Windows into the Past

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Alice, Eva and their mother, Olga.

We sit around Alice’s table, Katerina, Jirka and I. The reason I am here, in this small flat on the outskirts of Prague in Novy Sporilov is because of Alice and the only reason we can communicate properly with each other is because Alice taught both Jirka and Katerina English, around this exact same table. Their mothers were close friends of Alice’s and Katerina is the daughter of Milena Tauchmannova, who wrote the memoir about Alice that has given me so much information. Katerina now lives in Alice’s flat and a couple of pieces of Alice’s furniture remain here – the table and a large dark wood dresser.

I cannot believe that I am here, in Alice’s flat, sitting with people who knew her, who remember her impatience when they were late for the lesson or when they failed to complete their homework. Alice lived here with Eva, her sister, on the second floor of a newly built block with a lift, unlike the old blocks in central Prague where she lived on her release from prison. There is a large sitting room with a balcony, where Alice and Eva would sit and have a drink on warm evenings. Eva liked pelargoniums and so in summer the balcony was bright with flowers and as the area matured, trees grew and grass was laid, providing greenery all around. The tram journey into the centre is easy and I wonder whether the number 11 tram that we took was also the one that carried Alice in to concerts or to visit friends.

Amazing as this experience is, there is more to come. Katerina inherited Alice’s flat, but Jirka’s family inherited much of her furniture and belongings, including her photographs. He has brought them for me; two shoe boxes full and three albums from Alice’s childhood and youth. It is a treasure trove, I can’t wait to get back to the flat and look through.

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At the flat, I start looking through the pictures and soon, Alice’s features, with which I am now so familiar, are looking back at me through all the stages of life, from a small child in a pram, to a studio photograph with her mother and Eva. They look so beautiful. There are pictures of Alice walking with other young people in the Slovak mountains, travelling to the Black Sea with Eva in later life, laughing with friends in America and even marching on demonstrations. Some of the pictures are tiny and the only way of distinguishing features is by photographing them with a phone and enlarging the image. There are pictures of her in her final years, in colour, with young friends and their children. Most amazing for me though, are the pictures of her with Erwin, with my father as a young man, in his student days, in the early days of their marriage in front of his library of books, in fur collared jackets, in a swimsuit (!) in the South of France… I had never seen a picture of them together, I had never seen a picture of my father when he was in his twenties or thirties and here they all are. I even recognise Alice in America with Frank and Frances, the friends of my father’s whom I stayed with in New York when I was eighteen.

 

It is as if a world has been opened up to me. I couldn’t believe Jirka was giving them all to me, but now I realise that I am the only one to whom they are personal. Alice may not have been any relation to me, but she had no children, no nieces or nephews. And Erwin was my father, who else would have claim to photographs of him? To everyone else, at best, they are just vaguely interesting pictures of one of their parent’s friends. I am taking them home, despite Easyjet’s luggage restrictions, and spend a long time distributing them among our various bags. It would be lighter if I took the photos out of the albums but I can’t bring myself to do that, we’ll just have to pay extra.

When I started researching Alice’s life I had never seen a picture of her, I had never read a word she had written. All I knew was that she had been married to my father and had been a member of the communist party. Now, I have read hundreds of documents about her, I have read her articles, some of her letters and memoirs, her statements to the police. I have seen all four prisons where she was incarcerated, I have seen all the places where she worked in Spain, I have her school records. I have seen the record of her birth, of her marriage, I have walked the street where she lived as a child, I have stood outside her school, been into the strange shop that now inhabits the house where she and Erwin lived. I have stood outside her homes in Prague and the Law Faculty where she studied, even the court where she practised in Bratislava. Most of all I know the children of her friends, have sat at her table in her flat. And now, I can turn the stiff dark pages of albums that contain her memories: the days of a privileged childhood, of carefree and optimistic youth and of early love. Other photographs tell of her life after her release from prison, her closeness to Eva, their holidays at the Black Sea, time spent with friends and their children – a full life.

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At the May day Parade

As I discovered on reading the memoir, despite the passing years, Erwin always held a place in her heart and this treasure trove of pictures proves it. It was a troubled relationship, but it was abruptly cut short by outside forces. In a previous blog I wrote about the letters they exchanged over the divorce, but more recently I have found another letter. Erwin wrote to Eva on July 24th 1949 asking why he had not heard from Alice in response to his letters and telegram about an upcoming trip to Prague. The date on the letter explains the reason; she had been arrested on July 7th. He never went to Prague, either then or later. The next time he heard from her was the formal letter asking for a divorce.

It isn’t logical, but I feel as if I am closing a circle, as if by trying to understand what happened and piecing together the story of their marriage that I am somehow healing a wound. I can’t change the past, or repair their loss, but I am regaining a part of my father and my heritage that he did not live to tell me about himself. Ironically, it is Alice who unwittingly held the key that has enabled me to unlock this past and provide a final chapter to their story.

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In America

Seventy Years On

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We arrived at Bila Hora, the final stop of the number 22 tram, and had half an hour to wait for our lift to arrive. Bila Hora is far more than a tram terminus; it represents a key moment in Czech history. Bila Hora means white mountain and it was here a battle took place in 1620 during the 30 Years’ War. It is significant as it marks a turning point in Bohemia’s relationship with the Holy Roman Empire, within whose dominion it fell. Up this point many in Bohemia were Protestant and had the right to religious freedom, but after the Bohemian defeat at the Battle of the White Mountain, Roman Catholicism was imposed on all citizens. There was perhaps a synchronicity in our waiting at this point before going to visit another place where an ideology resulted in persecution, because Bila Hora is also the nearest tram stop to Ruzyne, site of the airport and site too of Prague’s second prison. This was our destination.

We found a small cafe on the opposite side of the road to the tram stop and waited there in the warm of the tiny, cosy room while the proprietress was making yet another delicious looking cake to add to the already generous selection on the counter. Having just had breakfast, we resisted temptation. Our lift arrived; my husband’s colleague Tomas, who had arranged both this visit and the one to Pancrac. It was a short drive to the prison and soon the huge watchtower and imposing walls came into view. Now the prison is painted a cheery yellow, but when Alice was here in the fifties, it was a grim grey. However, yellow paint only goes so far. By the time we had waited for ten minutes outside the thick metal door, our spirits were beginning to fail.

When we were allowed in, the checking in procedure was far more rigorous than it had been at Pancrac, I think because Tomas worked at Pancrac, whereas here, he too was a visitor. Having gone through airport-style security, we passed through a grille and out into the yard to be greeted by our guide from the prison, a very knowledgeable young man who was keen to listen and share all that was relevant. The first important information was that, unlike Pancrac, in the 1950s Ruzyne was used exclusively for political prisoners. It had, however, needed some alterations to make it suitable for the purpose, so the very first political prisoners, like Alice who was arrested in July 1949, were taken to Mlada Boleslav, the prison I had visited when I was here in May. By December 1949, Ruzyne was considered ready and all the political prisoners, including Alice, were moved there.

At that time, the prison was smaller than it is today; only two blocks, converted in the 1930s from a former sugar factory. What became the watchtower, had been a water tower. Our first destination was a set of cells that still looked closest to how they had been in Alice’s time, they were currently being refurbished, so were unoccupied. They were in the basement, a low ceilinged corridor with heavy metal cell doors leading off it. The cells were tiny and without windows, we struggled to see how any refurbishment would make them acceptable. As we walked upstairs to see some of the other cells we came to understand more about the difference between the uses of the two prisons. Whereas Pancrac had been a place for those awaiting trial and execution, no executions took place at Ruzyne. However, this was where the interrogations had taken place, in offices on the fourth floor. Outside some offices a light is still visible that could be switched on during interrogations indicating that no-one could enter.

