pondělí 11. listopadu 2013

Age? It’s just a number

Written by Judita Matyasova, for Lidovky.cz

A lot of people say that age doesn’t matter. And I believe so too – it’s just a number, nothing more. This belief has been proven again and again in my research. I talk to people who are eighty or ninety years old and some of them seem to be the same as they were in their youth: adventurers, dreamers, youngsters. Ben is one of these “youngsters”. He is 87 and a few weeks ago he just got married.

We first met last year at the premiere of the film “Winton’s Children”. These children left Czechoslovakia in 1939 thanks to Nicholas Winton’s and his friends’ organisation. Ben was among these children who survived World War Two in Britain. I asked him for an interview; I wanted to know how his life had been back then while far from home. When I entered his hotel suite, I received a warm welcome from a lady in her forties. Ben said “That’s Helena,” and I assumed it was his daughter or granddaughter even. My mistaken assumption was quickly corrected: “Helena is my girlfriend”. I then talked to Ben for several hours and it was dawning on me that the numbers on his birthday cake mattered very little to him. 

Ben, few weeks before departure from Czech home
Ben had always been a rascal. As a boy he was constantly in trouble; for him, school was just a waste of time. He preferred to play football, wander around town or spy on his elder sister on her dates. No wonder he was thrown out of several schools for truancy. Soon his parents were at their wits’ end, having to deal with other serious problems at the time. Ben’s father, who had been running a regional branch of Stock Cognac, had to leave his job in 1938. The reason was simple – Jews were ‘different’. The family’s future was unclear and one day Ben learnt that his parents had put him on a list of children who were to leave the country. When they told him “Sonny, you’re going to England,” Ben was overjoyed. England was a football paradise to him! Much as he was overjoyed, he noticed his parents’ sadness. He didn’t understand: they would see each other soon again, wouldn’t they? His dream of a reunion, however, never came true. Both his parents and his sister were to face the same fate as millions of other Jews during World War Two.

Ben with his mother in Prague, 1939
On 20th July 1939, his last day in Prague, Ben got on a train, along with dozens of other children. After a few days’ journey they arrived in London. Each child needed a patron – a foster family or a charitable organisation. Ben was taken in by a rich couple from London. In their mansion he had his first full English breakfast and then he went out to explore the British metropolis. His foster parents’ enthusiasm, however, soon petered out. Several days later, Ben was sent to a boarding school, without really knowing why. Perhaps the couple were too busy to be taking care of an adolescent in addition to their own child.

Ben loved the boarding school immediately and soon became the boys’ gang’s unwritten leader. The school principal doted on the boys: perhaps too much. He would touch them in the bath… When Ben brought that up, he came to the realisation that he had two options: either to keep quiet or to be on his own. He opted for the latter. He was fourteen and alone in London. “Was I afraid? No way! It was an adventure. Sometimes I would sleep in the Tube, sometimes in the park. Then I got my first job and rented a small room of my own. I was able to make my own decisions and that was marvellous. The only concern of mine was what to write to my parents. They were used to a certain lifestyle and now everything was so different. They were trying to get out of the country and wanted to come to England. They asked if I could find them jobs. What could I say in response? I couldn’t imagine my mother peeling potatoes or working as a cleaning lady. I was not able to assume such responsibility for them: that really scared me.”

First job at hotel restaurant
As the war went on, Ben eventually reconciled with the school. He completed secondary school by distance learning and happened to become involved in physics. He remained in the field for the rest of his life. He won a number of international awards and drifted through life with the same carefree spirit as when he was a boy. I wanted to see places that were important to Ben and so, together with photographer Alžběta Jungrová, we traced his footsteps around war-time London.
Our first stop was the four-star Bailey’s Hotel. For several months Ben had worked there as a prep cook, preparing vegetables, breakfasts and arranging fruit on silver bowls. The kitchen had been completely remodelled since then but Ben remembered exactly where the cupboard used to be and where they would peel potatoes. He wanted to show us the staff entrance and soon we were lost in the basement passages and wandered into another hotel by mistake. Before I could stop him, Ben had set off the fire alarm and we were briskly led out by the security guards.

Security guard really didnt like us, but Ben is smilling all the time
Harrods was another important site that had absolutely amazed Ben. When he came to London in 1939, he did not care about historical monuments – he wanted to see an escalator! There was only one in Prague back then, in the Bílá labuť department store, but that was no comparison to Harrods. I watched Ben ride up and down the escalator, beaming with the same happiness as seventy years ago.

Ben enjoys this ride on escalators, it remains him same ride in Prague
The last stop on our tour of London was outside Liverpool Station. It was here that Ben and other Czech children had arrived before the war. Now there is a monument commemorating these children. Before our photographer could ask Ben whether he would like to be photographed there, he climbed onto the pedestal, drawing the attention of everyone around him.

