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.

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

Return to Czechoslovakia


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.

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

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




Return to the Land of Milk and Honey


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stepping into the Shadows

IMG_0029 copy

A few months ago I wrote this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The London Connection


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Two Worlds: Meeting Alice for the First Time

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

hospital benicassim

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

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

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

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



My Past Ghost


Erwin Kohn

I have spent the last few weeks deep in the Slansky trials, reading about interrogation and torture. Worse than the physical tortures of sleep deprivation, constant walking with hands manacled, and then being dowsed with freezing water as the body collapsed no longer able to remain upright, was the shock and incredulity. People who had been loyal communists all their adult lives, who had fought in Spain, then in the war, either for the French resistance or the Soviet army, some who had even survived the concentration camps, returned to their native Czechoslovakia. They took positions of responsibility in the party and the government, believing they could found a new utopia, then found themselves facing the very tactics they had fought against during the war, used on them by their former comrades. As loyal communists, they gave their interrogators the benefit of the doubt, believed it was a genuine mistake and were at pains to have an investigation and explain themselves. It took some of them a long time to understand that no-one was interested in the truth, they only wanted confessions.

So far I have been reading about others: Artur London, Rudolf Margolius, Oskar Langer but references to Alice in Artur London’s The Confession make clear that she too was in the same prisons. As yet, I have no details of her arrest or interrogations, but if she suffered a tenth of what was suffered by others, then she too was in a living nightmare. What is certain, is that, like them, she must have come to the realisation that she had been betrayed by the movement and the people to whom she had devoted her life.

Alongside these accounts of a cruel looking glass world where truth is irrelevant, I keep thinking of where my father was during these times, what he knew and what he was thinking. I do have some of his diaries, starting in 1956 and ending with his death midway through 1962. He was obviously an assiduous diarist, so I guess diaries for the earlier years must have existed; I don’t know what happened to them. I started reading in the hope that there might be some reference somewhere to his earlier life. In fact, they were mostly taken up with the everyday events of our life in Geneva; my development, his work, their hectic social life and his hobbies of stamp collecting and photography. On their rare evenings at home, my father would listen to music and my mother would embroider; it was an ordered and comfortable life. I had tried to read the diaries before, but their daily accounts of our lives had meant I had just put them aside again. This time I was going to read every word in the hope of finding even the tiniest reference that would give me some idea of what he had thought and felt about his life before his marriage to my mother.

The first mention I found of any other life was as follows, “In bed reading Wheeler Bennet’s “Munich”. For many years is (sic) the first time I found interest in reading about the pre-war period again. By now I have a completely detached attitude. Although that whole period in Czechoslovakia was very much part of my life I now have the feeling that it was just a dream, it wasn’t even me. My present life has no connexion with those bygone days at all.” It wasn’t really what I wanted to find, but in a way I can understand it. In a world of order and freedom, of plenty and safety (and it is hard to find anywhere more plentiful and ordered than Switzerland) it is no surprise that the nightmare world of pre-war Central Europe should have an air of unreality. But for Alice and those still in Central Europe, there was no relief; waking into the post war world was to enter an even more grotesque nightmare.

I continued reading the diaries, through yet more accounts of picnics in the mountains, cocktail parties and trips to the stamp shops. I flicked forward a few years and there, at the back of the 1959 diary, found an extended account of a trip to Vienna. He was there for work for the WHO (World Health Organisation) but he was alone, and after meeting his colleague first thing in the morning, he had a free day. He chose to spend it revisiting old haunts and reminiscing. He had visited Vienna many times and done his post graduate medical training there in 1927-8; he had also returned with the Unitarian Service Committee after the war, and, as he tantalisingly mentions, “A great deal of the family trouble I went through with Alice’s family had Vienna as its scene.”

I read on, with a map of Vienna open on the screen, so I could follow his progress through the city, past the medical faculty, stopping at his favourite Beisl (cafe) for lunch and revisiting shops where he had bought medical textbooks and stationery, and which were still there, still selling those same products to a very different group of medical students. He never mentions the absent Jews, but they shout silently to me through the unwritten lines. Instead, he feels the unreality, “To me that whole part of my life somehow seems so remote as though I hadn’t been the person who lived through it.. .… Here in Vienna, however, that life somehow comes back to me and it comes back through such details as, for instance, the names of the old Austrian firms like the “Julius Meinl” coffee shops or Delka shoes or names of such banks as the Lauderbank.… And so I have the peculiar feeling here in Vienna as being my present self and my past ghost at the same time.” I so want to conjure up that past ghost, to try to understand the life he lead.

