In her father’s steps she trod…

Good-King-Wenceslas-11

 

I have been singing Good King Wenceslas for years without thinking that, of course, he was Czech. And the more I learn Czech and read Czech history and Czech writers, the more I notice Czech everywhere. Not only do I find myself following people in the street who are speaking Czech, including a whole tour group going round a madrasa in Fez, I start noticing Czech ancestry in people I had known about but never registered as Czech: Milos Forman, Madeleine Albright, Sissy Spacek, Kim Novak, Peter Falk, Karl Malden and worryingly, Donald Trump Jnr. (son of Ivana).

I follow the Czech Centre and other Czech and Slovak sites on twitter, and learn that soft contact lenses, sugar cubes, finger prints and blood types were all first discovered/ invented by Czechs. And of course, there are the Czechs most people do know- Dvorak, Janacek, Smetana, Havel, Hasek, Kafka, and Freud who was born in a town that is now in the Czech Republic. Czech history even pops up with surprising regularity in spy and detective novels I read.

In just over two weeks, I shall be there – living for a month in Prague, going to Czech lessons every morning and then exploring the city in the afternoon and evening, finding where Erwin and Alice lived, the hotels where they stayed while on the medical mission, the medical and law faculties at Charles University where they studied, the law courts, the prisons where Alice spent five years of her life and the flats in which she lived after her release. I shall be going to the concert halls and galleries that were familiar to them and most exciting of all, I shall be meeting the sons and daughters of Alice’s friends.

At the end of the month, we go to Slovakia, to revisit Zilina, my father’s home, and then on to Ruzomberok where Alice grew up, before heading up to Poland for a study day in Auschwitz. I have started an Instagram account just for this research (e.j.kohn) so I can post immediate impressions as well as continuing to write here in more depth.

This visit has been planned for nearly a year and I thought I would probably be visiting the EU as a non-EU citizen; it is a relief in many ways that won’t be the case. It isn’t only the easier practical details, but something intangible, a feeling of greater connection, of being part of the same Europe, albeit rather tenuously. Visiting the former Czechoslovakia, I am acutely aware of its painful history. The EU, for all is faults, has been a beacon of hope; a light of cooperation and democracy held up against the darkness of division, totalitarianism and territorial expansion. Young people now cross boundaries with confidence to study and work, as exemplified by the others on my Czech course in London, all of whom are married or in relationships with Czechs, and many who themselves have come from abroad: Ethiopia, Canada, the USA, Japan, Hungary and France.

My parents were not unusual; many of their generation married husbands/wives from other countries, as a result of the displacement of war. My generation, however, mostly married people from the UK, yet their children have not; our friends’ children have found partners from Russia, France, Cuba, Nigeria, Vietnam, Germany. Unlike our parents, these young people met as a result of peace and the opening up of borders. It is worrying to see that there are those who want to re-erect the barriers and that nationalism and populism are on the rise again in Europe. However, the recent election of Zuzana Caputova as president of Slovakia, is definitely a hopeful sign. She is a lawyer and a civil society activist, who impressed the voters by her anti-corruption stance and her refusal to engage in personal attacks on her opponents. I would like to think that Alice and Erwin would be proud that their country has elected such a president.

Going to the former Czechoslovakia in search of the past has emotional challenges, but also practical ones. Place names and street names, which are so constant in the UK, in the former Austro -Hungarian Empire are much less reliable. Maps of the area are a palimpsest of history, with Czech names erasing German ones after the formation of Czechoslovakia only for them to be re-appropriated after the Nazi invasion. The Communist era, in its turn, then stamped its values on streets and towns until finally with the Velvet Revolution some of the original names were restored. The street where Alice and Erwin lived in Zilina was newly named Masaryk Street, but it is now Narodna Ulice (Nation Street). Pressburg is now Bratislava, Carlsbad has become Karlovy Vary and so on. Sometimes it took me weeks to realise I was searching for just one place, but with two (or even three) names.

