A memoir of Czech Jewish life by Fred Ohrenstein z’l
From Brno to Bushey
It is difficult for me to know where to start. I would like to imagine I am talking to Anthony although anyone who is interested may also read it. I am thinking of Kimberley and Stephanie – maybe later.
As you know, I was born in Trebic in 1915. In order to make this more interesting I tried to find out what I could about Trebic. The first records started about 1782 to register births and deaths. The earliest traces of our family go back to 1750. Your great great grandfather, Jacob David, was born in Trebic on 20th November 1813, married Barbara (Betty) in 1841 and died on 28th September 1895. Leopold, your great grandfather, whose grave you saw when we were there last summer, was born 2nd February 1844, and died 7th February 1905 in his 62nd year. He married Josephine (1850 – 1933) in 1869 and they had in all fifteen children. Six died as babies or young.
Your grandfather Carl, born 10th March 1876, therefore had four sisters and four brothers, who lived at least into middle age. Some of their children you know or you know of:
Francis Lederer, Edith Markus (mother of George) and her sisters, Flora Kempf, Hilda Koenig, Kitty and her brother Herbert who died some time ago, Peter Ornstein, Leo and Liane Ornstein (living in Houston) and Auntie Gerty of course. Then there is somebody called Rantzenhofer living somewhere in Austria but we are not in touch.
Of your generation, the only Ornstein or Orstens left is Peter’s son Paul and you, Anthony. Of your grandfather’s brothers and sisters and their spouses, eight died in the Holocaust. Your grandparents perished in early 1942 in the Warsaw ghetto. I will return to that later.
My mother (Nelly) was born in Znojmo – I never knew how old she was, because she pretended to be 37 all her life but now I looked it up and found that she was born on the 5th September 1887.
Two brothers married two sisters: namely, Leo’s mother and my mother are sisters and his father and my father are brothers. Diti and Stefek are the children of my mother’s brother (actually step- brother).
About your mother, I don’t know a lot and maybe she’ll add something to this. What I know is that your granny was a nee Samek. Her cousin, Victor Samek, who later changed his name to Vic Oliver, was later a famous comedian here during the war and had his own weekly radio show, called Hi Gang. He was married, at least for some years, to Sarah Churchill, Winston’s daughter, for which misdemeanour your grandfather Essler was called to the Gestapo.
By the way, your mother before we got married was asked by grandfather Essler to go to England and talk to Churchill to see whether he could get the factory back (you saw the factory last summer). On the strength of this, your mother really got a passport right after the war which was quite unheard of and if I hadn’t told her that Churchill had other worries she would have gone.
Leopold Ornstein had a wholesale grocery business and used to go to Trieste every year for three weeks to sample the coffee beans which came from Rio (Brazil), because, and I remember the sign on the house, his was the “First Coffee Roasting Establishment Driven By Electricity.”
During the 14 – 18 war all my uncles served in the Austro-Hungarian army as officers and when they came back, their empire had collapsed. From a country that reached in the North to include Poland and the Ukraine and to the Mediterranean in the South, Austria, as it was now called, became a small country with about 6 million inhabitants. This must have been a tremendous shock for all concerned and called for changes. The family also had a lot of money invested in “War- Loans”, which after the war was not worth the paper it was printed on. My father who was the oldest should have taken over the business in Trebic but left it to the next in line, namely, Leo’s father and we moved to Vienna.
My father became the commercial director of a company which was building houses, well, blocks of flats really which became later on, i.e. 1927 or thereabouts, a stronghold of social democracy and for the workers and were later fought over. Most of the post-war Austrian politicians including the Prime Minister, Bruno Kreiski, took part in that “revolution”. By the way, Bruno Kreiski’s mother hails also from Trebic and was born in the house next to ours on the town square. Bruno as a young boy used to come to Trebic for his summer vacation and we used to go swimming together with Leo and a few others. Whilst he was Prime Minister of Austria he still used to send telegrams of congratulations to my aunt (Edith Markus’ mother).
Coming back to Vienna, father was doing well there. I remember, he had 2 office cars plus chauffeur and we lived (for future reference) in the first district, Schulhof No. 6. The house is still standing. It is the really old part of the town with houses that date back to the last century and earlier. Aunty Gerty and I went to school in Vienna, and particularly Aunty Gerty loved it very much and everything connected with it. It came as a tremendous shock to her that in 1927 when the first signs of Anti-Semitism could be felt, we moved to Brno, and my father became an agent for Diti’s father, who owned a flour mill in Znojmo. This was also the time when the Palace of Justice in Vienna was burnt down and the period of law and order was over. This was the beginning of the end. After this, terrible things happened. In 1934, the Prime Minister, Dollfuss, was murdered by Nazis and in 1938, Hitler marched into Austria.
Whilst still in Vienna, I became interested in ice-hockey and participated in “Children’s Ice Hockey for boys under fourteen”. When we moved to Brno, I started a similar activity and the following season, the Brno team went to Vienna and we played the first “International children’s Ice-hockey match” ever. We were very proud as you can imagine. The rink in which we played was of course much smaller than for grown-ups and we only played four-aside.
