From: Witness, Autobiography, Detroit, Michigan, March 1992, pp. 68-96.
The following story was told to me by my mother, a well-known violin virtuoso of Jewish descent. It is the story of her escape from Hitler-occupied Czechoslovakia shortly after the War broke out. The dramatic events reflected in her story have had, without my noticing it, far-reaching effects on my life, even though I myself was born after the war was over. The aftermath of the World War II Holocaust in Europe has affected many others of my generation.
Already as a child, I suffered from frequent nightmares in which I was being chased by the Germans, being drowned by them in a well, being hung by them, being chopped to pieces, being imprisoned, jumping out of the window in an attempt to save myself, etc. All the important “subconscious decisions” of my adult life had to do with this unconscious trauma, trying to “set it right” and I still have live and varied fantasies of torture suffered by the former generations. These fantasies are not merely a “head talk”: they are connected with involuntary physical movements and sensations. It makes me realize how we literally carry in ourselves the experience of generations, rather than just our own; how the air we breathe is filled with each act we perform consciously or unconsciously; and how we and several generations after us have to bear the consequences of our thoughts and decisions. This realization prompts me to share my mother’s story.
On March 15, 1939, the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia. Already before that, the atmosphere was filled with great tension because all kinds of frightening and unsettling news was coming. All kinds of people from German and Austria were coming – refugees. For example, a brother of a famous socialist leader in Spain, Ernst Toller (a Berlin banker) came to us in evening tails when he ran away from some banquet. He was looking for a place of refuge in Czechoslovakia. I was, for example, on a visit to Mladá Boleslav at my grandmother’s and we read that in Mariánské Lázně [Marienbad] some famous scholar was murdered by the Nazis – the Henlein Party. [The Nazi Party in the Sudetenland or border area of Czechoslovakia. This area was traditionally settled by Sudeten Germans.]
My sister, who lived in Teplice and was married, moved from Teplice to Prague in 1938 because the atmosphere in the Henlein area was unbearable. She even wrote a letter to the Department of the Interior or Foreign Affairs to try to make people aware of the fact that the Henlein Party was ostentatiously flexing its muscles and that the Czech police were not doing anything about it. They were under orders not to provoke them in order to avoid any conflict. Almost every day one could hear Hitler or one of his ministers – Goering or Goebbels – shouting on the radio how the great empire was being “threatened” by Czechoslovakia. It all seemed very ridiculous to us. At the same time, still a lot of people were coming to Czechoslovakia looking for refuge – Thomas Mann for example – so we were thinking that nothing nonsensical could happen here. However, the Army was mobilized and was ready to resist.
But let’s return to March 15.
In the morning the telephone rang. One of my friends told me that the Germans had crossed the border. This was very early in the morning, perhaps 6 or 7 a.m. So we were – how could one describe it – in English one would say dumbfounded. Totally paralyzed. But I told my friend that I had to go to the center of Prague to see what was happening. We lived in Santoška in Smíchov [a Prague quarter] and your dad and I had a lovely three-room apartment. It was just two years after our wedding. And so we went to Wenceslas Square.
The first thing that caught my eye was that on the Můstek (lower part of Wenceslas Square) there was a big store owned by Loebl, that sold silk and sported a huge sign. Not far away was another store, Schiller’s, a very fashionable store where my mother used to shop. Workmen were already busy dismantling the signs of these two stores as well as all the other Jewish-owned stores. So we went further, watching the terror that was grasping the city.
Later on that day, around noon, I went to Národní Třída [one of the main streets] and there was a large gathering of people watching as the German tanks passed through. In spite of their fear, the people were whistling at the Germans to demonstrate their outrage at the occupation. But the Germans were passing through and they didn’t look either right or left as if they didn’t hear the whistling. Later when we went on to some restaurant, the SS people in their black uniforms were already there, and the whole picture of the city changed in one moment.
Everybody knew that it was necessary for the Jews and for the opponents of the Nazis to leave – not simply to leave but to escape as fast as possible. The first thing we did was to hurry to the police department which was already occupied by the Gestapo. There was a terrible, seemingly endless line of people waiting to request permission or license to leave which amounted to a paper document inserted in the passport. For twenty-four hours we took turns waiting in line with my brother-in-law. Oddly enough, only your daddy got permission to leave, while the rest of us were denied it. It was very peculiar. Because the Germans had been extremely interested in your daddy’s automobile prototype and military vehicle and had invited him to Germany, offering him a lot of money to work for them. As an automobile designer, he was a genius, very much ahead of his time. His prototype tested in several international competitions ahead of Packard and his military vehicle was commissioned by the Czechoslovak Department of Defense [both prototypes were later stolen by the Germans]. He had, however, turned them down and yet now he had permission to leave. It was very odd.
Back home, but still feeling great tension, we were wondering what we should do. My sister who had moved from Teplice to Prague, was learning the trade from our former hairdresser, Mr. Topinka, whom you also know. She was doing this because we thought that there were plenty of intellectuals escaping, but not enough skilled tradesmen. Her apprenticeship was costing her 1000 crowns a month which, of course, was an unheard-of price, but she continued paying until one day Mr. Topinka said that he was sorry but his shop on Wenceslas Square drew lots of Germans and he didn’t dare do this anymore. With her apprenticeship in the hairdressing business interrupted, she started to learn to be a pastry chef, studying with a chef in Nerudová Street. She was very skillful and very intelligent and very anxious to secure her future because she knew that otherwise she would be without money.
Her husband, who was an engineer, was hustling about saying that he had to buy some machines and had to arrange something for his future life in exile. So shortly I realized that my sister who loved me very much and who wanted us to emigrate together was held back by her husband’s frenetic attempts to secure their life in exile.
In the meantime, I was working nearby. I had started teaching violin in a gymnasium (a secondary school), which was a very innovative idea in Czechoslovakia at that time. I started teaching both violin and piano and it was quite a success because with the director’s support, they organized musical evenings and concerts. Only a five-minute walk from where I lived, I taught every day for four hours. At the same time, I was also giving concerts on the radio and other places. One day, however, the director of the school, although enthusiastic about my teaching, wrote me a very nice letter thanking me but apologizing for having to fire me.
By that time, your daddy and I left the three-room apartment where we lived because it seemed too big under the circumstances. We stayed in Smíchov but moved to Bezděchova Street, to a smaller apartment. We also had to give up our maid. Twenty-four hours after we moved, your daddy, who was offered a job in France, left the country. I had managed to get him a French visa and since he was one of the lucky ones and already had permission to leave, he did, for a second chance might not present itself.
I stayed in the apartment still hammering nails into the walls to hang pictures and constantly thinking about how it would continue and how I could possibly get out of here.