I hope I shall be able to see beyond the present world of tourism and stag parties into the layers of the past; to connect with the years between the wars when hope in Masaryk’s government and the newly independent country was still strong, and later, to the long years of communism, punctuated by the short-lived flame of freedom in 1968. Just walking through the streets and gardens where Alice and Erwin walked, breathing the spring air as they did a hundred years ago when they were students in Prague, I hope will collapse the years between us and perhaps for a few short weeks, instead of peering backwards through the prism of words, I shall glimpse first hand the world they knew.

A Tale of Two Photographs

Alice, Dora and Vlasta 2

Alice, Dora Klein and Vlasta Vesela

The first shows three young women, standing together, looking slightly sideways at whoever is taking the picture, as if they are uncertain. In the background there is a promenade, perhaps they are on a beach, but it is windy, they need their coats. It is 1937 in Spain.

The second, taken at least twenty years later in Prague, shows two middle aged women sitting together on a bench, laughing. Such an ordinary photograph. Such an extraordinary story. And where has the third woman gone?

mama z Alici Glasnerova

There, in the late 1950s sit Alice and Dora, well dressed, hair tidy and set, looking like any other conventional and respectable women of their time. They were anything but conventional.

In 1926 Alice graduated from Charles University in Prague. She was to be one of the first female lawyers in Czechoslovakia. A few years later, Dora also graduated from Charles University, but from the medical school. For Alice the journey to Prague had been straightforward, she had friends and relatives there. For Dora, it had been much more difficult. She was born in Poland and her ambition to become a doctor was impossible to realise there; she was Jewish. Her only option was to move to Czechoslovakia, where Jews were welcome in the university.

Different backgrounds, different faculties and different times. While Dora was completing her medical studies, Alice had married a young doctor, Erwin Kohn, and they had settled into their new lives in Zilina. Alice travelled regularly to the courts in Bratislava for work and she and Erwin both became involved in the political parties of their town.

The rise of fascism in Germany was a concern to them all, and for Dora and Alice it seemed that the only party that was willing to fight this rising threat, was the Communist Party. In Spain, as Franco staged a coup against the ruling Republican Party, it was clear where the battle lines were being drawn. Dora and Alice both volunteered their services. Dora was needed as a doctor, but in order to be sent out with the Czech medical contingent, she needed to be a Czech national. She married Viliam Klein to get her citizenship, although his motives may have been personal as well- Dora was an attractive young woman. Alice was prepared to help in whatever way she could. It meant leaving Erwin; he did not share her conviction in the Communist cause. He had seen her growing commitment to the party and she had tried to persuade him to join, but he was adamant, so she made her choice. So, in summer of 1937 after a holiday at Knocke in Belgium with her mother, she sent him a letter explaining that she would not be returning to him, but was going instead to Spain; her letter said they “belonged to different worlds”.

Dora and Alice, each in her own way, left their husbands behind in Czechoslovakia and met in Spain, first in Guadalajara and later in the J.A.Comenius Hospital in Benicasim, where they were joined by the third woman in the trio – Vlasta Vesela. Vlasta had graduated as a doctor from Brno and had already experienced loss and grief, as her fiancee had been killed fighting in Spain. She was more reserved, but always ready to help and with a sharp sense of humour and a sarcastic tongue. Dora was the youngest of the three and described by Egon Ervin Kisch, who knew them all well, as follows, “Dorince, who might be my daughter, and my mother.” She might have been the youngest but she was maternal and warm hearted. In the photograph she stands behind the other two lightly resting her hands on their shoulders, uniting them.

