Fly me to the moon.
Adventures with a flying squatter
Culture and Navigation in Cooloola
Hunter or gatherer?
Mt Kosciuszko here we come
Fish and Friends
Around the Monaro
A Call To Arms
Eliza Slept Here
Transport on two wheels
Doing its Job
Private Medicine in Australia
THE REST OF THE WORLD
Of Serpentine and Hyde Park
River of January
Have a Good Day in France - Anywhere.
Azure a Beautiful Colour
A train too far
Animal farms of South Africa
Elizabeth from Scotland
ANECDOTES AND REFLECTIONS
The man born
In the year of the
Otherwise known as Henry Zehr
26th November 1928
The first 20 years
It was only 35 days to go to the end of that year – 1928 – the year that gave birth to Shirley Temple and Mickey Mouse. It was also the Chinese year of the DRAGON and the last year of the use of the Julian calendar. (Other countries made the change earlier). This calendar lasted for nearly 2000 years - since the days of the great Julius Caesar. The rest of the world embraced the Gregorian calendar 36 days later – in 1929. That year was also a severe year for the western economy and it led to the greatest misery for millions of citizens. I also heard stories about an extreme winter with the temperature falling so much that a soldier on horseback dropped dead – frozen. A great step forward in the medical field was the discovery of penicillin in that year.
I did not know much about that as I was – no doubt – properly wrapped in eiderdowns and coddled by my mother and a maid which was hired for that purpose.
Both my parents were “migrants” to Olomouc where we all lived for the next two decades. Mother came from Chrudim, which lies about 180km west and father came from Brandýs n/L (nad Labem) – meaning Brandys over the river Labe, which lies about 300km west of Olomouc. Dad came from an old Czech family. Some three generation earlier a Czech lady took a liking to a German visitor from Saxony and married him before either of them could understand each other’s language. That, of course, gave us that German surname. Father’s first name was ZDENĚK which has a latin root in Sidonius and hence Sidney in English. His family were long term atheists – I should say - of aryan stock ( which, among other definitions excluded Hebrews). Mother was of a Hebrew tradition, but was brought up as a Christian and her name was Eva Maria; maiden name Schindler. The need to say this will become apparent when my story comes to describing the holocaust. Dad’s half-brother was an engineer, later specialising in hydraulic engineering. His brother took him to the USA where he was in charge of a project and on this project my dad was the chief cook. It seems that he neglected the kitchen at some stage and it all went up in smoke. Father had to pay for the damage. He still had some money left over though, and he bought himself a course in automotive science in Kansas City, Kansas. When he came back in the middle twenties of the 20th century his qualifications were very sought after and he obtained a dealership from the Ford Motor Company’s European headquarters in Debenham in London, for the area around Olomouc, which is situated in Moravia, the region east of Bohemia. That, of course, has some relevance to my first name. Any guesses what that is? What was Mr Ford’s first name?
At this point I have to mention a bit of history. What is now the Czech Republic 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 Jugoslavia, 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), Ruthenia 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 us. In March 1939 the Germans occupied the rest of our country and Slovakia became independent and fascist under the Germans. When WWII ended on 9th May 1945 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 (nearly exactly to the day my grandchildren – twins - were born). In 1991 Slovakia became a separate republic and the Czechs,Moravians and Silesians became the Czech Republic. I consider myself a Moravian, but my language is Czech. Moravian is just a region.
My dad sold 100 Fordson tractors in the year of my birth in the area of Olomouc district. The area is called HANA and it is a flat agricultural and highly productive land with the river MORAVA running through it.
One of my early childhood memories is that of standing on a balcony and leaning over a rail and my father wanting to impress upon me the danger of falling over and down, by picking up a brick and letting it drop and be smashed to pieces. Another instance of this psychology was to stop me from going too close to a hot stove by grabing my finger and forcing it to touch the stove, ouch!! Apart from that my early childhood was quite unexiting. Oh, yes, when I was a baby we had a maid who was looking after me whilst mother was busily keeping the business ledgers. The maid had had TB but was cured of it and I must have got a touch of it, just enough to give me immunity. 25 years later, when enrolling at the University of Queensland, the Mantoux test found that connection and I was told that should I need to have a test again, the strength of it should be diluted to one tenth.