I was trying also to convince a good friend of mine to emigrate. He had been a friend of my deceased mother and had taught me in my childhood. He was a Germanist and a colleague of Prof. Siebenschein with whom he produced a large German dictionary on which he worked for several years. However, it was not published under his name. An exceptionally educated man, he spoke perfectly several languages and I tried to persuade him that with such a command of English, German, and French he should be able to make a living anywhere. But he said I was wrong and that any maid in France could speak French and in England every sales clerk could speak English and that his abilities were nothing special. He also said that he was a pure Czech (even though a Jew) and, moreover, a Germanist, who had done so much work for German scholarship that what was happening just couldn’t affect him and so I didn’t succeed in convincing him. He and his very beautiful eighteen-year-old daughter were shot during the death march that followed the assassination of Heydrich (Hitler’s chief in Bohemia). His wife and other daughter were taken to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
My brother-in-law, a handsome, charismatic and self-confident man, was walking around before the Germans came in a black coat so you couldn’t tell him from a Gestapo officer. In fact, he managed to strike an acquaintance with a real Gestapo officer. At the same time, your daddy had a friend from his youth who was from Moravia where his family owned a big factory. This man now possessed great wealth. He promised my brother-in-law that he would give him a million crowns and that he would take him with him if my brother-in-law could convince the Gestapo officer to grant them permission to leave. My brother-in-law, of course, did everything he could to secure the necessary documents. When the arrangements were almost finalized, with only the exchange of money for the saving of the life to be transacted, the wealthy Moravian suddenly backed off, saying that he had a better connection which would enable him to get out immediately and that he didn’t need my brother-in-law’s mediation anymore. And he did get out, thus eliminating the way for my sister and brother-in-law to escape. They were then both taken first to Theresienstadt and then put on the first transport to Minsk where they were gassed in the train. This I learned from the Department of Welfare where I was shown documents after the war.
As far as my situation was concerned, one day I heard from the banker who financed your daddy’s prototype that the situation was as hot as it could get. He told me that, since I still had some designs of daddy’s inventions which were very interesting to the Germans, that I was in danger of being taken. This was a serious warning and I realized that I had to disappear and that I had to disappear immediately. In the meantime the war had broken out and it was already September 1939. I left my apartment that same night taking only a small suitcase and a winter coat. On the winter coat there was a little Persian lamb collar which I took off because I decided that the Nazis might get interested in the coat to get the little bit of fur. With my passport, I decided I could get at least to Bratislava (the capital then of the so-called Free Slovak State established by Hitler). Some of your daddy’s relatives, who still lived in Slovakia, where he was born, could provide at least a place to stay while I made arrangements to try to get out. And so I took that little suitcase and the winter coat.
My Italian Amati violin, which today would be worth several hundred thousand together with all other valuable belongings which your daddy and I had, had already been sent away through the mediation of your daddy’s banker who was not exactly very far-sighted. I say this because he had shipped them to Belgium without even thinking that so far, in every war with the Germans, they had run over Belgium. Why he did it, I do not know, but it was very dumb and not surprisingly everything was confiscated by the Nazis who soon after occupied Belgium and I never received a penny of compensation. The banker himself with his wife, a well-known pianist, Aranyi, also perished. I, however, turned up in Bratislava.
In Bratislava, I lived with relatives of your daddy in a villa. They also talked about the need to emigrate. But they didn’t somehow take it seriously, perhaps because they just couldn’t grasp the scope of the tragedy that had befallen us. I told them that I didn’t understand them. Only Ďuri, the youngest one, an exceptionally handsome man of about twenty-four, understood the situation and agreed it was necessary to get out. When I said that I had to leave, to get out, he was totally on my side. Perhaps from tension and the excitement, I fell ill with a painful urinary tract infection that was so acute there was blood in my urine. I called Prague to order a medication I knew would help my condition. Sent by express mail, the medicine soon put me back on my feet and I was capable of doing all that was necessary to get out of Bratislava and to endure the traveling.
First I went to the French consulate to get a visa to France where your daddy was. I spoke with the consul who was packing when I came in. Things were being packed – the carpets – everything – was being packed in preparation for a move the following day. I begged the consul to take me with him because I had to escape. Finally he said, “Well, you know what, I would take you with me, but only under the condition that you can drive a car. Because I can only take you in a diplomatic car, and I have to justify it. I can take a secretary, and I could say that I need a person to help with the driving.” But I was only just learning how to drive from daddy and didn’t yet have a driver’s license. And even though I knew quite a bit, I wasn’t sure enough of myself to assume responsibility for the lives of other people. Besides, it would mean traveling through foreign countries where I wouldn’t even know the signs. Even at home in peacetime, I wasn’t sure of myself and so I couldn’t guarantee that I would be a good enough driver under such stressful and alien conditions.
So I declined and left. Outside Ďuri was waiting for me. He said, “Well if you can’t handle it, then for God’s sake please ask him if he would take me with him because I can drive. I have a driver’s license.” So I went back and said that I had a relative outside who could drive a car and who could easily do what he was asking. But the French consul said that he was sorry, but he couldn’t possibly take a young man with him who was of the age of military duty and then he advised me personally to go to Budapest.
And so I took leave of Bratislava and the family who had hosted me in their beautiful villa. As I was allowed to have only 100 DM with me upon leaving Prague, I borrowed money from them and went to Budapest. Sometime later the whole family, including Ďuri, died in the gas chamber of a concentration camp.
In Budapest I wanted a ticket to Bordighera, a small Italian town near the border with France. I was hoping to get to France from there and join daddy. In order to reach Bordighera, I had to pass through the Yugoslav-Italian border. When I asked for the ticket, the Hungarian railway clerk said, “All right, we will sell you a return ticket, but only a return ticket because you will not get through the Yugoslav-Italian border with your passport (I had two passports, a Czech one and a Slovak one). You have to understand that it’s war, and that your journey is totally in vain. This is a hard journey – the train goes all night – and so you will only be tired and you will have to take the next train back. We guarantee you that.” So I bought a return ticket. The only reason they even sold me a ticket was that I spoke Hungarian, as I was born in Budapest. The other refugees who tried to escape this way were taken to camps.
And so I went to Yugoslavia on that night train. It was an express train and the conductor came to advise me or to warn me, “You want to go to Italy. That’s impossible. You see this train that is coming toward us right now? That’s the train you will take back tomorrow. Nobody has made it over that border yet. Don’t you think there have been beautiful women and I don’t know what all they were offering? Themselves, or jewelry, or what do I know? Nobody has made it over that border yet.”
To be sure this was not very encouraging and I was already upset for having left a home where I spent only a few months. But I was driven by the certainty that it was impossible to return to Prague, even though I had a large number of relatives who had stayed there. For example, my cousin Marta (who was a doctor) and her husband. On the day of the 15th of March he had a plane ticket and was supposed to leave the country. He was a journalist who wrote against Fascism and had a ticket precisely for the 15th of March, the day of the occupation and on that day they took him, right from the airport. They took him to Pankrác [a well-known prison in Prague] and they shot him. And my cousin with her child stayed in Prague as did all my relatives and all perished in various concentration camps.
Nobody else thought to do such an apparently absurd thing – to run away without having any money or any permission. But I was driven as if by an inner force. And then this one in the train was telling me that I would have to go back. I said to him, “Well, so I will go back. There’s nothing to be done. I will go there anyway. Don’t tell me anything. It doesn’t help any and you only upset me here. I will go.” Shortly afterward on the border, the train stopped. Nobody left the train, and the local police came directly to me and asked me to get off the train. I got off the train and was taken to one Italian and one young Gestapo officer. And they said, “Well, what is this about? With this passport you can’t get any further. There is written in this passport that you can’t go any further. This is nonsense.” I was tired, and it was hot, and I had this winter coat on that I had for times when it would be cold, because I had said to myself that that was important. I didn’t have any money and I didn’t want to be cold. All of this armed me with a certain indifference. The young Gestapo officer said, “Madam, what are you going to do there?” And nothing more clever occurred to me than to say that I was sick and that I would be taking a cure for TB in Italy. Nothing better occurred to me at that moment. He studied me and of course I was very pale from tiredness and fear and, moreover, I had this heavy winter coat on. Well, whatever it was, we stood there at least an hour, and I was talking all the time with this Gestapo officer in German, because I knew German and then he said suddenly (I don’t know what got into him), “Well then, go.”