For a short while in Benicasim, the women enjoyed one of the most rewarding and intense periods of their lives. It had been a resort of the wealthy, populated by beautiful villas which were now put into service as hospitals, but the gardens still overflowed with oranges, that to Alice looked like “small suns”. It was a beautiful spot and even though the hospital was filled to overflowing with the injured from the front, these young women knew they were engaged in a noble struggle. Vlasta and Dora worked as doctors, and Alice took over the administration of the hospital, organising the logistics of food, medicines and equipment, but also providing the opportunity for conferences and discussions for the international team of volunteer doctors, enabling them to share knowledge and expertise. She arranged cultural activities for both the staff and the patients, which included outings, film screenings, concerts, sporting events, political reports and Spanish classes. There were at least seven languages in use throughout the hospital, luckily Alice spoke several of them: English, French, Czech/Slovak, German. In addition, a radio system was rigged up between the buildings to entertain the patients. E.E.Kisch, whose brother Bedrich was working in Spain as a doctor, also stayed at the hospital and helped with its cultural life, sometimes giving lectures himself.

However, by the summer of 1938, Franco’s troops were advancing towards Benicasim and the hospital was forced to close. Dora and Vlasta fled to France and managed to reach Paris, where they contacted a group of other Czech interbrigadists, who had escaped from Spain. Alice was not so lucky. In her escape over the Pyrenees to Cerbere in France, she was arrested for entering the country without the correct papers and imprisoned. She spent a month in gaol in Perpignan, finally returning to Erwin and to Czechoslovakia in late 1938.

The war was a threat to all three women, who were both Jewish and Communists. At this point, it was Alice who had the more fortunate outcome, as Erwin, although brought up in Czechoslovakia to Czech parents, had been born in America and had American citizenship. He and Alice were able to emigrate and spend the war in America, where he joined the US army. While there, she continued her work with the Communist party, helping emigres from Czechoslovakia obtain visas and enabling them to settle in the USA. Among those she helped were Voskovec and Werich, the well known Czech dramatists and film-makers.

Dora and Vlasta were in France when war broke out and Vlasta worked with the Czech resistance there, until the Nazi occupation forced her to flee to Switzerland, where she was interned. Dora was deported to Auschwitz in 1943, but survived the war. Sadly, her husband of so few years, was not as lucky. After the war, she worked for the Czechoslovak Repatriation Committee. Vlasta, who by this time was living with Rudolf Feigl, worked with him on post-war humanitarian projects. Alice returned to Czechoslovakia with Erwin on his Unitarian Service Committee medical teaching mission. She took up a post in government, in the office of Viliam Siroky, the deputy prime minister.

Having survived the war, with their country liberated from the Nazis and now with the Communist Party in charge – the party for which all three of them had worked tirelessly throughout their young adult lives- they should at last have been able to enjoy the fruits of their labours. It was not to be.

None of them realised that they each represented a very dangerous cocktail of qualities: first, they were Jewish; second, they had all spent time abroad; third, they all knew Noel Field. At first sight, these may not seem to be dangerous attributes; after all, the Communist Party had encouraged Jews to join and had set themselves up in opposition to the anti-semitic ideology of the Nazis. The work of the three women abroad had been entirely in support of the Czechs and of the Communist Party, volunteering in Spain, helping with the French resistance and organising support for Czech emigres. Finally, Noel Field had been a Communist sympathiser. His work for the Unitarian Service Committee had shown a specific bias towards the communists earning him the suspicion of his American employers and facing him with the threat of investigation by the House Committee for Un-American activities.

They had no idea that they were about to enter the looking glass world in which everything is reversed. Soviet encouragement of the Jews ended as the Western allies placed their support behind Israel; Israel and by extension the Jews started to look like a threat. These women hadn’t just travelled abroad, they understood other cultures, they spoke several languages, they were well educated and intelligent, they thought for themselves. At a time when the USSR started to see threats to communist ideology and influence both from the West and from within their own sphere of influence when Tito rejected the Soviet model of communism, the Soviets wanted blind obedience. In order to encourage it, they wanted to unite the satellite countries against the threat of bourgeois imperialism from the West. The way in which they chose to do this was by creating an “enemy within” a sinister spy plot whose aim was to destroy the communist states. They began in Hungary with the Rajk trial, but soon moved on to Czechoslovakia, determined to uncover a similar plot. Noel Field was the ideal instrument for their purposes. He was an American with many links to the Czech emigres. Vlasta and Dora had met him through their humanitarian work in Europe and Alice had met him while she was in America. He had offered her a job, but she had suggested he offer it to Erwin instead, so both he and Alice, met Noel Field on a number of occasions.

