Henry Zehr



AUSTRALIANA

THE REST OF THE WORLD

ANECDOTES AND REFLECTIONS

        

MY BIO


 

 

Years of war and oppression

1939-1948

 

 

 

A bit of history.

 

 What is now the Czech Republic (snce 1993) used to be a province of the Austrian or Habsburg Empire for some 300 years. Austrians are German speakers and at one stage the Empire was called “Roman Empire of the German Nation“. It included parts of Poland, the Ukraine, Hungary, parts of Yugoslavia, northern Italy (with Venice) and parts of Germany (excluding Prussia).It broke up with the defeat of Germany and Austria in November 1918. Austria and Germany became separate states and so did Czechoslovakia, Poland, Yugoslavia and the Baltic states.

 

The Czechoslovakian part was made up of  Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia (historical lands) and Slovakia. Bohemia and Moravia was in fact the industrial hub of the whole empire and it was more developed than Austria – the Imperial headquarters. After the break up in 1918 Bohemia remained the most advanced part right until the advent of communism. There were about three million Germans and Hungarians residing in the ČSR (Czechoslovakian Republic) and they lived mostly in the border region. When Hitler came to power in the mid thirties he agitated to have this region, which he called Sudetenland, excised from the ČSR and he finaly succeeded in October 1938, when the British and French prime ministers virtually gave this part of our country away without even talking to gthe Czechs. The meeting of Hiler,Musolini.Daladier and Chamberlain in Munich, just gave away this land. In Mach 1939 the Germans occupied the rest of our country and Slovakia became independent and fascist under a cleric named Tiso. When WWII ended on 7th May 1945 the Czechoslovakian Republic came into existance again and within a couple of years, about 3 million  Germans and Hungarians were deported to Germany, Austria and Hungary and their property was confiscated as they were considered to be disloyal and traitors to the state of Czechoslovakia.

 

 In February 1948 ( I was 19 then) the communist party took over and held power till December 1989. In 1991 Slovakia became a separate republic and the Czechs,Moravians and Silesians became the Czech Republic. Both countries joined the European Community in 1993. I consider myself a Moravian, but my language is Czech. Moravia is just a region.

 

My parents encouraged me to learn languages. At kindergarten age I was sent to a German kindy for half a day and to a Czech one for the rest of the day. I did not paticularly like this, as my town was partly Czech and partly German and in the early 1930‘s some enmity started to manifest itself and the youngsters started to fight.

 

My parents found a native of Spain to teach us Spanish and that was an unlikely situation in that the man was an oponent of General Franco who was an ally of Nazi Germany, yet the Germans allowed him in during their occupation of Czechoslovakia.

 

 The last language we embraced was Russian. We had a Russian family in our town, the lady was a doctor and her husband was an army officer who escaped Russia during the revolution (1917+) and joined the newly formed Czechoslovakian army as an instructor. When the Germans occupied a sizeable part of Russia during the war, there were a number of Russians who hated the communist system so much that they were prepared to join Germany in the war against the Russian bolsheviks. Our Russian teacher, an ex army officer, was approached by the German command to join them, but he refused. When the war ended with the defeat of Germany, the Soviet communist victors did not forget (in 1945) that our Russian teacher fought against the communist revolution (in 1917) and they took him and executed him. Luckily they left his wife and child alive.

 

The Czech education system started with primary school of 8 to 9 years. At the end of that you could enter a technical or accounting system lasting 4 years and ending with a leaving or matriculation certificate which entitled you to enter a University.

 

 Alternatively a student could, subject to his pass marks, leave the primary school system after grade 5 and enrol at a classical Gymnasium or technical Realka  school. The classes were numbered in latin  and started with Prima and ended with Octava.

The literal translation of the word University is „High School“.  This became a stumbling block when I tried to enrol at the University of Queensland, as the official in charge of admissions declared that I should, in fact, enrol at a High School. Luckily they had a Czech professor who vouched for the real meaning of the translation of the matriculation document. Alternatively a student could, subject to his pass marks, leave the primary school system after grade 5 and enrol at a classical Gymnasium or technical Realka  school. The classes were numbered in latin  and started with Prima and ended with Octava. We just had one educational system – a state school system.

