Lost Luggage

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For my Czech homework last week I had to read an email about a lost suitcase; it was not vocabulary we had done in class, but I recognised it immediately. I had been reading about suitcases and lost possessions all week, but not about situations at airports that any traveller might face, vocabulary that would be useful for the tourist to the Czech Republic; I had been reading about the seizure of Alice’s possessions by the secret services. Among the most recent documents I have been sent is a series of letters written by both Alice and her sister, Eva, after Alice’s release and acquittal and the acknowledgement that she had been wrongly arrested and convicted.

On the 18th June 1951, a group of security service personnel arrived at the flat that Alice and Eva shared in Prague II on banks of the Vlatva River at what was then called Nábřeží Kyjevské Brigády (now Nábřeží Ludvíka Svobody). They arrested Alice and took her away; she would spend the next four years in prison. When Eva had returned home from work that day, she found Alice gone and five or six members of the security forces searching the flat. They were there in total for twenty four hours, working in shifts, and when they finally left, they sealed Alice’s room. After they had gone, Eva spent hours trying to return the flat to its usual state.

Four months later, in October, Eva was informed that her lease on the flat had been terminated and that she would have to move out. Dr Josef Laufer took over the flat and Eva was forced to move into one room; she stored some her possessions and some of Alice’s and Erwin’s in cases in the the basement. Alice’s room remained sealed. There were several subsequent visits by the security forces, when they made inventories, went through all the possessions and again sealed Alice’s room and the cellars. One day, over a year later, Eva returned home to find that they had been for one final time and removed all Alice’s possessions, including some belonging to Eva and to Erwin and taken them to the official government warehouse for the district. They gave her a list of the items removed, but Eva had no way of verifying them – they had gone.

On her release, in June 1955, Alice mounted a campaign to have her possessions returned to her. It would not be easy. Some were essential to her future, such as her degree certificates, others had huge sentimental value, such as the family photographs and the rest were what make a home. Had Alice’s possessions not been confiscated I would never have known details of their dinner service and glass ware. Erwin had moved to Geneva with little more than a suitcase of personal items, all the familiar objects that make up the fabric of a life had been left with Alice.

It is surprising how much meaning a list of items can have. At first, I was struck by the detail and value of the possessions, and knowing Alice was a committed communist, found a slight irony in her insistence on the exhaustive list of expensive items. But value is not only about money, the value we place on our possessions is far more than this. We take for granted the history that surrounds us, the memory of where something was bought, the association of gifts or family treasures passed on.

I can’t imagine how it feels to have spent four years in a prison cell, stripped of everything; not only physically but psychologically. For those four years she was not a lawyer, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a member of the communist party, a citizen. She was nothing. And then she was released, and finally it was acknowledged that she should never have been arrested and imprisoned at all. She was not a spy, she was not guilty. Yet, on her return to the world, her life was not returned to her. She was not allowed to regain her communist membership, her flat was inhabited by someone else, all her documents were gone, all her possessions were gone. She did have her sister and mother and friends, but she wanted her independence, her own life back, not just to be dependant on others.

So, reading her long letter with the attached list of possessions I begin to see a different way in which they were important. They were part of who she was, they were her history and her identity and she needed it returned. Some of the items were clearly bought with Erwin, there was a man’s silver cigarette case and a woman’s gold cigarette case, his and hers. There was a Swiss alarm clock and a gold Longine watch, presumably bought during their visits to Noel Field in Geneva. There was a great deal of Rosenthal china, lead crystal, paintings and Persian carpets from Bokhara, some inherited from her mother.

When Alice looked at the inventories completed by the security services, she saw the deceit they had practised, undervaluing items, miscounting them and claiming they were damaged or dirty. Many had been sold at the national Antique shop, presumably along with the belongings of other political prisoners. They were sold for a fraction of their value and Alice was even forced to buy back some of her own dinner service in case it was sold on before she could reclaim it. Her final demand in the letter is her refusal to pay for the cost of ‘storing’ her items during her imprisonment.

Reading through the inventory of items, I have thought a lot about Alice and the home she once had. But I have had a much more personal experience. In our flat in Geneva, when I was a child, we had Rosenthal china, lead crystal bowls, Persian rugs and oil paintings. I had never really thought about the choices of china, glass and other decorations, but now I do think about it. Our flat was not like the ones of our American and Swiss friends in Geneva, it was like the homes of our Czech friends. My father recreated the world he knew and although, once divorced, he left behind all the possessions he had collected and cared for, including his medical text books and many of his clothes, he never completely left the world of his youth behind.

Erwin and Alice were separate, they never communicated again after the divorce. Those of Erwin’s possessions that were left in Czechoslovakia fell into the hands of the security police. Erwin was in Geneva with me and my mother, entertaining friends and colleagues in the flat on the quay, overlooking the lake. Alice had moved from her quayside apartment, which had been taken from her, and she and Eva entertained friends and comrades in their apartment in Vezenska Street in Prague old town. Yet in their separate lives Alice and Erwin both still ate off Rosenthal plates.

rosenthal

Friends Forever

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Helena Petrankova (on the right) and her assistant Vasilina Masarova-Ljachova.

Telephones were rare in Ruzomberok in the 1920s, so for those who had them, they were a real novelty. Two young girls, Alice Glasnerova and Helena Ackermanova lived in houses on opposite sides of the road, they could wave to each other from the windows, and it would only have taken a minute for them to meet and talk, but the excitement of the new technology was too great to resist. Alice would wave across to Helena, who would then know she was about to telephone and be prepared to answer on the first ring. Such excitement to be able to chat to your friend without ever leaving your house.

Alice and Helena, were firm friends, even though Helena was a year ahead of her at school, the Pierist Catholic school that both girls attended. They were quite a pair, both daring and full of life. They were very clever girls and ready to question traditional views and the status quo- the telephone was not the only aspect of modern life that they embraced. As they were Jewish, they were excused from the school’s religious instruction, but went to the rabbi instead. However, after several “ideological clashes” between the two girls and the rabbi, he asked Alice’s father not to send his daughter for further instruction!

When Helena was in the seventh grade and Alice in the sixth, a new professor came to the school – Professor Martinec, a left wing social democrat, who had already fallen foul of the authorities, but who did not temper his views once transferred to their school in Slovakia. Not only did he bring to life the Latin classes and classical literature he taught, he gave Marxist literature to any willing to learn. These included Alice and Helena, also Eduard Urx, later to become an editor of Rude Pravo, the Czech communist newspaper.

edvard urx

The influence of Professor Martinec would be with Alice and Helena to the end of their lives. To the horror of their socially ambitious and very ladylike mothers, who had quite other ambitions for their daughters, Alice and Helena socialised with the boys of the town, going with them on excursions up to the mountains and discussing politics and the new ideas that were inspiring them. The other person, who fell under the spell was Eva, Alice’s younger sister, who idolised both Alice and Helena and would remain close to both throughout her life.

Alice and Helena were great friends, but Helena was important to Alice in other ways. Coming from a family of eight children, and one which despite their telephone, did not enjoy the wealth and privilege in which Alice was brought up, made Helena much more aware of the lives of those less fortunate than herself. Through her, Alice too benefited from this understanding and began to see the reality behind the Marxist theory she was reading.

When they completed their schooling, Helena and Alice both went to Prague to study, Alice to study law and Helena to become a pharmacist. Their interest in and commitment to left wing causes never wavered, and by the 1930s, when both were married working women (now Alice Kohnova and Helena Petrankova) they had joined the communist party.