In 1949 Noel Field was arrested in Czechoslovakia, deported to Hungary and interrogated, he named the people with whom he had been in contact. As a result, Alice, Vlasta and Dora were among the many arrested, interrogated and imprisoned in their own country, accused of espionage. Alice and Dora remained in prison for several years before their cases came to court, during which time, like all the other political prisoners, they were subjected to vicious interrogations which continued throughout the night. They were insulted as Jews, deprived of sleep and water, forced to walk endlessly around their cells. Incessant interrogations were used to try and implicate as many others as possible and those Jews in particular who were high up in the party, culminating in the Slansky show trial of 1952. One of the defendants in that trial was Rudolf Feigl, Vlasta’s lover, who was condemned to death along with ten of the thirteen defendants.

It was a final horror that Vlasta would not see. When she was imprisoned, she fought against every accusation, refusing to testify and protesting by going on hunger strikes on three occasions. Despite being force fed, she became so weak that she was unable to get up from her bed. The prison doctor wanted her transferred to a hospital, but Karel Svab who was responsible for the arrest of all three women refused, saying, “She’s got what she wanted. We don’t need her any more.” Instead, she was given sleeping pills, which she hoarded, until finally she had enough to take her own life. She died leaving a message scraped into the dust, “I am dying for my country.” It is believed now that the authorities were aware of her intentions. In one of her rare comments about life in the prison Alice said she had once heard Vlasta, who was imprisoned along the same corridor as she was, making a “desperate cry, the uncontrolled cry of a mad woman.”

Vlasta died in 1950. Dora and Alice survived, and in 1954, were finally convicted of spying as part of Noel Field’s spy ring. The charges against Dora were so weak that even the prosecutor proposed the proceedings be dropped. A year later, after letters and petitions for mercy to have the sentences reduced, the women were released. A number of factors were taken into account, including Alice’s desperate state of health. According to the doctor from Pankrac Prison she was, “physically weak, anaemic,” and was suffering from “an arterial defect, spinal tuberculosis, intervertebral disc herniation, bilateral sciatic nerve neuralgia, chronic gastric catarrh and jaundice.” In his judgement, if she was not released, she would face permanent invalidity or premature death.

It was not long before the truth began to emerge and Alice and Dora, along with hundreds of other victims of the show trial era, were completely exonerated. Those who had imprisoned and tortured them were shown to have acted illegally. However, when they were arrested, they had been stripped of all their possessions and rights as citizens, it was a long struggle to have them restored. But they had lost far more than this. When Dora was arrested, she had been in a relationship with a Polish doctor, whom she had met in Spain and with whom she had a son, a child from whom she had been separated for four years.

Alice and Dora had both been arrested in 1951, but Alice had spent spent nine months in prison before that, between July 1949 and March 1950. One of the conditions of her release on that occasion was that she divorce Erwin. They were already separated, he had taken up the offer of a job with the World Health Organisation in Geneva and she had refused to accompany him as she wanted to stay in Czechoslovakia, but no further decisions had been made. Now, the decision was made for her. She never remarried.

The two pictures tell a story of three brave, idealistic, independent women, who were prepared to risk everything for their beliefs. They were sent to me by Dora’s son, who contacted me a few months ago through this blog and were the first proper photographs of Alice I had ever seen. It is a joy to see that second picture of Alice and Dora laughing together; there was life and fun to be had after the horrors and grief of the past. The only shadow is the loss of that third figure, who should have been there to share too in that laughter, but whose final legacy is one of defiance and despair. In their later years Dora and Alice met often and shared memories of their year in Spain, but of the years imprisoned in their own country, at the hands of their own comrades, they remained silent.
Sources:
Ministerstvo o Spravedlnosti v Praze
Čislo: 0 203/55-H505/5

Národní Archiv:
Poznamka M.Tauchmanová

KSČ-Ústřední výbor 1945-1989 Praha komise.
Svazek: 11
Archivní jednotka: 338
Svazek: 7b
Archivní jednotka: 130

