Aug 2011 Journal

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Winter in Prague’: The humanitarian mission of Doreen Warriner

When St Hugh’s College, Oxford wrote an obituary of their student, Professor Doreen Warriner OBE, who died on 17 December 1972, they observed that ‘For all her distinction and learning she remained modest and unaffected.’

Nowhere was this more so than where her humanitarian mission in Prague is concerned, for she was responsible for saving the lives of an untold number of men, women and children between October 1938 and April 1939. Even though she was awarded an OBE in 1942 in recognition of her refugee work, she remained silent about her life-saving exploits and achievements. Even today, her role as a refugee activist is largely unrecognised, and what is known owes much to the determination of her sister-in-law and some friends, who, following her death, worked hard to get her memoir published.

Doreen was prescient enough to write down her recollections of her six months in Prague very soon after her enforced departure from the Nazi-occupied city in April 1939, but it was not until 1972 that she seriously thought about writing a small book based on her factual account, which she called Winter in Prague. At the time, she was in contact with her friend and unofficial fellow refugee activist Robert Stopford, who, as Anthony Grenville recounted in his April 2011 article in this journal, had been sent out to the Czech capital as HM Treasury representative in late 1938 and was instrumental in facilitating the entire rescue operation. Stopford had been trying, unsuccessfully, to find a publisher for his own memoirs, which included the period he had spent in Czechoslovakia, and had sought Doreen’s advice in helping him to tidy up his manuscript, especially where their collaborative efforts were concerned. Not only did Stopford fail to get anything published, but Doreen’s sudden death from a stroke brought her publication plans to an abrupt end. It was not until spring 1984 that Winter in Prague saw the light of day, appearing as an article, with the addition of introductory notes, in The Slavonic and East European Review.

In her memoir, Doreen recalled her arrival in Prague and how unprepared she was for what lay ahead. Her vague intention was, she supposed, to ‘organise soup kitchens’ for the thousands of starving children, but it soon became clear that the people in most urgent need of help were the political refugees. Liaising with Mary Penman, a member of the Society of Friends, who were just about to embark on rescue work in the city, led to days filled with meeting innumerable people involved with saving lives. There were Sudeten German Social Democrat leaders, members of the British Legation, William Gillies, the British Labour Party International Secretary, and David Grenfell and George Hicks, both Labour MPs, as well as the Passport Control Officer. Within days she had been invited by Gillies and Grenfell to stay in Prague and look after the transport arrangements for the political refugees. Whilst she worked from the Party office at Sleszka 13, helped later by Hilde Patz and Alois Mollik, they left for England, hoping to obtain Lord Halifax’s approval for the issue of visas. With safe passage secured for 250 Sudeten Social Democrats by 19 October, Doreen travelled backwards and forwards across Poland with her human cargo on a number of occasions and, though her first journey shook her to the core, she repeated it without any thought for the danger to her own life. To ease the burden on her, there were other couriers, including Tessa Rowntree and her cousin Jean, both members of the Society of Friends, who travelled with at least one group.

By 9 November 1938, nearly all the 250 men had been rescued, but this was the tip of the iceberg, with around 100,000 refugees from the Sudetenland still on Czech territory. The conditions in which Doreen found some of the 10,000 or so Sudeten German refugees were appalling and, like Mary Penman, she began to provide some relief in the camps, using the £300 collected in London to buy blankets, medical requirements and other essential items.

By December 1938, Doreen had been drawn into the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia (BCRC), which represented the Labour Party, Lord Layton’s News Chronicle Fund and the Friends. Not only was she entrusted with looking after Layton’s fund, but he also invited her to act as the BCRC representative in Prague. His sister, Margaret Layton, was secretary. At that time, the BCRC’s role was concerned with arranging hospitality for the male refugees who had already arrived in England, which left the women and children without any official help. This was a great source of concern to Doreen, who wrote of her gratification when ’immediately after Christmas, Martin Blake and his friend Nicky Winton came out and relieved my mind by taking over the emigration of the children.’

Margaret Layton was equally pleased with this arrangement and, following Winton’s visit to her in London in late January, she wrote to Doreen saying ‘I think he will be very useful to us here, getting the lists ready and keeping us up to date with what is going on in Prague.’ From the BCRC office, Doreen continued to assist Trevor Chadwick, compiling lists of children. Consolidating the five existing committees for children and creating a ‘Children’s Section’ within the BCRC, with Winton appointed as Honorary Secretary, gave him the authority he needed to undertake his humanitarian mission, which, on his return to England, involved the difficult task of finding sponsors and homes for the children. On 6 March 1939, by which time some transports of children had left, Doreen wrote to ‘Dear Nicky’ from Prague, congratulating him ‘most sincerely in this great achievement, and [I] know what an effort it must have been.’ By May 1939, Doreen and Chadwick had provided him with papers and photos of 5,000 children whose cases they had investigated.

Meanwhile, Doreen was overwhelmed by her main BCRC work and, at her request, Margaret Dougan and Christine Maxwell were sent out in early March to assist her.

Another name which appears in the Society of Friends archives is that of a Miss Rogers. Following the German invasion in March 1939, Doreen and some of her co-workers were given an office within the safety of the British Legation in the Thun Palace on Thunovska.

One person whose name does not appear in her article is Bill Barazetti, even though she wrote to Margaret Layton in February 1939 saying how useful he was. He was undoubtedly a ‘member of her secretariat’, as Stopford described, and was among those given refuge in the Legation. The fact that the BCRC office was next door to Stopford’s room was a bonus: he gave her details of endangered people who could not obtain official permission to leave and turned a blind eye to her connection (and that of Miss Dougan and Miss Maxwell) with the illegal underground organisation which helped them escape. It was no wonder that Stopford pressed her to leave, for he knew the Gestapo were hot on her trail and would have arrested her within days had she not left on 22 April 1939.

This is only a part of Doreen’s story and that of some of the other heroes and heroines of the Prague mission. Stopford was instrumental in recommending her for some official recognition for her work and she was made OBE in 1940. By then, she was doing useful war work within the Ministry of Economic Warfare in Britain and then Cairo, as well as working for the political intelligence department of the Foreign Office. In 1944-46 she was chief of the food supply department in the UNRRA mission to Yugoslavia and later worked for the International Labour Office in Geneva. She returned to her academic career in London in 1947 but, like so many humanitarian activists, including Nicholas Winton, she never spoke about her experiences.

Susan Cohen

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