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She helped Jews escape Nazi occupation

By STEPHANIE HAYES, Times Staff Writer
Published October 27, 2007


CLEARWATER - She was glamorous, even with destruction all around.

She had chestnut curls, crimson lips and fiercely arched eyebrows. She wore hats and gloves and overcoats cinched in the middle of an hourglass figure.

Maria Castagna came from a wealthy family in Prague, Czechoslovakia. She worked as nurse and assistant to a well-known plastic surgeon.

Then, fallout.

Her father, a highly educated English professor, was sent to a concentration camp when Germany occupied the country. He died there. She knew the same fate awaited many of her friends.

She joined the resistance, helping Jews escape Nazi capture through the secretive underground railroad system in Prague.

It was risky -workers had cyanide pills ready to take if they were discovered, said her daughter, Nanetta Culbert.

"She was in her 20s," Culbert said. "Why would anybody want to take on any kind of task like that?"

* * *

She stayed glamorous through a brand new life.

In 1945, she married an American solider named Edward Castagna in Prague. The next year, they moved to Clearwater.

She spoke English with a heavy accent. She sounded like Zsa Zsa Gabor and would say, "dahling," her daughter said.

Her husband became an executive, and she relished the role of high-class wife. When people called the house, she answered "Mrs. Edward Castagna."

She was overprotective of her children, Culbert, Edward Jr. and Chuck. In the late 70s, her worst fear happened - Chuck had cancer. In 1980, he died at age 27.

"It was the biggest heartache and heartbreak of my mother's whole life," Culbert said.

* * *

She was glamorous, even at the end.

Her skin was wrinkle free, smooth from a lifetime of fancy skin cream, said her daughter. But over the years, her heart had slowed.

Mrs. Castagna spent years caring for her husband, who battled Alzheimer's disease. When he died, she faced the opposite - her mind was intact, but her body was failing. She treated herself by shopping on Home Shopping Network and QVC. She loved earrings that dangled and dresses that flowed.

Her daughter brought sugar-free Hazelnut coffee from Starbucks and helped style her mother's hair - platinum blonde until the day her heart stopped last week. She was 86.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at or 727 893-8857.


Maria Castagna

Born: Dec. 9, 1920.

Died: Oct. 20, 2007.

Survivors: daughter, Nanetta Culbert; son, Edward Castagna Jr. and his wife, Phyllis; four grandchildren; two great-grandchildren. Predeceased by husband, Edward, and son, Chuck.

Services: Celebration of life from 2 to 4 p.m. today in the gathering room at Serenity Gardens Memorial Park, 13401 Indian Rocks Road, Largo.

[Last modified October 26, 2007, 22:34:32]

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