With that, I returned to the train and only when the doors of all the neighboring compartments started to open and people began to congratulate me – only then did I realize what actually had happened. And so, in a miraculous way, I got permission to go to Italy.
My goal was Milano and of course in Milano I had to report at the police station. And there were again lots of people. I wanted to get to the French border and to get to France, but the war made every movement so difficult. It was September 1939. Then I met a clerk who took a liking to me and invited me to a bar for that evening. He said that if I went to the bar with him, then we would see. So I went to the bar with him and I stayed with him until very late, and then he gave me permission to go further. I had only one address that I had gotten from my sister-in-law because she once took a vacation in Bordighera and it was there that I started to live with my little suitcase.
It was a boarding house, not a hotel, and the owner was very kind. She would ask me what I wanted for breakfast in the morning and when I realized that I had very little money, and that I couldn’t afford all this, I said that I got up late and that I wouldn’t take breakfast or lunch with them. She took notice of that and gave me a very nice room with a balcony with mosquito netting. And so there I was in this very nice room. When I came downstairs to the lounge, to my great surprise, I heard only the names of German aristocrats. So I said to myself, well now I’ve gone from one wasp’s nest to another. But miraculously, these Germans, these aristocrats, behaved in a very friendly way, even though they probably knew what was going on with me. One of the barons whose name I don’t remember had an English wife and the two of them always argued fiercely. She often called him a Fascist swine. And so I thought that perhaps, if she could do this with impunity, it was perhaps not so dangerous here. Then there was the Countess von Pappen, the sister of the German ambassador, or perhaps consul, I don’t know, who seemed to enjoy conversations with me and always asked me to accompany her on her walks. And then there were some Swiss people living there. And so the time passed.
Because I couldn’t eat there for want of money, I went to eat in a workers’ tavern which I found to be very clean. There I got to know some emigrés who had somehow succeeded in escaping from a German concentration camp. Now they, like me, were waiting for the possibility of escape. And so we were all waiting and waiting. One of them had been a soloist at the Munich opera, a tenor. He showed me all his photographs from when he had sung Radamez in Aida, and in La Bohème, etc. He taught me to sing arias so that we could distract ourselves and we also went together to the beach. But still we were waiting and hoping that somehow we would be able to get out.
Every week I went to the French consulate in Ventimiglia and there I would beg the consul to let me go. And he would say that he couldn’t let me go on the basis of my passports; that it was impossible; that I had to realize that I had two passports from two enemy countries; that I could easily be a spy; that if he let me go, he would lose his job; and that I should just wait. In the meantime, your daddy had enlisted in the Allied Army and I argued that I was entitled to a visa on that basis. The consul, however, said that I needed proof which I didn’t have and so I continued my weekly trips to the French consul in Ventimiglia where I was always told to come back next week.
I went there every week for nine months by which time I had no money and couldn’t pay the rent although I must say that the owner of the boarding house was extremely friendly. I can show this even more clearly by relating the following: One day a regular guest, a baroness, arrived, and I heard the conversation that took place in front of the door of my room. The baroness insisted, “Well, I always had this room, so please give it to me again. I have been coming here for years and I would like to stay here.” To which the owner said, “You know, baroness, I’m awfully sorry, but I cannot throw this lady from her room.” One could see that she was a very sympathetic person because otherwise she wouldn’t have let me stay there in light of the baroness’s insistence. If I hadn’t heard this conversation, I would not have believed it, but I heard it with my own ears.
The situation, however, was becoming more and more unbearable, as I was totally out of money. Once the baron asked me to play and because he wanted me to play and I didn’t have a violin, he got me one and I played for them. I remember, it was really quite fantastic. I played Beethoven’s concerto, even though I hadn’t been able to practice for months. It was sometime around Christmas. They then insisted that I at least spend Christmas evening with them and I agreed although I avoided their company as much as possible because, after all, they were all Germans. The baron’s wife, the very influential English lady, when she realized my situation, gave me a recommendation. If I succeeded in getting to France, she said that I should go to Schneider Creuzot, the famous arms factory, whose owner was a friend of hers. She said that I would have great support there. I accepted the recommendation even though, so far, there seemed to be no hope of getting to France.
The situation was quite tense. A man came to the boarding house who was known to take people illegally over the border by boat from Genoa. I suspected that he had been sent there by some emigrés from Bordighera. But it was very dangerous because on the French side there were Senegalian soldiers shooting fiercely at the people who tried to cross this way. The man offered to take me for, I think it was 400 francs, which I was able to get through my sister-in-law, who had friends in San Remo. I gave him the money for the trip from Genoa, even though I was warned against it by the owner of the boarding house who said that the man had been expelled from the area because he does this. I understood that he had been expelled for helping emigrés to get over the border, but that was just fine with me as that was precisely my goal and I decided to try it.
So I set out on the journey. When I got to Genoa, the man said that we had to go to the harbor and that then he would take us over in boat. It was to look like a tourist outing and so people had to go without luggage. There were about five travelers and just at the moment when I was about to get in the boat, the Italian police came and everybody was taken away. As I was not yet in the boat because I was taking longer, or because I had just hesitated to enter, I’m not sure which, I saw the police and pretended that I didn’t belong with them and I returned to Bordighera.
The owner accepted me with great enthusiasm and said, “See, I told you it would be bad. Be glad that nothing happened to you. You will have to stay here.” And so I stayed. Nothing could be done and so every week again I went to Ventimiglia. Not having any money for food, I ate only spaghetti all year. Every day, spaghetti and fruit, because that was the cheapest food available. And I didn’t spend any money for the boarding house. The baron – actually his wife – gave me some money for playing the violin and that made it possible for me to stay.
The consul to whom I went for nine months finally said, “You know, I just can’t look any longer at your suffering. So whether I lose my job or not, I will give you the French visa.”
Finally I could leave and I got to Nice. In Nice were your daddy’s parents, who had emigrated there, at a time when it was possible to leave the country by paying the so-called Reichsfluchtsteuer which meant paying for every item they took with them. I moved in with them and there I stayed.
Of course, your daddy was in the Army, in the Czechoslovak Brigade, and he was stationed in Agde, which is on the Spanish border where I wanted very much to visit him. After I recovered somewhat in the house of his parents, I visited him in the military camp.
In Agde, it was impossible to find a place to stay, even if you broke an ankle. Nowhere was there a place because it was so overcrowded with soldiers and their families. There was one single hotel that had a water closet, and of course I tried to get into that hotel because of the water closet. But this lady said, “My dear lady, the only thing I can do for you is put you up in the attic and even though these rooms are separate rooms, they are all full of officers of the French Army. So if it doesn’t bother you to live in such close quarters, then I can let you stay there in that attic. Well, at least for a night or two, so that you can stay somewhere.” It turned out, however, that there was no room and I would have to stay in the dark attic hallway.