In 1937 both volunteered to help the Republican cause in Spain and ended up working together for much of the time at the Comenius Hospital in Benicasim. When Franco’s troops overran the hospital, Helena and Alice escaped, returning briefly to Czechoslovakia until the Munich Agreement forced them both again to flee. Alice went to the safety of the USA and Helena fled to Poland, where she joined with other emigres, first in Poland and then in the USSR. She joined Svoboda’s army, working as a pharmacist on the Eastern Front. She was one of five women in the Czech battalion.

After the war, they were reunited and worked with renewed enthusiasm for the new Communist regime in Czechoslovakia. For a short time they were at the heart of their country’s post-war resurgence, but the very qualities that had brought them there, were also the ones that exposed them to the most ironic and cruel of fates. These two intelligent, resourceful and well educated professional women, along with many others, were seen as a threat. Their travel abroad, their very independence and intelligence and the fact they were Jewish, all counted against them. Unfortunately too, they were both connected to Noel Field and so when Stalin started to insist on the witch hunt for a spy ring in the midst of the party, they were both arrested. Their years in prison, suffering interrogation and torture, sometimes at the hands of former comrades made them reassess all they had known since those first days in school in Ruzomberok.

As loyal party members, they would have been keen to co-operate, in the belief that a terrible error had occurred, but those who arrested them were not interested in the truth, they just wanted confessions. Many of those who carried out the interrogations, which could go on throughout the night, with the interrogators working in shifts, did not even believe the truths they were told. The party had deliberately chosen young, uneducated and boorish men and women to conduct interrogations and act as guards. Artur London, one of the defendants in the Slansky trial who knew both Alice and Helena well, in his account of his imprisonment (The Confession), describes the disbelief that any of them could have worked for the French resistance without direct orders and organisation from the party. The interrogators had never even been out of Czechoslovakia.

Marian Slingova, wife of another of the Slansky defendants, Otto Sling, has written about her time in prison (Truth Will Prevail) where for a time she shared a cell with Helena and remembered it as one of the only positive aspects of her imprisonment. They able to give each other great comfort and strength, and she admired Helena’s bravery and resilience both in prison and for what she had endured during the war. The worst aspect for all those imprisoned during this time was that their very own comrades and country were treating them in many ways worse than the fascists against whom they had fought during the war. They had to face physical pain and inhuman conditions that left most of those who survived with long term health conditions, but worse than this, they had to question the whole basis of their beliefs.

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Helena and Alice, with Pepik (Dora Klein’s son), who kindly sent me this picture.

After their release and rehabilitation, both Alice and Helena fought to have their party membership reinstated. Their faith in the people who ran the party may have been shaken to the core, but their belief in the ideals of communism remained strong. It took until 1962 for Alice to have her party membership returned and there seemed to be some hope for the future as the Slansky trials were shown to have been the sham they were and hundreds of those wrongly imprisoned were released and exonerated.

However, the consequences of those years remained with them always, not only in their memories and nightmares, but every day within their bodies. Alice had been released early from her sentence in 1955 on medical grounds, and although the release probably saved her life, it did not save her health. Ten years later, in 1965, she retired on health grounds. She had pain in her spine and her legs and frequently suffered from bronchitis, a legacy from the tuberculosis she had contracted while in prison. Her hospital report, dated 23 July 1968, states, “It can be assumed that these diseases were caused by imprisonment between 1949-50 and 1951-55, because she was subjected to countless night interrogations and also for the lack of basic hygiene, lack of food, total mismanagement and finally untreated jaundice during her stay in Ruzyne prison.”

The medical treatment Alice received in 1968 did alleviate her symptoms and although she continued to suffer throughout her life, she lived on for another 18 years. Helena was not to be so lucky. 1968, that year that seemed to offer political hope at last, when it looked as if the communist state could also be a free and liberal state, would be tragic in more ways than one. Despite her own poor health, Alice spent more time in hospital visiting others than on her own behalf. Her mother fell ill that year and died, and Helena too became dangerously ill. She was moved to the Thomayer Hospital in Prague and at first, was still allowed to go out on a Sunday to have lunch with Alice. But as her condition worsened, she was confined to her hospital bed.

Both women rejoiced at the changes taking place within their country; at last the hope of the society to which they had dedicated their lives looked as if it would become a reality. Only Alice was to experience the final crushing disillusionment when Soviet troops invaded on the 21st August. Helena was so ill that no-one had the heart to tell her what had occurred, and five days later, on August 26th, she died, still believing in the hope for which she had given her life.

On what would have been her eightieth birthday, an article celebrating her life was published and described, “her inexhaustible optimism, her extraordinary lack of self-pity …. her ability to laugh in the face of life’s hardships. For in her philosophy, complaining and whining never helped anyone. The energy expended on self-pity can be put to much better use – for the benefit of those who really need it.

”

Additional Information:
from the archive of the Jewish Museum in Prague.
Col. (Ret.) PhMr. Helena PETRÁNKOVÁ left Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1937 to help the Spanish Republicans as a member of the J. A. Komenský Field Hospital staff in response to an initiative of the Czechoslovak Society of Friends of Democratic Spain. After returning to Czechoslovakia, she decided to leave for Cracow, Poland, in July 1939. In February 1940, she went to the Stalingrad region, where she worked until January 1942; she then left for Buzuluk. It was there that she enlisted in the First Czechoslovak Independent Field Battalion in the USSR. After the unit’s reorganization as a brigade in Novochopersk in May 1943, she was assigned to head the brigade’s pharmacy. In this post, she participated in all First Czechoslovak Army Corps operations in the USSR. She excelled in the difficult conditions of the Carpathian Operation at Dukla.

Edvard Urx was arrested by the Gestapo in 1941, imprisoned in Pankrac Prison, then transferred to Terezin and finally to Mathausen concentration camp, where he was killed in 1942.

For more about Noel Field, the Slansky Trials, Dora Klein and Alice’s experiences in Spain, see earlier blogs.

Sources:
Slingova, Marian, Truth Will Prevail (Merlin Press, London 1968)
London, Artur, (Translated by Hamilton, Alexander) The Confession (New York 1970)
Tauchmanova, Milena, Memoir
Documents from the Czech National Archive

A Fateful Triangle- Erwin, Noel Field and Alice

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Palais des Nations, Geneva. HQ of World Health Organisation until 1966.

A fateful triangle which ended a marriage, but not in the conventional way. No romance or sexual dalliance. It was far more dangerous than that. The relationship between Erwin, Noel Field and Alice would at first bring good fortune, but in time its sinister consequences would rise from the dark political depths of the Cold War. I knew about Alice’s connection to Noel Field, but I had not understood the minute and specific detail of the ways in which the fates of all three were intertwined.

Of course, the fractures in Alice and Erwin’s marriage existed before either of them met Noel Field. Alice had long been a member of the Communist Party and had left Erwin for a year to volunteer in Spain, saying in her farewell letter to him, “we belong to two different worlds”. However, she did return in 1938 and joined him in America for the duration of the war. They remained together for a further ten years and it was only during the fateful days of Noel Field’s downfall that they were brought to that final, irrevocable moment of choice.