 

 My family had a house which was larger than an average dwelling and immediately after the war the government decreed that owners of larger houses had to surrender a portion of their house to improve the standard of living of the poorer workers. The housing situation of most of Europe was near to catastrophic. When I visited Europe for the first time since my migration to Australia – twentyfive years later - I could not help noticing a large number of multi-story unit building, which were called panel-buildings. They were hurridly and poorly constructed not only in cities but also in the countryside and a similar style appeared all over western (non-communist)  Europe. It obviously improved the lot of the poorer workers.

 

The first major crisis for us and our country started in September 1938 when Hitler demanded that my country surrender certain territory to Germany. Czechoslovakia declared a mobilisation of its armed forces and for a while it looked like  war could begin. My father decided that mother and I should leave the country and he drove us to Bratislava in Slovakia, where we were to board a boat for Belgrade in Yugoslavia – all the way on the Danube.  We missed the boat – but only just – so he drove us to Komarno, which is a bit down river, and we boarded there and got to Belgrade. The trouble was – we had no money – because we left in such a hurry that father could not go to the bank. Not to worry – Yugoslavs were very sympathetic to our political problems, many people were wearing miniature Czechoslovakian flags and we just did not have any problems borrowing – even from strangers.

 

The political crisis was resolved in October 1938, when Great Britain and France agreed to Hitler’s demands on Sudetenland (as explained above) and Czechoslovakia accepted the deal. Many Czechs believed that we could have fought the Germans as we had extremely good defences and a substantial airforce. Father wanted us to keep going to an overseas destination, but mother was not so keen on the idea as we would have lost all of our property. Father had the right idea. Mother put property considerations before security, just like so many people who who were in danger of Hitler’s policies. Many Jewish people believed that Hitler would not implement his threats, openly canvased by him in his book Mein Kampf and of course many western countries did the same and blocked potential escapees from landing there. We returned to Olomouc.

 

My writing so far looked at the history of my life and my country without highlighting the various political periods and I will now set them out:

 

a)    from my birth in 1928 to March 1939 – freedom and democracy

 

b)    from March 1939 to May 1945 – Nazi German occupation and oppression

 

 

c)     from May 1945 to February 1948 – freedom and democracy

 

d)    from February 1948 to December 1989 – communist     dictatorship and oppression

e)      

 

The following relates to the Nazi period

 

Sometime in 1925, a man, a patriot with a warped sense of justice, produced a document, which determined that there is a certain race of people who pollute the German nation and the world by their very existence and he was going to do something about it. It was the same man, who during the first war objected to his countrymen stopping fighting at Christmas time to share a bit of short peace with his enemies in the trenches. It was the same man, who decided, in the last weeks of WWII that the German nation should suffer for not being able to prevail against its foes, prolonged the war and caused a demise of large number of its own citizens. His name was Adolf Hitler. His book called “Mein Kampf” (My fight) set out exactly how he would proceed should he get to power. He did get to power in 1933 and soon after started his first concentration camp at Dachau near Munich – five years before the start of WWII. The book was freely circulated in the world and it is unbelievable that very few leaders of the western world took any notice of it. The same man appointed Reinhardt Heidrich to be the “Protector” of Bohemia and Moravia (previously part of Czechoslovakia); who presided over a meeting in a Berlin suburb of Wannsee, which put down a carefully prepared a plan of industrial action – to exterminate whole races of people. The group assisting Heidrich was made up of 2/3 PhDs” and lawyers who proceeded to plan how to systematically bring together and kill around 6 million people. In all of the occupied countries the Nazis kept some form of government in the hands of the locals, but then the Nazi secret service prevailed on them to round up local Jews and hand them over to them. Some of those local governments were more cooperative than others. A year before the final collapse of the Nazis they still dispatched some officers to the island of Rhodes to collect the remaining Jews. It appears that the French and Slovaks were more amenable in assisting Germans in this roundup and Hungarians the least,

 

The greatest tragedy for our family happened in 1942 when the Gestapo took away my uncle Pavel and his mother, my grandmother. We are not quite sure where they died but a record of their demise is published in the holocaust museum in Jerusalem and also in the Prague synagogue. Many Jews were becoming “naturalised” in either the Czech or German community. My English teacher was a “German” lady, but I heard that she was literarily dragged from her flat, protesting that she was German. It did not help her; she perished with all the other Jews. My uncle, a very tall and good looking young man, had just finished his military service in the Czechoslovakian Army, having been detailed to the Presidential Guard, when shortly afterwards he was taken away. His wife, Olga, survived in a “milder” concentration camp at Terezin (Teresienstadt) and after liberation migrated to the United States and became a financial officer with the City of San Francisco.