Ben jumped on the pedestal, nearby Liverpool station

For hours Ben would talk about his homeland which he never forgot. After the war he returned to Czechoslovakia but soon decided that he would not live in a country ruled by Communists. He went abroad, first to Palestine and later to the United States where he became involved in scientific research. He spent 53 years on the other side of the pond and when he retired, he went travelling. In Mexico he met a charming English lady called Helena. I am sure he never asked when she’d been born. And she doesn’t seem to care either. They travelled to Peru, to the Czech Republic, all over the world. Together they work for others: Helena in a social institution and Ben as a volunteer in a refugee centre.
Time flies but that does not affect Ben. A few weeks ago he sent me this photograph – he and Helena have just got married.
Helen and Ben, wedding photo

Original version published on Lidovky.cz

Translated by Olga Pohl

čtvrtek 19. září 2013

Hanka – Being on one’s own

“I know this girl, Hanka Dubová!” I have heard this exclamation several times – each time in a different language. I would learn about Hanka’s life story bit by bit in Bohemia, then Denmark and later in Israel. I discovered her story in Denmark, in a town called Næstved, just a few kilometers from the place where her friend Edita Krausová and other Czech Jewish teenagers used to live during the wartime.

Hana was born in 1925 in Kolín. When she was five, her parents moved to Prague. They rented a shop on the corner of Celetná Street and the Old Town Square. Dub’s House of Children’s Clothes. Premium fabrics, elegant editions in French style. Hanka attends a grammar school, going on outings with the Makkabi friends in her free time. Her life flows the usual way. Common worries, first loves, first fights. It is 1939 and Hanka’s world is slowly but surely beginning to crumble. Sára has received a ‘certificate’ and is leaving for Palestine; Eva is packing and going to America. Everyone is trying to get out of the noose which is growing tighter.

Hana in 1940

Journal, the longed-for gift
July 2, 1939 is an important day: for her fourteenth birthday, Hanka receives a present she had longed for, her first journal. She begins to write, describing her world page by page. She captures a number of details about her family, her younger brother, her injured hand. These seemingly trivial things are soon followed by increasingly frantic entries. Hanka enrolls in Prague alíjá school and soon gets ready to leave for Denmark. It is now or never. Although the day she left is missing in her journal, she will remember it forever.

Her first post in Denmark is a troublesome one. A farmhouse amidst endless fields. An alien family. How can one converse with people so strange? How to relate to people who treat her as cheap labor? Hanka writes letters to her parents, complaining about missing her friends, feeling very lonely. She wants to move somewhere closer to her pals. Eventually, her wish comes true in 1940 but she is not happy for long. “My foster mother has accused me for stealing her strawberries, she’s badmouthed me in the village. I want to leave, I want to leave!”

Hana at Danish farm, 1940

As summer 1941 begins, Hanka moves place. She packs her things in a backpack and walks fourteen kilometers to another farm. The Ostergård farm is owned by a young couple: nineteen-years-old Jensine and her husband Arne with baby boy Mogens. Hanka describes her first impressions in a letter to her parents: “My dearest Daddy, I am happy again. I am happier than ever before. This was the best birthday present I could ever receive. When one comes here, it immediately feels like home, it is so fine, friendly and open-hearted here. I cannot describe it better than by the word ‘home’.

Hana with Mogens
Everyday chores feel no longer toilsome, on the contrary. Hanka seems to have found the meaning of her life. After two years in Denmark she can do lots of things. She is able to take care of herself and help others. She writes to her parents: “These are my daily chores: I get up at ½ past six, make fire, make coffee, spread 20 slices of bread with butter and honey and then we have breakfast. I measure and prepare baby food for Mogens and then make porridge. Then we go to the fields, at nine we have a snack and then we unload the harvest or pick fruits and make preserves.” In her free time she wonders about what is happening at home. Three letters from her parents arrive every week, dwindling gradually. Then only brief notes arrive, mentioning how the parents have to hand over their shop to the Nazis, to move, to leave Prague for Terezín…

Life in Denmark, however, flows quite differently than in Czechoslovakia. The summer is almost over, Hanka is hard at work and shares her experience with her parents: “Yesterday I was making grainstacks for the first time. It was so interesting. In the afternoon I was alone in the field which was plain, stretching far and wide. Seagulls, single or in flocks are flying above my head, ahead of me are raspberry bushes, around the stream and behind me on the left two rows of stacked oat sheaves. On the right as far as the eye can see, sheaves lying on the ground. I know I am supposed to work but I cannot help lying down on one of the sheaves for a little while, watching the world around me. God, it’s all so beautiful! The brook lined with forget-me-nots and raspberries keeps flowing quietly. Still the same and yet ever-changing water. Everything is going on, so carefree, like yesterday, or a month ago, or a year ago, or twenty years ago. Nothing has changed and still, not far from me is bloodshed, and thousands of “heroes” dying. “Heroes?” Victims of the war. Not people but masses of nations. And at home? Oh God! I’m getting up and sing while working. In the afternoon I am stacking the sheaves on my own. When I head home at five, I can see the straight rows of grainstacks from up the hill. My chest fills with pride. That’s my work. I am 16 and can do a lot of things. I can cook, wash, scrub the floor, tend to the household, chickens, thrash grain, work in the fields and in the garden. I am proud of myself.”