It was Herman Field whom Alice met first, in 1940 in America. Her work with the International Workers Order brought her into contact with many other communists from both Europe and America. Herman was one of these, an architect, and like his brother Noel, deeply disturbed by fascism. As a result, they had both committed themselves to the cause of communism, as it was the first movement to challenge fascist ideology in Europe during the Spanish Civil War. In 1939 he helped Communists to emigrate from Czechoslovakia to the US and this is how he met Alice, who was also working directly to help fellow Czechs to emigrate.

However, unlike his brother Noel, Herman’s involvement was entirely humanitarian. Noel had a far more direct political motivation. Initially he worked as a state department official with the League of Nations, but from 1940 he took up a post with the newly formed Unitarian Service Committee in Europe, helping refugees from fascist persecution in a more formal capacity. This was not all. Since 1935 Noel had also been working for the Soviets, passing on information and even on one occasion, being instrumental in collaborating with an assassination, of a so-called ‘traitor’ Ignaz Reiss. In 1945, when Alice finally met Noel Field, it is unlikely that she was aware of this dimension of his activities.

Noel Field was impressed by Alice, he described her as a “well-known and very active comrade in New York” and suggested that she might like to join him in the USC and head a medical mission to Czechoslovakia. Alice was not interested in the post for herself, she hoped for a more direct role within the Czech government. The victory for the Communist Party victory in the 1946 election had seen many of her former colleagues and comrades take up the reins of government and she wanted to be a part of that. Instead, she suggested Erwin, who with his medical background was far more suited to the role. Field agreed, although he was less taken with Erwin. In his interrogation he describes him as, “a sympathiser, but inclined to turn away from politics,.. a great egoist.”

After Erwin’s appointment to the USC, both Alice and Erwin met the Fields on many occasions. Erwin stayed with the Fields when visiting Geneva in 1946 and wrote to thank them for their hospitality, “thanking you once again for your great kindness in helping me to do my job and, above all, for all you did to make my stay in Switzerland such a delightful one…Thank-you for every minute that I was allowed to spend with you.”

Interestingly, only a few months earlier Howard L.Brooks (Director of the USC) had sent round a memo addressed to Erwin and Noel Field requesting them to take part in a survey to investigate, “alleged discrimination against other groups in favor (sic) of Communists.” Brooks was dismissive of the allegations saying, “The Committee does not place much credence in this report.” and he clearly did not suspect the source of the discrimination to be Field or he would not have asked him to take part in the survey. Erwin and Noel Field continued to correspond, and on June 27 1947 went together on a visit to Piekary in Poland to visit a USC project.

I have searched for evidence that Erwin may have known about or suspected Field’s activities on behalf of the Soviets and the closest I have come is an oblique reference in a letter to Howard Brooks on August 10th 1948,
“I had a long talk with Noel and Herta last night, and it was only then that I fully realised all the great changes that have taken place since I left. It is impossible for me to comment on all these things without knowing exactly what the facts and details are, nor the background and reasons for all the decisions.” Only a week earlier, on August 3rd, Whittaker Chambers had appeared before the House Committee for Un-American activities (HUAC) and named Alger Hiss as a spy. Hiss had then warned Field, and by October, Field himself had been named. It is too much of a coincidence that Erwin should have spent time with Field at this crucial moment in his life and not been aware of the allegations against him.

The events in Washington and the accusations against Alger Hiss meant that Noel Field no longer felt it was safe for him to return to the USA. He feared that he too would be summoned to appear in front of HUAC and one of the people to whom he turned for assistance was Alice. On October 15th, Field was named in the American press for his involvement in spying, and on the 28th of that month, he visited Alice in Prague requesting her support in his request for permission to stay in Czechoslovakia. Alice was then working for Czechoslovak Hotels, a job linked to the government, but this role was not as influential as the one she had previously held in the cabinet office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Vilem Siroky. Her dismissal from this post a month earlier, in September, and her movement to the job with Czech Hotels should have served as a warning to her. She no longer enjoyed the same trust and confidence from her colleagues. Either unaware of the danger signs or choosing to ignore them when Field came to ask for her help, she agreed to support his application.

Alice was a loyal member of the party and, although she wrote supporting his application, she also reported her contacts with Noel Field to Antonin Jandus, an official for the District Committee of the Communist Party. According to his report, Alice asked what attitude she should take to Field. She was concerned that he had been given an extension to his passport by the US Embassy and Alice felt that this was suspicious, as she was aware of the circumstances surrounding him in the USA. Alice continued to report to Jandus about her contacts with Field. She informed him when Field left Czechoslovakia just before Christmas 1948 and of his plans to return in the New Year.

On May 5th 1949 Field returned to Prague from Paris and Alice arranged for him to stay in the Pallace Hotel. However, on 11th May, just after another meeting between Alice and Jandus, Field was found to be missing. His baggage and mail were still at the hotel, but he had gone. He had been arrested by the Hungarian secret police and taken to Budapest for questioning.

From this point on, Alice’s fate was sealed. Field was interrogated in Hungary as were Geyza and Charlotte Pavlik, accused of being his associates. Ironically the Soviet spy, with his favouring of communists, was accused of being a spy for the Americans and all his communist contacts were implicated in his spy ring. Stalin had chosen to use him as a way of terrorising and purging the hierarchy of the Czech communist party.

The Pavliks were tortured and forced to confess to an imperialist international spy ring. On June 23rd, Alice was arrested and questioned for an hour by the StB, the Czech Secret Police, and finally on July 10th she was arrested and imprisoned.

The contact with Noel Field had been disastrous for Alice. For Erwin, his involvement with the USC had led to close ties with doctors in the World Health Organisation (WHO) and in February 1949, he had been offered a permanent post there in their headquarters in Geneva. Alice had tried to dissuade him from taking the job and refused to accompany him. So, as he settled to a new life in the freedom and plenty of Switzerland, the prison walls closed around Alice.

These are the facts, the questions remain. How much did Alice know about Field’s activities as a spy? Was she aware of the mounting suspicions in her own party about him? When did Erwin start to suspect Field and was he aware of the danger that posed to Alice? And why, when he had to answer an eight page questionnaire about his links to the Communists did no-one ask about Field?

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Ruzyne Prison, Prague.

Sources:

  • https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/DOC_0005417980.pdf
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noel_Field
  • Der Fall Noel Field Schlüsselfigur der Schauprozesse in Osteuropa 1948-1957: Band 1Gefängnisjahre 1949-1954 (Zeitzeugen) (Sondereinband – 2. Mai 2003)
  • Marton, Kati, True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy (New York 2016)
  • Erwin Kohn’s Response to the Interrogatory to the International Organisations Employees Loyalty Board
  • Tauchmanova, Milena Memoir
  • Correspondence from the USC Archive, Andover Theological Library, Harvard.
  • Documents from the Czech National Archive.

Zilina – Then and Now

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Walking through the streets of Zilina last week I tried to imagine myself back in time, to the years between the wars when it was still home to my family, when my father was a schoolboy, later a young doctor. I wanted to look beyond the graffitied concrete and the two modern shopping centres and concentrate on the narrow streets and once imposing buildings. The arcaded town square wasn’t so different, could I picture him in his wide trousered suit, greeting friends, patients, relatives, as he went through from his own house on Masaryk Street to his father’s tailor shop on Horny Val? Could I imagine Alice, hurrying across from one political meeting to another, calling in the shops, meeting friends, working as the first female lawyer in Zilina?