Neviditelny Pes>Společnost>Historie
4.10. LIDÉ: Zdálo se, že vůbec nezná strach Jaroslav Bouček

AMI RGASPI 545-3-737 p.31-2
Kulturarbeit in Benecasim Dr Alice Glasner.

https://www.ceskatelevize.cz/porady/10267422798-prisne-tajne-vrazdy/410235100221005-nechte-ji-zemrit/

 

Letters from Alice

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Years ago, long before I started on this journey to search for Alice, my mother gave me two letters from her, addressed to Erwin. They were single quarto sheets of thin typing paper, with brief letters that were completely unintelligible to me. I thought they were in Czech, but in fact they were in Slovak. The postmark on the envelope was Liberec. It was in the days before google translate, so I just put them away.

I kept them, unable to do anything with them, until my husband went on a work trip to the Czech Republic and I gave them to him, just so he could ask someone to read them and give me the gist of what they were about. He returned and said they weren’t very interesting, just factual about details of the divorce and what to do with Erwin’s things that were still with Alice in Prague.

When I started the research, I translated them, and sure enough, they were about the divorce and what Alice should do with Erwin’s things ….. But I know so much more now.

The two letters were written on the 30th April 1950 and the 16th May 1950.

The first begins, “Finally, I have returned home after a long journey..” She had indeed just returned home after a trip away, she had been in Dolni Mala Upa, a mountain resort in Northern Czechoslovakia, now part of the Giant Mountains National Park and a popular destination for skiers and walkers. But she had not been there of her own free will. She was sent there for two weeks’ ‘holiday’ on her release from prison after her first arrest. On July 7th 1949 Alice had been arrested as part of the “Field group” and on the 30th March 1950, she was released for lack of evidence. Conditions of her release included the enforced holiday and an agreement to divorce Erwin.

The letter, which at first seemed just to be saying that she had come home from holiday, is actually informing him that she has finally been released from prison. Before she was released, letters between President Gottwald and Kopriva, Minister for National Security, discussed whether the fact of her arrest and detention should keep secret and she should be instructed to tell friends and relatives that she had been on a mission for the party, or whether she should just be released in the usual way and stripped of her party membership. They decided that she would be stripped of her party membership and she was forced to sign a statement acknowledging that this was justified. As a result, she was allowed to take up a job after her release, working for the Central Insurance Company.

Her request for a divorce in the letter did not come as a surprise to Erwin, they had made their choices and were living on different sides of the Iron Curtain, but I doubt that he knew it had been a condition of her release. Reading Tauchmanova’s memoir, not only have I found the exact letter from Alice that is in my possession, but my father’s reply. He says (translated from the Slovak), “the content of your letter did not come as a surprise…. I knew it would come with your return and yet I was very upset when it came. I do not blame you in any way for the impersonal tone of your letter; on the contrary, I knew how to draw the necessary conclusions from it.” Unlike her, he is able to be more emotional in his response, he goes on: “ the letter gives me the impression that you are committed to an abrupt termination with me. I hope I am wrong. You can imagine that there is a lot I want to say to you in this moment. I will not do it, as I don’t want you to be in trouble.” Erwin understands much about her situation, but perhaps he underestimates how precarious her position still was.

It is clear that Alice can have no further communication with him after the divorce and, in fact, six months after the divorce came through in December 1950, she was again arrested and this time would stay in prison for four years. During those four years, Erwin flourished, enjoying his job in the World Health Organisation and meeting Sheila, the woman who would become his second wife. By the time Alice was released for the final time in 1955, Erwin would be married and the father of a young daughter.

The letters about the divorce, however, show that at this time, his attachment was still to Alice. He calls her “Lizochka dear”, a pet name used only by him, and in his second letter, dated 7th May 1950, he tries to write about his possessions and what he wants her to do with them. He itemises them in great detail and suggests people they could be given to and who would take his medical text books. He tells her he has visited her father’s grave in Vienna and “paid until the end of the year” for its upkeep. He ends by saying, “ be cheerful and smiling and forgive the things you can laugh at. Keep in mind the wonderful moments we have experienced together.”

