‘I knew I had to escape’: Fleeing Communist Czechoslovakia

Vladimir Mauricio-Perez

“You can understand freedom and then lose it – but it’s something different to be born into a society where there is no freedom. That’s all you know. That’s what’s normal,” said Peter Stur, founder of the In Ipso Institute, as he recalled growing up in his native Czechoslovakia under Communist rule.

Living as a Catholic in a Communist society made him somewhat of an oddity ever since he entered the world in 1963. He was mocked not only by his friends, but also by his teachers and had to live with the fact that, under Communism, the stigma of attending Mass would follow him for the rest of his life.

“Before going to college, one of my teachers found out that I’d learned to play the organ from my parish priest, and he said to me in private, ‘Do you realize I have the power to change your future? I only have to write “Organist” on your resume, and you’re done,’” Stur said. “Fortunately, he didn’t.”

Stur didn’t know what it was like to practice his faith freely, until he was forced to flee from his native country.

Even though his family wasn’t very devout, he was raised in a Christian worldview. His parents could get away with going to Mass because they were simple workers, but professionals would lose their jobs.

Nonetheless, the story of his escape and deeper conversion came years later, after he married his wife Dana. In one instance, a coworker gifted him a copy of the New Testament, which would soon prove to be life changing. Bibles were so rare that he had never had a copy of his own.

Planning to escape

With the birth of his first son, the thought of his family’s future took on a different tone. Stur decided his family needed to escape if they ever wanted to live a peaceful life. Yet it was no easy task: a 10-year prison sentence awaited whoever was caught simply planning to escape.

The biggest challenge, besides reaching the border, was obtaining enough money to get by after escaping. He turned to his father-in-law for help, a Communist Party member who had joined for social opportunity and not out of conviction. During his travels, Stur’s father-in-law asked a few West Germans to send Stur a small amount of money, enough to get by without raising much suspicion. 

But the government found out.

“Immediately, there was suspicion… I had 17 interviews about my ‘connections’ with the enemy in the West,” he said. 

With each interview, the situation worsened: spies broke into his office and would soon break into his house – he’d seen it all too many times.

Pictured here is Peter Stur’s eldest son, who was born in Czechoslovakia. Stur was forced to hire a smuggler to bring his son across the border after he escaped the country’s communist regime. (Photo provided)

The decisive point, however, came on a Friday in 1989, a few months before his planned escape. Stur’s boss received a call from the highest office of the secret police saying they would be there on Wednesday to interview Stur and warned him.

“If the highest office of the secret police was calling, I knew I had to escape. I couldn’t wait anymore,” Stur said. 

Stur contacted his father-in-law to execute the plan that same weekend: Dana’s father would pretend to be working during vacations and drive Stur, his wife and their child to the border. 

Yet, as the final preparations were being made, Stur’s son became very ill. This unfortunate situation forced them to leave him with his grandmother, but not without the hope of seeing him again soon. Stur’s father-in-law assured that a reunification was possible under an agreement signed by both Eastern and Western countries. And so they fled.

A new beginning

Stur and his wife escaped with no complications and reached a refugee camp in Nuremberg, West Germany. There they lived for nearly two years under precarious conditions.

After his constants requests to bring his son were ignored by the government, he was forced to work near the camp, though illegally, doing anything he could get his hands on to pay for a smuggler to bring his son. Dana’s father had become a high suspect of cooperating with his escape and was permanently banned from traveling.

When the opportunity presented itself, they hired a recommended smuggler to pose as the baby’s relative. A few days later, the baby arrived safely at the camp.

In the meantime, Stur had applied to different countries seeking permission to migrate. But as he continued working, he suffered a devastating leg injury.

“The leg injury proved to be the hand of Providence,” he said. “When we left Czechoslovakia, I had slipped that small Bible from my friend into my pocket. I now began to read it in earnest. This was the beginning of my real conversion. As I read and pondered Scripture, I realized just how little of Christianity I really understood.”

This blessing was followed by another. In June 1991, he received a letter from the American Embassy granting his family entry into the U.S.

“Again, the hand of God intervened… Since I was at the camp, every single person who had an interview at the embassy was denied entrance. So, I was shocked when we were accepted,” Stur said. 

He and his family arrived in Denver 11 days later – a blessing and also a daunting reality for a family that didn’t speak the language, had no possessions and was alone.

Even then, Stur eventually found work, learned the language, started a successful wood-working business and parented 10 children.

Will prosperity remain?

As his business grew during this peaceful time, Stur encountered a perturbing reality.

“We discovered that many of the threats to freedom and conscience we thought we had left behind still emerged in this land of opportunity,” he said.

His business was greatly affected when a contractor found out he had 10 children and no longer worked with him.

The Stur family today. (Photo provided)

“She and her colleagues were highly offended that someone would bring so many children into the world… Once again, I seem to have crossed a socially unacceptable line,” he said. “As it was under Communism, those who violate the unwritten, but silently understood, diktats of the ruling class will be punished, even in a ‘free’ country.”