I moved in there anyway, because I had no choice. The first night I woke up, because one French officer was trying to – I couldn’t say rape me – but he was trying to get me for whatever price. I appealed to his honor as a French officer, intoning that he could not ask this from somebody who was in such a situation and, I must say that I convinced him to the point that he said, “All right. Here are the keys. I won’t be able to stand it. You can lock me up.” So I locked him up in his room.
I stayed in that attic hallway. It was sort of tragicomical because in the morning the officer’s servant came and knocked on the door of his room, but the officer could not open the door because I had the keys. So I gave him the keys. And he returned the keys to me in the evening. But of course, I couldn’t stay there indefinitely under the circumstances of having to lock Mr. Officer in his room. Also I didn’t like it too much in the attic – it was a very strange arrangement there and so we were looking for something else.
Your daddy was granted a time for this purpose and a doctor who accompanied me on my walks – Dr. Kraus – was also looking for a place. Finally we found a room in a Navy bordello. Everything else was occupied making it impossible to find anything. And so, I lived in this bordello, upstairs. Downstairs there was a Navy tavern, and upstairs it was a bordello. It had a brick floor, and the first thing I did was to wash the floor because god knows who lived there before and besides I like cleanliness. So I simply washed it and put it in order. And it is interesting that in spite of the fact that it was so primitive there, they had a bidet, which they say is not missing in any hotel or hostel, unlike in our hotels. I liked it, because at least one could wash.
Your daddy got permission to visit me every evening for a few hours. He had to protect me when I had to use the Turkish toilet downstairs in the bordello (during the day I went to the only hotel in town). He watched the door with a bayonet because those sailors would have thrown themselves at me when I left the toilet. Don’t forget at that time I was young and pretty. So of course I was a welcome prey for them. So he had to watch me with an upraised bayonet in the evening which was very comical. He also brought me canned food from the military kitchen, but I didn’t like it and frequently gave it to the dog downstairs.
During the day I looked around this little town, or better said, a village. I also went to buy the French croissants, which were filled with chocolate which I liked very much and certainly definitely better than the canned food. And the days went by. I watched the horse-pulled carts, when people took their painted pee pots which looked grotesque. The village didn’t have any sewers and so they disposed of their excrement this way. While it left a totally absurd effect on a civilized person, there it seemed to be something normal. During the day I went to the only hotel that existed and in the evening I met with your daddy, and had the help of the upraised bayonet also.
And so the time passed, but it was, I would say, sort of difficult. The whole day I was alone and had to walk around because it was, after all, impossible to stay in the tavern with all the sailors going in and out and the noise of the drunken ones filtering all the way upstairs. Yet walking all day in such a village wasn’t too interesting. Sometimes Dr. Kraus, who probably didn’t know what to do either, accompanied me. After some time I decided to return to my in-laws in Nice and I left Agde very early one morning, around four o’clock when the sun was rising. It was an unforgettable sight. The sky was a dark blue color, and it threw shadows on this quiet little village, giving it such a bizarre and even painterly look. It was an unforgettable sight and were I a painter I would definitely want it on a canvas.
I told my in-laws how their son was doing and, of course, he was quite depressed having to serve as a lowly private when he was an academically well-educated person. But when he was studying in Berlin, he managed to avoid the military compulsory service and that put him in this position, while all the educated men in the army who went through it were officers. Moreover, he wasn’t used to military discipline at all and, with the tension in the air about the possibility of having to report to the front at any moment, it was very stressful for him. Well, the situation after all was very tense all over.
It was now the summer of 1940. I got to know some emigrés who had formed a sort of community. They exchanged opinions about what was going to happen and what was not going to happen. At about that time, I was at a court hearing of the emigrés who were with me in Bordighera, and who had later succeeded in escaping. (I did not, however, have a chance either to meet or talk to them. I only saw them at the court hearing.) It was a court hearing for illegal trespassing and the emigrés were taken to some camp. Later on, the French government actually turned them over to the Germans so these poor people who, after so much suffering, escaped from German concentration camps, were again returned there. Without a doubt they perished in a most terrible way. So I decided that I would leave Nice even though my in-laws were very much against it.
I told my parents-in-law that I believed that the Germans would occupy the as yet unoccupied part of France sooner or later and that I wanted to leave. “Without money, and without knowing where your husband is?” was their response. “Where is it that you want to go?” “Well,” I said, “I have to get out of here. I don’t trust this, even though this part of France is not occupied yet. I absolutely don’t feel safe here. After all, I know this from Prague. There too, everybody thought that it would be impossible for the Germans to pass the Czech borders, and yet I was a witness to that. And again in Bratislava, when their vehicles were passing through day and night to the Polish border. One could hear at night the trains passing each other – those that went to the front and the others that brought back the wounded.” These pictures I held vividly in my memory were ones which your daddy’s parents did not have and so they could believe that they were somehow safe where they were.
Their feeling of safety was reinforced all the more since they had relatives who were refugees from Vienna and who were living there in luxurious apartments. There was the cousin of your daddy, Kitty, whom you also know and her sister-in-law, Lilly, whom I liked much better and whose husband was militarily interned there and who died at the age of thirty-five from typhus, leaving Lilly widowed. And then Uncle Baumwald, the brother of your grandmother, the uncle also of Annie Feilendorf, whom you also know. He was a former procurist of Rothchild, very educated, of excellent manners, and very smart. It was a pleasure to talk to him. And all these people stayed there.
And so my in-laws kept pointing these things out to me, saying, “Look, all these people are here and it doesn’t even occur to them to pick up and leave – and you without money want to set off on such a journey.” But in spite of all their arguments, I was determined to go; however, before I made the final decision, an order came that prohibited civilians form leaving Nice.
Now there was this new obstacle and so I decided to go to the commander of the town for permission to leave. After many hours of waiting, he told me that only military persons could leave the town. I then decided that I simply had to get a certificate stating that I was a military person from someone. I was informed that there was a Czech consul in Nice and he was a brother of Baxa, the former mayor of Prague. I went to his office and asked him to give me a certificate showing that I was a military person, a nurse in military service, because there was this prohibition against civilians leaving the city. He didn’t want to do it because he said that he did not hold an office anymore and he failed to see why I didn’t understand that. I became quite angry in turn and said, “For God’s sake, you are after all still sitting here in this office. So you definitely still have the stamp. It doesn’t cost you any special effort to put a different date – a date when you were still an acting consul. You could give me that certificate. I have already stood several hours at the office of the commander of the city – a French general – where crowds of people were waiting, almost as at the Gestapo to get the permission to leave. It’s your duty to help people save themselves.
And so after a big discussion, he finally gave me the certificate after which I traveled again to the French general, the commander of the city, to ask again for the permission. I put in front of him the certificate as evidence that I was not a civilian. And on the basis of the untruth, he gave me permission to leave town.
And of course, I saw heartbreaking scenes here as well. There was, for example, a woman who had three children, whose husband was in Palestine. She was facing the possibility of being caught here and it was truly heartbreaking to watch her being refused permission to leave. However, in my worst dreams I wouldn’t have imagined at the time that all these people would be turned over by the French to the Germans, who would then transport them to the concentration camps.