I was lucky to have such clever school mates, who taught me things never taught at school or from my parents. Little things, like lying on my belly on the river-bank, with my neck and head protruding over the edge of the bank, so that I could grope with my hand in the hollow just under the edge and tickle the belly of a carp. I was never good enough to throw one out of the water, but have seen it done. It’s quite amazing what you can learn from school mates when there are no private schools and you have to rub shoulders with the great unwashed, who somehow knew things your parents would never tell you. I suppose that the compulsory public school system saved our society from having to invent two codes of rugby, one for the working class (league) and one for the middle and upper class (union), or the reverse if you live in Kiwiland.
My parents never assisted me with any school work, but were very active in getting 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 Sovietcommunist victors did not forget (in 1945) that our Russian teacher fought against the communist revolution (in 1917) and they took him and killed him. Luckily they left his wife and child alive.
Music was another feature of my mother’s initiative in my education. We went to concerts together and I had piano lessons for 4 years, until I pestered my parents enough to let me drop it. Together with others who discontinued – we regretted it. I did reach some „modest“ state, as I played the Slavonic dances by Dvorak – 4 hands – with my mother From then on I played piano „by ear“ and all of it in C major.
Reading was also encouraged – and I took to it without a protest. I soon „swallowed“ a numberof literary classics of the Czech,German, English, Frech, Polish and Russian literature, including Leo Tolstoy’s „War & Peace“ in it’s original language (I could not do it any more these days). The first books I read in English were: Two Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the Dog), Little Lord Fauntleroy and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. My favourite authors were Tolstoy,Dostoyevsky,Pushkin, Guy de Maupassant,Emil Zola,Victor Hugo, Jules Verne, Alexandre Dumas, Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck, Henryk Sienkiewics,Thomas Mann and many more historical and geographical books.
As a young primary school lad I belonged to a organisation called SOKOL (Falcon), which was a gymnastic group and also a rather nationalistic group which started in the 19th century. They had a rally in Prague every four years and thousands of various groups performed gymnastics in a stadium, after practicing in their districts and then bringing it together in Prague. Both the Nazis and Soviets adopted a similar organisation – and both these regimes banned SOKOL whilst in power. Sokol was not quite my scene and I left and joined Boy Scouts. I attended 3 scout camps, the first two finished earlier than planned. The first one – whilst I was still a cub – was flooded out after 3 weeks and the second one was closed in the first year of the war, as the Germans banned Scouting. The third one was immediately after the war ended and before the communists. I was a senior scout then and I enjoyed it greatly. The camps lasted upto 4 weeks. We hired a whole railway wagon and brought timber to build a frame on which the tents were then placed and we actually slept off the ground. We carried our own kitchen with us.
The most enjoyable parts were, of course, games, and particularly night games. On one occasion we climbed a ruined castle on a moon-lit night – and the senior scouts were clad in white sheets and tried to scare the poor little cubs by pretending to be ghosts. Another time I was leading a group of half a dozen cubs through the woods at night and we came accross a stag with a doe and fawns. It was a beautiful sight in moon-light, but as a leader, I was a bit scared as the stag had a large crown of antlers and had he been overprotective of his group. He could have charged us. Luckily it did not come to that.
The Czech education system started with a 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.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 school system– the State School system.
We did, however, have a social „class“ system which became clearer to me as I got older. I was obviously middle class and I remained one even when the family lost all possessions. I am trying to say that the class system is not based on material possessions alone. My fellow students who were of the working class were reluctant to invite me to their home, because, presumably, they were ashamed of their lower status – they obviously new that I was of a wealthier class. Our household had a maid (servant) till the beginning of the war. That was the end of that particular class system.
We 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 (25 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.
