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Dec 2011 Journal

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Chosen for life instead of death: Kindertransport from Prague to Swanage

March 14 1939. I was 11 and going to England. On a real plane. True, I was going on my own – or rather by children’s transport – but my parents had promised the time of separation would be no more than a year ‘at most’. I was cock-a-hoop.

I didn’t tell myself I had been chosen for life instead of death – that realisation came years later. But I knew I had ‘won’ England in the great stakes of emigration. Everybody, but everybody, was attempting to get out of Czechoslovakia. That is to say, my parents and all the rest of the Jews congregated in Prague. And not only those permanently resident there, but those from the German-speaking territories, Austria and the Sudeten (which is where we ourselves had come from), who had fled as Hitler advanced. In that half-year since coming to Prague, my parents had done nothing except chase from consulate to consulate in a vain attempt to emigrate.

Nowadays, when people learn I originate from Czechoslovakia, they tend to congratulate me on the beauties of Prague. But these quite eluded me at the time. There had been, to begin with, my aunts’ flats in large, modern, soulless, decent blocks. Later, when the family was reunited, it was in dingy lodgings. There had been no time for sight-seeing. The most glamorous aspect of Prague to me was Wenceslas Square, its glittering neon lighting, the buffet where, with the drop of a coin, you could choose from an assortment of little open sandwiches, all mayonnaise and titbits.

And now I was going to England. To a place by the coast. And I was going to attend a private school, a thing unheard-of at home. I dare say we would have been equally euphoric had it been any other country. As it happened, it was England. And, as everyone knew, England was populated exclusively by Lords and Ladies or, at least, by ladies and gentlemen.

I myself had a fair idea of what England would be like – hadn’t I seen Deanna Durbin in Mad About Music whistling away on a bike at a finishing school in Switzerland? Exchange the bikes for horses and you had England.

My father was more exercised about the fact that I was going to the seaside. What a pity the English Channel had already been swum by a woman. I’d be a mere second or third.

My going was the first piece of luck my parents had had in half a year’s attempt to emigrate. It was to be their last.

My mother had gone to make enquiries about children’s transports, only to be told these were full up. We were sitting in our digs and she mentioned the fact to my father. She added with some acerbity: ‘You ought to have gone - everybody feels sorry for you.’ My father’s face was incredibly lined although in happier days he had been known as a joker.

‘Well, perhaps I’ll try again,’ he said hesitantly. ‘Oh, yes, please Daddy, do!’, I begged. And so it was. What my mother, a plump, straight-backed little woman under an optimistically slanted hat, couldn’t achieve, my father, little, thin and lined and accompanied by me, could. ‘Don’t tell anyone I sent you but …’ We were given Trevor Chadwick’s hotel.

Trevor Chadwick immediately accepted me. What’s more, he got his mother to guarantee for me (until the age of 18). My parents, and indeed I, chose to look on this as a compliment. Now, I am not so sure. I was an incredibly unprepossessing child and I dare say Trevor Chadwick dared not impose me on a stranger.

He certainly was a superman. Tall, handsome and with strikingly Nordic looks. It seems that many others, notably the Quakers and Nicholas Winton, were active in bringing the children out. At the time though, it seemed as if Trevor Chadwick almost single-handedly had killed the dragon and was wafting me away. I was accepted at once. There was to be another interview at which the entire family would be present. This, we realised, was not a little absurd. But, of course, I had to be there, my mother wanted to meet him, my father wasn’t to be pushed aside, and my mother brought my sister along for good measure, hoping her beauty would sway the rule against over-18-year-olds.

We had all dressed very neatly for the occasion. Trevor Chadwick descended the stairs of the grand hotel, dressed in a woollen jersey. We fell over ourselves in admiration. There’s your real gentleman. He doesn’t need to dress up. But of course Trevor Chadwick could have appeared in a dinner jacket or a grass skirt and we would have been equally impressed.