In order to give you an idea what central Europe looked like in the years after the First World War, let me say, that I was born in Austro-Hungary but your mother who born about 3 years later, but only a few miles from where I was born, was already born in Czechoslovakia. As the republic only came into being on the 28th October 1918, mum made it by two months. So you can see, one didn’t have to move about, but rather the countries around one were moved about.
By the way, Leo, who is 2 years older than I, went to Czech schools, whereas Gerty and I, having started school in Vienna, continued German schools in Brno.
My school mates were amongst others, Uncle Paul and at least for the first few years, Henry Brandon, but some of my class mates turned out to be Nazis and I remember one instance when in 1938, I was stationed on the Czech-Austrian border and there were herds of young Nazis harassing the population and the military. One day, I was walking alone along a country road armed with pistol and rifle when I saw a figure approaching me with a big Swastika on his sleeve. I did not know what to do. When the figure came nearer, I thought I could recognise him as one of my former classmates. What is one to do? He could have shot me and I certainly could have shot him. But can you shoot somebody in cold blood when you only a few years ago were class mates. Well, I could not and so we passed each other, waved and said ‘Hello’.
In the days before Hitler, it didn’t matter whether you spoke German or Czech. For instance, Francis worked in Berlin under Max Reinhardt in Romeo and Juliet with Elizabeth Bergner whereas his brother, Rudi, was active in Prague in the Czech theatre under Voskovec and Werich, who, by the way, were our gods and meant as much to us as probably the Beatles to you. He appeared in the title role of a play called ‘Gorilla ex Machina’. He was quite a character. He went for instance to Afghanistan as a ship’s doctor, that would be equivalent today to going to the moon.
Czechoslovakia was a real democracy under President Masaryk. You could choose your own nationality, i.e. Czech or Slovak or Hungarian or German or even Jewish. All of us felt very comfortable until the trouble started with the Sudetenland, but I’ll return to that later.
I admired my father very much because at the age of 50 plus, he left his comfortable job in Vienna and started afresh in Brno, trying to sell flour to various bakers and grocers. He worked from home. One of the rooms was made into an office. Mother and a secretary, with whom we kept in touch until her death two years ago, were his only helpers. We had a good life in Brno, although Gerty was hankering to get back to Vienna. In 1934, I passed my A Levels and as was the custom then, some friends and I went on a really exotic journey down the Danube into Bulgaria on the black Sea to Istanbul and across the Bosporus into Asia. That was quite an adventure. Then I went to Prague in order to gain experience in business matters. At the same time I inscribed at Charles University to study Law, but it never came to anything. Leo, who was already a Doctor of Law, followed a few months later and we had a flat in Prague which my parents did not approve of, because I was too young to have a “self contained” flat. From Prague I moved to Diti’s house in Znojmo to work in the flour mill and I think in 1936, I went back home to Brno and helped my father in his business. By that time, he was doing quite well.
In 1937, I joined the army for two years national service. As it happened I was stationed in Znojmo and found that Henry Brandon was in the same school for officers. After the officers training school, I joined the horse drawn Artillery, but now things really started to happen.
Meanwhile in about 1934, Francis who was a big success in London, played in Shaftesbury Avenue with Constance Cummings in Autumn Crocus by Dodi Smith, and in a book written by her, she says, that Francis did not speak a word of English but learnt his role phonetically, parrot fashion. He became a matinee idol and lived in Elstree in Allum Lane. Until a few years ago, the
house was still there with a plaque that said “Richard Tauber Lived here”. That is fame for you. Francis asked my parents for Gerty to come and be his secretary which she did, but as Francis lived then with an Hungarian actress called Steffi Duna and Miss Duna became very jealous. Gerty left without telling our parents. It was a mistake and she told me so only this year when I saw her in New York. In roughly 1937, Lilian Gish brought Francis to America and he made his first film there with Ginger Rogers which in Brno was called From Brno to America. What it was called in English, I don’t know.
It was now early 1938, and in March of that year, Hitler occupied Austria. Edith Markus’s parents and a few more of my father’s brothers and sisters lived there and we feared the worst. Edith’s parents and sisters got out of Austria and settled in either Argentina or Uruguay and returned after the war to Vienna where we saw them and they died when they were both well over ninety. We were however quite confident that Hitler could not invade Czechoslovakia because we had a modern army of about 250,000 men. What happened from now on is better read in books written by people who know much more about that time than I.
In autumn, Munich happened and the Sudetenland became part of Germany. They used to shout “Heim in’s Reich” (Home to Germany), which was a big con because they had never been part of Germany. By taking the Sudetenland, all our fortifications, natural or man-made had gone and the country was vulnerable from all directions.
On 1st March 1939, Hitler insisted that old recruits should be demobbed although they had not completed their two years service, and that only officers and NCOs in their second year remained. A few days later, new recruits joined so that the army consisted of untrained privates, a few NCOs and a few regular warrant officers and officers.