Sorrow and happiness
Hanka’s world was preserved, only she is no longer a fourteen-years-old student; she is adult now and wants to live her own life. The war is over but the news brings happiness and sorrow at the same time. Should she return home? What kind of home is it, though, when her parents and brother are no longer there? Of the large Dub family, only Hanka’s aunt, uncle and cousin have survived. All the rest perished in death camps.

Hana in early 1960´s

In 1947 Hanka came to Prague for a few weeks and then returned to Scandinavia. After four years up in the North she sets out for America, with the proverbial dollar in her pocket and the desire to start life anew. She got married, had children. Her daughter, Janet Seckel-Cerrotti, remembers her: “Our mother died two years ago but it still feels as if she is here with us. She would often tell us about her life before the war. It was not easy for her to live so far from her parents but she knew that the Danish people provided her with a safe home and she never forgot. For many years she worked in various training centers for immigrants in Philadelphia. Besides teaching English, she would help them cope with the loss of their homes. She carried that feeling in herself till the end of her life. It was certain sorrow and at the same time hope that life goes on. She would tell us about this since we were kids and we hope that her story won’t be forgotten. It is more than a wartime story; it is a story about hope, help and love between parents and children. And I am happy that I could meet Jensine, my mom’s foster mother. When we embraced, I understood why she and my mother were so close.”

Hana´s foster mother, Jensine together with Hana´s daughter, Janet

At the beginning of my search I only knew Hanka’s date of birth and the place where she stayed during the war. Now I know more about her than her own family. Thanks to Janet, I have read Hanka’s journal and about fifty letters she had written. They are all in Czech, so neither Janet nor her siblings can read them – they don’t speak Czech. I have had the journal translated so that they can read it, too. The stories of Edita, Hanka and their Czech friends are now being presented at an exhibit in Naestved where these children spent four years during the Second World War. Even Jensine, a ninety-two-years old lady attended the opening. The frail lady went through the whole exhibit with her family: “One simply cannot forget Hanka. She was like a member of our family. She spent a year with us and then we fell out of touch for a while. Then once, at night, in October 1943 she called, asking whether she could spend the night. I understood she was in danger. People were talking about it, that Jews had to leave, otherwise they would have been caught. Hanka spent the night and in the morning she was gone. We didn’t hear from her for several months afterwards. At last, in January 1944, a letter arrived saying that she had crossed the sea to Sweden and she was in hospital. Then she visited us two years later but then our journeys parted. We fell out of touch again. In 2011 we read an article in Næstved newspaper that you were looking for Hanka and we responded. We were so happy to see her daughter last year. We had so much to talk about. I think Hanka would have been happy about that,” Jensine says, with a photograph of that Czech girl in her hand, the girl who always remained herself.

Few days ago I was at reunion of Hana´s and Jensine´s family. I dont have enough words to describe that amazing atmosphere. Just have a look on pictures.

From left to right:
Jensine´s son, Knud-Arne, Hana´s daughter, Janet with Jensine and Hana´s granddaughter, Rachael

úterý 27. srpna 2013

Story of bike - unknown chapter of assasination of Heydrich

Story of a bicycle

written by Judita Matyášová
published on 17th June 2011
Friday magazine of Czech daily Lidové noviny

Everyone seems to know the story of the bicycle which was exhibited in the shop window at Wenceslas Square after the assassination of Deputy Reichsprotektor, Reinhard Heydrich. It was very important proof in this case. But whom did it really belong to, and what was its story? When I spoke with Edith Holzner (88) for the first time she told me: "My story? Its not so interesting, but may be you might be interested in story of bike, of that bike, which was found after assasination of Heydrich? So it was bike of my sister Lýdie. Would you like to hear it?"

Edith (in black) together with her Czech friends in Denmark


The two girls did not know each other. They may have caught a glimpse of one another first in the Terezin and later in Mauthausen. It was October 24, 1942, half a year after the Heydrich assassination. The day of their execution.