The event proved to be providential, as it led Stur to respond to a desire God had planted in his heart. That is how he founded “In Ipso,” an institute for the spiritual formation of the laity.

“It seems the errors of Russia that the Virgin Mary warned about a century ago at Fatima have indeed spread worldwide,” he concluded. “The damage was done and the greatest challenge for the Church today is to win back the ground that has been lost… This is our mission as Catholics for the foreseeable future. Like Christ, we must become ‘a sign of contradiction.’” 

COMING UP: Five tips for reading the Word of God

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Sunday, Jan. 24 marks “The Sunday of the Word of God,” instituted by Pope Francis last year and to be held every year on the third Sunday of Ordinary Time. This may strike us as odd, as we might think to ourselves, “but isn’t the Bible read at every Sunday Mass?” Certainly so. Not only that, but every daily celebration of the Mass proclaims the Word of God.

What’s different about “The Sunday of the Word of God,” however, is that it’s not just about hearing the Bible read on Sundays. As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith notes, it “reminds us, pastors and faithful alike, of the importance and value of Sacred Scripture for the Christian life, as well as the relationship between the word of God and the liturgy: ‘As Christians, we are one people, making our pilgrim way through history, sustained by the Lord, present in our midst, who speaks to us and nourishes us. A day devoted to the Bible should not be seen as a yearly event but rather a year-long event, for we urgently need to grow in our knowledge and love of the Scriptures and of the Risen Lord, who continues to speak his word and to break bread in the community of believers. For this reason, we need to develop a closer relationship with Sacred Scripture; otherwise, our hearts will remain cold and our eyes shut, inflicted as we are by so many forms of blindness.’” This gives us a wonderful opportunity to pause and reflect on the Sacred Scriptures. 

There are two means by which God Divinely reveals truths to us: Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. As such, the Bible is not merely a human document, nor simply a collection of amazing stories that call us to do heroic things, or a collection of wise sayings. Rather, the Scriptures are “inspired.” St. Paul has a beautiful teaching about this in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 – “All scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice, That the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work.” By “inspired” we mean that God is the principle author of the Bible.

Certainly there were different men who physically wrote the words on the papyrus. Yet these men were influenced by the grace of inspiration to write, not just their own words, but God’s. And so the Scriptures are a mysterious congruence of Divine and human authorship – the human writers capably made full use of language, literary forms, creativity, and writing style to communicate their message, yet they did so under the grace of Divine inspiration. This means that while they wrote in such a way that they had full freedom to write as they wanted, what they wrote was also, “to a tee,” exactly as God wanted written. God is the principle author of the Bible, the human author its secondary writer. Such inspiration is how, despite the various human authors, events, and historical and cultural contexts behind the 73 Biblical texts, we’re still left with only one story since they all have the same one primary author. 

Given that the Bible is the written word of God, I’d like to offer a few “tips” for reading the Bible, since it certainly cannot be read like any other text. 

1. Pray! We must pray before opening the Scriptures for enlightenment from God. We must pray after reading in thanksgiving to God. And we must pray throughout reading in order to encounter God in Scripture and apply it to our life. Of course, the tried and trusted practice of praying the Scriptures is Lectio DivinaThe Ladder of Monks by Guigo II is the ancient resource for Lectio Divina, while a helpful book to get you started is Dr. Tim Gray’s Praying Scripture for a Change: An Introduction to Lectio Divina

2. Remember that you are in no rush. The important point is encountering Christ in the Scriptures, not racing through them. Speed reading isn’t reading, after all, much less when applied to the Word of God. It’s not about getting through the Bible, but encountering Christ therein. That may be a few chapters at a time or may actually be only one verse that you pray with. Whatever the case, slow and steady wins the race, as Aesop reminds us. 

3. We have to read the Scriptures regularly, daily if possible. We read in Psalm 1, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” Meditating day and night. A good way to start would be to read one Psalm a night as a part of your nightly prayer. Ever better would be praying that one Psalm with your spouse, if married. 

4. Do not worry about starting on page one and reading from cover to cover. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and lost in the text. We all know about Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, Moses and the Plagues. But how many understand animal sacrifices in the Book of Leviticus or its purity laws? It’s very easy, starting from page one and flipping straight through, to lose sight of the story of salvation history. Start from page one if you’d like, but don’t feel like you can’t start with whatever book (especially the Gospels) that you find yourself drawn to. 

5. Come take classes with the Denver Catholic Biblical School! In chapter eight of the Book of Acts, we read of an Ethiopian Eunuch reading from the Prophet Isaiah. When the Deacon Philip asks him if he understands what he’s reading, the Eunuch responds, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” This is what we at the Biblical School are here for – to guide you in your encounter with Christ in the Sacred Scriptures. We’re in the middle of our Scripture classes already for this year, but we always start new classes in the fall every September. And in the meantime, we have plenty of things still coming for this year – a class on Catholic Social Teaching that begins on Jan. 27 a lecture series for Lent that starts on March 1, a conference on the Sacred Heart being offered on May 15 and Aug. 28, and a six-week class on St. Joseph in the summer starting in July. We have something for everybody – just reach out to us!