You may ask yourself how a country can be occupied by its neighbour without any resistance to speak of. Well, in history books it may say “Germany occupied the remnants of Czechoslovakia on 15th March 1939”, but how did it really happen?
The army was forced to leave the frontiers and retreat inland. I was lucky enough to find myself and the regiment in Trebic of all places. You know that Trebic is about one and a half hours from the Austrian border, all fortifications gone. On 15th March 1939, at about 7 am all officers and NCOs were to report with their weapons to what was, I suppose, equivalent of the County Council which was opposite our house. When we arrived there, there was a civilian who told us approximately, ” Gentlemen, please leave your weapons here. You would not like to go in with your pistols would you”. So we left everything on a table and went into the main room. To cut a long story short, after a few minutes, another civilian told us that the German army had occupied the town and if we had any thoughts of resisting would we please look out of the window. The building was now surrounded by German soldiers and when we returned to barracks, half the horses had gone. I am trying to tell you what really happened and how it happened and that there is much more to it than meets the eye in the history books. One must remember that in those days there was no TV and news on the radio was not all that good and certainly not up-to-date.
On 1st April, we were all sent home. Each received a gift of 100 Crowns from Hitler. Leo and I were expelled by the Gestapo, which would have been a good thing, only they did not provide passports. We had to get them from the chief of police in Brno, whose sons were great friends of ours.
Meanwhile, on or about 15th March 1939, Francis had phoned my father from the United States of America and told him that Jan Masaryk, who used to be Czech ambassador in London stood next to him and that my father should try to get Leo and myself out and when in London we should report to Jan Masaryk who will help us. In the event, we did get to London, went to see Jan Masaryk, who had a flat in Dolphin Square, and was very nice and kind to us and told us, the best thing to do was to join the Czech army which at that time was in France. We met Mr Masaryk later, when he came to lecture to us in the army. Asked what his war aims were, he replied ” to walk over Charles Bridge in Prague and be able to say Our President or Prime Minister is an ox and nobody will come to arrest you”. I thought of it many times how he in a few words expressed what was really important and how tragic it was that it was not possible to say these words until 1989. Years later, after the war, your mum and I saw Jan Masaryk in Prague at a function and he still recognised me and talked to us.
Aunty Gerty meanwhile was back in London as, at that time, a visa was not required and she worked for the Czech Refugee Trust Fund. Leo and I were eagerly waiting to hear from her that she had a job for us as without it we could not get a visa due to new regulations. Finally she got us two places as farm workers in Derby and her boyfriend, John Low-Beer provided the £100 each which were required so that we should not become a liability to this country. A £100 was quite a lot in those days. If you consider that Leo and I lived on less than one and a half pounds a week before we joined the army. Gerty was very politically minded and was leaning to the left. In Brno, she was engaged in helping German or Austrian refugees she worked in committees amongst others, Pan-Europa – Probably the forerunner of the European Community. In London she was heavily engaged with the Austrian Centre for instance, which was, I would think, very left. She also influenced Edith and a few others. When the Russians declared themselves allies with Germany, she found herself in a very difficult position – it certainly was not easy for her. Without her, however, neither Leo nor I would have been able to leave Czechoslovakia after the German invasion, as one had to have a job and a guarantee in England before one could get a visa. Similar to what it is today, and Gerty was the one who got us the job even if we never turned up, because we joined the army.
It was now about a week before the outbreak of war and I said Goodbye to my parents in Brno. I can still see them in my mind’s eye waving goodbye at the railway station in Brno but little did I know that it would be for the last time. My father thought being over sixty, the Germans won’t do anything to him or mother as the Germans were mainly interested in young people as workers – so they said.
About a week before war broke out, I arrived at Liverpool Street Station and a few of my old friends were there to greet me. We went by tube to Swiss Cottage and from there to 188 Goldhurst Terrace, where Gerty had rented a small room for us. I remember my first meal in this country – a small tin of pineapple from Woolworths – costing four and a half old pence and a piece of bread. With the last train and it was really the last train from the continent, Leo arrived here and we both settled in Goldhurst Terrace in a room with one couch so that we had to take it in turns who slept on the floor.
On 3rd September, the day war broke out, we were walking where nowadays the Czech club is situated and were helping to fill sand bags. Then we rushed home in order to hear Mr Chamberlain’s statement. A few minutes later, the air raid sirens sounded for the first time. A day or two later, as a special treat, Stefek took me for the first time to the West End to the cinema at Marble Arch to see Francis in “Confession of a Nazi Spy”. Needless to say, I did not understand one word and I did not enjoy seeing Francis as a Nazi spy. He too regretted that film because it turned him from a leading man into a “heavy”.
After a short time in Goldhurst Terrace, we found better accommodation at 148 Abbey Road. The house was owned and occupied by an Irish tenor called John McKenna, who had a terrific sense of humour and helped us a lot. I remember that we moved on a Jewish holiday because that was the only day we could borrow a barrow for our belongings. It had “Beck and Pollitzer” written in fat letters on it. When moving the stuff, we got very funny looks from some of the Jewish passers-by.