Her name was Lýdie and, if she had survived it all, she might have remembered it this way:
“I am waiting in the room, everyone is at the table, only my Dad went outside for a minute. There are fourteen candles on my birthday cake and, finally, I am going to get what I have wished for: a bike. My Dad bought it a couple of weeks ago, but it has been hidden in the closet. It should have been a surprise, but I had seen it. He had argued about it with my uncle. He wanted to buy it at the Premier Company in Cheb, but there was no way he was going to go all the way there when he it was possible to buy it here in Teplice at the Krčmář shop.”

The Holzner family lived in Teplice, on Dubská Street. The father, named Franz, came from Toužim, and the mother, Frieda (née Grünhutová), came from Tachov. They had met at a dance in 1919 and married the very same year. They had no honeymoon, as Franz had to start work in the shop and there was no time for travelling. Their first daughter, Lýdie, was born on September 3, 1921. Four years later, another daughter, Edith, was born. Lydie was a black-haired beauty who always caught the boys’ eyes. When she was sixteen, she started attending  dance classes and never lacked for suitors. For the boy she liked the most, she embroidered a handkerchief for the final ball. He had come to Teplice from Prague and had stayed in a German family all summer long in order to improve his German. Similarly, Lýdie had been in Chrudim the previous year in order to improve her Czech - this was quite a normal thing to do in those days. But this time it was a bit different.

Aťa had fallen in love with Lýdie and, when the summer was over, he could not forget her. He had been attending business secondary school in Prague and had been dreaming about finding work somewhere abroad, maybe in Norway. His dad worked for the railroad company, and thus travelling on trains was easier for Aťa than for others. He came to see Lýdie every Sunday. Sometimes she went for a walk with him but, at other times, she “forgot” about him for a bit. Aťa would wait for hours with her mother in the kitchen and would even eat the spinach he hated out of love. When Lýdie, full of laughter, would return from a trip, her mother would chide her: “Aťa came because of you, waited here all day but had to go to catch the train already,” Edith Holznerová, Lýdia’s sister recalls. Simply put - a summer love which lasted for him, but for her it was more of a closed chapter.

Aťa Moravec

Lýdie would remember that year not only because of love, but also because of pain. Her dad had died, and the women were now alone. Her mother was a homemaker and Lýdie had to find a job. Her little sister could not yet go to work; she was only thirteen. For holidays, they went to Tachov to stay with their grandfather. They stayed in his house in the town square, where they saw everything first-hand, much of it unpleasant and even freightening. People were standing in the square shouting “Sieg heil!” and throwing stones into their windows. All their mother could do was to watch everything change from minute to minute with terror. “Never before had anyone shown me that I am bad because I am Jewish, until that moment,” Edith recalls. They had to leave Sudetenland.

They found a place in Prague, at number 28 in Fochova Street (today, 24 Vinohradská Street), a short walk from the radio station. Lýdia commuted to work on her bike across the Wenceslas Square. The traffic was busy, compared to the Teplice quiet. Otherwise, she enjoyed Prague. She could go to posh cafés, see the latest films, go dancing, do anything. However, all this ended only a couple of months later. The first bans came -- and then more and more. All Jews were affected.

In early 1939, their mother told Edith to leave. All the way for Palestine. That is why she started attending Zionistic courses. Edith had never been interested in Zionism, but there was no time to lose. It was a way to get out of the occupied country. Eventually, the plan changed and the girl was to go to then-neutral Denmark. In October, Lýdie and her mother walked her to the Masaryk train station. At midnight, they waved their goodbyes. Their destinies parted forever. All that remain are letters in a box which Edith treasures in her flat in Swedish Helsingborg. Letters that kept coming until 1942, when the last one arrived from Terezin.

Lýdie started work as a nurse in a hospital; thoughts of Aťa, the summer love from Teplice, kept fading. There was someone else. Eleven years older, Doctor Jiří Bondy (also called Jirka). His father Alex was a doctor and his brother Karel also studied medicine. There was no honeymoon. Jews were not allowed to leave their permanent addresses, not even temporarily. So they did not even go for a trip outside Prague. The rules and bans mounted. There seemed to be a new one every day: Jews are not allowed to control their financial affairs, they are not allowed to move, not allowed to buy jam or onions. There was also the obligation to hand over private possessions. Lýdie and her mother quickly had to hide everything of value. It was imminent that they would have to hand over even the bike. But where to put it? For some time, it was hidden at her colleague’s - Marie Šebestová -- then at her sister’s. But then Lýdie found a better solution. “They could trust only people they had known from before, and that was Aťa’s family, the Moravcovi family. Aťa’s mother, Marie Moravcová, worked as a volunteer nurse with the Red Cross and was involved significantly with partisan activities,” the archivist Vojtěch Šustek from the Prague Archive explains. However, the Moravcovi flat in Biskupcova Street in Prague quarter Žižkov was small, so Mrs. Moravcová kept the bike across the street in the garage company Merkur, where a married couple named Janečkovi worked.
Lýdie in centre of Prague

In the meantime, Lýdie’s mother had to leave Fochova Street (the street had been renamed Schwerin Street during the war) because of the anti-Jewish rulings. She moved in with Lýdie and her husband. It was now crowded in the large Bondy family flat, where Jiří’s father had his practice. Other family members joined them. In the end, there were thirteen people living there.

