Grave Spotlight

In a way, cemeteries are like libraries. They contain the final resting places of thousands of people, each with their own separate and unique story. Some of these people are famous, and their stories are well known. Most are not, but that doesn't make their life any less interesting or their stories any less worthy of being told and remembered.

Periodically, we'll spotlight a different Los Angeles-area grave. Every person has a story, and we will use this space to tell their story, through their final resting place.

Venceslava Alzbeta Kucharova Hanush
(Nov. 19, 1896 – June 14, 1963)

Venceslava “Slava” Hanush loved animals, especially birds. Living alone in her Los Angeles hotel room, the 66-year-old widow spent her days feeding, caring for and protecting them. She spread bird seed on her window ledge so they could find food.

She left her room at the dilapidated Wesley Terrace Hotel at 1800 West 7th St. early each morning, carrying heavy paper bags filled with bread crumbs and bird seed and walking two blocks to the lake at MacArthur Park to feed the birds and other animals. She was often teased and taunted by other people at the lake, but that didn't stop her from going back.

Her love of animals ultimately resulted in her death. The epitaph on her grave marker in a remote corner of Valhalla Memorial Park in Burbank, Calif., states, “She Sacrificed Her Life for the Welfare of Animals.”

Although her grave marker states that she was born in 1901, she was actually born Venceslava Alzbeta Kucharova on Nov. 19. 1896, in Prague, Czechoslovakia. She was the first-born child of Vaclav Kucharova and Marie Richter Kucharova. She had three younger siblings, but only one of them survived infancy.

In the mid-1930s, Hanush immigrated to the United States and settled in Chicago. On Dec. 24, 1937, she married Albrecht Wladimir Hanush, a chemical engineer and a fellow immigrant from of Czechoslovakia. It was her first marriage, but the second marriage for Albrecht Hanush, who died in Chicago on March 30, 1951, at the age of 64. The couple had no children.

By 1953, the widowed Venceslava Hanush had moved to Los Angeles, was working as a housekeeper, and filed her application for naturalization to become a U.S. citizen, which was approved in 1956.

Hanush shared her love of animals with two men she met in Los Angeles – Steven Nawrocky and Raymond Lopez. Like Hanush, both of her friends were also immigrants – Nawrocky, a retired waiter, was born in Poland, and Lopez, a retired film studio make-up artist, was born in Spain.

On the evening of Wednesday, May 22, 1963, Lopez, 71; Nawrocky, 61; and Hanush, 66, went to the lake in MacArthur Park in Los Angeles with the intention of rescuing ducks. The trio believed that many of the ducks at MacArthur Park had been given to children as Easter gifts the previous month. When the children grew tired of them, the ducks were dropped off at the lake to fend for themselves.

Lopez, Nawrocky and Nanush believed that the ducks were unprepared to live in the wild, could not find food for themselves, were maltreated by park visitors, and would likely become the victims of predators. So they decided to rescue them.

Lopez made arrangements with the owner of a ranch in Newhall, about 25 miles north of Los Angeles, who said he could take care of the MacArthur Park ducks. But first, the ducks needed to be caught and transported to Newhall.

As Lopez, Nawrocky and Nanush were loading 18 ducks into Lopez’s car, LAPD Sgt. James A. Branch saw them and, assuming that the ducks were city property and anyone taking them was guilty of theft, arrested them. The three duck rescuers were booked at Lincoln Heights Jail, and released after posting $525 bond each.

All three pled not guilty, and Municipal Judge Sherman Smith set a trial date of Friday, June 14. If convicted, the maximum penalty would be six months in jail and a $500 fine.

The ducks, Lopez said after his arrest, did not belong in MacArthur Park. “People buy them for Easter,” he said, “and after they are no longer amused with the poor creatures, they dump them here. The poor things. They can’t swim very well. They’re badly treated by ill-trained children.”

“If we’re not kind to life,” Lopez said, “life will not be kind to us.”

After her arrest, the feelings of shame, humiliation and public embarrassment were more than Venceslava Hanush could bear. She was a new citizen in a new country. She had never before been in trouble with the law, had never been arrested. She came from a good, respectable family in Czechoslovakia, and now her name was in the newspapers as if she was a criminal.

Some newspapers treated the case like an amusing story, using terms like “ducknapping,” “ab-duck-tion” and “a fowl deed.” The defendants, however, did not consider possible jail time and a fine to be a joking matter.

Early on June 12, two days before the scheduled trial date, Hanush packed a bag, put on her best clothes, checked out of her $50-per-month room at the Wesley Terrace Hotel, and took a bus to San Francisco. She checked into the Cartwright Hotel near Union Square under the name Mrs. Lee Noseck, then wrote and mailed a letter to Lopez.

On June 14, Lopez and Nawrocky showed up in court on the assigned trial date, but were told that their case would be continued to July 15 because the arresting officer, Sgt. Branch, was on vacation. But Lopez was more concerned that Hanush has not shown up in court.

When he returned home, Lopez found the letter from Hanush.

“Dear Raymond,” she wrote, “when you read this, I’ll be far away, and if everything will be as I want it, there will be no more pain.

“When I was thinking about that terrible trial and could see those sadistic faces of some people from the park who would come just to see my torture, I could not go on anymore. … Raymond, this is better. I know that I don’t belong to this cruel world. I could not survive that thing with all that dirty publicity, those cameras and, most of all, those people. You do not know what I had to go through the last few weeks, all that humiliation, or you would not blame me for this.”

“I am very tired,” Hanush wrote. “Please forgive me for this humiliation of having been arrested. We are innocent of the crime. … Don’t give up your noble work and see that these noble animals are taken care of.”

After arriving in San Francisco, Hanush swallowed three bottles of sleeping pills and was found dead in her hotel room.

“She was scared to go to court,” said Rosalie Tosta, manager of the Wesley Terrace Hotel. “She said it’s a lie, just not true. She said she would go back to Czechoslovakia, her old country.”

When she died, Hanush had $11, and no known relatives in the United States. Her body remained unclaimed in the San Francisco morgue until friends, including Los Angeles building contractor Frank Louda, a fellow immigrant from Czechoslovakia, raised the money to have her brought back to Los Angeles, and paid for her funeral and burial.

At Hanush’s funeral service, the Rev. Eldred Charles of Westwood Village Christian Church said Hanush, “gave her life for God’s creations.”

Lopez delivered her eulogy. “God has created an awareness of Him so that we may love one another and help the helpless little children of nature, even if it only be a little drop of water to moisten their little mouths in a moment of agony,” Lopez said. “Venceslava Hanush did all these things and is now with God and in the hearts of good people.”

The trial for Lopez and Nawrocky resumed on July 15. During the trial, it was brought out that Lopez had been buying 200 to 400 pounds of stale bread every week to feed the animals and birds at MacArthur Park. At the end of the trial, after more than four days of testimony and seven hours of jury deliberations, the jury foreman informed Municipal Judge Howard J. Schmidt that they were hopelessly deadlocked, voting 7 to 5 in favor of acquittal.

Schmidt dismissed the jury, announced that another trial would not be “in the interests of justice,” and dismissed the charges. Lopez and Nawrocky were released from custody.

If Venceslava Hanush had not felt so overwhelmed by feelings of shame and embarrassment that she took her own life, she would have walked free with them.

Her grave is at the far northern edge of Valhalla, far from the nearest road, in an area that gets few visitors. But it's a popular location for birds to gather.

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