All in all, I hated my stay in Nice in part because it upset me so much to have to report every two weeks at the police station as though I were some sort of a criminal. That was definitely contre coeur to me as was the attitude of the local people. In Nice there is a beautiful beach and Nice is a beautiful town and there are these fantastic hotels and these people were sitting there in the morning drinking pernod. They didn’t have anything else to do and I resented this vast difference between the suffering of those whose lives were threatened and those who were sitting in the morning in those restaurants drinking their pernod and it served to strengthen my decision that I had to get out of Nice.
So shortly I packed my things and my in-laws accompanied me to the railroad station. At the station, just before I left, your grandfather said, “You know that I wish I could go with you?” That surprised me very much, because they were all against it. But suddenly he must have felt that it wasn’t completely nonsensical. Then my mother-in-law, who was very educated and spoke several languages said, “Look, here is a group of Englishmen who are also going away. Join these Englishmen. That’s probably the best thing to do. Stay with this group.” So I joined the group of Englishmen who didn’t seem to mind. But then, I couldn’t talk to them very much, because I only knew a few words in English so I guess they didn’t even notice me much. And we boarded the train to Marseilles, arriving there at midnight.
Just as we arrived, the conductor said, “All of you have to exit the train. There is a heavy air raid at the railroad station and you have to move quickly into a shelter. The train can go no further now.” The Englishmen decided there was nothing to do but to stay there overnight in a hotel. I, who was kind of with them, suddenly, with some sort of miraculous intuition – like when you get a message from God – said to myself, “I won’t stay with the Englishmen.” We were on the railroad platform and I stopped a passing conductor, and with my broken French asked him, “Is there any train that goes to the Spanish border?” I wanted to get to Agde, thinking that the Brigade must also want to escape and in that I wasn’t alone. Everybody will go away, I thought, and he said, “Right now the train is leaving. You have it right in front of you.” So I said, “Please help me to that train!” I never was in good enough shape to board a moving train, but I jumped onto it and the official of the station threw my suitcase after me and so there I was in a compartment of a moving train, in total darkness.
There was a blackout but I sensed that there was nobody in that compartment. Moreover, the compartment was not connected with other compartments because it was some old-style French train. If you opened the door, you were exposed right away to the tracks – totally out of the train and so, of course, I was seized by fear. I was saying to myself, “Jesus Christ, where am I now? God knows where this train is going. Maybe you didn’t even understand him, this man. You don’t know French very well. Maybe he said something quite different. You might even end up at the German front. And you can’t even see your own watch – what time is it?” It was dark as though in a bag. I continued talking to myself, “Well, gather your wits. Try to calm down. Otherwise you will go mad. That will not help any. If you want to save yourself, then you have to keep calm.”
So I talked to myself as to a small child. I was saying to myself all the time, “Well, calm down. Don’t be crazy, calm down, it will end somehow.” And so on, and I was sitting in this moving train in the darkness, and I actually didn’t know where it was going. I said to myself, “Well, let’s hope that he said it correctly…that I understood him correctly.”
Toward five o’clock in the morning when it dawned, a conductor came and asked me what was doing there in this military train for God’s sake. And so I said, “Well, I’m a military person. Look here. I have a certificate. I am a nurse in military service.” And he said, “Well, fine. You can go with us. But, mind you, this train will stop in an hour or so in Montpelier or in Carcasson or somewhere. And you will have to stay in the train that will be at the station for at least thirty-six hours, or possibly even longer because it is not possible to go any further. Definitely you must know that all of Paris is running away.” This mass exodus of which the conductor spoke is beautifully described by Ilja Erenburg in his book, The Fall of Paris. He definitely describes it much better than I, but I can confirm every word of it. It is true that all the cars and all the taxis were occupied because hundreds of thousands of people were on the run. Well, I was aware of that, but I said to myself I couldn’t stand to sit here in the train for thirty-six hours. I had to get out of the train.
A year later, my father-in-law has informed me that I could congratulate myself for not staying with the Englishmen I joined in Nice, as he read in the newspapers that they were all taken prisoners and interned in a German prison camp.
So I go out of the train hoping that perhaps I would find somebody who would take me to Agde – or at least in that direction. I was lucky enough, after several attempts, to run into a young man who was going on a motorcycle, and he said he was passing by Agde, so he would take me with him. So I jumped on the motorcycle, which was not exactly pleasant for me because I don’t like to ride motorcycles. I didn’t even want to ride motorcycles with your daddy who passionately liked to ride them. For many years he drove a motorcycle to the factory even in the bitterest cold. I on the other hand wasn’t physically that fit to be able to do this. But now I simply got on the motorcycle and we went to Agde. It was now July or maybe September of 1940, I don’t remember exactly, but then it was forty-five years ago. When we arrived, I set about the task of finding the Brigade. They had to be here somewhere I thought. But all I found were Belgians and Spaniards and French, and whomever I asked responded with “Czechoslovak Brigade? We don’t know anything about it. It isn’t here at all. There is French Army, Belgian Army, Spanish Army, and I don’t know who else.” Finally I said, “For God’s sake, somebody must know something,” and then I met somebody who really knew. He said, “Well, they are long gone. But the headquarters of the commander is not very far from here in some monastery. The Brigade itself is at the front.”
Although much discouraged by this news, I decided to go to the headquarters of the Brigade which was now gone. If everybody is running away, I thought, I want to take part in it. But I again was not feeling well, was terribly hot in that coat and was exhausted by that night and by that tension and by that fear. I sought respite in some house where there was at least shade. The heavy stones of the old-fashioned houses provided a moist shade and I decided to rest there for a while to recover a little bit. I stood and took deep breaths and began to calm down. It was cool there, a coolness provided by the arcades (porticos) in the old-fashioned houses and I knew that with rest I could then set off on the journey again and look for someone who would take me to the headquarters which I understood was not far away in some monastery. And when I found somebody – again it was a motorcycle – he took me there.
When I got to the headquarters, I asked to meet with the commander, a colonel to whom I presented my request. I said that I wanted urgently to leave the country because the Germans were already in Paris and the whole population was on the run and that I heard that the Army was also ready to go. He said, “Of course, we won’t stay here, because as you have said, the Germans already occupy Paris. It is quite obvious that we have to retreat.” But he did not advise me to go with them because my husband was on the front and I didn’t know whether he was alive or among the fallen. In short, he said that I didn’t know anything nor did I have money. On top of that the destination of the ship which was supposed to take them away was unknown even to them and would most probably be attacked. So he advised me that I return to my husband’s parents. That was the wisest that I could do according to him.
I told him that although he was of that opinion, I had a different one and that I would not return there. I argued that as the wife of a soldier of the Brigade, they had an obligation to take me with them, and NOT to leave me, and that how I would make my living was my problem. I was not afraid of not being able to make a living even though I didn’t have my violin and I didn’t have money. I was convinced that all those things were somehow attainable, but that one only has one life. To make a long story short, after this quite unpleasant and sharp confrontation, he said, “All right, we will take you with us. You are lucky you got here in the last minute. Be prepared to leave this very evening.” So I said, “Well, excellent.”