Time passes. It is the end of April 1942, and Aťa hands over Lýdie’s bike to parachutist Jozef Gabčík. And then the clock ticks until, on May 27th, the moment comes when the clock on Libeň’s church strikes half past ten in the morning. The Deputy Reichsprotektor passes by in his car…

The other girl was called Jindřiška. This is her story - yes, it might have gone something like this: “Today they let us go home earlier, because classes were cancelled. It is half past ten and I can go home. Mother will probably wait with lunch until my sisters get home. My brother Vašek is probably still in the workshop and so is Dad. I cross the brook, walk a couple of blocks and I am home. When I open the door, I can hear my mother whispering something. I keep silent and peek into the living room. A man is there. And Mother is treating his face. He is injured. “Go outside quickly and sort something out. Honza has left his bike outside.”

Jan Kubiš (also called Honza) and Jozef Gabčík arrived at the Prague quarter Libeň curve on bicycles. Lýdie’s bike stayed behind after the assassination. Jan Kubiš took the other one, a man’s bike, and rode to Lower Libeň. He leaned it against the wall of the Baťa shop. He had blood on his face and the bike had to be hidden away. He put it up against the shop window and walked quickly to the flat of Novákovi, who had helped him on several previous occassions. “It probably was not the best solution to send Jindřiška to get the bike. Less dangerous would have been to leave it on the spot. But you can understand it completely - due to the stressful situtation,” comments Šustek, who has just prepared an edition of 520 documents of the Nazi police dealing with the Heydrich assassination.

There were two women hanging out in the street, nearby Baťa shop. You could say they were two local gossips. Libeň was more of a small village where the life had been passing more slowly than in the busy centre of the capital. And you do not see a blood-spattered man with a bike very often. When, ten minutes later, a girl appeared and wanted to take the bike with her, it seemed suspicious to the women. “The women asked Jindřiška where is she taking it, and she told them it was her dad’s, and he had an accident. But the women were curious and asked what had happened to him. Jindřiška answered that she did not know. That may have made them a bit uncertain and made them think. After the war, the women claimed they had thought she wanted to steal the bike,” researcher Jaroslav Čvančara describes the events shortly after the assassination. When Jindříška came back home, it was clear it was necassary to act fast. Get rid of the bike and pretend to do everything else as before.

In the meantime, the curious women set off for a slow walk up the hill up to Upper Libeň. At the crossroads V Holešoviškách, they saw a crowd of people. What a day! What has happened now? The jigsaw puzzle of events started to come together. It must have been the assassin with the bike! They left for home, frightful thoughts racing in their heads. The very next day, the newspapers screamed in capital letters “ASSASSINATION OF DEPUTY REICHSPROTEKTOR. WHO CAN GIVE EVIDENCE ABOUT THE ASSASSINS? WHO SAW THE ASSASSINS AT THE CRIME SCENE? TO WHOM DO THE OBJECTS BELOW BELONG: A WOMAN’S BICYCLE, A COAT, HATS AND BAGS?” A warning followed: “Those who have the information and do not willingly give evidence to the police will be shot along with their families according to the regulation of the Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia, a declaration of emergency on May 27, 1942.”  Every day, the front pages listed the names of the people who had been shot. Real names, real people. Everyone who keeps silent is quilty. Four days of hesitation, four days in which on the radio a voice booms about giving information and threatens.

One of the women cannot bear it. She sits down and writes an anonymous letter. “The pressure was great. You cannot say they were normal informers. If they had been, they would have reported it the following day when a reward of ten million crowns was promised. They feared for their lives - and they had a reason to fear!” the archivist Vojtěch Šustek says. The whole of Libeň was on its feet. It is two o’ clock in the morning and occupants of the Libeň blocks of flats and workers’ houses cannot sleep. There is noise and screaming everywhere. Armed Germans are going from door to door and search, shoot at the windows. They know. The girl who took the bike could not be far away. It was not even ten minutes from the moment of the assassin leaving the bike behind and her coming to fetch it. She must be somewhere here. The loop closes in. All girls aged fourteen to twenty have to get into trucks. “The fourteen-year-old Jindřiška Nováková was very brave. She knew how much she was risking when her parents had been involved in the resistance movement. And on the night between the second and third of June, she was one of about 260 girls which the Gestapo took to Pečkův Palace. Young girls were divided into groups and each had to show how she walks with a bike, while both informers were watching them form afar. Jindřiška was in the narrowest selection, down to twenty girls, yet she did not waver. The women either did not recognize her, or did not want to recognize her, as they realized there was life at stake,” Šustek explains. But, there was no escape. The stories joined by the bike were about to connect tragically.