We occupied the first floor. Gerty and Diti in one room, Leo and I in another, and later on, upstairs, Edith. McKenna was very good to us and when air raids started, we all retreated to his “Anderson” shelter, and although it was a sad time we had some very good laughs with him. There was the bus stop right in front of the house and one day Leo and I had just boarded the bus and went upstairs when on jumped McKenna, in his dressing gown and said ” Leo, telephone for you”, and Leo went back into the house and answered the phone. Well, you can imagine how the occupants of the bus reacted.
The Czech refugee trust fund considered Leo and me a married couple because we lived together so Leo received twenty two shillings and six pence (£1.11 pence in today’s money) or maybe it was thirtytwo and six. Anyhow, we had to earn some money in order to maintain our lifestyle. So we sold cigarettes, (though Leo disputes it now) which we got from a bloke in Mortimer Street at a discount and sold at full price to our friends. We also sold silk stockings and other necessities. When it was very cold outside, we went to the Kilburn State Cinema, where for nine old pence, i.e. four new pence, we could sit all afternoon, see the picture two or three times, which was all right, as we did not understand it the first time round. Anyhow, it was cheaper than the electric fire at home.
Gerty worked in some factory in order to satisfy her convictions. In those days there were two kinds of aliens: Germans and Austrians, and I believe Italians were “enemy aliens” and were under curfew. Some of them were interned either on the Isle of Man or were deported to Canada or Australia. One transport sunk and a lot if not all perished. Ironic if one thinks of it that they came here to save their lives and then lost their lives in these circumstances. We, however, and the Poles were “friendly aliens” and were free to do whatever we liked well, more or less, but not allowed to work.
Meanwhile Francis sent Leo and me an affidavit which would have enabled us to move to the US. It was very tempting but the US was not yet at war and we decided against it, hoping against hope that we would be nearer home at the end of the war and nearer our parents should they need us.
We, together with Stefek, had volunteered for the Czech army with the proviso that Leo and I should be called up first as we had already some experience in the army in case we were to go to France, but Stefek was to be called up last as he was the youngest. In effect, Stefek was called up first and had to go to France and we stayed here. On the day Paris fell, we were to report to the Czech embassy here in order to go to France. We had some girls cleaning our flat and very much to their surprise, we came back to Abbey Road as it was too late to go to France.
You must not imagine that it was all fun. Sometimes we were very depressed. No money, no prospect of any sort except the army and even that was not sure. Also the air raids did not help but people here were fantastic. The slogan was ” Business as usual” and buses ran, the underground functioned and there was less interruption of everyday life than thirty years or so later when all the strikes started.
Paul was a great help and a really good friend. He had a proper job, being the rep for McDonalds, who produced Harris Tweed. He had an office off Regent Street. Well, it was not really his office, rather a desk in a room with two others, but included in the rent were daily cups of tea. So, I often went there. I made all my telephone calls from there and we often went to a restaurant in Soho, called “Old Vienna” where lunch was 1s 6d which is seven and a half new pence and Paul paid. He later joined the RAF and listened and reported communications and conversations between German pilots
After the battle of Britain, which was, I think on 15th September 1940, we were finally called up and joined the army which meanwhile had got here from France and reported in Cholmondeley Park, pronounced Chumley, which took us a long time to comprehend. Many a soldier got lost somewhere in Shropshire and could not get home because he could not remember how to pronounce Cholmondeley, they said Khol-mon-de-lai instead of Chumley.
We were under canvas and I remember there were no toilets yet, so latrines were dug. It could easily happen, and it did happen, that one found oneself in our truly democratic army next to a colonel or brigadier when using the latrine and it was very revealing and within the true spirit of democracy to see the chap’s naked bottom. After that, it was some times difficult to salute the officers concerned with the same vigour and enthusiasm as before.
Another thing happened: the War Office did not know very much about us and did not know whether we were allies or prisoners of war. To be on the safe side they paid us only 6 old pennies a day.
The first Sunday we were supposed to have sausages. Our cooks only word in English was “Sorry”, so he prepared the sausages the Czech way like one would prepare “Frankfurters”: five minutes in simmering water. You can imagine our reaction.
From Cholmondeley we moved to Moreton Morrell, which lies between Leamington Spa and Stratford on Avon in Warwickshire. In that part of the country lived many well known and well-to- do families. The husbands were mostly engaged in war work in some ministry or other and their wives ran a lovely canteen for us in the village hall of Moreton Morrell. They tried very hard to cook continental dishes for us, which in wartime was not easy. We had a good time there. We went to Leamington for the cinema and to Stratford for culture. Coventry was not far away and when the big raid by the Luftwaffe occurred some of our units went there to help. Coming back to Leamington Spa, there is now a memorial to the Czech army, and in particular to the parachutists who killed Heydrich, in the park.