Alice was typical of many of the political prisoners: highly educated, well travelled, speaking seven languages and a committed communist. The interrogators by contrast, tended to be young, brutal, uneducated and had probably never been outside Czechoslovakia. Their instructions were just to get a confession, often they had no idea what the prisoners needed to confess. The truth was irrelevant. The method was to get the prisoners to write an account of their lives. From this, the authorities could pick and distort what they needed. The statements were translated into Russian, sent to the USSR and altered as seemed necessary, and then returned to Czechoslovakia and translated back into Czech. They were then presented to the prisoners to sign. Interrogations were brutal; interrogators worked in relays, screaming insults at the prisoners, who could be forced to stand for as much as eighteen hours at a time. There is much evidence, both from later official reports and from personal accounts, of the physical violence used on the men in particular. They were beaten with truncheons, sometimes on the soles of their feet, their heads were smashed against the wall or floor. Return to the cells offered little respite. At night they had to lie flat on their backs on the tiny folding shelf that served as a bed and lie with their hands visible at all times or they would be woken. During the day, they were not allowed to sit, they were forced to walk constantly around their cells, wearing slippers with rough inner soles which made their feet swell and bleed. If they collapsed from exhaustion, cold water would be thrown over them. Perhaps worst of all, was that those who sanctioned this treatment were their former comrades.

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The prison is now a more humane place, not only yellow walls, but plants hanging along them, workshops for glass and candle making, art rooms and sports facilities. None of these existed during the fifties; the prisoners were not allowed outside, they were kept in isolation, they received no visitors or communication from friends and family. In fact, Alice’s mother, Olga, wrote to the authorities repeatedly trying to discover where Alice was after her arrest. We went to see the cells above ground, which were larger and had windows overlooking the yard. One was for violent and dangerous prisoners and had an additional internal grille to pass through once the cell door was opened. These precautions are only in use now, they were completely unnecessary when the prison was in use for political prisoners who posed no physical threat to the guards. At first, many were keen to cooperate and explain, in order to clear up the misunderstanding they assumed was the reason for their arrest. By the time they realised it had not been a misunderstanding, they were too exhausted and damaged to pose a threat.

Our penultimate stop was at the chapel, a small room with carpet and soft lights, where a chaplain talked to us about the support he offers, it was a pleasant place to linger and you could see the appeal even for those with no religious belief. Of course, no such facility existed in Alice’s time. We had one final destination, which was to the very highest floor in the prison and there another guide met us to show us a display of art work completed by prisoners and the ‘piece de resistance’ – a perfect scale model of the prison as it is now. It was also completed by a prisoner and the warder in charge was very proud of it; he switched on the lights inside the model, revealing the very room we were in with a model of the model. Tiny figures populated all parts of the prison and its exterior, even members of the public walking their dogs outside the prison walls and a former governor in the car park next to his black car. It was fascinating and also helpful as we were able to see which parts had been in existence during Alice’s time and how the prison had grown. What was most difficult, was knowing exactly what the internal layout had been during that time because apparently it was constantly changing. Our guide suggested that the reason for this was to disconcert the prisoners so they could never be sure exactly where they were or how it was organised.

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The visit ended with a photograph next to the small memorial plaque to the victims of that time. Almost exactly seventy years ago, in December 1949, Alice first arrived in Ruzyne to be greeted by the same bleak grey skies and forbidding barbed wire topped walls as we were. Could she ever have imagined that her commitment to communism would lead to this point or that seventy years later, it would be possible for Erwin’s daughter to retrace her footsteps?

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A Cold Afternoon

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On a cold, grey Prague afternoon we were heading out to Pancrac Prison. We took the metro from the town centre and made our way to the prison administration block. We checked in, swapping our passports for identity passes and waited in reception. Through my husband’s contacts we were about to visit the largest prison in Prague, where Alice was kept before her trial. The prison is next to the main court and an underground tunnel links the two buildings so prisoners can be brought easily from one to the other. This court was the venue for the show trials and was where Alice was convicted of espionage in 1954, along with Dora, her friend from the Spanish Civil War.

We left the carpeted calm of the administration block and stepped out into the cold to be admitted to the prison itself. Huge iron grilled doors clanged behind us as we walked into the reception area, and another set awaited us a few yards further on to admit us into the body of the prison. As we waited between the two sets of grilles for the second set of locks to be opened, a newly arrived female prisoner was being processed and frisked by a female prison guard before being escorted away to the medical block for a health check. Now, as in the past, the prison contains both men and women.

Pancrac has been the scene of many horrors and has a memorial exhibition to those who have suffered there. This was our first destination. The exhibition was in the process of being refurbished and so many of the wall displays were covered in plastic sheeting and the rooms smelled of fresh paint. We stopped at a wall with the names of those who were executed under the communist regime and I searched immediately for the names I would recognise. They weren’t there. On further enquiry it transpired that none of the names or statistics of the dead and imprisoned included members of the communist party who had been part of the regime before their arrest. It was explained to me that only those who were truly opponents of the regime were included.

This was quite a shock, as nearly everyone I have read about and researched was a member of the communist party. Of course, many others were persecuted, including many priests and political activists of opposition parties, but they had not been the subject of my research. One of the key victims who is acknowledged and well known by all Czechs is Milada Horakova, the only woman to have been executed by the regime, a member of parliament for the National Socialist Party. A film has been made of her life and one of the major roads in Prague is named after her. A memorial to her is situated a little way outside the prison. She is seen as a proper martyr, as indeed she was. The communist prisoners are viewed as less deserving, so little deserving, in fact, that their deaths and arrests are not even included in the statistics.

It is complex. Slansky , the key defendant in the show trial, was the General Secretary, second in command to the president, and entirely aware of the arrests and interrogations that went on before he himself was caught in the same web. Another of the defendants was Karel Svab, who was responsible for Alice’s arrests and interrogations and was arrested much later in the process. I can see that there is a difficulty in determining at what point the perpetrator becomes one of the victims. However, like Alice, many had joined the Communist Party for entirely altruistic motives, believing in the ideals of a fairer, more equal society, international co-operation and peace. Many, like her, put their ideals into practice, risking their own safety by volunteering in Spain, fighting in the Soviet army, working with the French resistance and many were arrested and imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps. Dora, Alice’s co-defendant, survived two years in Auschwitz.

For people like Alice and Dora, the physical and mental torture affected their health for the remainder of their lives, but almost worse than that, they were falsely accused by their former comrades, by people who knew the truth about their commitment to the cause and who used them in response to pressure from the Soviets. It reminds me of the displays in the Museum of Communism, which I visited when I was here in May. The museum paints communism in universally negative hues and there seems to be no recognition of the early idealism and heroism of many who joined in the 1930s.

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Pancrac has changed since those desperate days, but it is still a prison. Every few yards either huge metal doors or clanging grilles accompanied our progress through the building. After the exhibition, we headed for the wing where the political prisoners had been held. It is now in use for prisoners on remand, and as we approached, the sound of people moving around and talking echoed from the hard floors and metallic doors. As soon as we arrived, however, the prisoners were all escorted back into their cells and locked in so that we could walk in the corridor and see one of the cells. It was a strange experience, knowing that behind nearly every door a prisoner waited for our departure to resume his conversation. Even stranger to think back to the silence of these cells in the 1930s when the political prisoners were all kept apart, awaiting their appearance in court. For Pancrac was not the place they served most of their sentence, it was where they went before trial or perhaps after initial arrest. It was also the place of execution.