In the summer of 1942, Jindřiška was arrested, along with her parents and her three siblings.  Marie Moravcová should have been arrested, too. When the Gestapo came to take her, she took a poison pill and died almost immediately. Her husband Vlastimil and son Aťa were not as lucky and ended up in the hands of the Gestapo. The Germans now learned to whom the bike belonged. His summer love, to whom who he used to go in Teplice on Sundays, Lýdie, and her husband Jirka, his parents and other relatives - everyone who lived in the Bondy family flat in the Eliška Krásnohorská Street - were arrested. 

Their journey takes them to the Small Fortress in Terezin. Jiří Bondy dies there on June 21, 1942. The others are taken to Mauthausen. There, they are shot on October 24, one by one.

The story of the two girls whose destiny was joined by a bike, finished.

Two bicycles:

The woman’s bike belonging to Lýdie Holznerová-Bondyová was exhibited the day following the assassination in the shop window of the Baťa company on Wenceslas Square. The photograph was published in all newspapers. The only indication was the number and brand: Moto-Velo, J. Krčmář - Teplice. It was not possible to find out who bought the bike, as the son of the shop-owner Krčmář told the Gestapo the customer book had been lost. Even the geologist from Berlin who took samples from the tires in order to find out where in Prague it had been ridden did not help. The bike’s destiny stops in Pečkův Palác, in the evidence warehouse.

The man’s bike which Jan Kubiš rode away from the assassination site and leaned against the shop window in Libeň, where it was picked up by Jindřiška and taken into the Novákovi flat, was returned to Smržovi family, who were part of the resistance movement. When the Gestapo arrested them, they were “only” interested in people. The Smržovi family was executed. The bike was lost.

neděle 14. července 2013

DITA - everything felt like an adventure

written by Judita Matyasova
excerpt from new book, which will be released in Czech version in autumn 2013

This girl just keeps smiling. I can see the very same smile in her face as in her photographs from the family album. I can see her smile today, too. Dita Persson (née Kraus) is almost ninety years old. She is showing me one photo after another, smiling whenever she remembers a story from her childhood she spent in the center of Prague. For seventy years, she has lived far from home, in a Swedish village called Förslöv. Still, she tells me her life story in perfect Czech.

Dita grew up in Prague, not far from the Old Town Square. She lived in a house called Great Operetta. On the walls downstairs were posters advertising the evening shows and during the day one could hear singers rehearsing for their performances. The house was one big maze; in the morning Dita would leave through one passage to go to school, in the afternoon she would return through another one, to see Daddy in his tailor’s shop; in her free time, she would attend gymnastics classes. “I always loved sports and still do. I used to attend Makkabi Hacair, (Zionist youth classes – editor’s note). There were many friends of mine, my cousins Slávka and Valda Jeiteles and also Hanka Dubová. We learned that Palestine was our land where we could go to work in a kibbutz. That was our dream which might come true one day. But things changed when Germans came here. Suddenly, a journey to Palestine turned out to be one of the ways of escaping. Fleeing far away from the Nazis. I wanted to enroll in the alíjá school (preparatory classes for emigrating to Palestine – editor’s note) but my parents were not as excited by such an idea. For me it was a chance to be with my peers and to experience something new. Moreover, I believed that my parents would soon join me abroad. In the end I persuaded them and in May 1939 began to go to alíjá school in Prague.
Dita in 1939, nearby alíyah school in Prague

The summer passed quickly and then things went fast. Our teachers told us that considering the political situation in Czechoslovakia we could not continue our classes there. They found foster families for us in Denmark. We were supposed to spend a short time there and then go on to Palestine. Germans issued passports for us, as if they wanted to expedite our departure. But those passports were of somewhat one-way sort. We had to hand in all our money and valuables. I only travelled with a small suitcase with the essential things. My parents then packed comforters, clothes and shoes into a large wooden trunk which they sent to Denmark. Mommy lined it with waxed paper and folded everything very neatly. She had several summer dresses made for me because she thought that Denmark would only be a transit station for me. Who could guess that we would stay there for four years and never reach Palestine…”

On the sea for the first time
Midnight, 24th October 1939. The last hours before departure. Children are gathering on a platform at Masaryk Train Station in Prague. They are excited about travelling together with their pals. Parents are standing aside, watching them. These children act so grown-up, ready to face life. It feels like letting a young bird leave the nest for the first time; it can hardly fly but wants to try so badly. The train begins to move. Children are waving and the parents on the platform are trying hard to smile. They believe they have done  the best for their children. They are sending them to safety and have to believe that this is only temporary. This parting is final, though. 