 

When I started at Commercial Academy at grade 9 in 1943 the Nazi regime said: – „get out of school“. Nazis created a set of rules to eliminate all people who had a Jewish bakground. They did everything in precise stages. Firstly, it depended on the degree of Jewishness (the fact that my mother was a Catholic did not count as she had 2 Jewish parents), next came the gender. The first to be eliminated were those with both parents being Jewish, then, when the man in a marrige was Jewish. I missed out on the first and second count, but had the German occupation lasted a bit longer I too would have been „eliminated“. The Gestapo (Geheime Staats  Polizei – Secret State Police) already started the next stage by calling up my mother (although her husband was an Aryan – that being the Nazis‘ favourite description of non-Jews), but our doctor got her into a hospital for an „operation“ and the Germans turned up at the hospital but accepted the doctors statement of mother being unwell. At the same time I was commanded to appear at the Gestapo to explain why my mother could not come (to be sent to a concentration camp). I turned up at the Gestapo and an officer was seated at a large desk and when I came closer I touched the corner of the desk and was severely reprimanded for doing that. What saved us all was the approaching of the end of the Nazi era and also that the Germans‘ execution of orders became quite slack as they realised that their end was nye.

 

At the same time the other category of restrictions meant that a husband (an Aryan) could not be engaged in cetain businesses (my dad lost the agency of Škoda cars and I could not attend schools),

 

In the last year of the war, Germany lost the control of the skies. My home town is in the centre of Europe, practically north of Italy and the American air force flew sorties from Italy and presumably headed for Eastern Germany and Poland. On a clear day you could see the whole formation of heavy bombers – the B17 Flying Fortresses - escorted by Mustang fighters, quite untroubled by any Luftwaffe aeroplanes. They did fire some anti-aircraft guns though. I was out on the open road with a perfect view of the surrounding and on a small hill, when one of the American fighters spotted a small plane partly hidden near a farm. One of the Mustangs just peeled off the rest of the group and came down to shoot up and destroy the plane, but his fire also killed one old lady. I was back at that location nearly a week later on top of that same hill (called Baba) when I heard some machine gun fire. I dismounted my bike and jumped into a ditch. There was an old lady dressed in black and with a black shawl marching along the road regardless. I shouted   at her to get down and she disregarded my plea saying that she is running late to a funeral of a person who was killed in the shooting which I described above. I did manage to get her to take cover.

 

Father started building a house at the beginning of the war in 1939 and finished it within 2 years. The house was in the middle of an industrial estate, There was a saw mill on one side of our property, another business on the other side to the sawmill, and a rail track just outside the house, an industrial shed in the middle and a low set building for our storeman in the front. About 200m across the road in the southerly directions was a major rail line. Why I mention it is that it was unusual to have residences combined with business premises in such a way.

 

Both the Germans and the Russians used our house. The Germans very carefully cut-out local maps out of our atlas but did not damage the house in any way. Our Allies, the Russians however, made a real and proper mess of the house when the front rolled over our suburb, tipping out containers and dirtying the place in quite a disgusting manner. In the in-between period there were rail-wagons stationed on the two major lines and many people thought it safe to loot them for valuable foods and alcohol and in the process some were killed as there were some dangerous weapons in use.

 

When the war ended the whole Czechoslovakian educational system came to live within days and all the institutions which were closed down by the Nazis (like Universities) were re-opened and for cases (like mine) where I lost 18months of education, speeded up courses were implemented – and I – in fact finished the whole four year commercial course in 18 months. There is something really amazing about the Czech psyche. Things happened instantly for education and culture.

 

Our town was free of Germans three days before the official end of the war and within 24 hours we had water and electricity back and a small  newspaper appeared instantly. Luckily, the Germans ran out of puff and did not do much damage to infra-structure and the Allies did not do any bombing either. The last week before the end of the war, the German army was just streaming from east to west . The roads leading west carried three lanes of troops all trying to get away from the Russian armies coming from the east and hoping to be taken prisoner by the Allied forces.