There were three execution sites: one used by the Nazis in the second world war, one used between 1954 and 1989, mostly for criminal offences (the last political execution having taken place in 1960). The third site, and our final destination on the tour, was where most of the political executions took place between 1948 and 1954. This one was outside, behind all the main prison buildings, situated in two recesses around the back of the hospital wing. It was the most inconspicuous place they could find and executions took place at five o’clock in the morning. The windows in the hospital ward were covered and the patients in the nearby ward were supervised at gunpoint and told to remain immobile and silent so they could give no sign to those about to die. Now a memorial marks the spot.

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It was a grim afternoon, but the most chilling moment was the visit to the rooms used by the Nazis during the war. Three rooms of bleak horror. The first was the ‘court’ – a long table with 4 chairs placed behind it. Prisoners would be brought in, have the charges read and the sentence of death passed, with no attempt at defence. They would then be ushered immediately into the adjoining room to be executed. Most were executed by guillotine, which had been brought from Germany for the purpose. The guillotine is still there; the original that was fished out of the river by Czechs after the hurried departure by the Germans and preserved. In most other cities, the Nazis managed to destroy the evidence and blow up the execution sites before they left. Also in the room was a small wooden step ladder leading to a row of nooses; these were for Jews and Germans who refused to join the army and fight. The reason for the difference was that the Nazis did not want to be polluted by the blood of Jews and cowards. The final room was where the bodies were laid to bleed out before being transferred into rough wooden coffins for transportation to the crematoria. The bodies were burned and the coffins returned for re-use; some still remain in the room, stacked against a wall.

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The cold that seeped into our bones from these rooms had little to do with the outside temperature. As we sat on the warm tram on the way home, it took a long time for the cheery scenes on the winter streets to dispel some of the sense of calculated evil that had infected our very being.

 

 

Arrivals and Departures

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It was our final day in Spain and we had one more place to visit – Figueres. Figueres is in the foothills of the Pyrenees, close to the French border. As we approached, we could see the Pyrenees rising in the distance, some with snow-capped peaks even this early in the season. Our destination was the fort of Sant Ferran, which was both the first and last staging post for the international volunteers.

Ironically, this little town is still the destination for thousands of foreigners because it is the birthplace of Salvador Dali and houses his theatre museum, created out of the bombed ruins of the town’s theatre. We could not pass through and ignore it, so we joined the coach loads of Japanese and visitors of all nations to experience its surreal interior. Then we set out for the fort. By contrast, the fort was virtually empty, its huge defensive walls and vast parade grounds, surrounded by barracks and stables for hundreds of horses, baking silently under the midday sun.

Alice arrived here in July 1937. She had travelled through France by train to Perpignan and then had been taken across the border with a group of volunteer nurses to Figueres. The border crossing from Cerbere to Port Bou is spectacular; standing on the promontory you can look down to the little French harbour town of Cerbere to your left and to your right, is Port Bou’s harbour, with the steep scrubland rising high above it and the deep blue of the Mediterranean stretching away to the horizon. For a young woman from Czechoslovakia this rocky coastline, shimmering in the summer heat must have been breathtaking, and it was coupled with the knowledge that she was finally here, in Spain, embarking on the adventure of a lifetime, about to join the struggle against fascism.

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Port Bou

July 1937 was a crucial time in the war, its outcome was still in the balance. Fascist troops from Italy and Germany were fully engaged, the atrocity that was the bombing of Guernica had taken place a few months earlier and the Battle of Brunete, to the west of Madrid, was in full force. Alice, like so many, had responded to the call of the Communist party to volunteer. The Soviet Union had decided to enter the fray and add their military weight to the Republican cause. Arriving at Figueres must have been frantic, with recruits from all nations and of all types arriving and being dispatched for registration to Albacete.

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Figueres would also be the site of the Republic’s last stand. In January 1939, the Republican government was forced to retreat there and both fort and town were bombed unmercifully until they were defeated. By this time, however, Alice had gone back home. She left in July 1938, and we know from her own words exactly how it felt to be abandoning Spain, knowing the fight was lost and it would only be a matter of time before Franco and the Nationalists were victorious.

We chose to leave Spain in exactly the same place as Alice. Ignoring the fast motorway that whizzed you across the border without noticing, we drove along the winding coastal road to Port Bou. At the summit, we parked and the small customs house was gone, but a footpath wound up further than the road, so we followed it and found a memorial to all the refugees who had poured over the border in 1939 to escape the reprisals of Franco’s troops. It was estimated that 10,000 arrived at the border each day, reaching a total of 458,000, 78,628 of whom were children. Some were sent back, some managed to flee and the rest were interned in makeshift camps.

Now the difference between the two countries is minimal, a relief for me to have a language I could speak and perhaps for Alice too, although by the time she left Spain, she must have acquired some Spanish. For Alice, however, the culture shock was intense. She crossed the border at night and Port Bou was in darkness. She left a country where people were terrorised and starving, many suffering from diseases for which there were no medicines. France was untouched, the little town illuminated by street lights and the food still plentiful in the shops. However, she would not enjoy that for long, as no sooner had she and her four companions, arrived in the town, but they were arrested. Cerbere, perhaps the name should have heralded a warning, could it be a coincidence that the border town was named after the dog that guarded the underworld?

Her first night in France was spent in a police cell in Cerbere. The next day the five prisoners were moved to Ceret where they faced a ‘procureur’ (state prosecutor), who explained that they would be the first to be condemned by a new law which imposed a penalty of 1-6 months imprisonment on anyone crossing the border without proper documents. The procureur apologised and said he had to apply the law. Alice’s acid comment on the decision, “Why is it that the weak always charge those with whom they have sympathy?” would have a wider resonance than she could possibly know.

She spent the next night in a cell in Ceret, “I feel a whole zoo passes through my cell. In this small cell without air and without light there is room for all: mice, rats, fleas, bugs, lice. Now I see exactly how prison looks from the inside. The stench is almost unbearable.” On the third day, the prisoners were taken by train to Perpignan to serve their sentence. We too, drive on to Perpignan.

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Alice describes her walk from Perpignan station to the prison and so it was easy for us too to follow it. In fact, our hotel was on the rue de la Gare (Station Road), then lined with plane trees, now with tall palms. Many of the houses remain the same, attractive buildings with metal balconies. What a contrast to her first arrival in Perpignan, to find herself escorted by police from one stinking police cell to what she imagined would be another. Worst of all, was the knowledge of what she had left behind. Like her, we were able to pass the statue of Jean Jaures, although since she passed it, it has been moved slightly to accommodate a new open plaza in front of a large FNAC store.

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Statue of Jean Jaures

I knew the exact street we were looking for because Alice mentions it in her account, but I didn’t know whether the prison would still be there. However, as we turned the corner, a large building with heavily barred windows was immediately visible. As we reached it, the word PRISONS was carved in stone above the door. No longer in use as a prison, it now houses an exhibition about the Algerian War and a social centre for Algerians. We went in, and discovered that the prison had two separate wings for men and women and the women’s wing had been restored. The men’s wing was closed off and structurally unsafe. I realised as I looked up at the archway leading to the staircase, with the words, “Quartiers des Femmes” painted above it, that these were the stairs used by Alice. I had not fully understood her description of her days in this prison until I was inside it. She had described her days in the company of two other women in a ground floor room and then at seven in the evening, after dinner, they went upstairs to sleep. The larger communal room was still there, as were the cells upstairs. I had never imagined I would be able to walk through exactly where she had spent her days.

By comparison with the dank cell in Ceret, Alice describes this prison as a “paradise”. Her two fellow prisoners help her to wash and give her cleaner clothes, they share their food with her, one of them has it delivered each day from a local restaurant, and they share stories. She shares the night-time cell with another woman, Lucy, coincidentally also a lawyer and when Alice asks why she is in prison, she answers, “I killed my husband.” In the days that follow, the women learn a great deal about each other; it was obviously an experience Alice remembered with something close to affection. She was always prepared to talk about her experiences in Spain and wrote a long account of her departure and imprisonment in Perpignan, so very different from her response to the years spent in prison in Czechoslovakia, about which she was silent.