The journey through chilly night goes fast. Dita and her friends are chatting, singing and nodding off every now and then. Before they know it, they are in Berlin. Dita grabs her suitcase and gets off with others. They take the underground to get to another station. The next train takes them all the way to a small harbor town called Warnemünde. For the first time they are for the first time on the sea, the ferry taking them to their destination – Denmark. After two more hours on the train they arrive in Copenhagen, to spend one night before moving on. In this foreign country, everything is suddenly unfamiliar, even the beds. Everything is now unfamiliar, except for their pals.

“Each of you will go to another family, to another place,” Anne-Marie Nielsen explains. (Nielsen represented the Peace and Freedom League which secured foster families for the children in Denmark – editor’s note). A wave of disappointment, of anger perhaps. How could this happen? We wanted to be together! But that is not possible due to safety reasons. Too many Jewish children in one place might provoke suspicion.

Dita and her friends got each a piece of paper with the name of their village on it. They are going by train, watching the landscape outside. It is so different from Czech countryside. This one is so incredibly mellow. No hills, no mountains, no forests. Just green and grey plains, with a farmhouse every here and there. “My piece of paper said Rislev. Mrs Nielsen told me to say goodbye to my friends. I got off at a station with just a tin shelter, looking out for my foster parents. There was no-one. Just me and the fields stretching far, not a single house to be seen. I didn’t know what to do. Where to go? That was a terrible moment, being alone, so far from home. After about an hour, another train came and three girls got off. I tried to speak German to them and one of them responded: ‘You must be the one that’s supposed to come to our place today.’ Things became clear then: their parents were waiting for me in another village. This girl took me to their farm called Nielsminde, walking her bike along,” Dita, who is now eighty-eight, remembers.

No time to write
A large farmhouse. A room with one bed, one shelf and a window looking out on a dusty road. This is now Dita’s world. She has to get used to a strict order observed by the Danish household. She did all the jobs that were needed. “Sitting in school in Prague was such a drag, while working in the fields was quite a different thing. I enjoyed it so much. Feeding the chickens, cooking lunch, taking care of children, cleaning up the kitchen. And in the evening I hit the sack. There was no time for sorrows. Only at the beginning I felt homesick when I read letters from home. My parents would go on why I wrote to them so little. How could I? I was run off my feet all day. Only many years later I would realize what my letters had meant to them. It was only through the letters that they knew I was safe and sound,” Dita says.

Dita with her foster family in Rislev

Messages from home arrive several times a week. The postman stops by the farm and Dita opens another letter. Mommy keeps worrying about the freezing cold in Denmark. Yes, it is freezing, it is the hardest winter in the last forty years but Dita does not mention this in her letters. She much rather describes how she goes to the fields at five in the morning, harvesting beets. “I didn’t even have proper trousers, just thin tights. We didn’t have much stuff, let alone money, but I was not bothered by that. I was having a good time in Denmark, except of the food. Their eating is somewhat upside down; for instance, we have potatoes, sauce and meat, while they have it the other way round. They have a piece of bread and then cold fish. I had to get used to it but that was no problem. When you come from elsewhere, you have to adjust. We didn’t dwell on these things. We hoped we would soon leave and that kept us going, it was a consolation for me and my peers.”

Another escape
Time in Denmark would pass quickly, to the rhythm of everyday chores, until October 1943 when the Nazis decided to get hold of all Jews residing in Denmark. “Someone from the village warned me, told me I had to leave at once. I grabbed a few things and was gone. I kept pedaling, on and on, all the way to the coast. I ran into a few friends on my way. When we reached one fishing village, we saw lots of people there. They all wanted to flee. We had to pay and only then the fishermen would take us onboard. We survived the twelve-hour journey, squished underdeck (usually, the journey from Denmark to Sweden takes an hour; it took so long because of Nazi patrols on the sea back then – editor’s note).

I found a job in Hedemora, working on a farm again, just like my friends who rented a former rural schoolhouse where they stayed together. I felt, however, that I would prefer another kind of job. I had always been involved with children. So I found myself a job as a children’s nurse in Helsingborg hospital. In summer 1945 I went to Ramlösa, a spa where concentration camp survivors were recovering. They needed someone who could translate from Polish. I couldn’t speak Polish but that was no problem, Czech and Polish are similar. After two months I found a job in a kindergarten in Helsingborg and then things went fast. I met my future husband, Ragnar. He is Catholic and he had little idea about Judaism. And Bohemia? None at all! But that didn’t matter. We got married in 1951, then children came and all the things which kept us busy.
Dita and Ragnar

I only found out after the war what had happened with my folks. I could not believe that they had all died, even my younger brother. The only ones that survived were my aunt and cousin. I could not return to Czechoslovakia for years because of the Communists. It was only in the late 1950s that I could visit. We could feel the lack of freedom in Czechoslovakia; Communists were checking every single foreigner. In 1989 the Communist regime fell and this was all over. That was beautiful,” Dita smiles and plays a song on the piano, a tune she remembers from home, from the Great Operetta.