I was there, for the first time, in order to attend the memorial to the Jews from Zilina who were killed in the Holocaust. The invitation had come and I had to accept. I wasn’t sure what to expect. The first event on the Saturday afternoon was a book signing in the Rosenfeld Palace just opposite the newly restored synagogue. As I sat in the elegance of the mirrored room, I heard nothing but Slovak and a small anxiety that the whole week-end would be in a language I could barely understand, began to grow. I had expected people to have come from all over the world. As I sat and listened to the discussion in Slovak, I found I could follow vaguely the topic of the conversation, but not the detail. At least I knew who the main organisers of the reunion were – Peter and Pavel Frankl.

The evening session was in the synagogue, which has been restored and is now a community space for Zilina; for the Friday and Saturday after our arrival, it had been the centre of a Red Cross event for young people. Now, it was laid with trestle tables and food, a bar was open, a pianist played Jewish songs and music. I introduced myself to Peter Frankl and he immediately recognised me as the person who had been emailing him. From that moment, we were talking about my father and what we both knew about him. As we were speaking, his nephew David came to act as translator. David worked in England and I turned to speak to him, but before I could say a word, I was given a microphone so I could introduce myself to the whole group and David translated my words. I explained who my father and grand-parents were and about Alice. Within moments, people came up to me to say we were cousins. We pored over family trees together and talked about where they lived.

zilina synagogue

The people in the room had indeed come from all over the world, and they all spoke Slovak. Most had been born in Zilina shortly after the war, in 1946-7 and had known each other since childhood, were old school friends, and had then been separated. They were the children of the survivors, those who had either hidden in the mountains or been deported so late that they had survived the camps. Most had later left, as adults, some happened to be abroad in 1968 and never returned and only in recent years have they been able to meet annually in what had been their home town. In the early years of the reunion, their parents had still been alive, the generation who might have remembered my father. Now the second generation was ageing and they know it is only a matter of time before no-one will remember the life of the Jewish community in Zilina. How had it been for those returning to settle after the war, finding their houses occupied by others and most of their friends and family no longer there at all? It was not something my father felt he could do, but then he had a life elsewhere, those who returned, had only ever known Zilina.

There was a strange dislocation between the life I was touching in the newly restored synagogue, beneath the dome decorated with an overarching star of David, listening to the only rabbi in Slovakia singing a Hebrew blessing and the history as presented outside the warm circle of memories in the room. When we had arrived in Zilina the previous day we went straight out to explore and in the huge new main square was a statue of Andrej Hlinka, Catholic priest, Slovak nationalist and founder of the Slovak People’s Party. His successor, the notorious fascist Josef Tiso, collaborated with the Germans and was responsible for the deportation of the Jews. His military force had been the Hlinka Guard, named in honour of his predecessor. In fact, I first heard of Hlinka when reading the memoir about Alice. Hlinka came from Ruzomberok and Alice’s first political act was to defy a strike organised in support of Hlinka. Now, here he was, in pride of place in one of the main squares of the town. Slovaks revere him for his nationalism, but nationalism and Catholicism were hand in hand with anti-semitism.

From the square we had walked into the main shopping centre where we found a display celebrating 700 years of Ruzomberok. I scanned through, making vague sense of the key events and found a strange gap between 1938 when Slovakia became a client state of Nazi Germany and 1944 when there was a Slovak uprising. The introduction of anti-semitic laws and mass deportation of Jews in 1942 were not mentioned at all. I found myself looking at everyone I passed in the street and wondering how their parents and grand-parents had behaved in those years. And they themselves, how had they voted in recent elections? The current government of Slovakia is mired in allegations of corruption and the right wing People’s Party – Our Slovakia – is gaining ground. Thinking back to the thriving town, populated by Jewish lawyers, doctors and entrepreneurs and seeing the rather sleepy empty streets of present day Zilina, I felt I was only seeing a shadow of the town it had once been.

On Sunday we attended the memorial service in the meeting room of the Jewish cemetery. The iron gates to the cemetery had been locked on Saturday when we went to visit, on Sunday they stood open and we walked up the peaceful tree lined path into the memorial space. Inside, all four walls are completely covered by names. I searched for the ones I wanted to see, there they were – Leopold Kohn and Ernestina Kohnova, in the middle of the main wall, just behind the lectern.IMG_0634

I have known since I was 18 that my grandparents died in the Holocaust, but somehow, seeing their names there amongst their relatives and friends, in the midst of their community, brought home to me more than a personal loss. Not just grand-parents I never knew, but a lost world. These names are almost all that is left of Jewish Zilina, and Zilina was only one of thousands of communities that no longer exist. There are descendants, spread throughout the world, there are the words and memories preserved in the books written by them and there is a restored synagogue, no longer a place of worship. Are the current citizens of Zilina reminded of the community they have lost, that their parents and grand-parents may have helped to destroy, when they meet beneath that star of David?

My father moved from New York to Zilina when he was nine. His parents had met and married in America, but both came from Slovakia and although they had relatives in America, their roots were in Zilina. Their families could trace their ancestry back for generations and when they returned, it was to a far reaching network of cousins: the Kohn, Langfelder and Popper families intertwined back through the centuries, as can be seen in the many graves of the Jewish cemetery. Leopold and Ernestine were returning home, but for Erwin, it was a different world. Having been educated in English in an American school, he soon found himself in the Zilina Statna Realna Skola, being taught in Hungarian. I know his parents had spoken to him in German when they lived in America, presumably they also spoke some Hungarian and Slovak to him. German was an essential part of the curriculum and Slovak was the language of the streets around him, but the schools taught in Hungarian. By the age of 13, he was fluent in English, German, Slovak and Hungarian, and by the age of 15 was scoring the highest grade (1) in his school report in German and Hungarian, as well as in French, chemistry and several other subjects. His score for Latin was a 2. His teacher’s comment on his 1913 school report was, “You may go in the top class.” which presumably is where he was the following year. Amazingly, the school records for most of his school years still exist in the Zilina archive and I was able to read the very words of his teacher in the huge end of year ledgers.

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The school building also still exists, now part of Zilina university. Then, it was a new building, built in the Secessionist style, ornate and imposing. Now, it is rather dusty, some of its stonework is chipped, but the heavy oak doors through which my father walked, still welcome students in to study. It stood just across the street from what was then the new synagogue and many of its pupils were Jewish. In 1918, at the end of the war, Erwin went to Charles University in Prague to study Medicine, in German. He was away for ten years, studying first in Prague and then in Vienna. When he returned to Zilina to take up his medical practice, he worked in Kukucinova Street, just behind the main town centre, at an address I found in the 1930 telephone directory for Zilina. It is still a doctor’s surgery today, close to the hospital and two pharmacies. Later, he and Alice moved to a house in the main street leading down from the station to what is now Hlinka Square. Now it is a shop piled high with everything from household equipment to clothes. Then, their street was Masaryk Street, now it is Narodna Street. Running alongside the house is a passageway, which enabled two entrances to the building, one for Erwin’s patients at the front, and one for Alice’s clients at the side. The passage also offers an alternative exit route to the street at the rear of the house, which is presumably “the back door” to which Tauchmanova refers when describing their hurried departure in 1938. It was a very short walk from their house to the station.

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What would he have thought, my father, if he could have known I would be able to stand outside his school, his house, look at his school records, find his name in the telephone book? After the war he no longer wanted to live in Zilina, but after 1948 it was impossible even to visit. He could go to Vienna, but Czechoslovakia, the world of his adolescence and youth, was forbidden. And what of his parents? They were killed in the most degrading of circumstances, treated as if sub-human and incinerated. Yet their names remain, engraved in marble on a wall in the cemetery where their ancestors are buried, their lives celebrated every year in a memorial service. And now, visited by a grand-daughter they never knew, but who is beginning to know them.