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 leading to a war 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. We got on a train in Beograd (Belgrade) for Dubrovnik and we settled down in a Pension called „Praga“ in the Dubrovnik suburb of Lapad. On the way from Belgrade we went through Bosna Hercegovina and the town of Mostar where I first noticed mosques with their minarettes. Dubrovnik is the prettiest town in the Adriatic and we enjoyed our stay there in the balmy early automn weather (in fact it was warm enough for the bituman on the roads to stick to the soles of our shoes). We visited surrounding islands of Lokrum and Trsteno and walked around the ancient city. We also visited a lighthouse on on the rocky island and admired the magnification of the light which was sent to warn ships at sea. I was 10 years old than and someone handed me a glass of wine, which I quite liked, but my mother was horrified that I should be drinking it at my age.
The political crisis was resolved in October 1938, when Great Britain and France agreed to Hitler’s demands to anex Sudetenland 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.
About five months after this settlement the Nazis occupied the whole country without a fight – and in September 1939 the big WWII started.
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
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, next, 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. 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 near end of the Nazi era and also the fact 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),
For us – in Czechoslovakia – the Nazi era started on 15th March 1939 and ended in the first week of May 1945. When Sudetenland was occupied in October 1938 we knew that it was all over. The occupation of the whole country five month later and five month before the start of the war was no surprise.
During the latter part of the occupation period my mother had to wear a yellow sign on her breast in the shape of the Star of David with the word –in German – JUDE (meaning Jew). When I was stopped from going to school I studied the Commercial Academy subjects at home on a full time basis, but eventually the Germans decreed that all people who did not go to a school had to, somehow, participate in the war effort and I became an apprentice in a bike shop.
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, but they did fire some anti-aircraft guns. On one cloudy day they did manage to shoot down one flying fortress and I heard the explosion in the air and saw some members of the crew coming down with parachutes. Sadly, one crew member lay dead as his chute did not open. German soldiers took the survivors captive very promptly. At the beginning of the raids (or over flights) we used to get the siren warning about 20 minutes before the planes came, which gave us time to hop on our bikes and cycle out of the city and into the open country. Later, as it became obvious that we were not likely to be bombed, and to avoid the loss of working time, we were not encouraged to leave the city.
A couple of times 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 sawmill 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.
When the front line got closer, the area became quite dangerous. We left the house and sought shelter with friends closer to the inner city (which had no military or industrial installations that were worth attacking). We found out later that when the military front rolled over the Germans used our house for local headquarters. They 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 got killed as there was some dangerous fire-power floating in the air.
After the Germen’s capitulation 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.
A few days 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. 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.
At the end of hostilities, father and I cycled to inspect our house (which we had left as we expected some fireworks at the hight of the German retreat) and on our way we faced a light armoured vehicle (Russian) – probably a BREN gun carrier, which struck a deep rut in the road and misfired accidentaly at our cycling group – killing a man riding beside us. A Russian officer directed us to remove the body. That was close. We rode on, inspected our house, which we found to be structuraly in order but very messy inside. That was a second time in avery short period that I had to call on another of my nine lives (borrowed from cats)
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. The Provisional Government decided that a protecting body has to be created before our own Army and Constabulary takes over. A Revolutionary Guard was formed which gave us, a red arm-band with „RG“ in black letters, a rifle, certainly from the previous century, plus 2 rounds of ammunition. We got quite chummy with Russian soldiers, who were by than, celebrating the war’s end the only way they knew (with 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.
My family had an agency for a copy-bookkeeping system from Switzerland and I was send off to northern Moravia to sell it. I remember visiting a town of Opava and watching an ice-hockey match in the evening. Everyone standing and in great coats and a stream of smoke pouring out of their mouths – not smoke really - just their frozen breath. The goalie did not wear a helmet and got hit by a puck in the head and fell down. They played their sport in pretty tough condition.Though the country had plenty of frosts in winter a good surface was not always to be had on an ice- rink. Only Prague had an artificial ice-rink.