Outside there was a garden and in this garden there were strangers gathered. There was a father there who had a son in the military. He begged me practically on his knees to get him the same kind of privilege that I had. It was embarrassing for me to tell him I didn’t have the least sort of privilege; that I had practically to “wring the commander’s neck” to get him to take me with him; that he was terribly against it and that I didn’t have any power to help; that I was terribly sorry, but I simply didn’t have it. Scenes such as these took place everywhere, and it was more than embarrassing; it weighed heavily on my heart and conscience, but I couldn’t do anything.
Thus we embarked on the military vehicles but because they were bombing the harbor Sète, which was our first destination, we had to stay overnight in the trenches, which, of course, was not very pleasant. However, after about two or three nights we got into the harbor. The bombing had stopped again and there was an Egyptian ship docked – El Kebir – which was supposed to take us on board.
We boarded the ship and, of course, before boarding, similar or perhaps even worse scenes happened than those in the camp because so many, many people again wanted to escape. The captain could not take more people than were allowed. And with three thousand soldiers on board and a few officers from the commandership and their wives, an Australian woman, and I, the wife of a “private” – the very lowest that could even appear on that ship – the quota was already met. I was put into a cabin with the Australian woman who was very nice.
And so we sailed and sailed. The captain said that he didn’t know where we would land as he got his commands from elsewhere. Nor could he guarantee where and when he would be able to get us off the ship. Life on the ship is, I would say, very monotonous, but also curiously different and interesting, especially as long as the sea is calm which it usually is in the summer. There are beautiful evenings and the sunsets are magnificent and they last a long time, until about nine o’clock at night. The sight was truly unique only, of course, as long as the sea was calm. The captain had assured us that we had a convoy of submarines accompanying us so that we didn’t have to travel in fear.
As long as the sea was calm, time passed uneventfully although there was not much food on the ship because the ship wasn’t prepared for so many people and had not been supplied enough. The civilians received only crackers or, at most, canned food because the soldiers had to have more proper diets. But even though they hadn’t expected the civilians, we ate at nicely laid tables in a nice environment.
We watched almost provocatively from a distance the table of the officers who ate with the captain as we were starved out at our tables and theirs was bending under the weight of gorgeous fruit and various delicacies. We saw it only from a distance, because our table wasn’t right next to theirs, but the contrast was so enormous that, after all, everybody noticed it. When there were thunderstorms, most of the people got seasick and one officer advised me that when such a thunderstorm came I should lie down so that the stomach would be at rest and if it’s not too full, he said that I wouldn’t get sick. That was excellent advice and I would always lay down in the little lounge, and although most passengers did get sick, I did not.
I filled my time studying English with a very good-looking young Czech officer whose name was Holemář and who was later sent from London to the Russian front, where he was killed. We studied every morning for two hours, and then we walked on the deck and watched the movement of the sea. In the evening, of course, there was a blackout. One wasn’t allowed even to light up a cigarette. Everything was kept in darkness.
But this journey, too, held some strange adventures for me. Once I mentioned to one of our officers that when I saw that beautiful fruit I craved it; that I would love to have sometimes an apple or another piece of fruit. And I mentioned it with a big sigh that emphasised how starved I was for fruit. He came a few days later and said, “You know what? I will arrange it for you with the fruit.” I said, “How come?” He said, “You know the captain of the ship likes you very much, and he invited you for dinner.” And I said, “Well, that’s very nice, but how can I even make myself understood with him? (He was an Egyptian.) And I will not go there alone, because I am after all not so dumb that when the captain invites me for dinner I do not know that he is thinking of something else, too.” And I said, “Well, I will go to that dinner, but only with you.” And so he said, “All right, I will go with you if you won’t go otherwise. I’ll go with you so you can be totally calm. We won’t stay there long – at most until midnight.” I said, “All right, so you will go with me.” And he did.
We were in the captain’s cabin. The table was laid, and the servants – well, actually they were soldiers – brought one luxurious dish after another. There was gorgeous Southern fruit of all kinds. There was champagne. It stood in an ice bucket that was covered in order to be chilled. But one could see that it was champagne and that there was ice swimming in there. And it was already pretty late when we started to eat.
Then suddenly, the officer who accompanied me there said, “I have to go away for fifteen minutes to check whether the blackout is being kept, to be sure some burning cigarette somewhere won’t appear. This I must do because I am on duty, but I will be back in fifteen minutes.” I didn’t like that very much. I told him in Czech (the captain couldn’t understand it, after all), “You can’t do that. You can’t leave now. We are just in the middle of dinner.” And he said, “I just looked at my watch and I have to go now, because otherwise they will lock me up. I have to make my rounds. In twenty minutes I’m back. So don’t be afraid. I give you my word of honor that I’ll return.”
Soon the twenty minutes passed and the officer didn’t return. In the meantime, Mr. Captain started to make advances to get me to bed. He threw his wallet on the table. It was so full that it could burst – with English or Egyptian – I don’t know which pounds, and he said, “Look, all this is yours. You probably don’t have money and with this you could buy a house. You are going to be rich. And for me it doesn’t make any difference. What am I going to do with the money? I will earn more money anyway. It only lasts a little while. Don’t resist it.” And he went on and on.
I became afraid, although of course to see such enormous sums of money when one is without money oneself is enticing. But it didn’t entice me at that moment because the fear that the man could have some venereal disease dominated me. As it was well-known that many Arabs had it. But on principle, I didn’t like it, as after all, I am not a prostitute. So I said, “Well, sir, it’s really nice that you offer me your bursting wallet.” And he threw the banknotes on the table. It was a huge pile. “And I believe you that I might well be able to buy with it I don’t know what…perhaps the house as you say, but I’m not for sale, and I have my head full of other thoughts than these.”
As I didn’t give in, even though he made all possible attempts, he finally saw that there was nothing to be done with me, and fortunately he wasn’t a beast like they show in the films. Actually he behaved very decently. He said, “All right, so I’ll take you back to your deck.” Because it was pitch dark and my cabin was at the other end of the ship, I would never have gotten there alone. Moreover, it was necessary to climb some ladder in order to get to the other side and when he saw that I was afraid, he carried me over, which was very cavalier. He in fact took me all the way to the side where my cabin was.
The next morning I met the officer who had escorted me and I told him that it was very low of him to have arranged such a thing and I threatened to tell daddy of the arrangement between them and that he had suddenly disappeared, even though he promised that he would come back. He said that I was wrong; that because he patrolled late somebody had stopped him and he had been locked up that night for not having obeyed the command that he had to be on rounds by a certain time. Under the circumstances I believed him but I told him that I had the Devil’s luck that it ended this way.
And so we sailed and sailed, south past Spain and then Gibraltar. Sometimes the ship anchored, of course only for several hours, but we were able to see something. And it sailed farther and farther, now heading north, until in twenty-two days it finally landed. It was at that point that I had another adventure.
We were approaching Liverpool. After twenty-two days of sailing, everybody was eager and prepared to leave the ship. We were all excited that we finally were going to land and that we were actually safe. Then the tugboats came – these are boats that drag the big ship into the harbor – and it was very interesting to watch. The British sailors had black coats with hoods, and next to me stood a Belgian who said to me, “Look! The British police.” I said, “How come British police? What are the police doing here?” And he said, “Yeah, that’s strange. What would British police be looking for here?” I asked how he knew they were police and he said he knew British police when he saw them. So whatever it may be, we all were standing and waiting, and the British police came directly to me.
