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Nov 2003 Journal

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Return to Prague

My family had to flee from Berlin at the very beginning of the Hitler regime, not only because we were Jews, but also because my father was the political editor of Vorwärts, the Social Democrat Party newspaper. The newspaper was banned immediately in March 1933, which caused most of its editors to leave Germany, a number of them for Prague. There they remained in the hope that the Nazi regime would not endure too long.

Unfortunately some of them, including my parents, became trapped in Czechoslovakia as they were unable to flee before the German invasion in March 1939. They would have had to appear before a Gestapo representative to obtain permission to leave but, since my father was on Hitler's wanted list, this was, of course, impossible. I remember that shortly before I left Prague on one of Sir Nicolas Winton's transports, my mother told me: 'We are going to meet your father on Wenceslas Square. He is in hiding now. You must not call him father. Please be very careful.' And so it was that I saw my dear father for the last time in dark glasses, a beard and a broad-rimmed hat to cover his features, while my mother discussed something with him.

I was ten years old when we fled to Prague and nearly 16 when I left for England. We spoke German at home as my father came from Prague and my mother from a beautiful valley in Sudetenland. My father sent me to a German school as he thought this would be easier on our return to Germany. Fortunately, it was necessary for every child to learn Czech as a first foreign language. So for about two-and-a-half years I attended Czech lessons, went shopping, and heard and spoke this language, never realising that one day, many years later, I would return to Prague with my basic Czech, which I would then be able to re-learn with the help of my landlady, a tolerant and devoted teacher.

I returned to Prague in 1984 on discovering that one of my cousins, who had survived Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and Belsen, was living in the Czechoslovak capital once again. Indeed, she was able to tell me about five other surviving cousins and I met them all in due course. It became increasingly difficult to leave the city after short visits to my cousin. In 1994, on a beautiful September afternoon, I walked the familiar streets once again before returning to London. I was thinking: how could I manage to live here, in a furnished room or some such, with the opportunity to earn just enough money to support myself?

As I reached the lovely former palaces on Mala Strana I saw a sign saying 'Language School'. That was it! I marched in knowing there was work. I had been lucky enough to learn English as a youngster; all Czechs had to learn German first under occupation and later Russian, but they hated both equally and badly needed English in order to compete with people in the rest of Europe. So it came about that I returned to Prague in October 1994, in time for the autumn term. I was provided with accommodation in a sort of teacher hostel, even given a small salary for a 10-15-hour teaching week, and a chance to re-learn Czech with the opportunity of becoming a resident rather than a tourist.

I was eager to hear how both Jews and non-Jews had fared under communism - about the good and bad times - and how they had tried to adjust to the complete change after 1989. Even though we lived through the war in Britain, it is very hard to imagine what it is like to live under foreign occupation for 50 years. It is very humbling and I admire the spirit and courage of those who did.

So now I am 80 years old and happy to be alive. I am grateful for my years in exile and for my many friends in Great Britain, as well as in Hungary, Sweden, the United States and, particularly since my return, among members of Prague's Jewish community, mostly of my age. I am also grateful to many Czechs, who had to live under German and Soviet occupation and are now trying to make sense of their new, capitalist world.

Today's Jewish community in Prague is small but flourishing. There is a day centre in a Jewish nursing home, a kindergarten and even a Jewish school for older children. There are six synagogues, some now acting as museums. There are first-class concerts, an excellent transport system and Prague's ten centuries of marvellous architecture - and more, so you will not regret a visit.
Susan Medas

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