It was the end of the journey. Alice was released a few weeks later and in the last days of summer, she returned to Erwin In Zilina. On the 30th of September, the Munich Agreement was signed and all her worst fears were realised. Having visited the prison, we too left Perpignan and headed home through France in the late summer sun.

For more about Figueres during the Civil War.

Surrounded by Danger

 

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Interbrigadist Hospital in Mataro, now a school.

On the 6th and 7th April 1938 the whole hospital of Benicasim was evacuated. Convalescents were sent to Barcelona and the wounded transferred north to Mataro by train, lorry and ambulance.

The move to Mataro was precipitated by the Nationalist advance towards the eastern coast of Spain, which threatened to cut Benicasim off from the Republican government in Barcelona. The Republican administration had been forced to move east from Albacete to be in safer Republican territory.

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We too made the journey north to Mataro, conscious that we were edging ever closer to France, our days in Spain, like Alice’s, were running out. We arrived in Mataro under threatening grey clouds, which soon turned into pounding rain. In 1938 when Alice arrived in the town, her dark clouds were as much metaphorical as literal, for it was obvious that the Republic’s days were numbered. Before evacuating Benicasim, they had seen the flights of Italian aircraft from Majorca heading over the beach towards the Spanish mainland, sometimes they would strafe the beach or drop an ordnance as they headed for their true destination.

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Fishermen’s houses in Mataro

Like Benicasim, Mataro too is on the coast, but when Alice and the others arrived, the coast was not a pleasure beach but lined with small fishermen’s houses. The hospital, a large building, formerly used as a Catholic school and monastery, was outside the town, surrounded by countryside. Whereas in Benicasim, the railway brought the wounded directly to the hospital, in Mataro, they needed to be transported up by tram or lorry. Now, the building is once more a school and in the midst of the newer part of the town, as Mataro has grown into a thriving industrial city. We were there to meet Josep, a retired teacher and committed researcher, who is uncovering the work of the hospital and international brigades. He is also a proud Catalan, campaigning for Catalonian independence. His interest in the hospital came through his grand-parents. His grandmother worked at the hospital and she and her husband also had three of the nurses as lodgers, sharing one large bed. Luckily as they worked in shifts they were rarely all in it at the same time!

We accompanied Josep into the school, it was the day before term started and the teachers were in but not the students. We had to leave by 12 as the school was closing for all the teachers to go to mass and then they would be going out for lunch together, so different from our own training days! Josep explained that the chapel, which was at the entrance to the school, was used as a triage centre by the hospital. We walked around the original staircases, saw the original water fountains in the courtyard, visited the canteen, still being used for the same purpose and then went down into the basement which had housed the kitchen and stores and where some of the original tiles still graced the walls. I imagined Alice down there, taking deliveries through the roadside door that led directly to the basement.

Josep explained that the hospital had housed about 800 patients, many with beds in the corridors as well as in the classrooms-cum-wards. The hospital was desperately short of everything, but nevertheless had more food and supplies than the residents of the town. His grand-mother was grateful for the food she was given there by the patients, who shared what was in their rations, as they knew they were better off than the citizens of Mataro.

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Memorial at Mataro Cemetery

After leaving the school, we made our way through the pelting rain up to the cemetery to see the memorial to the international brigades, it was large and undamaged, perhaps a sign that Mataro is still a socialist town. The place where the bodies were actually buried, however, was unmarked, next to another patch of land housing the dead from the Nationalist side, who were overlooked by a large cross. Josep wants a large plaque on the outer wall of the school, but he is encountering some resistance to this. He is welcomed into the school to show people round and visit, but he has not yet been able to talk to the students. One of the history teachers is interested in the subject and some students have written papers on the role of the school in the civil war, but always, he says, from a Nationalist point of view.

Two days later we visited Vic, Alice’s final placement, and by then the weather had reverted to hot sun and blue skies. There, we were met by Manel, a police officer with the traffic division, who has become a committed campaigner for the memory of the international brigades. His family had no personal connection with the hospital, unlike Guillem’s and Josep’s, but he became interested one year at All Souls in the town’s cemetery when a young woman asked him in English for help finding the grave of Kevin Rebbechi. Finally they found the name, covered in moss, on a memorial to members of the international brigades, more of a headstone with a list of names than a memorial, as no mention is made of the international brigades. Thus began a long relationship between Manel and the Rebbechi family, as he started to research the history of this man and his town. He has now written a book, Looking for Kevin, about his experiences.

Manel had arranged for us to park outside town and he drove us to the cemetery where the spark for his own interest in the subject had first been lit. We saw the very small plaque with Kevin’s name and some of the others from the international brigades, now cleaned and easy to read. A tree had been planted and another small plaque with a poem, but still no mention of the brigades. The men had been buried in an unmarked patch of ground, as in Mataro. Here, however, rather than looking bleak under grey skies and pouring rain, it was a peaceful scene with two brown rabbits quietly nibbling the short grass.

The Cemetery in Vic

From there we went to the hospital, again located in a Catholic school, this time attached to a convent. The building dates from the late 17th century and the adjoining church is the only one left standing by the Republicans. By the time Alice got there, it was one of the last outposts, well defended by a small airfield and impossible to bomb from the sea, as it is in the mountains 60 kilometres inland from Mataro. All the wealthy and powerful people had long since deserted the town, the poor who remained had, to quote Manel, “no food, no drink, no water.” There was no mains water in the town anyway, it all had to be collected from the wells. As a result, typhus was rife and whereas the international doctors knew how to avoid it and treat it, those in the town did not. Although the hospital was better off than the townspeople, it had no morphine and the operations were carried out under the light of a single bulb held aloft by one of the nurses. The day we visited, the school term had started and when we first walked out into the courtyard it was obviously break time and the courtyard was filled with teenagers chatting peaceably. It seemed a very long way from the cries of wounded men and the terror of knowing that everyone’s days of freedom were numbered.

There were no more illusions by the time Alice was in Mataro and Vic. Danger was on all sides; the inexorable advance of Franco’s troops and the cruel reprisals that faced every town that was overrun were well-known. There were two choices, stay and fight with certain knowledge of defeat or escape over the border. Once the town was taken the rich would return, the Nationalists would take charge and the priests would have the power of life and death, they could say who had been on which side and the wrong decision would bring death. However, Franco was not the only threat to the international brigadists; there were threats from their own side. Andre Marty, a French communist and member of the comintern, had been designated “Inspector General of the International Brigades”, also nicknamed the “Butcher of Albacete”, he had been determined to root out any sedition in the ranks of the international brigades, in particular any Trotskyists or anarchists.

It was through him that Alice, Dora, Vlasta and Helena were all accused of undermining morale, first in Benicasim and then also in Mataro and Vic, where they were kept under surveillance and had their post intercepted. They were accused of having stolen some preserves, of which crime they were later acquitted, but these same accusations resurfaced ten years later when they were imprisoned in Czechoslovakia. Many pages of interrogation focus on Spain and those final weeks; the Soviets had very long memories and very detailed records.

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Alice, Vlasta and Dora on the beach at Mataro.

Alice was lucky, she decided to leave Spain in July 1938, those who left much later had an even more difficult time. We too, were about to leave, but before we did, we sat and chatted with Manel over a coffee. He alone in Vic is uncovering these stories and although the schools know him well and welcome him in to talk about road safety, he is not welcome to talk about the town’s history. The book he has written is not approved of by his superiors, but that is not stopping him. His next project is to memorialise the Spanish refugees who escaped into France and were then shipped to concentration camps, primarily Mathausen.

