unfortunates were able to enroll in the first independent Czechoslovak military standard in the Soviet Union. However, after the Communist takeover in 1948, Raicl and Pik's actions were used as evidence that they had been acting as spies for the Western powers.
Private Raichl was assigned to the 1st company led by lieutenant Otakar Jaros, absolved officer school training and was named commander of the 2nd platoon of the non-commissioned officers' school. He first saw active service in autumn 1943 and from that time on was constantly engaged in units fighting at the front. As a machine gunner in the tank reconnaissance division he took part in the battle at Bila Cerkev and at the village of Ruda, where he was wounded for the first time. He was involved in the attack on the Ukrainian capital city Kiev, where along with his cousin Vlastimil he was among the first to enter the captured city. He was wounded for the second time during the fighting at Fastov. He experienced the hell of the fighting in the Dukla pass through which the Soviet army with the assistance of the free Czechoslovak units entered Slovakia. He was wounded for the fifth and final time near Strba in the Tatra mountains.
He was decorated with three Czechoslovak war cross medals and another medal for bravery. When, in November 1945, the funeral of deputy Jan Sverma took place, the press wrote poignantly that among the coffin bearers was a young many-times-wounded and many-times-decorated lieutenant of the eastern army. This was Pravomil Raichl. A mere three years later, the same newspapers wrote of Raichl as a spy, a bandit, and a traitor, who evaded action at the front.
In 1945 he was assigned to the 5th infantry regiment in Bilina. As a former member of the eastern army, Raichl was all too familiar with Soviet reality and the conspiratorial methods of the Czech communists. He did not conceal his aversion to them. In 1946 he left the army and in September 1946 crossed illegally into the western zone of Germany. In Wiesbaden, he made contact with the U.S. secret service. When he returned to Czechoslovakia in January 1947, he was detained by the authorities and imprisoned. However, he was freed after the Justice Ministry issued an order for his release.
Immediately after his release, he set about organizing a resistance group. He established contacts with former members of the eastern army whom he knew to be disconcerted by political developments in Czechoslovakia. One day, one of his friends introduced him to two men who claimed to be Americans named Eddie and Tony and said that they wished to meet more anti-Communist Czechs. However, the two were in fact agent provocateurs -- Evzen Abrahamovic and Emil Izrael Chovan.
On November 7, 1947, Raichl was arrested. He was tried in one of the first giant Communist show-trials - the "Most spy affair" - and on May 11, 1948, was one of three accused sentenced to death by the Prague District Court. However, President Benes declined to sign the death sentences, and Raichl's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment with hard labor.
Raichl was imprisoned successively in Prague, at Ostrov near Karlovy Vary, in Pribram, and at Bory near Plzen. It would not have Raichl not to try to escape. In December 1951, as a punishment for an unsuccessful escape attempt Raichl was transferred to the high security Leopoldov prison in Slovakia. However, Raichl was one of the six prisoners who fled from Leopoldov in the legendary jail break on the day after New Year's Day in 1952. With the help of numerous courageous ordinary people, who undertook enormous risks to assist him, Raichl made it to West Berlin.
On the orders of General Sergei Ingry, a Czechoslovak guard company was formed within the U.S. army. In the event that war broke out between east and west, the role of this company and similar units was to become the seed of the third Czechoslovak military resistance. Raichl was made a second lieutenant in this company and given the cover name of Michal Novotny. However, the Communist intelligence service began to send its agents to infiltrate these units. After Raichl suffered injuries in a car accident and the U.S. secret service detained the man who had been assigned to kidnap Raichl and bring him back to Czechoslovakia, the Americans decided to re-locate Raichl to the United States. Raichl first lived in Chicago. He later moved with his family to Oregon, where he graduated from Portland University with a degree in Military History and Political Science. He bought a house in the woods, where he moved permanently after retiring. He was only able to return to his homeland after the fall of the Communist regime in 1989. In the early 1990s, he received the Order of the White Lion from President Havel in recognition of his services to his nation.
Pravomil Raichl died on February 25, 2002. The date, on which the Communist putsch occurred in 1948, was symbolic for one of the most courageous and determined opponents of the Communists -- and a man who was to his last day sincerely hated and cursed by Marxists and Communists. Though for many years a U.S. citizen, he never betrayed his oath to the Czechoslovak republic and remained proud of his Czechoslovak nationality.
Translated and edited by Ian Stone
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