And there, in the midst of the memories, I find my name (or rather, his pet name for me). “Some day, I hope, I shall have time in retirement to dictate my story to a tape recorder. Dibbie should really know it and probably by the time she will be old enough to manage to appreciate it I shan’t be here to tell it to her. A sad but realistic thought.” He died three years later, not yet retired, and with no time to dictate his story. So here I am, a year older than he was when he died, in my retirement, trying to piece it together for myself, hoping his past ghost will be by my side as I search back to those earlier years.


Kovaly, Heda Margolius (Translated by Epstein, Franci and Epstein, Helen) Under a Cruel Star 1941-1968 (Granta 2012)

Langer, Jo, Convictions My Life with a Good Communist (Granta 2011)

London, Artur, (Translated by Hamilton, Alexander) The Confession (New York 1970)

The Hunting Dog Finds a Scent

Gottwald and Slansky

Gottwald and Slansky

If in my last blog, I was rushing down one blind alley after another, now I have found which scent to follow. Several questions have answers; I know that both Alice’s sister and her mother survived the war, I still don’t know how.

Much more interestingly, as a result of switching my researches from Ancestry to Geni, I now have information about Alice’s involvement in the Czech Communist party after the war and about her subsequent arrest. Thanks to suggestions from others on Geni, I have books that refer to Alice directly.

Noel Field was central to the events that unfolded. Alice was one of several people described by Karel Kaplan in his book, Report on the Murder of the General Secretary, as “Czechoslovak officials” who recommended that Field be granted a residence permit in Czechoslovakia. This request, rather than providing him with asylum, alerted the security authorities to Field and they decided to put him under surveillance. The job was given, again, according to Kaplan, to Alice Kohnova. This raises as many questions as it answers; if Alice wanted to help Field escape from the USA, how did she feel about ‘spying’ on him? What exactly was her role in the Communist Party and her relationship with the government?

More information comes in another book: Show Trials: Stalinist Purges in Easter Europe 1948-1954, by George H. Hodos. For those unfamiliar (as I was until a few weeks ago) with the Slansky Trials, they were Czechoslovakia’s version of the Stalinist Show Trials, which were named after Rudolf Slansky, who first participated in the Stalinist purges and later fell victim to them himself. It seems that Alice appeared in one of the earliest trials, due to her connection with Noel Field, but also because she ticked every box that made Stalinist authorities suspicious; she was an intellectual, she had lived in America, her husband was an American living in Switzerland, she had been a volunteer in the Spanish Civil War and she was Jewish.

The events leading to her arrest begin with the arrest and torture of Geyza and Charlotte Pavlik by the Hungarian authorities; they were accused of being “members of a Trotskyist group in Switzerland and agents of the American spy Noel Field”. After four weeks of “incessant torture”, “Soviet and Hungarian security officers extorted from the Pavliks a full confession and the names of sixty prominent Czechoslovak communists who allegedly were participants in a Tito-ist imperialist plot.” When they were returned to Czechoslovakia, the Pavliks retracted their confession, but the retraction was rejected. Instead, their testimony, exacted under torture, proved to be the impetus for Czechoslovakia to start purges of its own.

Gottwald (Chairman of the Czech Communist Party) and Slansky, on advice from Soviet General Byelkin, arrested Pavlik’s “accomplices”. These included, “Rudolf Feigl, a high official in the Ministry of Information, and his common-law-wife Vlasta Vesela, who had served on a medical team with the International Brigade in Spain, Alice Kohnova, also a ‘Spaniard’; Kare Markus, section chief in the Ministry of Foreign Trade; Milan Reiman, department chief in the office of the prime minister.” These came to be known as the “Field group” and Gottwald claimed that the purge of spies had been completed. In fact, it was just the beginning.

Alice may have been in quite elevated company, but she was in a great deal of trouble. By the time the group came to trial, several months later, two of the defendants had committed suicide (or were said to have committed suicide) in prison. The trial was held in secret and all were “found guilty of espionage, treason, and conspiracy.” They all received long prison terms, apart from Pavlik himself, who was sentenced to life imprisonment.

