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Have won an award Joe's Castle

Story ID:151
Written by:Nancy J. Kopp (bio, link, contact, other stories)
Story type:Travel
Location:Zbraslav Czech Republic
Year:2000
Person:Joseph Barton-Dobenin
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Joe's Castle

Joe's Castle

Joe's Castle

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Joe’s Castle

By Nancy Julien Kopp

As soon as the iron gates came into view, the conversation in our rented van ceased. All six of us leaned forward for a better view while we drove slowly onto the park-like grounds of Zbraslav Castle. Huge trees stood guard over various sculptures on either side of the lane we traversed.

“There it is,” Joe told us.

It was Joe’s boyhood home, a home that had been occupied by enemy soldiers during World War II, then taken over by the communists, a home that Joe had fled over fifty years earlier. Joe is the Baron Joseph Barton-Dobenin, the oldest of three sons who were raised in a thirteenth century castle that sits in all its majesty a few miles outside of Prague in what is now the Czech Republic.

We pulled up in front of the colorful castle and scrambled out of the van while Joe spoke to the guard on duty. Our visit here started in jest at one of our Dinner/Bridge sessions. Joe’s wife, Elizabeth, had said, “You know what? We should all go over to Prague and play bridge in the castle.” Six of us nodded and laughed and agreed that we should do that. Sometime. Little did we know that Joe and Elizabeth were serious, and the next time we were together, plans for our trip began to gel. Between January and May we made air and hotel reservations, rented a van, and prepared for a week’s stay in Prague, a city justifiably known as The Jewel of Europe.

We’d heard a great deal about the castle ever since it had been returned to Joe’s family when the communist government fell during The Velvet Revolution. Now, we were to see it. What had been mere words would soon be mental pictures to file in our memories and see again and again once home in Kansas.

When the communists seized the castle a few years after World War II, they turned it into a museum. Consequently, everything in it was left exactly as it had been, and the entire building was well maintained. People flocked to tour the castle, to exclaim over the masters’ paintings, the porcelain, the sculptures and antiques throughout.

Today, one end is a national art gallery. Joe’s niece and her children occupy the lower floor of the remainder of the castle, and Joe has kept the upper floor private. It continues to be furnished exactly as it was in his childhood.

His mother’s portrait still graces a wall in a salon. I gazed at the portrait for a long time. Painted in the years just prior to World War I, the woman looks regal and feminine in a froth of a dress, but her strength of character comes through as well. When Joe was only fifteen, his father died, and his mother became head of the family. Hitler had come to power, and before long, Czechoslovakia proved to be one more prize in his collection of European countries. What stories this woman might tell were she alive today.

During the war, German officers lived in the castle at Zbraslav with the Barton-Dobenin family. Joe inherited his father’s title, but he and his brothers were sent to work in the fields with other Czechs. Joe tells a wonderful story about the surrender of those same German soldiers.

When the end of the war was imminent, two American lieutenants drove a jeep, with a white towel on its antenna, up the castle road. They asked to see the officer in charge, then informed the German they were authorized to take him and his men prisoners. The Germans agreed but asked for time to get ready. While they talked outside in a courtyard, Joes’ mother joined them, carrying a large, oversized book in her hands. “Gentlemen,” she said, “would you sign my guest book?” The two Americans readily agreed, and each man signed his name. One of them wrote that he hoped they might visit again under better circumstances.

Later that day, the two Americans in their jeep led several thousand German enlisted men and officers on foot to the American lines. Why had it been so easy? The Germans chose to surrender to the Americans rather than to the Russians who were close behind.

We wandered from room to room admiring the murals that graced the ceilings and the oriental rugs that rested on the floor. White porcelain stoves in the corner of many of the rooms provided heat on cold winter days. Large windows in every room afforded views of a winding river and dense forest that surrounded the castle and courtyard. I lingered at one such window admiring the view. Long before this, Joe and his little brothers must have done the same.

Zbraslav Castle boasts two large dining rooms for entertaining. Eighteen guests can dine at one table, while the other seats even more. Each table stretched longer than any we’d ever seen. Long white linens cover the top, and stately chairs are lined up on either side. I tried to imagine the table adorned with china, crystal, and silver, the chairs occupied by invited guests, and animated conversation and laughter filling the room. A dinner party in the castle was easy to picture.

After our wonderful tour of Joes’ castle, we got down to the business we’d come for—playing Bridge. Joe took us to the rooms he’d been given when he turned eighteen. To mark his entry into an adult world, his mother had a lovely bed/sitting room and bath redone for him. The tall windows looked down on a small courtyard and the verdant forest beyond. We toasted our hosts, with a small glass of Becherovka, a local liqueur that slid easily across the tongue. The cards were dealt, and laughter and conversation rang in the castle once more. Another memory had been etched into our lives because of our friend Joe, his warm heart, and his beautiful castle.

Photo 1: Zbraslav Castle
Photo 2: Our group having dinner in a nearby restaurant. That's me second from left.
Photo 3: Joe pointing out the mural painted on the ceiling in one of the castle rooms. Note the porcelain stove used for heating.