Wednesday, June 01, 2011

The Man Who Wasn't There

I’m not a betting man, but I’ll put money down that you’ve never heard of Victor Lonsmín. I’d never heard of him until a few weeks back, and I specialize in Czech hockey players. In the history of hockey, he’s a footnote to a footnote to a footnote.

This photo (via here) is one of the only images out there of him. It’s long after his hockey career, a good 11 or 12 years after the last confirmed time that he played in a high level match.

The facts are sparse. His name was spelled both Victor and Viktor depending on the year and location. He was born in 1920 or 1921. Where isn’t certain, but somewhere near Prague is a good bet. He played hockey. He defected in the late 1940s. He came to the U.S. He died in 1990, and that we know for certain.

He doesn’t look very happy in that photo – but I’m projecting. Projecting is all I can really do with Victor Lonsmín.

* * *

International hockey is largely ignored on these shores. 1972 and 1980 resonate, and the tournaments get interest when North Americans win, but otherwise they’re an afterthought. European teams are stock villains in action movies, there only as a foil to the good guys – if they somehow win, then the competition suddenly no longer matters.

But there are infinite stories hiding out there. Players and teams and countries touched directly by the grimmest forces of the 20th century. There’s more to hockey than the stolid farm boy on a backyard rink.

* * *

He's a shade, he's a cipher. We don't know what kind of hockey player he was -- he played forward, that's all we know. We don't know how big he was, but photos make him look tall and lean -- I picture him with a loping stride, deceptively slow. We don't know how good he was, but probably not bad -- he lasted several years with LTC Praha, the premier Czechoslovakian team at the time. He played on the 1939 Czechoslovakia (by this time Nazi-occupied) World Championships team, and apparently scored two goals -- that's the only statistic we have from his career. Once Czechoslovakia was dismembered, he was selected to the "Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia" team.

According to records -- and for pre-1950s Czechoslovakian hockey, they are of dubious reliability -- he started playing for LTC Praha1 in the 1937-38 season, when he would have been 16 or 17. That season was only the second of an organized Czechoslovakian league, and we know very little about it. According to Czech records, teams played an uneven number of games -- LTC Praha played five league games, I. ČLTK Praha2 played six, AC Sparta Praha (who still survive today) played four, VŠ Bratislava only two. Canadian Mike Buckna, who perhaps did more than anyone to bring Czechoslovakia to the upper levels of the hockey world, also played on LTC and led the league with 14 goals; fellow LTC forward Josef Maleček was second with 10. We don't know how many Lonsmín scored, but with or without a major contribution LTC were dominant. They won all five of their league games, outscoring opponents 33 to 1. In the final, they dispatched Sparta 5-1.

Looking at the records, LTC were almost unfairly ahead of the rest of the country. According to another source, they outscored opponents 61 to 1 the next season, winning all seven league games for another title, then took the treble in 1939-40. I. ČLTK finally broke the monopoly the next season, by which point World War II was in full swing and we can only guess the shape Czechoslovakian hockey was in. Slovakia was an independent nation, leaving LTC with less in the way of top-flight opponents.

Through these years, Lonsmín kept on going. He was with LTC as they reclaimed the title in 1942, with them as they won in 1943. In 1944, he's no longer listed. There are no records of the 1944-45 season, as all involved had greater things to worry about. In 1945-46, he reappears with VŠ Bratislava, third place in the first post-war season. Then in 1947, he came in second, now with I. ČLTK Praha. After that, he vanishes from Czech records.

And after that, his story gets interesting.

* * *

The late 1940s were turbulent times for Czechoslovakia. The nation emerged from occupation into political uncertainty, and the Communist Party first won a big share of the 1946 elections and then took over completely in 1948.

The turmoil was mirrored in hockey. The national team was devastated by defections, by a plane crash that killed much of the 1948 Olympic silver medal-winning team, and the trumped-up arrests and show trials of the 1949 World Championship winners.

Lonsmín was one of the defectors. It's not clear if he was involved in the Switzerland story that Gustav Bubník relates in the above link, but it's probably the case; later on, a Chicago Tribune article said that he was with his team in Switzerland when the Communists took over, and he didn't go back. His wife, Betty, apparently joined him later, possibly in 1950. What transpired between 1948 and 1950 isn't clear, but on May 4, 1950, the Lonsmíns arrived in New York on the General R.M. Blatchford, origin Bremerhaven, West Germany, eventual destination Clifton, Virginia. They were listed as "stateless." They left three young daughters behind.

* * *

Here, we can only speculate again. We don't know what he was feeling. Was Lonsmín political? Did he see what was coming, or did it catch him by surprise? Did he make the decision calmly, or was he consumed by fear?

Later on, he said that he thought his daughters could get out easily following him and his wife. They didn't, and that would cause problems down the line.

* * *

The next few years are another empty period, with only little bits filled in. The Lonsmíns spent a few months in Virginia, moved to Maryland for a few years, and then to Cicero, Illinois in 1952 or 1953. In 1955, Mrs. Lonsmín was the vice president of a Chicago group called the European Research Club, encouraging Eastern European expats to band together and fight communism. The group's secretary was Zdeněk Jirotka, once a Sparta Praha defenseman. The Lonsmíns became U.S. citizens in early 1956. He worked as a machinist, she as a bookkeeper.