The second letter of Alice’s in my possession, dated 16th May, thanks him for the care he has taken over her father’s grave, but is otherwise entirely practical in tone, the one exception being a reference to having bad headaches. As the postmark for this letter is Liberec, I assume she was staying with her mother and step-father at the time, as this is where they lived and Liberec would have been on the way from Mala Upa to Prague. Her mother would have been desperate to see Alice after her months in prison.

Erwin’s final letter is also in the Tauchmanova memoir, where he understands that it will be the end, “You do not write about yourself or ask about me, so I assume you want our correspondence to be limited to the matter of our divorce. Sweetheart, we’ve gone a long way in this life, and I am having trouble convincing myself that we are really writing the last chapter of our novel.”

I can hear his grief and loss, but Alice was not allowed to express hers. I can only imagine how she felt and the fact that these letters from Erwin remained with her until the end of her life and were available for Tauchmanova when she came to write the memoir, tells me that her suffering was more than equal to his. After her second arrest all the belongings Erwin left with her were taken by the security services and became the subject of long inventories and letters to try and restore them. Yet his letters somehow survived. And those two short formal letters from Alice survived too in my father’s possessions and escaped my mother’s intensive bouts of clearing out the house. At first they seemed to give me little, but the little they were able to express tells me so much now about Alice and Erwin and the cruelty of those years under the shadow of Stalin.

Sources:

M.Tauchmanová  Poznámka (Memoir) from Správce Archivního Souboru.

Documents from the Czech National Archive.

Questions of Right and Wrong

Socialist Poster During the Spanish Civil War

When I first started looking for Alice, I made a list of questions. Now, over a year on, I realise I have the answer to most of them. But I also have a quite different list of questions.

My first list was factual: I wanted to know what Alice did in Spain, what happened to her mother and sister during the second world war while Alice was in the USA with Erwin. I wanted to know when she was arrested and tried and what happened to her after her release. I now have answers to all of those questions: I know about her work in the hospitals in Spain. I know that her mother, Olga, spent the war in Switzerland, that Eva was first in Belgium, then in Paris and finally in London. I know the dates of Alice’s arrests, trials and rehabilitation and so much more besides. I know where she worked after her release, where she lived, where she travelled.

My questions now are different. They are about what Alice thought, what she felt and what she knew. These questions will never have definite answers. Why did she choose communism and remain faithful to it for so long? I can understand what drew her to communism in the first place; as a young, intelligent and idealistic young woman, communism offered her a view of the world that was different, that had answers for the poverty and inequality she saw around her and later, in the thirties, it was the communists who were prepared to stand against the rising tide of fascism in neighbouring Germany. Young intelligent men and women, and in particular young Jewish men and women, saw communism as the answer, and at that time, communism was specifically encouraging Jews to join the fight against fascist anti-semitism.

I can understand the exhilaration of seeing the social barriers come down as men and women of all backgrounds addressed each other as comrade and worked towards one common good in the face of such a patent evil. Alice’s commitment to the party grew, and as a party member, she was invited on a six week trip to the USSR in 1936, during the height of the Stalinist terror. Was she at all aware of how Stalin was treating his own people? Presumably, as part of a visiting group, what she was shown was carefully controlled, but she must have had some sense of what life was like; it was so different from liberal Czechoslovakia. Yet maybe seeing the sacrifices and the intensity of a people apparently focused on one vision was exciting – the promise of a new world. She certainly returned with a renewed commitment and by 1937 was prepared to leave her life of bourgeois comfort for the perils of the Spanish Civil War.

And again, what questions arise from her experience in Spain? She had followed party orders, both about volunteering in Spain and about when to withdraw in July 1938, but her experience there was more personal. She was among a group of young, intelligent, committed people, brave and idealistic to the point of recklessness. She was in an international community, running the hospital which served all those fighting on the Republican side, all were helped regardless of their allegiances, and she organised both the logistics and the cultural exchange among those many nationalities. While she was organising film screenings, concerts, sporting events, political reports and Spanish classes, how aware was she of the Soviet Union’s motives?