 

Dual Heritage

IMG_0184img_01831.jpgMy father never drove, in my childhood it was always my mother who drove. She was the one at the wheel throughout our journeys across Switzerland, France and further afield. And our car, named Miranda, was a dark grey Mercedes. The sight of a German car in France was not a popular one in the 1950s and sometimes people spat as we drove past – ironic, in view of what my father and his family had suffered at the hands of the Nazis. But he still chose to have a German car because he believed they were the best. And every year we made the journey to our summer holiday destination – Austria, the Tyrol.

Erwin had a long and complex relationship with Austria; he studied in Vienna, completing a post-graduate degree there in 1928. Then, it was a city of contrasts, of conflict between the old and the new; on the one hand, the capital of a lost empire, on the other, a city filled with new ideas about psycho-analysis, about art and music. And while he studied in one of the oldest and most respected of medical faculties (founded in 1365), all around him he was aware of changes, of innovation and questioning of the old and the accepted. For the son of a tailor from Zilina, it was exhilerating.

In 1947, he returned there to find himself challenging the very institution in which he had studied nearly twenty years earlier. Following the success of the medical teaching mission to Czechoslovakia, the Unitarian Service Committee, set up a similar mission to Austria, but the suspicion and sensitivities in Austria were of quite a different scale from those they had encountered in Czechoslovakia.

In a letter to Howard Brooks (Associate Director of the USC), Erwin describes the mission’s early reception: “In spite of …. very elaborate preparations, we found that a great deal of misinformation and a great number of misconceptions still existed in Vienna until I personally arrived there on June 21st and until the main body of the Mission reached Vienna on June 28th.” Erwin worked hard, once again, to dispel doubts and suspicion, assuring the Austrian professors, “we approach our mission of good-will and friendship with all possible humility”. At first the atmosphere in Vienna could only be described as “correct” but in time trust was established so that, “At the end, not even a trace of the initial reserve was left.”

However, although relations thawed in Vienna and later, in Innsbruck, the reception in Graz was very different. Dr Maurice B. Visscher, chairman of the mission and Professor of Physiology at the University of Minnesota, wrote a report in which he spoke frankly of his impressions:
“Nominally all Nazis have been purged. Actually it is impossible to do so. The man who runs the medical school in Graz was said to be, by Dr Rak, Professor Leb. He derives his power from his position in the Catholic, now called People, party. He heads the Steirmark Medical division in that Party. Professor Artz in Vienna stands in a comparable position in Austria as a whole. Leb is said to have been an SS officer and a high Nazi. He is also said to be very anti-Semitic. It is amusing that according to Dr Rak our entire American contingent, except Cottrell, was judged by the Graz group to be Jewish. It is suggested that this was one reason for our unpopularity in Graz. It should be recorded that according to the same source one of our team was referred to by an Assistant as “that pig of a Jew”. Evidently the Nazi ideology is not dead in Graz.”

Yet through all this, despite, at times, a cold reserve, at others, outright hostility, the medical team persisted and Erwin did his best to smooth over inconveniences and difficulties. Unlike the Czechs the previous summer, Austria did not willingly embrace the new opportunities and ideas offered. Another member of the mission, Dr. Chester M. Jones, Clinical Professor of Medicine at Harvard, commented: “Energy is directed towards holding on to what remains, rather than forward progress, either in methods or in the utilisation of personnel.” He went on to describe the teaching as impersonal and didactic and the staff at Graz as being “self-satisfied and complacent”. Not only did they have a poor level of knowledge, they were unaware of their own ignorance and rejected what was offered, claiming to know it all already. His summary was damning, “What is left is more or less apathy, self-pity, and frustration, and these were altogether too clearly evident.

These personally critical comments did not appear in the final published report on the mission, but enough criticism was evident for Erwin to receive a letter of complaint from Dr Wolfgang Holzer, Director of the Psychiatric-Neurological Clinic in Graz. His reply shows that he had lost none of his talent for direct speaking, described by Alice in the Tauchmanova memoir. On this occasion, he expressed his views in a letter. Although I am tempted to quote it all, I shall restrict myself to the following paragraphs:

“I cannot help feeling that the reasons for your sharpest rejection of the tone and contents of the report are to be sought in the differences in background that make some people so sensitive – or shall I say intolerant? – to the very type of criticism that others not only take for granted but would not like to do without.

We have found it time and again that the professor in many a European country enjoys -or assumes- a somewhat sacrosanct position that is non-existent in our country and that precludes free discussion and criticism…in America a professor may endanger his prestige by not inviting the very type of discussion and criticism that is elsewhere barred to preserve prestige.”

The young man from Slovakia who concluded his studies in these once venerable institutions, had become the middle aged American who could see their flaws all too clearly and who was prepared to challenge them. Erwin described America as “our” country, and intellectually identified with the values and outlook of his professional colleagues, but Europe drew him back. He did not settle in America, at heart he was still a “mitteleuropean” and his love for the culture that developed from the old Habsburg Empire survived even the horrors of WW2. He taught my mother to cook chicken paprikas and Tafelspitz, the Viennese boiled beef classic. He listened to German music, read German books and in the holidays, he returned to Austria.

Our last holiday in Austria was in 1962. One afternoon, when we went to wake him after his afternoon rest, we found him on the floor, his book upended, his glasses open and lost on the carpet. He had suffered a massive heart attack.

We could have returned his body to Geneva, but Austria was as close to home as he was ever able to be. He was buried in a Tyrollean mountain graveyard in the small section reserved for non-Catholics. I visited it a few years ago, it was immaculate, with a gardener tending the bright planted flowers; the non-Catholic corner no longer existed. His grave had gone – if you don’t pay an annual fee, the graveyard authorities remove your headstone. Of course they do, it is most important for the graveyard to be neat and tidy.

Acknowledgements:
The Unitarian Service Archive at the Andover Theological Library, Harvard.

Return to Czechoslovakia

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The Andover Theological Library in Harvard is an imposing building. As I walked in through its large oak door, I imagined myself seated in a vaulted room surrounded by books or records. In fact, I had to walk through the older building to a modern wing, take a lift upstairs to a quiet corridor with ordinary offices opening on to it and finally arrive to be greeted by a helpful young woman who showed me to a small conference room with a large window. There, alone, I was given the many box files I had requested.

I was there to research my father’s work after the war, organising medical teaching missions to Europe, more specifically to Czechslovakia and Austria. The missions had been organised by the Unitarian Service Committee, hence their being placed in the Theological Library archive. The box files were full of reports, letters, press cuttings and photographs charting every aspect of the missions: page after page of closely typed sheets detailing every decision, impression, request, problem and the many successes. I was searching to find out more about those crucial months for Erwin and Alice, between the end of the war and the end of their marriage.

In the last years of the war, Alice was working in Pittsburgh for the International Workers’ Order and alongside her paid job, working on a voluntary basis to help refugees fleeing Nazi occupied Europe. Erwin was a medical officer with the US army, crossing the Elbe and involved in the final push with Gen.Patton to defeat the Germans. He was with the troops who liberated Buchenwald and was greeted there by schoolfriends he could no longer recognise; they had to explain to him who they were. There too, he found his uncle, so ill and so emaciated, that despite Erwin helping him to Bratislava to convalesce, he only survived for a few more months. I don’t know at what point he discovered that his own parents had not survived at all; they had been killed in Auschwitz in 1942.

