|The castle in Zbraslav where Joe grew up|
|Joe at the end of the table in Zbrslav, Czech Republic--Ken and I on left end of table|
|Joe pointing out a ceiling mural in the castle to a friend|
We received word that a fine man passed away this morning. Joseph Barton-Dobenin was 94. His life is like a fairy tale. I am reprinting a story I wrote several years ago about his life and the good he has done on this earth. My tribute to the Baron who was known to us as "our friend Joe."
A True Fairy Tale
By Nancy Julien Kopp
Children have been enchanted by fairy tales penned by the Grimm brothers and Hans Christian Andersen for centuries. Aristocrats and castles, trolls and witches fill the pages eagerly turned by little hands. Good versus evil is often the theme, and suspense captures the reader’s attention. But can such stories really happen? Yes they can, for I am acquainted with a man who starred in a real-life fairy tale.
I know him as my friend, Joe. He retired after a long career as a professor in the college of Business at Kansas State University where all knew him as Joseph Barton-Dobenin, American citizen. But once upon a time, he was the Baron Joseph Barton-Dobenin of Zbraslav, Czechoslovakia.
Joe was the eldest of three sons. The three boys grew up in a castle surrounded by lush, park-like grounds. Their family owned a brewery that stood within sight of their home, as well as a great deal of property in and around Prague. Rumbles of possible war in Europe cast a shadow over Joe’s high school years. When his father died, Joe inherited the title of Baron, and responsibility weighed heavily on his shoulders. With his mother’s guiding hand, he carried on in his father’s place.
Before he could enter university, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, and German officers moved into the castle. The family worked in the fields each day along with the people of their village. Life was hard, but they managed to survive until the end of the war. Then, at war’s end, Czechoslovakia ended up in the hands of Russia. With no choice, the people now lived under Communist rule. A baron could be no part of the communist life, so Joe landed in prison.
One of his brothers was sent to work in a uranium mine, and Joe’s mother and youngest brother moved to a tiny apartment in Prague when the castle was seized and turned into a national museum. The real estate and businesses the family owned were confiscated, too. They’d endured and survived the grim war years, but this proved even more forbidding. Hope disappeared like smoke from a chimney.
The Russians finally released Joe. He’d had plenty of time in prison to consider his options in this new world. He decided to leave his homeland and find a way to bring the family together again in a free country. His mother sewed the jewels she’d managed to save into his coat, and an escape plan emerged from long nights of talking. To this day, many of the details remain a secret. Joe hid in the men’s’ restroom at the big train station, away from the Russian soldiers who marched the halls. Despite a few frightening moments, the escape plan worked, and Joe made his way to France and then to Tunisia, where he toiled in the fields. He’d had plenty of agricultural experience during the war in his own fields.
A year later, his days were monotonous, and the future looked bleak. One night he thought about an American banker who had visited the castle in pre-war days. When the visitor left, he clapped Joe on the shoulder and said to look him up if he ever came to America. More and more Joe thought about the banker’s words, until he knew he must set sail for the United States. He’d saved enough money for his passage to New York. Though he spoke several languages, he knew no English, but that did not deter him. His mother and brothers still lived in a communist controlled land, and his aim was to get them out, too.
He arrived in New York, a stranger in a land where he could not understand a word spoken to him. Was it luck or an angel who put him in the path of a woman who spoke German, a language he spoke fluently? She helped Joe make a phone call to the American banker he’d met years earlier. No doubt surprised to hear from Joe, the man instructed him to have the woman help him buy a train ticket to Nebraska.
The man operated properties taken over by his bank, and he put Joe to work managing these repossessed farms. It wasn’t long before Joe knew he would not earn enough to bring his family to America. A college education would help. He qualified as a displaced person so was able to enter the University of Nebraska at no cost. He earned both his undergraduate and master’s degrees in business, and he married a girl from Nebraska.
He started teaching in the Business Education department at Kansas State University, returned to Nebraska for his doctor’s degree and spent the remainder of his career at Kansas State.
During the many education years, he received word that his mother had passed away. He dared not return to his homeland for fear of being imprisoned again. How his heart ached at not being able to say good-bye to his strong and beautiful mother. He thought often of her portrait which adorned a wall in one of the dining rooms in the castle.
Joe told his wife, Elizabeth, that he would never return to Czechoslovakia until it was free again. By the time the Communist rule came to an end, Joe’s brothers and their families had immigrated to the United States, too, and Joe had retired. He and Elizabeth made plans to visit his home country. He’d related stories for so long about the castle and all the precious things in it, his family, and friends in his home village of Zbraslav. Now he would show it to her.
When they arrived in Prague, Joe’s heart nearly broke upon seeing the deterioration of the beautiful city he’d once known. Neglect was evident in the once-magnificent buildings, and the people walked with heads down, no smiles upon their faces. Pride had somehow been destroyed. What would he find when they visited the castle? He and Elizabeth secured transportation to the small village where he’d once lived so happily. The castle remained a museum for the forty-some years of Joe’s absence. When he climbed the steps and entered his old home, his heart beat faster, and he was both fearful and eager to see what it looked like inside. Nothing had changed. Every piece of furniture, every rug, every piece of porcelain remained. When he walked into the dining room, his feet could carry him no further. He faced his mother’s portrait, painted in the days when she ruled as Baroness. The tears he had not been able to shed at her funeral came in earnest as he gazed at the young woman wearing a froth of a dress.
Joe introduced his American wife to several old family friends. He learned that many of valuable paintings the family had left with friends remained hidden by the villagers. Not all of them, however. Some were sold to keep families alive and others remained stashed in attics. Joe discovered that the new government returned confiscated properties if ownership could be proven. Never dreaming he would have any of the family property again, he began the legal process to see if he might get some of the holdings back. As if by magic, he became the owner of a castle and real estate in downtown Prague. But he had no intention of moving back to the Czech Republic. He had given up being the Baron long before. He was an American now. He knew he must return to his homeland to oversee the many business details, and so their retirement years slipped into a new routine. Four times a year Joe and Elizabeth journeyed to the Czech Republic for three weeks at a time, and the rest of the year they spent in America.
But now Joe had a problem. What was he to do with the profits from these newfound businesses? He devised a plan which would help the youth in the Czech Republic and to also benefit the American university where he’d taught so many years. He started a scholarship program for Czech students to come to Kansas State University for one or two semesters. And come they did. After the first group completed their time, word spread around Prague like wildfire. Students at Czech Tech and Charles University learned that not only could you spend a wonderful year at an American university, but the man and his wife who made it possible also invited you to their home for dinner, became your American family. More students came each year, and now some of the Kansas State students have gone to Prague in a reverse exchange.
Joe tells the young Czechs that they are the future of their country. “Study hard,” he says to each new group. “Go home and help the Czech Republic.” And they listen to this man who lost so much and then regained it almost fifty years later.
Fairy tales often end “…and they lived happily ever after.” I think Joe would agree that is the way his story ended, too.