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