Apr 2013 Journal

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Jewish refugees from Czechoslovakia - the facts

Reading the interesting article ‘Anglo-Jewry and the Jewish refugees from Nazism' (December 2012), I was amazed that there was not the slightest mention of the refugees from Czechoslovakia - there were quite a number of us. I have been a member of the AJR for some 20 years and, reading the AJR Journal regularly all those years, I cannot recall one article about the Jews of Czechoslovakia.

I arrived in the UK at Tilbury on 26 May 1939 with my mother on the crowded ship Warszawa from Gdynia, Poland, with a badly broken arm in heavy plaster, a large trunk and a small suitcase. I was seven years old and can recall it all very clearly. We passed through a rather surly immigration and search and then were taken by bus to a hastily arranged reception centre in Bayswater, a former school in which hundreds of beds had been set up in all the classrooms.

My father joined us about ten days later as we had only two tickets for the ship. Dad had managed to bribe his way on to a rather small postal package boat with just eight passenger seats going to Stockholm; I don't know how he managed to complete the rest of his journey to Tilbury. Then, together, we were sent with around 50 other Czech refugees to a hostel in Clacton-on-Sea and we stayed there until just after war was declared. After some months I and another boy my age were sent to school in Holland-on-Sea by bus, with the bus conductor putting us off at the school. We knew no English except two words - yes and no - and we had to put up our hand if we needed to go to the loo, and we were surrounded by a crowd of the schoolchildren staring at us in our ‘funny’ clothes. For me life became one great adventure of ups and downs and new experiences.

After several months we were all moved to another hostel in a large old mansion in Dorking. Finally, after about eight months, my parents and I were allowed to leave as we were classified as 'friendly aliens'. We moved to Taunton in Somerset, where my father was offered a new career at the age of 41 as a school cleaner. This was a town with only two other English-Jewish families. Life started to improve for my parents when, around a year later, they were able to start a small business on a shoestring and then I was able to leave home to study a profession.

In 1939 the Jewish population of Czechoslovakia was 360,000, all of whom considered themselves Czech first and Jewish second. I am one of the last few survivors of a huge family which can trace its roots, mostly in the Bohumin and Ostrava area, back to around the 1870s. About 70 members of my close extended family were murdered in the Holocaust, including three grandparents and my mother's brother as well as around 32 great-uncles and great-aunts. All my great-grandparents came from Galicia in what is now just a few miles over the border from the Czech Republic, but before 1918 Galicia and Czechoslovakia were part of Austria-Hungary so they did not cross any borders.

All members of my family born before 1918, including my parents, were citizens of Austria-Hungary and that is why we were all bilingual in German and Czech. Most of them became Czech citizens in 1918, while just a very few who lived in Cracow by then became Polish. At home in Ostrava, I can remember my grandparents very well indeed: they spoke German, Czech, Yiddish and Polish all mixed up without ever completing a sentence in one tongue!

My mother was sent to a Jewish ladies’ finishing school in Hanover as a young girl and my father and his brother were sent to Frankfurt, where they both obtained doctorates in law and political economy in the 1920s. My father returned to Czechoslovakia in 1924 and studied for another doctorate in Czech law, eventually becoming a partner in a prominent law office in Ostrava.

In nearby Bohumin, my father's family owned a number of businesses in the main street - Simon Kassler Warenhaus, Kassler Möbel store, Ferdinand Kassler Ironmonger & Tool store - and their sister, my grandmother Auguste and her husband, my grandfather Leopold Lobl Wiener, were owners of the Grand Hotel from around 1880. Another sister, Josefina, was co-owner of a ready-made garment factory with her husband and two sons in Prostejov. Another branch of Kasslers owned even more businesses in Ostrava-Privoz and Frydek. My mother's family, the Hupperts, were mainly in the food business. Five of my great-uncles were butchers, each with their own shop, and three of them - Otto, Hugo and Fritz - had a meat-processing business employing about 40 staff as well as a delicatessen shop in the main street in Ostrava which they sold to their sister Anka. My great-grandfather, Abraham Huppert, owned a grocery shop in Marianske Hory Ostrava and a Gasthaus in Ostrava-Svinov from the 1880s, before disposing of the Gasthaus, the Hotel Post, to his eldest daughter Resi and her husband Julius (Julek) Farber. He then bought a large hotel in Las Cyganski, Bielski-Biala (Zigeunerwald, Bielitz), which he left to my youngest great-uncle, Josef Huppert, in 1934. The Farber's Hotel Post opposite the Ostrava-Svinov railway, which after 1912 was owned by my grandparents Resi and Julius Farber, became enormously prosperous as the railway station was used by thousands of workers travelling to the largest iron and steel foundry in Europe in nearby Vitkovice and Ostrava's industrial area. This explains why the Hotel Post was reputed to sell 20,000 litres of beer weekly and was open dawn to dusk

The basic facts about the Czech-Jewish refugees can be found on the websites ‘CAST - Czech and Slovak Things’ and ‘Jewish Virtual Library – Czechoslovakia’. There were, in fact, about 20,000 refugees who came to the UK in 1938-39; most but not all of them were Jewish. Most of the 14,000 names of the Jewish refugees are listed on ‘CAST’. Some 5,000 Czech refugees also arrived from France. During the Second World War there were Czech RAF squadrons and a Czech Army Brigade. In 1938 the Czech Refugee Committee started with offices at 5 Mecklenburgh Square, London WC1 and later had a number of branches, including the former Palace Hotel in Bloomsbury Street. Subsequently this became the Czech Refugee Trust Fund, employing some 200 people in its various branches.

When after the War several survivors of my family returned to Czechoslovakia, some from concentration camps, it did not take long before they learned that all the properties belonging to the family, including their own homes, had been seized by the Czech authorities. At first, they were deluded into hoping that these could be regained by court proceedings, which started in 1948 (the last such proceeding was in 2002), but even now not a single property which belonged to my family has been returned or restituted to the rightful owners and heirs. This is the main reason why we never returned permanently to the country of our birth.

The Jews of Czechoslovakia made a huge contribution to the prosperity and culture of the country. There were, and are, numerous notable Jews who were born in what is now the Czech Republic and Slovakia whose names are famous. Here are just a few of them: Sigmund Freud, born Pribor 1856; Gustav Mahler, born Kaliste 1860; Franz Kafka, born Prague 1883; Max Brod, born Prague 1884; Franz Werfel, born Prague 1890; Erich Korngold, born Brno 1897; Louis Kentner, born Karvina 1905; Jaroslav Seifert, born Prague 1901; Professor Stefan Körner, born Ostrava 1913; Herbert Lom, born Prague 1917; Karel Reisz, born Ostrava 1926; Rabbi Hugo Gryn, born Berehovo 1930; Madeleine Albright, born Prague 1937; Tom Stoppard, born Zlin 1937; and Walter Susskind, born Prague 1913.

Leopold Wiener (born Ostrava-Svinov)

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