I then tried my luck in the metropolis – Prague – locally known as Praha. I arrived at the Central railway station mid –morning with intructions from my parents to go straight away to some relations and ask them for a nights lodging. I did find some much more interesting things to do – such as – watch a three nations tennis tournament between France, Australia and Czechoslovakia. When that finished I glimpsed an add for an English movie (In which we serve), which I went to see and I got to those relations just before sunset. They advised me that I am in luck, as their daughter was away on a trip and I could have her room. Half way through the night there was some commotion in the house, because the daughter arrived home. I did not volunteer to vacate her bedroom. The next day I got some accommodation at a University campus. It was sommer holidays time and all the students were gone. I would have liked to have stayed in Prague, which still is my favourite city, but because of accommodation and job I did move on.
I went to Northern Bohemia to a town called Jablonec nad Nisou to work in the export of imitation jewellery as a correspondent in English and German. I pity the recipients of my letters. The job consisted of our firm offering customers a collection of immitation jewellery and I calculated prices in the customer‘s currencies. As most of it was in sterling, I got used to the conversion rate of one pence equalling O.004166 in the pound and I knew all the standard variations from pence to shillings to pounds by heart (just to prove that I am a bean-counter).
By working very hard, we could have a Saturday and Sunday off, which meant that in winter we could take a bus after work on Friday to Harachov and then walk uphill and at night to our favourite ski hut called „Martinovka“. The first time we did this we had a beautiful clear moon-lit sky. To get there we went past a spring of a mighty European river called Labe – or Elbe in German.(the spring itself was no larger than a bath-tub). River Vltava flows into it and goes through Dresden and right into Hamburg and the North Sea. The hut has an interesting history which happened a while after I stayed there. A mister Navratil became the manager of the hut Martinovka““.Whilst there a daughter was born to his wife called Martina – after the hut they lived in. She became one of the worlds best tennis player, Martina Navratilova.( you can see how the female branch acquires the ending OVA in the surname).
Jablonec, like Olomouc my home town, had a theatre. Both these towns were fairly small with less than 100.000 population, but the theatres produced drama, operas and balet alternatively. The town also had a large lake with small cruisers, which got me into trouble once. I acted as a cheer leader and I was leading the „crew“ with a comical song immitating the Polish accent. The act was so popular that my audience demanded that I do it once more. When I refused, they simply picked me up and threw me into the lake. I was a poor swimmer and was lucky to get out of the water.
I also 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.
I met a very nice girl called Hana and together we hiked in the surrounding hills and ranges. I also took her to my home town to introduce her to my mother – who – unfortunately – would not have a bar of her. and would not allow her to stay at our house. I continued to correspond with her, hoping to get her to join me, but eventually it did not come to anything. Cricket could have been the problem. In Australia I got involved in helping invalids play the game and I got to like it myself and I wrote 6 pages of explanations of this game, (including bowling a maiden over) but Hana took an instant dislike to it. I blame cricket for the break-up. I still have her handwritten booklet of Czech romantic poems.
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 – 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.
We got at the right time. Like Hitler, the first Communist President announced many years earlier in Parliament „ We ae the Czechoslovakian Workers‘ Party and our highest revolutionary body is really in Moscow.We come to Moscow to learn – and you know wjhat we come to learn?
We stayed those extra days in Utrecht, Holland, with friends I had made at an International Congress of Students in Prague a couple of years earlier.
There was a black market in hard foreign currencies. The communists had a set rate for all currencies, but you could not go to the bank and ask them to give us American dollars for Czechoslovak crowns. You had to have a reason benefiting the country – not just a leisure trip. The black market rate was often a multiple of the official one – maybe ten or twenty times greater. I bought some dollars on the black market, but was reluctant to carry it on my person when crossing the border, as I could not prove the legitimacy of that money and it could have stopped our departure. I therefore asked an acquintance – an Irishman, to carry the notes and give them to me when abroad. It would have been very handy to have a couple of hundred dollars on arrival in Australia. Sadly, it was not to be. The Irishman refused to give me that money and even refused the entreaties of an Irish friend of mine in Australia who pleaded with him on one of his trips home.
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.