My stout little mother planted herself firmly in front of Trevor Chadwick, addressing a speech of thanks to his navel. She liked to air her English and I suspect she thanked him ‘from the bottom of my heart’. Trevor Chadwick shuffled his feet.

Before leaving for England, I had seen off a school friend on a previous transport. The children had been gathered in a crowd for the news cameras, while the parents were arranged in a circle around them. The cameras whirred, while the children had waved last farewells to their parents, the parents to the children. I had grinned like a monkey and waved vigorously and had fancied myself a veritable Shirley Temple. Then suddenly the children had gone, and so had the news cameras. But the parents had remained standing. There were tears in their eyes but nobody moved, nobody said a word. Then a voice said: ‘Well, that’s that!’ and slowly they drifted off.

And now it was my turn to leave. I am sorry to confess that my liveliest regret was the absence of those same news cameramen that had so dignified the departure of my school-friend. Trevor Chadwick was there, busy amusing a three-year-old with a glove puppet. My father took photographs, while my mother walked up and down with my sister.

My mother also got talking to another mother (after, I dare say, taking cognisance of that woman’s shoes and fingernails). What’s more, that other mother had a girl of my own age, who, I knew instinctively, was to be an ‘example’ to me. It was regretted that we were not to go to the same place, but we were to write to each other.

I remember departing among a welter of cheer and chocolates. I remember my father running after the plane to take a photograph of it as it took off. But I cannot, try as I will, remember my parents kissing me goodbye. Was there too much excitement to render their leave-taking more than perfunctory?

Certainly, all was happiness and hullabaloo on the plane. Chocolates were passed around, I lent somebody my mouth organ so we had music, and we were much pre-occupied feeling or being sick at take-off and landings. We stopped in Holland and were given the choice of lemonade or milk. We all asked proudly for lemonade, like cowboys calling for whisky. Only one boy without shame asked for milk. I looked at him with contempt.

It was dark when we arrived at Croydon. One girl and I went to the ‘Ladies’ and, alarmed at the sight of knobs on the doors instead of door handles, held the door open for each other in turn. I had visions of being locked for ever in the lavatories of Croydon airport.

We went outside, asked some questions, were pointed to a bus and ensconced ourselves at the back. Suddenly, I heard my name being called. I was not to go on that bus with the rest, it seems, I was to go in a car that was waiting for me. It was at that point that a vast sense of desolation swept over me. It was my real leave-taking of Czechoslovakia. I was pointed to a car. In the front were a husband and wife. At the back, there was one other child from that transport, who was later to become a dear friend to me, one Hanna Stern. She was only nine and already fast asleep.

Maybe we were being abducted. I cried, softly enough not to alert our kidnappers, loudly enough, I hoped, to awake my sleeping companion. It didn’t work. I thought of throwing myself out of the car, making for the coast, swimming the Channel, making my way from France to Czechoslovakia. The thought of the last part of the journey daunted me. I had no money except a lucky half-a-crown piece given to me by Trevor Chadwick or Nicholas Winton. I had no map. I had no French.

We stopped at a roadside café, where I saw my first open fireplace and were given (I believe, warm) milk. I was in no mood at this point to quarrel with milk, however much beneath my drinking habits it was normally. These people were not kidnappers. (They were in fact Hanna’s guarantors.)

I was sick throughout the journey. I hadn’t asked them to stop the car, thinking it would be impolite. I believe – and hope – I sicked into my natty little brown hat with red piping.

It must have been a long journey from Croydon to Swanage. Eventually I was deposited at a house, greeted and kissed by a woman who looked to me as beautiful as a model. She must have regretted the kiss in the circumstances.

The next day, it was English daffodils instead of the snow and slush of Prague. It was pretty shells on the Swanage sands. It was also the day Hitler marched into Prague. My coat, eventually, came back from the cleaners, minus my lucky half-crown. My hat was never returned. I wasn’t surprised

Gerda Mayer

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