As we drove away, two sentences of Manel’s stuck with me, “People of Vic no talk.” and “Spain can never bury her dead.”

Benicasim: From Holiday Resort to Hospital

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We sat on the terrace in the sun, looking out at the crescent-shaped sandy beach that stretched away to the horizon. This was a proper holiday resort; tanned bodies in bikinis lay on loungers under raffia parasols, young men with surfboards climbed over the low sea wall to join friends enjoying a beer. All along the promenade, stalls selling local produce and crafts attracted the sauntering tourists. In the 1930s Benicasim had been the holiday playground of the rich and now, once again, it is a relaxed seaside resort with a dash of class.

In the days before the Civil War, it had more than a dash of class, it was expensive and exclusive. Bordering the promenade was an endless succession of holiday villas, individual and colourful, with painted railings and gates and lush tropical gardens in which hibiscus and bougainvillea bloomed. Each bore a name painted on its bright facade and they were named after the wives and daughters of the families who holidayed there every summer: Villa Isabel, Villa Elisa, Villa Leonor, Villa Victoria. By 1936 the villas stood empty, their owners no longer felt safe in the turbulent political times. Although Benicasim itself was not a Republican town, it was in an area under Republican control and the rich preferred to stay home in Nationalist Castile.

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Villa Victoria, formerly Villa Maxim Gorky used as a library and cultural centre.

The residents of Benicasim were accustomed to their seasonal life, providing hotels, hospitality and entertainment for their summer visitors, working as cleaners, chauffeurs and chefs. They had learned an attitude of service and deference, and understood the hierarchy of the class system they served. The ladies, in particular, were treated with respect; waited upon and protected.

September 1937 brought dramatic change to Benicasim. An avalanche of foreigners descended on the town, commandeering the hotel, the convent and all the abandoned villas. Now no longer called by genteel female names, they became Villa Maxim Gorky, Villa Masaryk, Villa Pavlov and gained a host of other political labels. Hotel Voramar found itself becoming Hotel Largo Caballero, and when he fell from grace, Hotel Frente Popular. Soon the train that had brought holiday makers right to the seafront was bringing in the wounded and the hotel garage became a triage centre. And the women! Gone were the well-dressed ladies taking coffee; in their place, women doctors, pharmacists, administrators, striding down the promenade from one villa to another, not to visit friends but to check the stores and provisions in one villa, look after patients another, set up the library, organise lectures and Spanish lessons.

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Villa Amaro, formerly Villa Dombrowski used as a ward for infectious diseases

Villas that had once been places of fun and frivolity became designated for infectious diseases such as typhus and syphilis, one villa became a prison, another was a pharmacy, a third became the centre for maintenance and supplies. Most, however, were wards or administrative centres run by the different nationalities. Five of these belonged to the Czech Comenius Hospital and two of their villas survive: Villa Pavlov and Villa Masaryk. We were able to stand in front of them and peer through the railings imagining Alice, Dora, Helena and Vlasta there. For this was where they had spent the majority of their time in Spain. Under the directorship of Bedrich Kisch, brother of Egon Ervin Kisch, the Czech section of the hospital was one of the largest and best funded, as a result of money raised in Czechoslovakia and sent to support the international hospital. Here the women lived and worked, enjoying the Mediterranean weather, the profusion of orange trees, the silken sands, even as they worked hard to keep the hospital running and deal with the medical cases as they came in. For much of the time, the hospital had few acute injuries and was an ideal spot for convalescents, or for those needing respite from the front. After the battles of Belchite and Ebro, however, far more of the wounded arrived directly from the battlefields.

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Villa Maria, formerly Villa Pavlov, used by the Czech Comenius Hospital

We visited in the company of Guillem Casan, a teacher from Benicasim, who has researched the hospital and written many articles about it. He was able to point out each remaining villa and explain its history. A number of the villas have been demolished and replaced by large blocks of flats, but he and others managed to persuade the local council to put preservation orders on the remaining villas and so there are many still standing and adding charm to the promenade for visitors or, more importantly, preserving the historical year when the holiday resort became an international hospital. Preserving that memory has not been easy; throughout the Franco years it was impossible and even now, many either don’t want to remember or are afraid of what will be uncovered. Two years ago, Guillem and others managed to get a memorial erected to the international brigades, it looks much older than its two years. He explained that it regularly gets graffitied with the words “Sons of Stalin” and has to be scrubbed clean.

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It is difficult to reconcile the high ideals and humanitarian concerns of those who worked in the hospital with the realpolitik of Stalin and his use of the Spanish Civil War to create a bulwark against capitalism, only to abandon the Republicans to Franco when he wanted to keep the Western democracies onside. Alice, like so many of her compatriots and co-interbrigadists was a loyal communist. Yet for them, involvement in Spain would result in prison or death. Those who survived the war, and later the internment camps in France and North Africa, were returned to fascist countries like Germany, Italy or even Hungary to face an immediate sentence. Others, like Alice, returned safely, but after the war found their own communist governments turning on them, on Stalin’s orders, and arresting the interbrigadists, accusing them of Trotskyism or Imperialism or both. The gentle beach of Benicasim seems light years away from the bleak prison walls in which they would find themselves.

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Vlasta Vesela, Helena Petrankova and Dora Klein.

We wound our way back through the week-end crowds to the Hotel Voramar, now having reverted to its pre-Republican name, and walked along the low wall where Helena, Vlasta and Dora had posed for their photograph. The photograph, which was used on the flyer for last year’s exhibition about the international brigades, shows the three young women in their white hospital uniforms, two doctors and a pharmacist. They were then and would remain Alice’s closest friends, like her, still full of idealism and belief in a better future. As we settled for a farewell beer, I asked Guillem how he had become involved in researching the international brigades hospital. He explained that his father, a young boy of seven at the time, had made friends with some of the interbrigadists and they had encouraged him to use their library, which he had loved. As an adult, he trained as a teacher, but his first love was books so he had switched careers and opened a bookshop. Guillem heard his father speak about those times and the story he heard was different from the official version spun in the years of Franco’s dictatorship. Now he is reviving and restoring that story, making it available to his fellow citizens and those of us from further afield who benefit from his knowledge.

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For more information about the consequences for Alice, Dora and Vlasta see: A Tale of Two Photographs

Bullfighting in Albacete

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Map of Republican Territory in May 1937 when Alice arrived in Spain

On our first evening in Albacete we went to a restaurant recommended on TripAdvisor. As we walked in, far too early for Spanish diners, we were greeted by an enormous bull’s head, stuffed and mounted on a shield. It took up the whole wall opposite the bar and was mesmerising, a most beautiful glistening black bull looking across the dining tables with a majesty that belied its ignominious position. It was awe-inspiring and sad. How could anyone want to torture and kill such a magnificent creature? Every other inch of wall in the restaurant was covered in photographs of matadors and posters and tickets for bullfights. This was not a tourist destination, the Spanish clientele made that clear. Indeed, Albacete, for all its international visitors during the civil war now has very few.

The next morning we went to CEDOBI, the library dedicated to the history of the international brigades. There we met Carmen, a slight young woman with long dark hair, with whom I had been in contact two days earlier. She already had a pile of books ready to show us. Her English was even more meagre than my Spanish and she apologised profusely for its inadequacy; we communicated in sign language and via google translate on our mobile phones. Later she explained her resolution for the year ahead was to learn English and she blamed Franco for the Spaniards’ poor English, “He kept us backward and inward looking.”