I must say that I didn’t even get scared, probably because I didn’t know at all what was going on and I had no idea why the British police would single me out. They asked me if I spoke English or German and said they wanted to talk to me and I should show them the cabin in which I spent the nights on the ship, that I open my suitcase for them. I went to the cabin and took the suitcase with me which I opened for them but they didn’t even look into it.
The incident shook me pretty badly and I asked them what it was all about. They said that they had received an anonymous report that I was transmitting news into enemy territory. They said that while on the one hand, they knew such activity would be totally impossible from this ship, they were obligated to check every such report and that I should give it no further thought. I asked them if they in fact knew who had made such a report and if they did know, would they please tell me. They responded that they were unable to give a name but that the person was one of my compatriots. This was by far one of my greatest psychological shocks.
Later on, I learned from one of our captains’ wives with whom I was friends already from Agde that there was a Czech lady on the ship, a wife of an Ambassador who had an affair with the young officer Holemář with whom I was spending a lot of time on the ship. So out of jealousy, she wanted to take this strange revenge on me. I was told this under strict confidentiality.
I went over and over this in my head, wondering how it was possible that in the midst of war somebody, and moreover a woman in the situation of a refugee (after all she was saving her life), would report something that wasn’t even possible. I could not understand it but I was very upset by it as I could well imagine what it would mean if the British had believed it, or had any kind of suspicion. They could easily have interned me for five years. I might have been suffering or dying for five years as a prisoner because some goose was jealous that I was studying with this guy, even though I didn’t have any other relations with him. We had a book. I don’t know, perhaps it was Eckersley, and according to this Eckersley book we studied English and that was all.
When we finally disembarked in Liverpool, we were put into an area surrounded by barbed wire for two nights. Then they took us to London. In London we were locked in a sort of gymnasium with no beds, only chairs to sit on. Here we stayed for another two nights. Outside, the soldiers were patrolling. They were watching the camp or actually the gymnasium. The police officers came and questioned everybody about their papers with unending “whys” and “hows” and “whats.”
It was there I got to know Mrs. Bondy, the writer, with whom I became friends. She was pregnant at that time. I knew her husband very well because he was a colleague of your daddy. He also fought on the Spanish front. He had married her in Paris, where he had gotten to know her and through marriage gave her a possibility to escape, as the wife of an officer. And then their boy was born, whom you later got to know as a grownup in Budapest. They remained together after the war.
From the gymnasium, they took us into various homes where people offered to put us up. That means that a whole number of British families offered their services; that they would take refugees into their apartments or houses. Of course they were paid for that, but not by us. I was put with a worker’s family which was very nice. They were a married couple without children. Their name was Flynn. However, they lived immediately next to the Croyden airport where there were these ramps for launching antiaircraft rockets, so it wasn’t exactly safe in that sense, because just then it was September 1940 and the big Blitz on London started. London was on fire. The lady of the house where I lived ran out several times and called to me, “Look, the whole sky is red. Totally red. All of London is on fire.” Well, the fact is that not all of London was on fire, but many parts of London were. And I lived with that, one can say, daily. There were heavy bombings. The house in front of ours was hit directly in the winter and for several weeks we had no windows.
Once we went with one Czech woman to the movies at five o’clock in the afternoon to distract ourselves. It wasn’t far from where we lived. At seven we’d be home, seven-thirty at the latest. But while we were in the movie, there was an announcement on the screen: “Don’t leave the raid is on.” I had a summer dress on and was shivering with cold. And it was three o’clock in the morning, and the announcement was still repeated and repeated on the screen. It was four o’clock in the morning and I couldn’t stand it. The Czech woman who was with me said that she wouldn’t go out – it wouldn’t even occur to her. And I said that I was trembling with cold and I couldn’t sit anymore. We had been sitting since five o’clock. It was twelve hours of sitting in one chair. I decided to leave in spite of the warnings because I just couldn’t stand it anymore.
I left and of course I ran as fast as I could and, when I was approaching our house, the soldiers at the launching pad shouted at me, “Run away, run away, run away.” So I ran away even faster and when I got home, the landlady said, “What happened to you? You’re like a dying woman.” I said, “Well, I had mortal fear when they shouted at me like that. But thank God I’m here.”
There were also bomb shelters. Of course they were not adequate against a direct hit. We tried once what was called an Anderson shelter. It was a tin-like place under the earth and one could stay overnight so that one would feel more secure. These bombings lasted from September all the way to May uninterruptedly, to the point that one could set one’s watch according to it because it started exactly at seven o’clock at night and it lasted until seven in the morning. Then there was a two-hour interruption, and at nine o’clock it started again.
My income was negligible – as a wife of a private I had a ridiculous sum of money – how would I say it? – such a contribution wasn’t enough for anything. Of course the wives of the officers had quite a different life. They could live quite well. So I started to seek connections in order to renew my profession. I succeeded in contacting the London emigrés. Among them were several very influential people who were interested and who also knew me by name. And then I also found out, with the help of the Embassy, where your daddy was. He had been rescued on another Egyptian ship, so we were perhaps sailing more or less at the same time. It would be, however, a very long time before he would get any leave, but we at least knew about one another.
I succeeded in getting a cheap violin after a year of having none and I started to practice. Sometime later a famous Russian violinist, Stanislav Frydberg, lent me a very good one. I formed the Allied String Quartet where I played first violin and we gave concerts at various official places. One of these concerts was also attended by Jan Masaryk and President Beneš’s wife brought me flowers. Another time we played in memory of Charlotte Garrigue Masaryk.
After a year, I moved to Kensington Gardens, because of the incidents while traveling to the rehearsals in the center of town. For example, one would get into a bus and the bus in front of you was on fire. I often admired the courage and discipline of the English who often had to spend a night in the subway because if you didn’t get on the bus by 6 p.m., you were not able to get home. In spite of that, they never forced themselves into the buses when conductor said, “Full up.”
One time, I remember, I went to the cleaners at Oxford Street. I intended to have my lunch afterwards in the nearby Lion’s Corner House. When I left the cleaner’s, its roof flew into the air and Lion’s Corner House was no more. Next to me was a young girl standing and crying, “My mom is there, my mom is there!” Another time, I was invited to play at the house of a well-known painter from Vienna. When I got there, I couldn’t find the house. I asked the policeman, who told me, “Of course, you can’t find it, it has been hit.” There was constant blackout and sometimes it was hard to find your way home.
Later on, I was able to return the violin to Frydberg, with whom I also played, because the Government lent me an Italian violin from Hill, the world-famous violinmaker. Before I returned to Czechoslovakia, I returned it. I hoped I would get back my own one.
I played with ENSA (English Association for the Entertainment of the Allied Forces) in the classical section all over England and also in Dunkerque. I went there on a battleship and on that occasion, I was lent the title of a British lieutenant for my protection. On the way, I got an inflammation in my cheek bone, which was very painful and was accompanied by fever. They took me from one military doctor to another. I had a swollen face, but they assured me that they would put reflectors to one side so that it wouldn’t be seen. I didn’t want to play under such circumstances, but they said that there were three thousand people looking forward to it, so I had to do it. While I was playing, the shrapnel was cracking nearby, but I didn’t care. I was more worried about losing my memory.