Meanwhile, an officers’ training school was started and I became its kind of regimental sergeant major. Leo was a cadet and so was Milan Smutny. During that time I was made an officer after having been an officer cadet. I then stayed in the main house which was a lovely mansion, three stories high and the other ranks were in nissan huts nearby. Many funny things happened there, usually because our chaps did not speak or understand English. I remember that the story went round that one of the infantry captains received an invitation from one of the ladies which read;
Sir ……. and Lady …… request the pleasure of the company of Captain ……
Needless to say, he appeared there with his whole ‘company’ which gave her rather a shock!
From Warwickshire we were moved to Cricket St Thomas in Somerset near Chard where you and I went together. We were again under canvas and I showed you the location of my tent.
From there to Oulton Broad on the Norfolk Broads near Lowestoft (where Stefek met Peggy). Our task then was to guard the coast round Lowestoft against a German invasion. The infantry was, however, somewhat short of manpower and when President Benes came to inspect the “front line” he was taken into the various fortifications. The soldiers always had to stand to attention and give their name. When he came into the first bunker, a chap got up, saluted and said his name was, say, Jones, (in reality, it was probably Kratochvil). Some time later the president came into another bunker, the same chap saluted and said his name was Jones. It went on like that in a few more bunkers. When President Benes said, “Jones, you must be quite an expert that you can fulfil so many functions”. Jones replied, “No sir, I am the cook”. I don’t know whether it is true but it was a good story and was typical.
After that we were sent to Dovercourt near Harwich. There, Sir Peter Scott, the son of Scott of the Antarctic, was in charge of camouflaging the E-boats and we sometimes had drinks with him in the officers club. Our task again was to guard the shore.
In order to put you in the picture there were an awful lot of officers in the Czech army much more than were needed. It meant that we really did not work to our full capacity, either physically or mentally and therefore it was boring. One day, in “daily orders”, it was said that, whoever wanted to and subject to passing a test, could apply to join the British Army. I applied and quite a few of us went for the test. It was all very hush-hush. We were sent by night and did not have a clue where we were. Many many years later, when we had moved to Bushey, I recognised the building near Hunton Bridge.
Anyhow, we had to undergo intelligence tests and a small assault course and in the end, we had to stand in front of an audience of full colonels and brigadiers. They were all in full dress, but we were in denims (working clothes), no distinctions on our shoulders, nothing in front of us to hold on to and had to talk about whatever we wanted for five or seven minutes without notes and in English of course. I don’t now whether you can imagine what that meant but I am still dreaming of it, well at least sometimes.
There were a few more things that happened. During the assault course there was a second lieutenant with us, somewhat older than was usual. We were all more or less the same rank and there was no colonel in sight, so we let rip. Although our English was anything but perfect, we knew a few rude words which we used in order to vent our frustrations – when, for instance, we had to crawl through a canvas tunnel so tight that we thought we would suffocate. Anyhow, we were there for three or four days and when we had left and were a mile or so away, I suddenly realized that I must have left my pullover behind. We turned back and came to the house and at the desk, there was the sergeant of the day. I asked him whether anybody had found my pullover. “No sir”. So I said “Maybe that second lieutenant would have seen it when I left it outside”. “There is no second lieutenant here sir, they are all at least full colonels.” Interesting, don’t you think?
I did join the British Army and reported to a field regiment, Royal Artillery, somewhere on the South coast – I think it was Bexhill on Sea. Anyhow, it was near St Leonard’s, because I was in hospital there with a septic thumb and was told that I was one of the first to be treated with penicillin and it worked.
There was another Czech with me in that regiment. After a short while the whole regiment was ordered to Northern Ireland and we took up residence on the racecourse in Downpatrick, Co. Down. We were miles away from air raids and the war and had a jolly good time. We were “personae gratissimae” with the local population as we had Czechoslovakia on our uniforms and therefore neutral, neither one thing nor the other in the eyes of the local people. We even had the privilege of being able to have a bath in the vicarage, a privilege which was not offered to our British colleagues.
Life in a British officers mess was very different to that which we knew in the Czech army. One did not talk about ladies until the port was handed round clockwise, for instance. In the Czech army, one only talked about ladies all the time and a few more things like that. We had all classes there, from ex-Oxbridge to the warrant officer who was recently promoted to second lieutenant. This class business was most interesting to us and completely new. We got on very well with all of them and I remember when I left, I had a letter from the brigadier, which started something like this “I have been struck by the good reports I have received from all concerned” and so on.
We also went to Belfast and to a hotel near the mountains of Mourne where we had excellent seafood. Christmas Eve 1943, the local policeman had found out that there was a Czech family nearby. He took us there in his own car, (petrol being rationed) and waited for us outside, sitting in the car because he did not want to disturb us or make us feel obliged to speak English because of him.