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After studying the documents, we went out together into the town. She wanted to show us the bull ring. During the civil war the bull ring had been the recruitment and registration centre for the international brigades. Albacete was the distribution point and the headquarters were situated in the Gran Hotel on the main square, the very place where we were staying. Alice arrived here soon after crossing into Spain from Perpignan. It was not her first stop, that was Figueras, a few miles from the border. From here she sent Erwin the telegram explaining that she had gone to Spain and that they “belonged to two different worlds”. It was his first indication that rather than holidaying with her parents in Brussels, she had gone to join the fight against fascism. Figueras was the first port of call for the volunteers crossing into Spain but from there they needed to go to Albacete, the city of Babel, where every European language could be heard on the streets.  Once here, the raw recruits made their way to the bull ring, ready too to sacrifice their lives in an unequal contest.

All large buildings had been pressed into service, and the bull ring was no exception, but it was also symbolic. The Republicans had a different relationship with bullfighting. It did not occur during the years of the Civil War and in 1936 when the Republicans won the election and came to power, “Special pastures that had been given over to the breeding of fighting bulls… were ploughed over. In the months before the new crops would be available…” they slaughtered the bulls to distribute for food. For many of the peasants it was their first ever taste of meat. The time, land, care and money spent raising bulls for the ring accentuated the priorities of the landowners while the peasants starved and were punished for the most minor offences. In the province of Albacete
seventeen peasants were killed, and many others wounded by the Civil Guard. They had attempted to chop wood on land that had once belonged to the village..”

It was in Albacete that Alice first realised she really was now part of the resistance to Franco, she quickly made contact with others she knew from the Czech communists and began to forge relationships that would last a lifetime and which would bind them together in danger far removed from the imminent threats of bombs and typhus. She did not stay long, but was drafted to the hospital in Guadalajara, only to return a few weeks later when Otto Sling, suffering from typhus, needed to be repatriated to Czechoslovakia. Convalescents also stayed in the Gran Hotel, on the floors above the administration.  Further accommodation was found in the neighbouring Hotel Regina or other buildings around the square, now the town hall and a bank.

Albacete is a much larger town than Guadalajara, and returning here, Alice must have felt the change intensely. Guadalajara was a small hilltop community, but here on the flat plain, Albacete spread much more widely and its centre was far more grand. However, the international brigades were still concentrated in an intense closeness, grouped around the Plaza del Altozano, in the centre of which is the entrance to the bunker or bomb shelter, now a defaced and deserted tourist information office. Close by, the cathedral and its plaza were used to station the Republican tanks. Further away from the centre, a short walk from the bullring, was the fairground, used during the war as a barracks. Long lines of tents housed the various international brigades before they were dispatched to their individual battle zones.

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Gran Hotel

When Carmen took us to see the fairground, it was being prepared for a fiesta. Unwittingly, we had arrived in Albacete the day before their annual fiesta in honour of the Virgin de los Llanos. The fiesta has been celebrated for three hundred years and kicks off with a huge parade and floats bearing people dressed in traditional costumes. For three days the town is filled with revellers enjoying the bands, exhibitions, dancing, food and bull fights. For on each of these three days there are bullfights and each day six bulls will have been killed. I asked Carmen whether bullfighting was still popular and she said that it was. Although she was not so keen on it, her father, brother and sister all were. She said it is as popular as ever.

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The Bull Ring

Apart from the little library of CEDOBI, the civil war is hardly mentioned in Albacete. At the tourist information office, now relocated into the town hall, the assistant said regretfully there was nothing apart from CEDOBI and when I asked Carmen how Albacete had been affected by having been a Republican centre during the war, her answer was chilling. She said, “We do not talk about it. Every family in town has people who disappeared or were killed.” Franco’s troops were indeed brutal. Conquering a city was never enough, they murdered all the Republican elements they could find: trade unionists, intellectuals, anyone who had been active in supporting or sheltering activists.

The choice of the bullring as a recruiting centre was, I am sure, made for practical reasons, but I am haunted by that bull’s head in the restaurant. The bull’s defeat is always inevitable, and it has no choice but to fight.

 

Quotations from The Spanish Civil War by Paul Preston (Harper Perennial 2006)

 

 

Bienvenida España

Palacio del Infantado

Our arrival in Spain was rather different from Alice’s. In July 1937 she took the train down to Perpignan and in the company of other volunteers, crossed to Figueras, the meeting point for many of the international brigades. In September 2019 we crossed the bay of Biscay in a Brittany Ferry in the company of many seasoned second homers, some accompanied by their dogs. Plug-in food coolers were the accessory of choice and shorts and sweatshirts the prevailing fashion. Alice, however, arrived with virtually no possessions and had to rely on Dora for the gift of a coat.

After an initial night in Bilbao we proceeded to Guadalajara, which was Alice’s first assignment. In 1936 Guadalajara had been the scene of a fierce battle between the Republicans  and the Nationalists, mostly represented by Italian troops sent across by Mussolini to help Franco. Most of the fighting took place in surrounding villages, which were reduced to mounds of rubble and the skeletons of buildings, but Guadalajara itself had seen some direct fighting and bombing, thus seriously damaging the old Renaissance style building of the Palacio del Infantado. By the time Alice arrived, the Nationalists had been repulsed and peace had once again descended on the town, although signs of the hard-fought battle were all around her.

Guadalajara is a small town, sixty kilometres to the east of Madrid. We approached it from the north and soon found ourselves driving down a cool and spacious tree-lined avenue, at the end of which stood our large modern hotel. Having settled in, we went to explore. A few steps on from the hotel, we were greeted by the majesty of the Palacio del Infantado, now lovingly restored, its golden stone bathed in late summer sun. Accounts of the bombing were on the plaque outside, although which side was responsible for the bombing was strangely absent.IMG_3271

Convento de San Jose

We were in search of the Carmelite convent where the international brigade hospital was situated and found it soon enough, still operating as a convent and promoting as a major historic event the torture and killing of three of its nuns during the civil war and their subsequent beatification. We were allowed to go in and visit the church, which involved talking to a nun (in Spanish) and asking to be allowed in. I understood that we needed to push a button next to a door further along the street. Having managed this successfully, we found ourselves in a dark interior, barely able to discern where the floor was after the brightness of the sunlight outside. The church was empty and silent apart from us and the door locked behind us with a click. A typical ornate and gilded altarpiece adorned the eastern wall and a huge painting of the three murdered nuns was on the right hand side. To the left of the altar, effigies of the same three nuns looked out through an iron grille, above a repository for their bones. At the back of the chapel a gallery covered by an iron grille allowed the nuns still living in the convent to take part in the services. Only dead nuns had the privilege of witnessing services from inside the church. I wondered what the chapel had been used for when it was a hospital, maybe as a ward for the injured. There was no mention anywhere of the interbrigadist hospital, only the fact that the convent buildings had survived the war and the nuns had then been able to return.

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When we came to leave the chapel, my instructions in Spanish failed me and I had a moment of panic as we tried various ways of getting out of the chapel to no avail, until finally we found the right button for our release.

We decided to try and find some information about Guadalajara during the civil war as none was available in general tourist information. We went to the library and for a small town, actually for any town, the library was impressive. It was on three floors, well staffed, furnished with large airy study spaces and we were soon shown to the local history section where we were able to go through photograph books with pictures of the battle of Guadalajara. Here, the destruction of the surrounding villages was clear and there were some individual photographs of an ambulance, but nothing on the hospital. However, taking the short walk from the convent to Plaza Major and along the main street, I could imagine the town filled with soldiers and wounded, the hospital staff coming off shift and meeting in the little street bars. It was so compact, that every few yards you would meet someone you knew. The newer part of the town stretching below what would have been the ruins of the Palacio del Infantando would not have been there, instead the beginning of farms and fields.