When I began researching Alice, I knew she had been a communist and had been imprisoned, but the details that I am now starting to discover make me realise that she had a far more influential role than I had imagined. I am just uncovering the tip of an iceberg. And the more I learn about Alice, the more I wonder about Erwin. How much did he know? How did he feel about what was happening to her? While he was walking through the ordered gardens of Parc de la Grange in Geneva, pushing me in my pram, Alice was in a prison cell.

Noel Field -Soviet Spy

noel field

I feel like a hunting dog, pursuing scents with excitement and yet with so many possibilities not knowing which to follow. I rush down some avenues and find them to be blind alleys or the scent just peters out. There are so many places to start: Alice’s history in Czechoslovakia, in America, her imprisonment, the Communist Party, her time in Spain, people named as her associates. I haven’t even discovered whether any of her family survived the holocaust.

The most productive trail so far has come from the one article I have which mentions Alice; it is written in Czech and entitled:

Politické procesy v ČSR v 50. letech
Politické procesy v sovětských satelitech – Maďarsko – Noel Field

Luckily the person who sent it to me explained the main points- Alice helped arrange for Noel Field to go to Czechoslovakia. I had not heard of Noel Field, but a little research shows him to have been an American who spied for the communists. In 1947 he was denounced as a spy and went to Prague. It was this journey of escape from the reach of the American authorities, when HUAC was rooting out what it saw as the communist threat, that was when Alice intervened on his behalf. Soon after arriving in Prague, Field was arrested, taken to Hungary, tried and imprisoned.

Alice too was arrested, but I don’t know how soon after this. Nor do I know whether she was aware that Field would be in as much danger in Czechoslovakia as he was in America, more so, as in a choice between imprisonments, America may have been preferable. She must have known he was spying for the USSR, or maybe she just knew he was sympathetic to the cause. I need to find out more about Noel Field, and Kati Marton’s book about him, True Believer, Stalin’s Last American Spy (reviewed last year in The Guardian) is my starting point. Kati Marton’s parents were journalists in Hungary in the post-war period and were imprisoned themselves, so her account of their story Enemies of the People, is also one I shall read.

I am trying to triangulate people whom Alice would have known; a combination of her membership of the Czech Communist Party and her work in New York with the International Workers Order, would have put her at the centre of much that was going on in the world of the Eastern European Jews sympathetic to communist ideals. Noel Field also spent WW2 in America and worked as the European Director the Unitarian Service Committee. After the war, my father’s first job was as the Executive Director of the Unitarian Service Committee’s Medical Teaching Mission to Austria in the summer of 1947. I don’t know how well, if at all, they would have known each other, but they must have been aware of the other’s existence. I can’t interpret all these links at the moment, but I am beginning to see how many there are going to be.

Going through my father’s deposition, I am listing all the names he mentions as being associated with Alice, three of whom: Helen Vrabel, Michael Saunders and Charles Musil I have found in the HUAC records. Alice worked as Helen Vrabel’s secretary. This must have placed her in a vulnerable position, or maybe at this time, she was not sufficiently active to be viewed as a threat.

Investigating the records of the Unitarian Service Committee and, of course, the International Workers’ Order is high on the “to do” list.




Thank-You Senator McCarthy

Thank-You Senator McCarthy


Yes, I don’t think many people feel ready to thank Senator McCarthy and HUAC (The House Committee for Un-American Activities) but I do owe him a debt. Had he not made sure that all American civil servants (among many others) had to explain themselves and prove they were not communists, I would not have the document that has set me on this path.

In 1954, a few weeks before I was born, my father was required to answer a series of questions sent to him by the International Organisations Employees-Loyalty Board. He was an American citizen, an army veteran, an international civil servant with the WHO (World Health Organisation) in Geneva, but his first wife, Alice Glasner, had been a member of the Communist Party. In 1950s America, this was a dangerous alliance, so he had to justify himself. In his answers, he explains why the marriage ended and details his efforts to persuade Alice away from Communism.

He charts her early involvement with the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia, her year volunteering in Spain during the Civil War, her work with the International Workers Order in New York and her desire to return to Czechoslovakia after the war to help build the new communist state. What he could not know then was that she would spend much of the later part of her life in prison. I don’t know many more facts, but I want to find out about this principled and determined woman and also about the life and experiences of my father in the fifty three years before I was born.

There is a whole story here, one that spans the key conflicts of the first half of the twentieth century.I am about to start learning Czech and researching into the lives of Alice and Erwin, hoping that by charting my progress in this blog, I might contact people who know about the world they inhabited and learn more than I can by myself.