The Czech ministry of war had released us to the British Army as we were not required by them here in Great Britain. If, however, we were needed overseas, we had to be released. We never thought that we would be called to serve overseas and had settled down very nicely in the Royal Artillery. It therefore came as a surprise to us when we were recalled and told that we are to go to Russia where there was a Czech division which had sustained heavy losses among the officers. It was to take a long time before all the formalities were dealt with. I seem to remember that part of the time we spent in a beautiful stately home near Peterborough, called Milton Hall. I remember that in the billiards room, there was the famous painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds, The Faun or maybe Puck, and somebody explained to us that Reynolds painted one of the children of the house, and when he delivered it, the lady of the house did not like it. Reynolds was so angered that he added the horns to the child’s portrait and it became The Faun or Puck. One of the forbearers of the present occupant was one of the jailers of Mary, Queen of Scots and Mary gave him a painting which is still in existence – it belonged to Lord Fitzwilliam whom I met there.
It must be remembered that at that time, Russia and Stalin were our staunch allies and brothers in arms and even “Tory” newspapers like the Daily Telegraph or the Times spoke of them in glorious terms like “the glorious Russian army” or “our heroic allies” and so on. Little did they know what was really happening there.
One funny story comes to mind: while still in Ireland we were discussing in a pub the brilliant army commanders of the war, Monty, Alexander and so on and when the Russian Marshall Timoshenko was mentioned, one of the locals remarked that he must have been an Irishman and his real name was Tim O’Shenko.
On the fifth of August 1944 or thereabouts, we left our depot near Southend on Sea and travelled to London. We arrived at Fenchurch Street Station and I remember one of our colleagues saying goodbye to his girlfriend with a long long kiss and both had tears in their eyes. Later when we arrived in Poland, and he took up his post with his unit, he was the first to be killed. It was said that he kept his peaked cap with a golden cap badge on and the badge caught a ray of the sun and a German sniper got him just between the eyes. Much later when I worked in the city, i.e. a lifetime later, I often passed that spot near Fenchurch Street Station or had a sandwich there, and I knew the precise location where they said goodbye.
We were transported from Fenchurch Street station to St Pancras and most of us went for a drink to a pub on the comer opposite. I with most others was convinced that that was our last drink on English soil or even my last bitter ever. The pub is still there.
The next stop was Greenock in Scotland where we boarded the “Capetown Castle” of about 60,000 tons. There were 64 of us. The ship was of course made into a troop ship with many other units besides us on board. We each had a bed but were obliged to sleep fully clothed because of the U- boat danger. Only our commanding officer had a cabin. By that time, I was his assistant or adjutant as his English was not very good, to put it mildly. From Scotland, we went via the Azores to Gibraltar where we stopped. It could not have occurred to me that 35 years later, my wife and I would once again see the Rock, with our son and future daughter-in-law working there.
We landed in Port Said (Egypt). This gave us the first taste of the Orient and we were fascinated by it. I am still sorry that I did not take the opportunity to go and see Cairo, Alexandria or the Pyramids.
There were quite a few sunken ships in the canal and of course plenty of little boys who wanted us to throw pennies into the water, which they would retrieve by diving for them.
We were in a camp, under canvas and, every day, several times a day, we could hear the faithful called to prayers from the minarets. It took us quite a few days to get somewhat used to the sand and the heat. We were amazed that our co-passengers from the ship who were English got used to it much quicker. When asked, they used to reply “Whoever is used to the English weather, can get used to any climate”.
At El Quantara we crossed into what was then Palestine and were again in tents somewhere between Tel-Aviv and Haifa – I forget the name. We could easily get into Tel-Aviv and I remember that in one of the bars we met a pianist (his name was Derschata – ask me what I had for lunch yesterday and I could not remember), who used to play in one of the night clubs in Brno. He played for us the whole night, all the old songs we used to know. It was like from a different world. I also went to Jerusalem to meet an old girl friend of mine from Prague. She was married and had just produced her first daughter. In Bethlehem, we were suddenly accosted by a monk because he could see “Czechoslovakia” written on our uniforms. He was Czech too and he gave us the most fantastic conducted tour. I must say, that when he took us to the place where Jesus had allegedly risen, I had a strange feeling. It was as if the inside of my body had suddenly emptied.
We had a few days in Palestine during which we were issued with tropical kit – ask me why, but regulations are regulations.
We went by train to Damascus (Syria) and Beirut (Lebanon). I can’t remember much about it but I know that in Beirut we boarded two buses and drove through the desert to Basra (Iraq). It took a day and a night and half a day. There were two drivers who did a marvellous job and I remember two things. First, in the middle of the desert, like a mirage, appeared a fort like in films. Out came a sergeant who was glad to speak to somebody who had recently come from England. He had been in that fort for weeks, looking after communications – whatever that meant. The other thing was, next morning, when we arrived at some large tent, in the middle of the desert, what followed made me realise the power of the British Empire. We were served in the middle of the desert, a perfect English breakfast, consisting of cereal, bacon and eggs, sausages, toast and tea, served by ladies with only their eyes visible, the rest behind the yashmak. I am sure that the food they were serving was very much against their religious beliefs.