Dita with small bell. A symbol of her connection with other friends from wartime

Here are few photos of Dita with our film crew, filming in Rislev nearby Naestved. Photos by Rachael Cerrotti

pátek 17. května 2013

One Face, Too Many Stories

Written by Judita Matyášová, for Lidovky.cz
Translated by Ann Steiner (Nemka)

Sometimes I spend months exploring a  story and imagining the face of the person in the story. What are the eyes like, what does she look like when she smiles? Finally I see the face in the corner of a passport or a school photo and the story and picture connect for me.

This time, I found the face of Marianna, the mother of one of the children who was saved during the war. Yesterday I found out what her story was. I was aware that in the past it was not easy for women to have a career. Many women had the dream, but very few were able to achieve it and become independent. The norm was that women at that time stayed home as housewives.
Yesterday the daughter of Marianna spoke to me for the first time about her story. “ My mother was different from the others. She married at the age of thirty four, which at that time was considered very late. But she was extremely independent and in her twenties she became a master tailor and started her own salon. She had a large apartment near the old town square in Prague with one room serving as a workroom and another used to meet with lady customers. She had five seamstresses working for her and they would make dresses to order. Ladies would show her pictures from French fashion magazines and she and her team would create the dresses. She was very talented and creative and she loved her work.
Marianna was too busy to date but one day she saw an ad in the paper. Max Federer was over forty, a Doctor of Chemistry and looking for a bride. He was offering to meet a lady and so she decided to answer the ad. So Marianna met him at a café wearing a red rose for identification. Her friend came with her and hid nearby to make sure she was safe. The meeting was a success and they married a month later. A year later their daughter Ann was born and was called Nemka by everyone.
Marianna was extremely busy and had to hire extra help to make everything work. Still, it became too much and she and Max decided to close the salon.

In the 1936 census, Marianna was listed as a housewife. A few years later that didn’t matter. The thing that did matter was the letter “J”- Jude beside their names.

In 1939 Marianna and Max managed to send their daughter Nemka, who was now fourteen, to Denmark for safety. Every week they were able to send letters to Nemka, but in 1942 Nemka received one last letter. It was a hastily written message. “ We’re going to Terezin, do not worry about us.” No other letters were ever received.

Nemka looked out the window at the peaceful life in Naestved, Denmark and it seemed so quiet and normal. The only person who understood how she felt was Carl, a friend also from Czechoslovakia. They shared a common bond and then the next seventy years together.
The first time I spoke to Ann Steiner was in January of 2012. She lives in a small town in Ontario, Canada. I wanted to contact her earlier but hesitated. Her husband Carl died half a year before and I thought it was too early to remember the times when they first met. When I did contact her, she was pleased and willing to share her memories of the past. Then she said, “You know, I don’t really know what happened to my parents; I am aware that they didn’t survive. They were in Terezin and may have been sent somewhere in Estonia.”
I ask myself, “ But is it good to know? How much and with how many details?”
I ask her, “Do you really want to know?”


“I think there might be something in the film by Lukas Pribyl, Forgotten Transports to Estonia.

I send Nemka the message that there is a film and also an historical study.

Nemka writes, “ What is on the film? Are my parents there?”

I watch the film and look at the story of the transport of thousands of people. A few days in Terezen and then on the train to Estonia. Just a common place, nothing special. They get off the train. They are told,”Older people left, younger people right.” The older ones are by a deep pit. There is continuous shooting and piles and piles of corpses.
There is also an historical study about the transport which is very detailed and factual. It is very difficult for me to read the first page. I think of Marianna, I think of that face. I think of a beautiful mother holding her daughter. It is hard to turn the page. Photos of the piles of bodies: legs, arms. Maybe Marianna is lying there. It is not just some bones and skin; they are people who had names and dreams and destinies.

Now, what to do? Should I send the book and film to Nemka? I struggle over what to do for three days.

“Dear Nemka”, I start to write but don’t know how to continue. “ Dear Nemka, I read a few pages from the book and I couldn’t read anymore. The film, I couldn’t watch it.’

She writes back, “ I understand, don’t send it.”

A huge relief.

I look at the face of Marianna and I want her story to be remembered.