The new town now tells a contradictory story. Because Guadalajara was seen as a “defeated city” (after Franco’s final victory), it was starved of funds and allowed to decay. It is only in recent years that there has been investment and an effort to promote the town as a dormitory for Madrid, as yet not very successfully. Despite the efficient new rail line into Madrid, many of the apartment blocks sit empty and in some cases, unfinished. So the hopeful rebirth of this town is still to come.

The next day, as we left the hilltop town, all the old streets felt familiar and well-known, how much more strongly must Alice have felt after her few weeks here in such an intimate and intense community. She left just as plans were being made to move the hospital to the coastal town of Benicasim and although she knew the removal was imminent, she was forced to leave early to visit Albacete where Otto Schling was suffering from typhus and needed to be repatriated to Czechoslovakia.

We too, therefore, were making the journey to Albacete. The journey took us on excellent and almost empty roads and was spectacular. The first part curved up and down the cultivated hilly slopes, stubble giving way to vines and then to olive trees. We wound round the curving mountain sides, encountering few cars and isolated villages. Every so often the vistas opened out and we could see for miles across the plain spreading out below us. Finally we reached the bottom and then, in the midday heat, we drove along through endless flatness with no respite from the blazing sun. I had read that Alice had walked this journey; this seemed impossible. I think what she meant was that she had not been able to take a train as they were all in use for troop movements. She meant that  she had to travel under her own steam, hitching lifts in army trucks or farm carts and still the voyage must have lasted some days, through the baking heat and unrelenting glare of the plain, or climbing steep farm tracks.

For us, it was an easy four hour trip. Albacete, central distribution point for the international brigades, awaited us.

Alice in the Archives

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Bytca Archive.

I have visited archives in a wide variety of locations, ranging from deserted castles (Bytca) to pre-fab buildings in suburban streets (Liptovsky Mikulas), behind locked iron gates (Zilina) or huge wooden doors in discreet side streets (Prague). None seem to advertise themselves and in nearly every case I have had a moment of doubt about the location before being allowed in. However, they all have one other thing in common; they are staffed by the most helpful people in the world. There must be a helpful gene that singles you out for a career in the archives. Regardless of language barriers, the archive staff go out of their way to produce microfilm or ancient ledgers, to guide me through strange unfamiliar login details and display an understanding shrug as I sign one request slip after another, while they kindly fill in the rest. They explain the apparently incomprehensible and go searching for extra documents I wasn’t yet aware that I wanted and they seem delighted to do so.

Archives have provided most of the sources in my search for Alice, and they have been significant in a number of ways. The vast majority of the documents have winged their way to me over the internet, but there are always details in seeing the originals that add an extra perspective. At Bytca, scrolling through for the record of Alice’s birth, I wasn’t sure I would find out more than I already knew. It was easy to locate the details, Alice had been born in Ruzomberok on December 19th 1905 as I knew and as, at the time, Ruzomberok was still part of the Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the details were in Hungarian, but then I saw an extra note, written in Slovak. Although when Alice was born she was registered as Jewish, the added note from 1930 stated that in 1930, she had registered herself legally as “atheist” and the number of the registration document was included.

It was no great surprise to know that she was an atheist, but I was surprised to find it noted there on her birth record. But what the authorities in the former Czechoslovakia choose to retain is a constant source of surprise. From the Bytca archive I went to Liptovsky Mikulas and there located Alice’s school records. Both Erwin and Alice had attended Catholic Gymnasia (secondary schools) run by the Catholic Piarist brothers, Erwin in Zilina and Alice in Ruzomberok. However, the four year difference in their ages was crucial. Whereas Erwin had completed his education in 1918, and therefore studied in Hungarian under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Alice had joined the secondary school in that year – the year Czechoslovakia was created – and so was taught in either Czech or Slovak.

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Alice’s street as it was when she lived there.

The records helped confirm her address and showed her grades for each year. Her grades were not as uniformly high as Erwin’s, but she excelled in languages, writing, and the study of literature. Mathematics and Chemistry were her weaker subjects, my sympathies are with her. The records also give the details of her final matriculation exams and the names of the literary texts on which she was tested. They included the Slovak realist writer, Jozef Gregor Tajovsky and the Czech national revival poet, Frantisek Ladislav Celakovsky. For her French exams she was tested on the subjunctive and on Corneille’s Le Cid. It was so strange to be able to see that level of detail, I am sure none of my schools retain copies of my reports, let alone what I studied. While I was there, I couldn’t resist looking too at the records of her friends: Helena Petrankova and Edvard Urx. I felt like a time traveller looking back at their teenage experience and knowing the bravery and horror their futures were to hold.

Finally I looked at Eva’s records, seven years Alice’s junior, so by the time she was in school, the Czech curriculum was well established, and Eva was a star! If Alice, Edvard and Helena had all been bright students heading off to university in Prague, Eva’s grades outshone them all, achieving the highest “velmi dobry” in every subject and specialising in sciences. She would go on and have a prestigious career in scientific research, including her two years during the war at Kew and a grant from the FAO to study in Sweden after the war. Who knows what she might have achieved, had her opportunities not been cut short by Alice’s arrest and the policies of Czechoslovakia’s communist regime?

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Alice’s school.

Having seen the records, I wanted to see the places themselves, the house where Alice and her family had lived, the synagogue, the school. As with so many places, the street names had changed and it was inevitable that Nemecka (German) Street would have changed. In fact, it was right in the centre, a minute from our hotel, but apart from one building with a circular tower on the corner of the street, nothing from Alice’s era survives. Alice’s family had been wealthy and lived in a large house. During the Communist era, all were demolished to make way for blocks of flats. There have probably been several alterations since then, now it is a pedestrianised shopping street. At the top end of it, however, there is a small road that winds up the hill towards what is now called Hlinka Square where the town hall is situated. This was Alice’s route to school and some of the houses still look as if they might be from that time. Walking up there is the closest I can get to her teenage years, imagining her and Helena (who lived opposite) walking to and from school, chatting and gossiping or enthused by the new ideas being shared by their teacher, Professor Martinec.

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Alice’s route to school.

Andrej Hlinka, Catholic priest and leader of the Slovak People’s Party, was born in Ruzomberok and his huge mausoleum now stands at one end of the square that bears his name. Although Hlinka supported both Salazar in Portugal and Dolfus in Austria, it would be under his successor Jozef Tiso that Slovakia embraced Nazi ideology, and his own name lived on during the war as the hated “Hlinka Guard” carried out Tiso’s orders in deporting Slovak Jews. Alice would be surprised today to see how he is revered in his home town. One of her first political acts was in response to Hlinka, on a day when she arrived at school to find the Catholic students barring entry in order to protest about Hlinka’s arrest by the Czech authorities. Alice was one of the first to break the strike and go straight in.

The school still stands at the furthest point of Hlinka Square and is part of the Catholic University in Ruzomberok. The school itself has moved into larger and more modern premises. When Alice attended, the school was part of a complex of buildings owned by the Piarist brothers, which included a huge church right next to the school and a seminary for Catholic priests. For the young Jewish teenagers, many of whom had been radicalised by the progressive ideas of Professor Martinec, the alternative vision for the future of their city and country was all too clear.

It is no surprise that once Alice had left for Prague, she never returned to live in Ruzomberok, although she did still visit her parents. Ruzomberok did, however, provide the setting for one final significant event in her life; her marriage to Erwin, which took place in the town hall in a civil ceremony. It was to that same town hall I went to see the record of the marriage and obtain a copy of the certificate. As with the amendment to the birth certificate, when I looked at the marriage record, there was an extra note; this one stating the marriage had been dissolved in April 1951. All the documents from the beginning of her life, detailing birth, education and marriage contain, within their dry facts, memorials to days of happiness and hope.

