Teacher helped U.S. agents escape Nazis
Maria Gulovich Liu, who as a young schoolteacher in Slovakia during World War II joined the underground resistance as a courier and later helped a small group of American and British intelligence agents evade the German Army as they fled through the frigid mountains to safety, has died. She was 87.
Liu, who received a Bronze Star for her “heroic and meritorious” service to the Office of Strategic Services, died of colon cancer Friday at her home in Port Hueneme, said Jim Downs, a family friend.
“I interviewed men who were with her, and they were flabbergasted by how brave she was,” said Downs, who first met Liu when he interviewed her for his 2002 book “World War II: OSS Tragedy in Slovakia.”
In the book, former U.S. Army Sgt. Ken Dunlevy, who escaped Slovakia with Liu and three other intelligence agents, called her “our little sweetheart for whom I am and will be grateful forever. To her, it is no doubt that I owe my safety and perhaps my life.”
Liu was born Maria Gulovich on Oct. 19, 1921, in the village of Jarabina, near the Polish border.
She was attending the Greek Catholic Institute for Teachers in Presov when her homeland came under German dominance in 1939. The next year, she became a teacher, first in Jarabina and later in the farm community of Hrinova.
But her life began to change dramatically in early 1944.
A Jewish family friend, who operated a lumber mill and was considered useful to the Germans, had been hiding his sister and her young son. When he came under suspicion, he asked Liu to take in the woman and child.
She reluctantly agreed: If caught and arrested, as Downs noted in his book, Liu faced likely imprisonment or worse.
A few weeks later, according to Downs’ account, a Slovak Army captain turned up at the school and confronted Liu with her “crime.”
But the captain was secretly part of a rebel group conspiring against the Slovak fascist government and gave her a choice: If she would join the underground espionage operation against the Germans, he would find another hiding place for the woman and her son, and he would see that no charges were made against Liu.
“She didn’t want to be a courier; it was very dangerous,” said Downs. “But once she did, she went at it 100%.”
As part of her bargain, Liu moved to Banska Bystrica, where she worked as a dressmaker for an underground sympathizer.
On her first mission, Liu was told to pick up a suitcase in a city 65 miles away. She had no idea what was in the suitcase -- years later, she learned it was a short-wave radio -- and had to contend with the Gestapo searching luggage on the return train trip.
“There was a bunch of Wehrmacht officers sitting in a compartment and one started flirting with me -- which I gladly returned,” she told the Washington Post in 1989.
“They said, ‘Fraulein’ -- I spoke German at the time -- ‘would you sit with us?’ They made a seat for me in the compartment and the officer carried my suitcase into the compartment with him. The Gestapo came by, saluted, and went on.”
Liu was fluent in five languages, and after a couple of months as a courier, she was assigned to work with a Russian military intelligence group translating messages from Slovak into Russian.
While working for the Russians in the rebel headquarters after the Slovak National Uprising broke out on Aug. 29, 1944, she met American OSS personnel, who were there to assist in the uprising and also rescue downed American airmen.
By the end of October, the Germans had overrun Banska Bystrica and crushed the uprising.
Liu then fled with the Russians into the mountains, where the Americans and several thousand rebel troops also had gone to evade the Germans.
The Americans included about a dozen OSS personnel and about 18 U.S. airmen.
Within days, Downs said, an elite German intelligence unit was looking for the American and British agents.
Liu “was not comfortable with the Russians,” he said, and when the Americans asked her to join them as an interpreter and guide, “she eagerly accepted.”
The OSS group, he said, “had to find food and a way out, so they had to have someone who could talk to the villagers to get intelligence and also buy food.”
Posing as a peasant girl, Liu had several confrontations with German soldiers on roads and in villages, said Downs. But, he said, “she got by through wit and guile and her German [language] ability.”
Liu and the others not only had to deal with the enemy but with the weather.
When a blizzard hit Mt. Dumbier, Liu recalled in Downs’ book, “the wind blew so hard that it turned people over. Our eyebrows and hair changed into bunches of icicles.”
They didn’t dare sit down, even for a moment, she recalled. “We later saw those partisans who tried it -- and froze stiff. We later counted 83 of them.”
On Dec. 26, most of the Americans were captured in a hunter’s hut during a surprise raid by the German intelligence unit.
Liu, however, was in another area and avoided capture.
From then on, Downs said, it took Liu and the four agents who were with her -- two Americans and two British -- nine weeks to get to the Russian lines in Romania.
“That was a tricky operation because there were Germans everywhere,” said Downs. “They were shooting people on sight.”
After reaching Bucharest, Romania, on March 1, Liu was flown to OSS headquarters in Italy, where “she was put on Army status so she could get paid,” said Downs.
She later was sent to Prague as an interpreter and met Allen Dulles, who had been OSS chief in Switzerland and later became director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
With the help of Dulles and OSS head Maj. Gen. William Donovan, Liu immigrated to the United States with a scholarship to Vassar College after the war.
At an awards ceremony at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1946, Donovan personally awarded the Bronze Star to Liu for her service.
“All I knew, I wanted to help those guys in any way I could,” Liu told the Ventura County Star in 2004. “I believe in freedom.”
Liu, who became a U.S. citizen in 1952, worked for many years as a real estate agent.
She is survived by her husband, Hans P. Liu; her son and daughter from a previous marriage, Edmund Peck and Lynn S. Peck; her sisters, Ana Gulovich, Tanya Kalenska and Eva Lamacova; and a granddaughter.