As the Allied troops liberated Europe, Erwin took over the administration of the hospitals and derived a grim satisfaction from his seeing his own Jewish surname emblazoned over them as the officer in charge. I can’t imagine how it felt to see what he saw and understand what had taken place in the Europe he loved.

A year later he returned to Europe at the head of the medical teaching mission and met the politicians and doctors who had survived the war, and worked with them to bring expertise and help. The very idea of this, suggests a level of forgiveness and humanity that I find overwhelming. I sat and read what it involved, how he hard he had worked, often seven days a week, until the early hours of the morning and all because he retained a hope that the world would learn from the unspeakable acts of the past. My respect for the man who was to be my father took on a whole new dimension.

Of course, if anyone was to organise a medical teaching mission to Czechoslovakia, he was the ideal choice. He was an American citizen from birth, his birthday was the 4th of July -impossible to be more patriotic than that – and he had been an officer with the US army. However, he had lived in Czechoslovakia from the age of nine onwards, had attended secondary school there, graduated as a doctor from Charles University in Prague and completed his studies with a year’s post-graduate medical training in Vienna. He spoke Czech, Slovak, Hungarian and German completely fluently (as well as French and English). He could be trusted both by the Americans and by the Czechs. He understood the sensitivities of both sides and was the man to overcome the reservations each might have about the other.IMG_0159

A report in a Czech newspaper (translated in the USC archives) described him as follows: “Dr Erwin Kohn, executive director, was largely responsible for the sending of this mission to Czechoslovakia. Because his parents were Slovaks, he has great interest in our country where he also lived for a period of time… he is an unusually pleasant person, who expressed nothing but the greatest confidence in conditions here on the basis of his observations during the past two months.” Clearly, in public at least, he was entirely focused on building a new country, not dwelling on past crimes. However, the description of his links with Czechoslovakia and the glaring omissions in that brief account howl at me from the page

What effect did it have on him, revisiting the world in which he had spent most of his adult life and finding it changed forever? Based in Prague, where he had studied as a young man, met Alice and hoped for a democratic future for the country, he was now expected to liaise with the men who survived. His friends, all the Jewish students with whom he had studied and socialised, had either fled the country or been deported to concentration camps, most had died there. Of the 850 doctors recorded in Czechoslovakia in 1938, only 473 remained in 1946. (Report on Czechoslovakia by Dr Frank Gollan in USC Admin records 1941-54)

And yet, after the war, there was a sense that hope could be revived, Czechoslovakia once again had its own democratic government. Under the presidency of Edward Benes, a number of parties were represented, including the communist party, who had polled the largest share of the vote and of those, many were well known to Alice. She was keen to be involved. And Erwin might still have believed a life there together was possible. In an interview with Czech radio, he was asked about his reasons for organising the mission and replied, “I wanted to bring outstanding Americans to Czechoslovakia so that they could see what had been achieved here in just one year so that they could report on it in America.” He went on to to explain that in order for the mission to succeed they needed doctors “held in high esteem by the American people… because American papers do not always write the truth about Czechoslovakia.” On being asked whether his expectations for the mission had been realised he said, they were. They had seen “great things…done” during their visit and added, “They are already making fun of the so-called ‘iron curtain’ of which people talk so much in the west.”

In that year after the war, there was a brief window of possibility that Czechoslovakia would choose to be aligned with the west. They embraced the collaboration through the medical mission and seriously considered accepting the offer of the Marshall Plan, but then, at Stalin’s insistence and with the memory of the West’s betrayal at Munich still fresh in their mind, they rejected it. The iron curtain did indeed fall; Czechoslovakia had chosen the USSR, their ‘liberators’. Alice would elect to stay, Erwin felt he could not, and that metaphorical and yet impenetrable curtain would divide them forever.

Acknowledgements:
USC Archive at Andover Theological Library for the photograph and quotations.
M.Tauchmanová  Poznámka (Memoir) from Správce Archivního Souboru.

Next: The Mission to Austria – Nazis are Alive and Well and Living in Graz

 

 

 

Return to the Land of Milk and Honey

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July 8th 1938 in Port Bou. It is 9 o’clock in the evening, and and the night is already dark. The sky is gray-black from the clouds. A strong wind blows, even out to sea; everything is dark and evil. The large waves in the bay at Port Bou are whipping against the gray rocks with huge force, creating wonderful music. The storm is coming. Below are three figures who look to heaven. At the top of the twisting path there are six comrades. Five men and one woman.

The woman was Alice and these are her own words (via Google translate and some tidying up), describing the final exodus from Spain, as Franco’s troops overran the territories of the Republicans and the Communist Party ordered a withdrawal. The three figures below are the Spanish comrades who escorted them close to the border and waved them a final anxious farewell. Her male companions on the twisting path were an Englishman, a German and two Hungarians, father and son – almost the opening line of a joke. Perhaps a joke only someone with an appreciation for the black humour of Eastern Europe would be in a position to appreciate. The final member of the party was a Spaniard, guiding them up the rocky mountain to the border.

In February, when I first wrote about Alice’s escape from Spain, I only had a small part of her memoir, I now have it all, and crossing the border was just the beginning.

She describes the climb up the mountain, following their Spanish guide:
I can barely keep up with him. It is dark night, we cannot see anything, we skim about bushes, stones, ditches. I fall twice, my knee bleeds, but I keep on my way, we have to meet a friend at the frontier, we could lose our way. We reach the first houses of Cerbere. Street lamps dazzle us, we haven’t seen this much light for years. We hurry up into the village.

But she and the older Hungarian are slower than the others, his young son, Tibor, has disappeared from sight and they aren’t sure where to turn. Their Spanish guide is coming back towards them, he shows them the way, but he has to return the way they have come and slips down the mountain back to the darkness that awaits him. They follow his directions and come out on to a street. They see their companions, but they aren’t alone. There are five shapes in the darkness. They have walked straight into the hands of the French gendarmes and it is too late to turn back.

Instead of spending that first night away from the war enjoying the bounty of peaceful France, they spend it in cells, the four men in one and Alice alone in another. The morning brings breakfast, white bread, soup and cheese, delicacies after the year in Spain but they have no appetite. Worse than contemplating her own fate, Alice worries for her German and Hungarian comrades, will they be sent back to Hitler and Horthy?

The morning also brings a change of scene; the prisoners are to be taken to prison in Perpignan for entering France without a visa. They are to travel by train and the four men and Alice are escorted to the station, where their arrival causes a furore. Tickets are bought for them by one of the gendarmes, who is then forced to explain to the train driver what their crime had been:

He tells him that we have crossed the Spanish-French border without the prescribed papers. And then we are surrounded by passengers, excited and outraged, “Can’t you release them? They helped the Spanish people, gave their lives for an idea, and you are still punishing them! If they were fighting fascists you should accept them with open arms!”…..The gendarme, desperate to get his charges away on the train, screams in reply, “What is Spain to them?” We say to him that if Spain falls, one day France will fall as well.

The crowd bursts into conflicting arguments, and finally the “prisoners” are bundled onto the train where they continue to be the centre of attention.

The final leg of the journey is an escorted march through the streets of Perpignan to the jail, watched by the respectable citizens of the town who assume they are “a horde of robbers”.

