‘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: Preparing your Home and Heart for the Advent Season

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

The Advent season is a time of preparation for our hearts and minds for the Lord’s birth on Christmas.  It extends over the four Sundays before Christmas.  Try some of these Ideas to celebrate Advent in your home by decorating, cooking, singing, and reading your way to Christmas. Some of the best ideas are the simplest.

Special thanks to Patty Lunder for putting this together!

Advent Crafts

Handprint Advent Wreath for Children 
Bring the meaning of Advent into your home by having your kids make this fun and easy Advent wreath.

Pink and purple construction paper
– Yellow tissue or construction paper (to make a flame)
– One piece of red construction paper cut into 15 small circles
– Scissors
– Glue
– Two colors of green construction paper
– One paper plate
– 2 empty paper towel tubes

1. Take the two shades of green construction paper and cut out several of your child’s (Children’s) handprints. Glue the handprints to the rim of a paper plate with the center cut out.

2. Roll one of the paper towels tubes in purple construction paper and glue in place.

3. Take the second paper towel and roll half in pink construction paper and half in purple construction and glue in place.

4. Cut the covered paper towel tubes in half.

5. Cut 15 small circles from the red construction paper. Take three circles and glue two next to each other and a third below to make berries. Do this next to each candle until all circles are used.

6. Cut 4 rain drop shapes (to make a flame) from the yellow construction paper. Each week glue the yellow construction paper to the candle to make a flame. On the first week light the purple candle, the second week light the second purple candle, the third week light the pink candle and on the fourth week light the final purple candle.

A Meal to Share during the Advent Season

Slow-Cooker Barley & Bean Soup 

Make Sunday dinner during Advent into a special family gathering with a simple, easy dinner. Growing up in a large family, we knew everyone would be together for a family dinner after Mass on Sunday. Let the smells and aromas of a slow stress-free dinner fill your house and heart during the Advent Season. Choose a member of the family to lead grace and enjoy an evening together. This is the perfect setting to light the candles on your Advent wreath and invite all to join in a special prayer for that week.

– 1 cup dried multi-bean mix or Great Northern beans, picked over and rinsed
– 1/2 cup pearl barley (Instant works great, I cook separate and add at end when soup is done)
– 3 cloves garlic, smashed
– 2 medium carrots, roughly chopped
– 2 ribs celery, roughly chopped
– 1/2 medium onion, roughly chopped
– 1 bay leaf
– Salt to taste
– 2 teaspoons dried Italian herb blend (basil, oregano)
– Freshly ground black pepper
– One 14-ounce can whole tomatoes, with juice
– 3 cups cleaned baby spinach leaves (about 3 ounces)
– 1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese, extra for garnish

1. Put 6 cups water, the beans, barley, garlic, carrots, celery, onions, bay leaf, 1 tablespoons salt, herb blend, some pepper in a slow cooker. Squeeze the tomatoes through your hands over the pot to break them down and add their juices. Cover and cook on high until the beans are quite tender and the soup is thick, about 8 hours. 

2. Add the spinach and cheese, and stir until the spinach wilts, about 5 minutes. Remove the bay leaf and season with salt and pepper. 

3. Ladle the soup into warmed bowls and serve with a baguette.