We finally got to Basra where it was so hot that if we wanted to shave, we had to get up at 3 a.m. using the so-called cold water because a few hours later, the cold water was boiling. We thought that Basra was the worst place on earth but we were soon proved wrong. We left Basra on platform wagons, drawn by a locomotive, which was probably just as well because like that it was at least windy which made the heat more bearable.
We got to Ahvaz which is definitely the worst place we have been to. I also learnt to appreciate Noel Coward’s song “Mad dogs and Englishmen…”. As far as I can remember we only stayed a few hours but had enough time to look at the town.
Then to Baghdad (Iraq), where we had a few days. On the way, we had canvas bags full of water, hanging out of the windows so that the air stream when moving would keep the water cool – no fridges then. In Baghdad, we stayed at an hotel on the river Tigris (forgotten the name). It was so hot that we slept covered with wet sheets. I don’t think air conditioning had been invented yet – at least in that part of the world. I also saw my first belly dancer there – come to think of it – it was also my last. We went to the bazaar of course, which looked like in those French films – well you would not remember.
From there we went by proper train to Tehran (Persia, now Iran), which a short time ago had played host to Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin. I understand that part of the conference took place at the British Embassy, which when I visited it, looked like part of Surrey with lovely trees, green lawns, not at all like Persia.
The country was then headed by the Shah, whose father had modernised Tehran. He wanted all roads leading to the centre to be straight and if a house was in the way – just too bad. They were cut into half and left there. I remember seeing some articles of clothing in the third floor hanging on the wall, obviously forgotten there by the occupants.
At that time there was also a weapons factory in Tehran, run by Czechs, who probably came from the Skoda factory. We had plenty of invitations, particularly as the best hotel was managed also by a Czech. At three pm there was water flowing through the ditches by the road side (this happened every day) and although I did not know whether it was used for drinking, I preferred soda water from then on as the locals used the ditches to bathe their feet in to shouts of ooh and aah. It was still very hot there.
Some of the chaps went to the bazaar and bought Persian carpets there. These were of course terribly cheap for our pounds sterling, but whatever happened to them I don’t know. The boys may have used them as blankets in winter.
Here we also got our first taste of things to come. We met two Czech officers who had been expelled from Russia. One was a good friend of mine but when he started to tell us about Russia, he spoke in very low tones and kept looking round. Later I knew why. The other one was a paymaster who used to pay the boys every Friday. The rouble notes in those days bore the signatures of at least ten people from Stalin down to probably the bank manager. One Friday, our friend had a few over the odds and he said that he signed some of the notes “so that the boys should also know who they got their money from”. Needless to say, he was sent back to England and was very glad that he got off so lightly.
Now we were waiting for Russian lorries to take us over the Elbrus mountains on to Pahlevi on the Caspian Sea. In our experience the Russians are good people. They will give you half of their last cigarette, but punctuality is not one of their strong characteristics. We were waiting and waiting and when they arrived they were of course in a tearing hurry to get back. The roads were not motorways. In fact they were very narrow with steep hills to climb, but it was worse when we drove downhill, because the driver in order to save petrol, I presume, put it into neutral and we sailed down the mountains very much to the amusement of our driver who from time to time indicated with his finger a deep ravine where something must have happened. Actually we could guess what, but rather did not want to be told. I remember we stayed the night in one of the Shah’s castles, but only in downstairs rooms, not in the bedrooms. The Persian carpets which we put on top of each other made a very comfortable and soft bed.
We arrived in Pahlevi, got some horrible food consisting of, in descending order, garlic, onions and here and there a bean, all covered in a brown sauce. Although I was very hungry, I resisted and did not touch it.
All 64 of us boarded a boat which probably had the capacity to carry 30 people. The Caspian Sea was lovely and due to the fact that the boat was overcrowded, food was being served in sittings. What it really meant was that the poor cook (a woman) did not stop working from early morning until late at night.
Baku and Russia
We arrived in Baku. We were for the first time on Russian soil. Immediately we found ourselves in a typical Russian situation, i.e. we had to show a ‘bumashka’ (a piece of paper) to prove that we had had a shower within the last day or two, before reaching a Russian port. We did not have that piece of paper and it took us a long time to persuade the officer who obviously was in charge of showers that we were fairly clean. This was our first encounter with bureaucracy which was typical, particularly for the regime under Stalin. Nobody wanted to take any responsibility. They were all afraid that if it should go wrong they should be answerable to even a higher bureaucrat who in order to cover himself would send them to Siberia or similar.
We stayed in an “Intourist” hotel which was good. For breakfast, we had, at least for the first three days, caviar, lashings of it as the best caviar comes from the Caspian Sea. After that, say, at eleven am, we were loaded into a bus and taken to the “Red Army Officers Club” where we were made to dance with a troupe of girls who were professional dancers and probably appeared in the evening on some stage under some fancy name. Although some of us had learnt Russian, for those like me who did not speak the language, this entertainment was a bit of a dead loss. When we complained to the Russian liaison officer that we did not feel like dancing at 11 am. He showed us the piece of paper which said that we were to be entertained by dancing and as it did not state any particular time – 11 am was as good as any.