Alice spends a month in the prison in Perpignan and describes her experiences there in great detail, almost relishing the adventure. Reading her account it is impossible not to keep thinking about the later months and years she will spend incarcerated in her own country, suffering not just the everyday privations of loss of liberty but the physical and psychological torture designed to break her spirit. Perhaps even worse, will be finding out that some of the very comrades alongside whom she worked in Spain, were the ones responsible for putting her there. She neither wrote nor spoke about those later years of imprisonment.

Stepping into the Shadows

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A few months ago I wrote this:

“Alice is an insistent shadow hovering behind my father. He has turned his back on her, he is in the bright sunlight of a glistening Geneva day. In front of him; radiant and elegant with her slim ankles and tailored suit, smiles my mother and I am with them in that sunlight. But behind him, a darkness lurks, of grey windswept streets with foreign names, and a woman whose features I do not know, but her presence and her name call to me. Perhaps it is her younger self I see, the self that shared a life with Erwin, my father, decades before I was born, or is it the woman we could have met on that sunny day, if she had not been incarcerated, tortured, tried and condemned. An older figure, no doubt even older than her years. Would she have wanted to know us? I want to know her, I want to step back into that foreign darkness and look into her face, try to understand what lay behind the loving, kindly man I knew as a child.

I am beginning to step into that shadow world, to learn the names and events that shaped them, trying to understand their emerging politics and attitudes, imagining how it felt to be a student on the streets of Prague in the first quarter of the 20th C, and to see the sinister movements rise in nearby Germany. At first I read Erwin’s words, sifting through the layers of self censorship in his interrogatory where he had to prove he was not a communist. In this, Alice is the woman lured towards communism by others, influenced and apparently trying to fill the void of her childlessness, but I am suspicious of this view and maybe it wasn’t Erwin’s view either, only the view he was presenting in response to those intrusive questions posed by a distant bureaucracy. I moved on to the reports and memoirs of the trials, finding the details of Alice’s arrest and the accusations of her involvement in Noel Field’s fabricated ‘spy ring’.”

But then, in the midst of deciphering secret service files and reports, I was sent a memoir, 140+ pages about Alice’s life, the personal as well as the political. I couldn’t resist; there was so much I wanted to know, but most of all I wanted to know about her relationship with my father. I was braced to read criticism, the memoir was written by someone who had heard Alice’s side of the story, so I expected at the very least some disparaging comment about his political views. I was relieved to find only praise, nothing to dislodge my memory of the man I had known as a child and heard described throughout my adolescence and adulthood.

The revelations I had feared proved to be unfounded, but it is always the unexpected that ambushes you. Alice loved my father, she loved him until the end of her life. I had always assumed that after their divorce she would have moved on, that the differences during their marriage had changed her feelings about him. I discover now they had not. I have been imagining her pain and disillusion with the cause to which she devoted her life, I had not imagined the pain at the loss of the man she loved. And did the betrayal by the political system for which she had sacrificed her marriage make the loss even more acute?

I had not expected to find such details and I had certainly not expected a reference to my own life in the memoir, but there I was, the daughter of the second wife, and strangely, Alice had lied about my mother. She had said that Erwin had married his cousin, that in Jewish families, “they find lonely men”. Tauchmanova, who wrote the memoir, corrects Alice’s lie and explains that Erwin married an Englishwoman, a work colleague. She questions whether she should have included Alice’s lie, but explains that as well as being brave and compassionate, Alice was “extra sensitive”. Then she adds that Erwin had a daughter, who grew up in England and later wanted to “know her father’s first wife”, but that Alice refused the meeting, she found it too upsetting.

It is true. When I first heard about Alice’s life from my father’s friends in New York, I was intrigued to meet her, but I never knew that they had mentioned it to her or that she had refused. In some ways, it makes me feel better that she had the choice. It also makes me feel very sad, recognising that meeting the child she and Erwin had never been able to have was too painful to contemplate. Maybe his explanation about the role childlessness played in her life had some truth. Even if it was not an explanation of her political convictions, he had understood and shared the depth of her grief. But for him, there had been a second chance.

Stepping into the shadows and bringing the past back to life can be painful in ways I never expected.

The London Connection

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Alice spent the war in America with Erwin, but unlike his family, all her family survived. I was intrigued to know where they had been and what they had been doing. Among the treasure trove of documents from the Czech Archives, I found some answers.

Alice’s sister, Eva, seven years her junior, is almost as interesting as Alice herself. Both had attended Charles University in Prague, but whereas Alice had studied Law, Eva had studied Natural Sciences, gaining her doctorate in 1935 and then completing a teaching diploma in 1937. According to my father, it had been through Eva that Alice became involved with the communist party. When Alice had attended the university in the late 1920s, politics had not been such an urgent subject, but ten years later, with the rise of fascism in Germany, the political landscape had changed. As a university student in Prague, Eva had far more contacts and opportunity to be involved in activism than Alice, a married lawyer working in Zilina. No wonder it was through Eva that Alice made contact with the rising communist party.

After the Munich Agreement, it became clear that Czechoslovakia was a dangerous place to be, as a communist and as a Jew. Those who could, made plans, and Alice, having returned from Spain, followed Erwin to America, via Belgium. Both Glasner girls were good linguists and could speak German, French and English, as well as Czech, Slovak and Hungarian. This opened up opportunities for work abroad.

In 1939 the Czech military mission moved to Brussels and this was where Eva found her first employment, in the office of the military and consular department. She and Alice may have lived together for a short while before Alice set sail across the Atlantic. On 11th May 1940, the Czech mission was forced to move again, this time to Paris, and Eva moved with it, and continued her work there for another month at least. I have yet to discover where she went after that, but by 1942 she was in London, living at 30 Chepstow Court, Chepstow Crescent in W11. She was receiving a stipend from the Education Department of the Czech Ministry of the Interior and working as a researcher at the Jodrell Laboratory, Kew Gardens.

On November 23rd 1942 she started her research work under the direction of Dr C.R. Metcalfe, looking especially into rubber producing plants. It must have been quite a trek to Kew each day, a journey of at least an hour in the blackout, and when she returned home, there was always more to do. She was active in any spare time she had; through her involvement with the Czechoslovak British Friendship Club, based at 19 Pembridge Villas, W11, which unlike Kew, was conveniently near to her flat. In fact, it is also near to the present Czech Embassy and Czech Centre which I visit every Thursday for my Czech language lessons. Finding out about Eva’s work in London and finding myself treading the same pavements in the same area has brought home to me a world that had seemed quite remote. All that I have been reading about took place in mainland Europe or America, but here was Alice’s sister, nearly on my doorstep.

Eva was not just a member of the Czechoslovak British Friendship Club, she was on its executive committee. The committee were all Czech, but the patrons of the club were British and included Lord Faringdon, Julian Huxley, Dame Sybil Thorndyke and Lilian Bowes-Lyon. They were an interesting group of people. I had heard of Sybil Thorndyke and Julian Huxley, but the other names were unfamiliar to me, apart from Bowes Lyon, which I correctly assumed belonged to a relative of the Queen Mother, her cousin, in fact. On looking her up, she turned out to be a fascinating woman in her own right who lived in Bow during the war and worked to help the poor of Stepney as well as helping evacuees and supporting the kinder transport. For more about her, see the link below. Lord Faringdon, a Labour Peer, had, like Alice, worked as a volunteer in a hospital during the Spanish Civil War, so shared the sisters’ commitment to the Republican cause and could have discussed it with Eva, who knew all about her sister’s year in Spain.