The Soviets were not there to support the democratic will of the Spanish people. Their involvement was entirely to do with maintaining power and preventing Germany and Italy acquiring another ally. However, Stalin did not want an all out victory for the communist powers in Spain as that might unite the Western powers with the fascists against Soviet Spain and Soviet Russia. The Soviets therefore played a careful game, with one intention at the political level and another communicated to the soldiers on the ground. How far was Alice aware of the animosity between the communists and the POUM (Trotskyist wing) and the advice of some of the Soviet advisers in Spain to use the weapons of the Stalinist show trials against them? If Alice had known, she should have been alerted to the lengths the Soviets were prepared to go in order to preserve their power and influence.

Why was her view so different from Erwin’s? Why did he never trust the communists? He continued to work in his medical practice in Zilina and kept in touch with Alice, sending her parcels with food and medicines. He could see the rising tides of fascism close by in Germany and Austria, countries whose languages he spoke and whose culture he loved.  He too wanted a fairer world, but he saw the solution differently. Was it just a difference in temperament or had those early years in America influenced his outlook? Maybe his ease with English meant he read a different press and so was more oriented towards the West. Or maybe the reasons were more personal; Alice had been born into privilege and so perhaps took it for granted and found it easier to throw away. Erwin’s middle class status was the result of his own endeavours. As a result, maybe he valued it more. After the war, the reason for their different views was obvious. Erwin had seen the Soviets at first hand when serving in the US army- Alice had spent the war in communist organisations in New York and Pittsburgh. But the war only reinforced the views each held, it did not mould them.

It is perhaps easy with the benefit of hindsight to see the wider political and pragmatic moves. Alice, in the midst of the Spanish conflict had experienced the bravery and comradeship, she felt strong allegiances to those whom she saw suffering and that first hand knowledge, gave her confidence in her view. Erwin at more of a remove from the struggle was maybe able to see the dangers and ambiguities more clearly. It is difficult to know why they were so different, and especially interesting as Alice is quite unusual in having a partner who did not share her values. What seems to be true is that the more straightforwardly you can embrace one point of view, the easier it is to act. The more you see different sides of the story, the more difficult it is. Blind faith achieves change, liberal prevarication does not.

After the war Alice’s faith did not waver; she was determined to be a part of the rebirth of a communist Czechoslovakia. I don’t know whether she had doubts, whether Erwin’s arguments and accounts ever made her waver. Or did she accept there had been mistakes and believed by being a participant, she could ensure these were not repeated in her country? Erwin was prepared to walk away; he was a citizen of more than one country; Czechoslovakia was not quite home for him in the way that it was for Alice. The opportunity for a life of freedom and challenge was more appealing than the risk of being at the centre of a political struggle, in the place where his family had been betrayed and murdered.

Exploring the past I find that the questions I am facing are not only about the past, but also the present. How sinister are the fault lines currently splitting Europe? How can they be healed? I see echoes of the world of Alice’s youth; the tide of populism and racism is rising again. Liberal democracy seems caught in a paralysis of indecision and there is no untainted ideology with which to combat the threat. Communism may have seemed to be the answer then, but it certainly isn’t now, now we know how it all turned out. The young Alice was prepared to sacrifice everything in order to create a better world and fight the evil she saw around her. What should we do now?

I keep circling around the rights and wrongs of her choices and Erwin’s. In the end I am not sure that the question of right and wrong is relevant, we need both. Idealistic activists change the world, for good or ill. The rest of us try to do the best we can with the world we have, sometimes that is not enough.

Source:

Preston, Paul, The Spanish Civil War Reaction, Revolution and Revenge (Harper Perennial 2006)

Credit:© Archivo Iconografico, S.A./COR
Copyright:© Copyright 2000 Corbis

Lost Luggage

suitcases 2

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