 

 A revolt against the Nazis in Prague was floundering as an SS Division was approaching from the north. At the last minute a group of Russian soldiers led by a general Vlasov who defected to the Germans and turned against the bolsheviks, turned again, this time against the Nazis. I believe that they saved Prague but not themselves. They managed to be taken prisoner by the U.S. army, who promptly turned them over to the Soviets. They did not survive.

 

The western Allies agreed to a demarcation of influence, giving Czechoslovakia and all the lands north and east to the Russian‘ political influence. The Americans with general Patton actually crossed the border at Pilsen and the Czech revolutionaries in Prague begged Patton to march to Prague and free the beleagered forces, but he refused. In fact he should not have crossed the Czech border to occupy Pilsen. Very quickly after the war’s end, U.S military trucks were for sale and dad and I went to Pilsen to buy one and drive it to Olomouc. We took the opportunity to tell the G.I.‘s about the apalling behaviour of the Russian troops – to which they replied – that we are very ungrateful and did not deserve to be liberated. It did not take very long afterwards that the west realised  that Russians were not really their friends and recognised Churchill’s „Iron Curtain“ pronouncement.

 

Before the end of one week after Germany’s surrender some very emaciated figures started to appear in Olomouc town. They were survivers of concentration camps in Auschwitz (Oswienczim – in Polish) It appears that the Germans, who tried to obliterate all signs of the gruesome activities miscalulated the arrival of Russian troops from the east and by the time they reached the camp there were still signs of the massacre and some prisoners were alive – albeit very weak. Russian doctors gave them some elementary medical attention and most of them just walked to their homes. Some of them reached Olomouc, having walked about 200km on very little food.

 

 

 Most Russians were very amiable, particularly when they realised that they were in a friendly country. To get to our town they had to cross the border some 30 km away from an un-friendly country (Germany). I believe that German women suffered quite a bit, although the Russian command punished soldiers who molested women, by instant execution. Individual Russian soldiers would wander into people’s homes, offering a drink of vodka and remarking at what wonderful possessions we have, this being an invitaton to us to donate these articles to them (they did have a machine-gun). Some soldiers had a dozen wrist-watches on their arm. Unfortunately, in my case, it was a spanish guitar which our soldier spied – and that is how I lost one of my first personal possessions.

 

Now I come to some heroic deeds that I was part of – at the very end of the war. Some Czechs decided that protection  has to be created for the population, before our own Army and Constabulary takes over. They formed A  Revolutionary Guard, gave us a red arm-band with „RG“ in black letters, a rifle, certaninly from the previous century, plus 2 rounds of ammunition. We became quite chummy with Russian soldiers, who, by than, were celebrating the war’s end the only way they knew (vodka). They also showed us how to roll a cigarette (never mind a thin cigarette paper and tobacco – just tear a quarter page off a newsaper and roll some Russian „machorka“ into that). A real man’s job. We also had to patrol the rail track, which we did on some rail cars called „Dresina“ (sorry – I do not have a translation for that, in fact there is not one, though you can find it, with illustrations, on the internet). It was just a platform sitting on top of wheels sitting on the rail-track it had  no sides, and just a stick used with a pumping motion to propell you forward. Yeepee – that was better than chasing Indians in the western prairie. Whizzing at speed on an empty rail track – scouting was never like that.

 

Later I  managed to assemble a small jazz group: a guitar, base drums and 2 crooners (including me). I wrote the harmony for the singing and we performed on weekends in a small venue in the woods. We received no fee – but some grateful patrons  would „shout“ us  drinks occasionally. The other singer was a young girl – the daughter of the local police chief – and I think she saved me from arrest on the day the communists took over. I was the President of the local district Czech Socialist party youth group (there were four parties and mine was the third one from the left – that means we were very mild „lefties“ but very strong opponents of the Communists). What happened in both the Nazi and Communist takeovers was that some leaders were arrested and held for one day and then released – just so they don’t interfere with the takeover.