The aims of the club, were expressed as follows: “We are united in the determination to do our utmost to help the fight of our nations for the liberation of our country. Our aims are.. to unite all Czechoslovaks in Great Britain irrespective of nationality, political or religious conviction… To help every individual to be fully conscious of this unity in every action for the war effort, and so to contribute in every way to the common victory over Hitler Fascism (sic).” The club organised many social and cultural activities, including theatrical performances and concerts by English artists, lectures, educational courses, choral singing, gymnastics and sport. It had a library and published its own books and periodicals. It also provided a place where refugees could meet and socialise, as well as an advice centre to help them deal with practical problems such as accommodation, work and legal issues. Although the club explicitly emphasised its inclusive nature and its cultural activities, its aims were political. In the British security service records held now in the National Archives, the club is described as “communist controlled” and Franz Hampl, alias Frantisek, a leading figure in the club, was expelled from the country for spying.

Eva was a communist before she ever came to England and so to find out that her activities continued once here, is no surprise. There is definitely more to find out about the Czechoslovak British Friendship Club and when I go to Kew to read the documents, I shall think of Eva, seventy four years ago, just a few streets away, on her daily journey to the Jodrell Laboratory.

There is one more mystery about Eva (for now – I live in a world of ever deepening mysteries) and this is about Eva’s travels at the end of the war. As well as papers covering her time in England, I have a copy of her passport and she was a well travelled woman! In 1944 and 1945 before the end of the war, she travelled widely in the Middle East, visiting Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Palestine, as well as stopping on a couple of occasions in the Soviet Union. What was she doing?

It is strange to think about the separate lives that could have intersected. My mother worked as a secretary for SOE in Baker Street during the war, she and Eva could have passed each other on the street completely unaware of their future connection through my father.

It is also still a mystery for me what happened to Eva in the years after the war. For a while she still worked for the Czech government as a member of the Czechoslovak Women Council’s Central Action Committee. But so far that is all I know…

 

http://spitalfieldslife.com/2016/01/27/the-queen-mothers-rebel-cousin/#comment-1196217

Two Worlds: Meeting Alice for the First Time

French Border Post During Spanish Civil War
1937, Cerbere, France — A French customs post and bureau of the Non-Intervention Committee at Cerbere, on the eastern French side of the Spanish border, during the Spanish Civil War. — Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

 

This week has been a momentous one as far as my research is concerned. Not only have I received over 700 pages from the Czech archives, I have come face to face with Alice and heard her voice for the first time.

Opening my emails after three days away, I was greeted by a wealth of information tumbling out of cyberspace. First, the researcher who has been trawling the Czech archives for me, sent me a drop-box full of documents – 700 – in Czech. I have only just started to read them, with the help of Google translate. And then, an email or two later, in the midst of offers for Black Friday, a relative and fellow researcher, whom I have met through Ancestry, sent me photocopies from a book about the International Brigades in Spain, which include a letter from Alice and a still from an old cine film of Alice on a beach in America.

The wealth of information that is flooding in after just a few months is overwhelming and to see her face after so many years of only knowing her name, is beyond exciting. It is not a great image, a camera phone of a still on a video, but it is so much better than nothing – and she looks a little like me. There is no reason why we she should look alike, we are not related in any way. She has dark hair, as dark as mine used to be, and a parting on the left, like mine. She is in a black swimsuit and her face is turned slightly away, but I like what I can see. And in the book is a brief summary of her life; much of it I knew, but some of the dates of her arrest and release and re-arrest are new and then there is a snippet of information about her life after her release. She worked for a company called KNIHA, which, as the name suggests (if you know Czech), is a booksellers. It seems still to exist online today. I felt emotional when I saw that, it was another connection – a love of books. Silly really, but little details make her feel more like a person to me.

In the same way as the picture I have is at several removes, a JPEG of a still of a video of a cine film, so too are her words. I have accessed them through Google translate of a Spanish translation of her original Czech. Nevertheless, reaching back through those layers is the closest I have come to a direct communication with her, rather than just reading about her in the third person. The letter describes her journey out of Spain, crossing the border into France at Port-Bou and comparing it to her arrival in Spain a year earlier.

Here it is – please forgive any strange expression and remember how many translations it has gone through, including my own tidying up of the expression from google translate:

We climbed to the summit. Up in a terrible wind, which whistled and hissed. From below, the sound of waves upon waves. We were seated between two Spanish friends who looked after the border here. None of us spoke. We all looked at the darkness saying goodbye to Spain. We said goodbye to the country that had become our second homeland. And our mood was not happy at all. How different it was a year ago when we arrived here with a transport of nurses from Begue to Port Bou, and with what joy we arrived, how cordially we were received! How beautiful it was then, the long trip to Guadalajara where, at the Czechoslovak hospital J.A.Comenio, (see below) we met friends and worked so well together!

hospital benicassim

She goes on to wonder whether she will ever again see the friends and comrades she has known and how many of them will even survive. She remembers the beauty of the sanatoria, adapted from the luxurious villas of Spanish upper classes and mentions the mimosa, whose beautiful little yellow pom-pom flowers were also part of the magic of Spring in my childhood. Finally she describes the contrast between the world she leaves behind in Spain and the world that awaits in Cerbere, over the border in France:

We look down on both sides. On one side, Port Bou, Spain; on the other, Cerbere, France. They are two places separated by a tunnel, less than twenty minutes on foot, and what a difference! Here, closed and dark night, there, all illuminated. Here, a miserable life, people living in underground pits ‘safe against bombs’ in which they often find death, there life in absolute peace. Here there is no house that the bombs respect, the town is a real pile of ruins; there, resplendent shops, bakeries with lots of beautiful bread, kiosks with cigarettes in inexhaustible quantity. In Port Bou, the war with all the horrors of daily bombing. In Cerbere, a wonderful land, flowing with milk and honey.

This contrast between countries and between people, who live alongside each other in different worlds is evident still today and it is still impossible to understand. I remember the same feeling when I was a student, ironically, in view of Alice’s allegiance, after having spent a month in the USSR. The day after my return I travelled to Italy and there, was overwhelmed by the profusion of fruit and vegetables on every stall, wanting to embrace them, those soft cheeked peaches, delicate courgette flowers, bulbous peppers and papery purple garlic. And I had only been away for a month, what did visitors from the USSR (if they were allowed to visit at all) think of this profusion of colour, scent and taste, when all they had on offer were a few sad cabbages rolling around the front window of a shop?

And that is only food. Alice was keenly aware of the disparity between worlds; she had been born into a comfortable and well-off family, the centre of the Jewish community in Ruzomberok and yet, she joined the communist party. She spent the summer with her parents in the fashionable Belgian resort of Knocke and left it to volunteer in Spain. She was offered a life of comfort and sophistication in New York and Geneva, but chose instead to stay in Czechoslovakia and fight for her beliefs. Alice’s understanding of the two contrasting worlds fuelled her desire to bring them together, to enable everyone to enjoy a decent life and she paid a terrible price for those beliefs. I am only beginning to understand how far she was prepared to go and how much she would have to endure.

References:

EIROA, M. / M. REQUENA: AL LADO DEL GOBIERNO REPUBLICANO. LOS BRIGADISTAS DE EUROPA DEL ESTE EN LA GUERRA DE ESPAÑA. CIUDAD REAL, 2009, 207 p. Encuadernacion original. Nuevo.