Finally, I wonder whether researchers of the future will get the same thrill by trawling through online and electronic data as I do from holding in my hands the ledgers containing the entries written by the very teachers who stood in front of young Alice and Eva and Helena and believed in the promise they showed.

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Visiting the Dead

Leopold & Ernestine

Leopold Kohn and Ernestine Kohnova (nee Diamant)

On a hot sunny Sunday, we set off to Cadca. This is the final week of the trip, Slovakia. Cadca is near the northern border of Slovakia, close to Poland. It is the place where the trains from Slovakia transporting the Jews to Auschwitz, stopped, and where their human cargo was handed over to the SS. It is also the family home of my grand-mother’s family – the Diamants. We are staying in Zilina, which we visited for the first time last year for the memorial event. This time, it is just our base for further exploration

The drive up the valley to Cadca is stunning, almost Alpine, with its tree covered mountains on either side and a lush green valley between. At times we drive next to a river and the peace and beauty on this quiet morning help me to understand why Ernestine (my grand-mother) might not have been able to settle in New York. Did she dream of a return to these green mountains from her tenement flat? Did the slow domestic pace of a small town where everyone knew everyone, where in every shop and round every corner was a friend, a relative, call to her from the frenetic streets of the Lower East Side?

Cadca is small and seems deserted when we arrive and park. We set off along a pedestrianised shopping street and branch off towards the cemetery; we are searching for the memorial to the Jews of Cadca. At the Catholic cemetery a few people are tending graves, the cemetery is vast and stretches away as far as the eye can see. It is a riot of colour, on every grave there are artificial flowers, little lanterns and big headstones. I am not sure how to find the memorial so ask an elderly lady, who is at the entrance and is enjoying an ice cream cone. I show her the website on my phone and in a mixture of Czech (me) and Slovak (her) we talk, she is very helpful and shows us how to find it, walking with us to the perimeter of the graveyard, and pointing to a small path behind a house, which we follow. It comes out on to another little road and there, in the midst of a small meadow, we see the memorial. It is completely quiet, just the stone memorial and a sculpture of a fire blasted tree trunk, symbolising the lives cut short. We read the inscription, “Here was situated for centuries the Jewish cemetery. From 1942-1944 the Jews of Cadca were deported to extermination camps and their community ceased to exist.” In the days that follow, I shall visit other memorials and even Auschwitz, but none will make me cry as these few lines did.

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Most of Ernestine’s direct family emigrated to the USA long before the Holocaust, but this little town had been home to their ancestors and to others, for centuries – and in two years everything was destroyed. There is no sign of a gravestone anywhere, it is just a green field with a few benches, and right next door is a vast graveyard for Catholics, Christians who care for the graves of their own ancestors.

For these few days I am visiting absence and emptiness. On Monday we head for Bytca, to visit the archive. Appropriately it is situated in a derelict castle, I can hardly believe where I have been told to go. The open walkways round the abandoned courtyard are decorated with the remains of wall paintings, partially destroyed and flaking from the walls. Only the sign ‘Studovna’ keeps me walking, and there, sure enough, is a little archive office were I can scroll through microfiche and find the birth records of Alice and my grand-parents. I could have spent days there filling in the details of ancestors, maybe I shall return.. As we leave, opposite the castle, is the old synagogue – it is large and in a prominent position in the town, but it is derelict; the Jewish population, once central to the life of Bytca, no longer exists.

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Tuesday, and the mission is Ruzomberok. The Jewish cemetery there has been moved to adjoin the Catholic cemetery, some old gravestones from the original cemetery in the town have been transported there and there are also new graves. I am hoping to see something of the Glasner family and also Helena Petrankova’s grave which, according to an online history of Ruzomberok’s Jews, is also there. The graveyard is on the edge of the town, on the slope of a hill and, like the one in Cadca, is huge and packed with brightly decorated graves. The Jewish section is at the very furthest point. There are a few graves, surrounded by overgrown grass and overlooked by a large memorial to those who died in the holocaust. There is a small dead snake on the path, so we pick our way very carefully towards the graves and soon I see the name Geiger, Alice’s mother’s maiden name. It is a family grave of the Glasner, Politzer and Geiger families. It contains thirteen members of the family. The main granite headstone, which should have been upright, has fallen down and lies across older graves. We scrape away the moss and dirt to find a couple more names, but have no way of knowing more than a few of those buried there. I search for Helena Petrankova, there aren’t so many to choose from, but I can’t see her. Then, I notice Simon Ackersmann, her father, and there, underneath but on the same inscription, is her name. Helena died in 1968, a few days after the invasion by Soviet troops. I try to find more information at the cemetery office, but they have none. We ask about the grass and how often they get visitors to the Jewish section. The lady explains how many cemeteries they have and how wet it has been, they will get round to it eventually. They only get one or two visitors a year to the Jewish graves, no wonder they see clearing a path to them as low priority.

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My final destination on this voyage is, appropriately, Auschwitz. It is another blazing hot day when we arrive and we are booked on a six hour study tour. So much has been written about Auschwitz, but as well as seeing for myself, I want the answer to certain questions. I want to know what would have happened to Ernestine and Leopold, my grand-parents. And I do discover more detail, I learn that as they were deported in 1942, this was relatively early in the life of the camp and before Birkenau, the death camp, was built. They would have arrived at Oswiecim railway station, the direct train tracks under the watch tower to Birkenau were yet to be completed. They would have been marched to the camp and surprisingly for someone of Leopold’s age, he was chosen to “live” and be registered. This meant they were separated on arrival; Ernestine was not registered, she was directed straight to the gas chamber.

The gas chamber at Auschwitz has survived, the four larger ones at Birkenau were all destroyed. We can visit this one, I can stand in the room and try to think about what happened there. It is impossible, my mind just can’t take it in.

Leopold did not live for much longer, he might have been destroyed by the work and the conditions, maybe he gave up after losing Ernestine. I have strange thoughts. I am relieved that their journey from Zilina was such a short one, only a few hours, so many people travelled for days or even weeks in cattle trucks across Europe to reach there. Cruel as Auschwitz is, it is not as bad as Birkenau, and I am relieved they never had to see the full industrial machinery of death that it became. Strange how the brain adapts to horror, finding ways of working with and adapting to that once unimaginable reality. In one of the final rooms there is a book of the dead, listing 4 million of the 6 million Jews killed in Holocaust. I want to find Leopold’s name, I know it is there, but there are so many Kohns, so many Leopold Kohns that there isn’t time before the guide wants us to move on. Just as we are going, I spot his birthdate and place of residence – Zilina. We return in the lunch break to take the photograph. I don’t know why I so wanted to do that, I have other documents certifying what happened to him. I just felt in that place of horror I wanted to locate my grand-father, somehow to make that connection, as if being there I was finding more of him than just a name.

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In the afternoon we visit Birkenau and I have not described a fraction of what we saw, but there is a moment beyond the camp, behind the remains of the four huge gas chambers when we stop in the welcome shade of dappled trees and read another of the memorials. We stand in front of a pool, it is a strangely peaceful scene, away from the crowds of tourists and our guide says, “These pools are full of human ashes.”

Auschwitz has millions of visitors. On the day we went, continuous streams of students, older people, soldiers from the Israeli army, people from all over the world passed through the barracks of misery and degradation, stared at the mechanisms of death, photographed the now iconic places of arrival and selection. They stared at the vast piles of human hair, shoes, brushes, the maps like spider webs that show the places from which the victims came, all converging on this one point. The crimes are remembered, and the victims too, but their worlds, the vibrant communities to which they belonged, are no more, preserved only in the furthest corners of rarely visited graveyards.

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