 

How did we come upon the idea to go to Australia? I am not quite sure how it started, but I know that we were never keen on the USA and I recall that our friend from Olomouc, by the name Schrotter went to Sydney just before the war, was very happy there, and volunteered to obtain a „landing permit“ (visa). I read a number of books on Australia including one  interesting one written by Egon Edwin Kisch, a reporter, who came to Australia to address anti-Nazi meetings – he was a communist..The PM of the day (R.G.Menzies) thought that he would be too much of a revolutionary and I would not be surprised if he (the PM) was not a Nazi supporter at that time. He did not allow Kisch to land on Australian soil. The British Government had done the same to him earlier. What he did instead is that he jumped off the boat, broke a leg – but he was on land and to get him out of the country the Government subjected him to a language test – which was one method of evicting unwanted foreigners. As Kisch was very good at many languages he was asked to translate something from Gaelic. He failed this test and eventually left the country, but not before  giving a number of speeches about the dangers of Nazism.

 

I was certainly very fond of travelling but my main reason for wishing to leave my country and Europe was my deep disappointment with the spiritual state of my countrymen. There were too many dobbers-in around. Czechs on Germans, communists on non-communists , it was as if the spine of the people was bent. There was, at least partly, a feeling of anti-semitism. Before I left, Israel got it’s independence and it fought off it’s Arab neighbours attacks. Some Czechs could not believe that Jews were able to fight, they kept bringing up the matter of the allegedly cowardly submission of Jews in allowing themselves to be taken to gas-chambers without a fight. Although I never had any Jewish upbringing– I was quite hurt by these expressions. In the various  political take-overs in the four periods I described, I found that those who were least harmed, wished to extract the harshest revenge.

 

There are some definitions that fit these situations:

 

Nations with a stable history and of political maturity, survive political and military crises better than the ones with an interrupted history,

 

And a quote by philospher, father of our nations and first President of the Czechoslovakian Republic –Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk  (1918-1935)

 

In our (Czech) history, we missed nearly three hundred years of a full,free,political and spiritual existence.

 

Father wanted us out of the country and I told my mother that if she does not want to go I will have to go by myself and risk being shot at by border guards. The fact is that mother, yet again, did not want to leave for exactly the same reasons as in 1938. This time she relented and father undertook the task of getting our papers ready. Passport, Australian Landing permit, and getting an exemption for my attending military service. We had to obtain finance for the train and boat trips, which our National Bank would not grant us. We finally obtained these funds from a Jewish agency who in turn received titles to the property we had to leave behind. Father had to embrace the Jewish religion and – I think  - he was pleased that they did not demand that he be circumcised. Having received all the right papers, father decided we should leave 6 days earlier as he was worried that the borders may be closed within days and indeed  - 8 months after the communist „putch“ the reds put the screws on very soon after we left

 

 

In a town about 25km from Olomouc we had some distant relatives on my mother‘s side by the name Löff who left Czechoslovakia for Palestine,just before the German occupation which most certainly saved their lives. Arnošt Löff, the father, joined a British militia, but as soon as the war ended he returned to Czechoslovakia, as he was looking forward to communism. One of his sons came with him and another remained in Palestine, soon to be partitioned to Israel and an Arab state. He became a member of Knesset – the Israeli parliament. What irony: us trying to escape Communism and my uncle rushing back to embrace it.

 

Arnošt came with us by train to the border at Pilsen and my last memory of him and  Czechoslovakia is for me and my family standing on the open end of the railway wagon and Arnošt on the platform with me belting out a tune on my accordion -.

 

„Should auld acquintance be forgot.....?.“

 

I just hope that time of peace will allow the nation to recover its dignity.

 

 

 

Epilogue

 

For me and my family the war started when the Nazi jackboots appeared on 15th March 1939. The Munich areement, where the West gave away part of the country, practically surrendered the country to the Bolsheviks as the people voted for Russia, instead of the West at their first free election. The Torries in the late thirties have a lot to answer for. Most people lost all confidence in the West.  English writers claimed that they had no choice because the country needed time to arm the UK. I am inclined to believe this. I think that the Battle of Britain could not have been won by Britain in 1939.

Hitler’s big mistake was to invade Russia when they did – on 22nd June 1942 „Operation Barbarossa“ – before finishing his African safari and withdrawing from an attack on Britain. Stalingrad did him „real and proper“ and his refusal to pack it in sooner cost all sides and particularly Germany very dearly.

 

 

As for the comparison of my family’s fortunes under the two extremes? –

 

Nazis

 

Two family members died in a concentration camp

Father lost his job

I lost 2 years of my education

Six years of living under oppresion

 

Communists

Father unempoyed (all businesses nationalised)

My chances of higher education lost (no chance for a son of a businessman)

Loss of freedom for 8 months