* * *

Behind the scenes, they were making attempts to get their daughters out of Czechoslovakia. According to the Chicago Tribune, the U.S. State Department made "attempts" -- details are uncertain -- in both 1956 and 1957. Both failed. In 1958, they stepped up their efforts. Mrs. Lonsmín traveled to Vienna to contact a priest who had assisted other defectors. The priest passed on bribes to Czechoslovakian officials and border guards, but nothing came of it. Lonsmín himself went to Vienna in early 1959, and the story he told after was a bizarre one.

In the June 15, 1959 Tribune, a story headlined "Reds Thwart Attempts to Unite Family" says that the Czechoslovak government put the Lonsmíns oldest daughter under surveillance after the 1958 attempts. The night of May 1, she traveled to a spot near Bratislava, on the Austrian border. Lonsmín and a friend headed there to meet her -- and were arrested by Czechoslovak soldiers.

Here's how the article describes subsequent developments:

Lonsmin, imprisoned for three days, was told if he would agree to work with the Czech secret police "against the capitalists who are destroying peace," he would be given a chance to get his daughters out.

Lonsmin signed an agreement -- which included a repentance for his defection. Then, he and his Austrian friend were fed, and taken to a private home where the Reds outlined a plot to kidnap a priest in Austria. It was the same priest whom Lonsmin's wife had contacted earlier.

After signing the agreement Lonsmin said he was permitted to look thru a one way glass at a girl the Communists said was his daughter. They reported they had picked her up 20 minutes before Lonsmin appeared at the border, he said. He felt it was really his child, he said, because she was wearing a coat relatives had described.

Lonsmín went on to say he was set free after agreeing to all their demands, but immediately reported everything to the American embassy in Vienna.

They kept up their battles. Later in 1959, they drew hope from a court case, as a U.S. judge ruled that three American boys should be sent to live with their parents, who had fled to the Soviet Union. The Lonsmíns' letter to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, requesting a meeting during his American visit, drew national coverage. They were getting publicity for their plight, and it was sympathetic.

That was about to change.

* * *

A short blurb in the March 10, 1960, Tribune is headlined "Vote To Indict 2 In Liberation Swindle Plot." The "2" are the Lonsmíns, charged with "operating a confidence game and larceny." Two fellow Czech émigrés accused them of taking money to get people out of Czechoslovakia, then not delivering. At issue, as far as I can determine, was whether the money would be refunded if the plain failed. The accusers said that was the agreement -- the defendants said it wasn't.

The case went to court in 1962 and almost immediately became ... strange. Mrs. Lonsmín testified that a court interpreter was a Communist agent. The prosecutors didn't comment on that.

The Lonsmíns argued that they had tried, and that they had paid the money to sources in an attempt to secure the subjects' release. They said they had made no profit on the deals. They said that the accusers made no attempt to resolve the dispute before going to court.

Regardless, within days, the verdict was in. From the Chicago Tribune of April 12, 1962: "Couple Found Guilty Of Red Refugee Fraud."

* * *

The stories are cold agate, just the facts, reflecting little of why the case swung that way. Aside from the "Communist agent" anecdote, there is little color from the newsroom. We don't know how the Lonsmíns came across.

I'd like to ask Victor Lonsmín, but I can't. Was the court right, ruling him a would-be con-man? Or was he as much a victim as anyone else, duped by dishonest men taking advantage of his hopes?

* * *

The Lonsmíns could have faced jail time, but a month after the verdict, they were sentenced to five years probation and ordered to pay back their accusers.

After that, they mostly vanish from the records. I imagine a quiet, perhaps sad life -- I wonder, were they estranged from the expatriate community? It couldn't have been comfortable.

Strangely, in the 1970s, Lonsmín reappears briefly -- he secured patents for small novelty items, trick pens and cigarette lighter covers. I imagine him in a little workshop, coming up with these devices. The language involved in patents is somehow both detailed and unclear, so I have a hard time visualizing these items, but I like to think that maybe, just maybe, somewhere along the line I used something that he invented.

Victor Lonsmín died on July 22, 1990, just one month after Czechoslovakia held democratic elections. I don't know if he ever saw his daughters again.

* * *

(research for this article comes from the Chicago Tribune archives, this wonderful LTC Praha site (all in Czech), and the Czech hockey history site. My dear sainted mother also contributed research on the Lonsmíns' move to the U.S. My gratitude to all.)

1 - the "LTC" in "LTC Praha" stands for "Lawn Tennis Club," one of those things I find charming about European sports
2 - another lawn tennis club. There are still tennis clubs with both old names in Prague today, though I don't know if they're direct descendants of the original clubs. Neither have hockey teams


Tapeleg said...

Awesome post. And epic story that sure has a lot of mystery to it.

Anonymous said...

Hi. I won your money. Victor was my great-grandfather. Im living in switzerland with one of his daughters, helena vorisek-lonsmin. It'd be great if you contact me. I also got some one or two photos of victor, playing icehockey. He's my hero cause i also play hockey.

Anonymous said...

Viktor was my grandfather. My mother was the daughter who was under survaillance and went to meet him the night he was arrested. I can be contacted at