After the concert, in order to humor me, the commander, General Liška, recently decorated by President Havel, took me in his military car at midnight to symbolically “open the fire”. I pressed some button and the airfighters took off.
Your daddy’s technical ability made him soon indispensable to the unit and so he quickly advanced to a sergeant, and then to a captain. His war story is quite different from mine, but equally full of life-threatening experiences. After having been stationed for a long time in Scotland, he was part of the long expected British invasion into France and his tank got all the way to Pilsen in Czechoslovakia in 1945, where, as is well known, they were ordered to stop in accordance with the political agreement.
One of the side effects of the war for your daddy was that he became involved with Communist ideology. It was this ideology that ruined all his plans and his future. His enormous abilities were left unused, while he enthusiastically wanted to be involved in what he considered a patriotic effort of building socialism in his old country. He never considered coming back to England and urged me to return to Czechoslovakia. So I did.
I came on a Belgian refugee train through Germany where only one track was left, and when passengers threw leftovers of food out of the window of the train, they were picked up by the starving Germans. When I arrived in Prague, your daddy was waiting for me at the railway station with a truck and took me to Děčín (a border town in northern Bohemia), because even though our apartment in Prague was supposed to be returned to us by a decree, we didn’t get anything. So we were forced to move to this town in the Sudeten area where your daddy got a job in a factory. At this town we got a five-room apartment which we shared with another refugee family who were our friends. These were apartments left open after the Germans were forced to leave the country.
Food was rationed and very poor. The American (UNRA) help was very much appreciated. Public transportation didn’t exist and as the apartment was on the periphery, I had to face long walks everywhere. Your daddy’s job did not last very long because he couldn’t stand it in the factory. He was constantly under attack and persecution, why, I don’t know exactly. The fact is that he left for Prague with friends who were working with him. So I was left alone in the large apartment and I was pregnant. Because there was no telephone, your daddy, thanks to his inventive ability, made an arrangement of a sort of a ring that led to the second floor into an apartment of a German engineer who was very decent. When the birth was due, as there was absolutely no transportation, I had to walk an hour to the hospital. There you were born and your daddy came with all his friends from Prague to celebrate.
After a year, in 1947, we managed to move to Prague, to a small one-room apartment. A year later, the Communist putsch came. During all this time, your daddy was trying to get back his former workshop where he had a great number of valuable machines and instruments, some of which were his own inventions. These were trusted to the head of his employees to keep through the war. When he came back, this former employee refused to return anything and claimed that the machines were sold to him by your daddy before he left. This was a lie, and even though your daddy took him to court, he didn’t get anything back. I, myself, had inherited a large house and three hundred acres (1 214 056.93 square meters) of land in Mladá Boleslav from my grandmother. This, of course, was taken by the Communists in 1948 and on top of that they demanded that I pay eight thousand crowns on the remaining mortgage. The crown was devalued at that time 50 to 1, yet the mortgage was counted by them in the old currency. I told them, “Isn’t it enough that you took my house?” After arguing for a long time, they agreed that I would pay only two thousand. Any money that I had from before the war which I hid with my friends (fifty thousand crowns, which was a lot of money at the time) I lost to the devaluation.
But all these financial matters seemed unimportant in light of so many losses of the nearest and dearest. We had our hands full with finding work in our fields.
I heard most of this story for the first time by chance, when I was nine years old. My mother was relating it to a close friend. When I was growing up in Prague in the 1950s and 60s, my parents’ experience and Jewishness were kept more or less secret because the political atmosphere of the time made it undesirable “to come out.” The Communists didn’t want to concern themselves with the fate of the Jews, and even within the other layers of the population, secret anti-Semitism was rampant. Thus it was never talked about that twenty-six members of our family including my mother’s sister and my father’s parents were gassed in German concentration camps. From that time on, my father, whose mother tongue was German (another thing that was better kept secret) and who had attended German schools, including the Technical University of Berlin where he got his Engineer’s degree, refused to speak German. He preferred to speak hack Czech even at home where he didn’t have to. I have never heard him speak about his parents, who were as a matter of fact Protestant by religion. He seemed to have been too traumatized by the past. I never had a sense of a broader family. All of my relatives either perished before I was born or were dispersed all over the world and the distances and the Iron Curtain made it impossible to have more than a shadow feeling concerning their identity. There was certainly no feeling of closeness or belonging.
Until 1989, the participation of the Western Army, including the Czechoslovak Brigade in which my father fought, was also silenced and many of its members, especially the plane pilots in the Blitz who played an extraordinary role, were even persecuted. Only the Soviet Union was to be given credit for the liberation.
Paradoxically, I have been forced to repeat my mother’s escape after the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968, when even though my physical life was not in danger, my spiritual one was. I was condemned to eighteen months in prison. On my journey, I had an important two years’ stop in West Germany, which in the meantime became a blossoming country and one in which I met people who seemed not to want to feel responsible any more for what had happened a couple of generations ago. It did not seem to have any real impact on them and they seemed only to pay lip service at best to the German “debt”; yet the absence of my family, their pain and the pain of my parents with which, I was totally identified, my nightmares, and the Communist desert that followed the German occupation in my country felt all too real to me.
It was very hard for me to find a true identity in myself separate from my mother’s, as the pain of my parents and those closest to them always seemed too overwhelming during my childhood. Instead of taking care of myself as a child, I always felt I had to protect them no matter what since they had already been through so much. I suffered enormous guilt feelings for “abandoning” them when I grew up, for I couldn’t stand the fact that they should go through one more loss. “My case,“ my pain, was never really important in comparison with theirs. When after many years the stored, private, “unimportant” pain became too much to bear, I ended up in turn hating my parents as that was the only way I knew how to claim my identity. Trusting the outside world was always an enormous problem for me.
In Germany in the early seventies I also met young students who were all for concentration camps, Russian-style, believing that this was necessary for the common good. I met people who were very friendly and very helpful, but I also ran into animosity toward strangers and I even more into humiliating patriarchal attitudes. After a long odyssey, I ended up in America, where I settled in Blooming, Indiana. My father died before I ever could visit Czechoslovakia. The Czechs did not even give me a visa so I could come to his funeral in time. My mother is still alive and our relationship is finally healed enough that I feel free to put her story on paper.
About the Author
Bronislava Volková is a poet, collage artist, semiotics expert, essayist, translator and Professor Emerita at Indiana University, Bloomington, USA. There, she was Head of Czech studies at the Slavic Department for 30 years. She went into exile in 1974. She has taught at the Dale University in Cologne, University in Marburg, and at Harvard, as well as the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. From 1982, she taught in Bloomington. She is a member of both the Czech and American PEN Clubs. She has written thirty books, including the extensive bilingual Czech – English anthology of Czech Poetry Up The Devil’s Back: A Bilingual Anthology of 20th Century Czech Poetry, 2008. Her poetry has been translated into 12 languages.
Aside from poetry, Volková has also written extensively on the semantics of emotive language, semiotics of implied values and gender in Czech literature, as well as about exile. Volková has been awarded several international prizes for literature and culture. More Information at www.bronislavavolkova.com.