I also remember that one day we had breakfast and lunch immediately following each other. He produced a similar paper which did not specify a definite time for breakfast or lunch. Therefore he had done his duty. We had had what we were supposed to have and that was that. I seem to remember that he took us again to that club and showed us an American film with Don Ameche which was very thoughtful of him. We were also served ice cream of which they were very proud as it had just been introduced (probably from the US), by Mr Mikojan who was Stalin’s brother-in- law. Funny how one remembers little things like that.
When we walked in the streets, which was reserved for those with guts, as we were not allowed to leave the hotel on our own, people stopped us and felt the material of our battle dresses.
After a few days, we left by air in a Dakota with a girl pilot for Rostov on Don. From there to Czemauti which was Romania but is now Russia or rather the Ukraine.
The Czech Army had their depot there and we got to learn more about the Russians. One day, a few lorries arrived and we were sent to the Front. At night we got to some place in what used to be Poland. We stayed the night in a school where there were so many fleas, it was impossible to sleep. My pillow case was full of red dots marking the spots where a flea was dispatched to a better world.
The other day when selecting apples at Safeways in Stanmore a bloke walked up to me and reminded me of that night and the fleas. He was there too.
Next evening we arrived very near the front line. I found a friend from England in a foxhole and we talked until morning. He put me in the picture regarding our hosts and their organisation or the lack of it. Having come straight from the British Army and its discipline where everything is laid down and everybody knows what he is supposed to do, it was quite a shock and I did not want to believe it.
The day before our arrival, our army group had just gone through a dramatic experience when they were advancing towards the Czechoslovak border. I can’t remember the name of the village, but they were given to believe by Russian intelligence that the Germans had retreated. In fact the Germans were waiting for them on the hills surrounding the village and the Czechs had heavy casualties.
We had commissars (Czech communists) who went from unit to unit and tried to explain away the obvious mistakes that were made by the Russian command. For instance, a Czech General was made a scapegoat for the incident above and was relieved of his command.
The whole setup was quite unbelievable. Take cigarettes: privates got “Machorka”, (a filthy cheap tobacco), but no cigarette paper, so they had to roll their own and they used “Pravda” or “Izvestia” which explains the high circulation of the dailies. Officers up to captain received Russian cigarettes, English cigarettes were for of officers up to Colonel, and Brigadiers and higher received American cigarettes of their choice. There were two different kitchens, one for the men, the other for officers. This was in the field, not somewhere miles behind the lines. There were many things like that which did not tally with our ideas of democracy or even communism.
Anyhow, I was sent to take over the command of a Battery but half way there I was recalled and told to report to the Artillery Commander of the Third Brigade. That was very lucky for me because the chap who took the Battery instead of me was wounded within a few days, but returned later.
I took over the “operational department” (if this is the right translation) and for me the war started in earnest. My CO was a Major V Sacher, who later wrote two books. In one, is a large photo of him and me together and in the second he mentions me quite a few times. After the War, he made it to General, but later on, in the fifties, he was pensioned off and later, when he signed Charter 77, reduced to private. He died in 1987, and therefore never saw what happened in two years time. In 1990, he was rehabilitated – but, of course, too late for him.
We entered Czechoslovak territory on the 6th October 1944, and took part in the “famous” battle for the Dukla Pass. After the war, they made heroes of all the participants of that battle, but, believe me, at the time, we did not feel like heroes, but just scared stiff.
One of the ironies of life was that many, many years later, the address of our supplier of gherkins and various other items of food in Prague, was “Street of the Heroes of Dukla”, but this “Hero of Dukla” was never given a visa by the Communist regime to visit his suppliers, in other words to see whether the gherkins which we imported were all right.
On 28th October 1944, I was decorated in the field with the Czech “War Cross”, which however is no big deal as almost everybody who was in the war got it. But it was in the field so that may mean something as a few soldiers paraded in front of me and I took the salute. The ground, however, was very uneven and the poor chaps nearly fell over as they had to do “Eyes right”, and therefore could not see where they were stepping. It was quite funny and more like Laurel and Hardy.
Some officers, including myself, never received any Soviet decorations or medals for the following reason – our Russian liaison officer invited us to celebrate the October Revolution. The ones who attended had mostly come from England. After the food, we started drinking and our Russian hosts suggested a toast to Stalin. We countered with a toast to our President Benes. Then our hosts suggested Marshal Timoshenko. We countered with King George Vl, whereupon the Russians invited us to drink to some other marshals, and we always replied with somebody of the Royals, and when it came to Princess Margaret, who was then a young girl, our hosts got up and left. It must be said that we drank all toasts in vodka and after a few glasses, one doesn’t get tipsy but horribly drunk.
Many months later, when it became obvious that none of the officers present that evening were to be given a Russian decoration, whereas others received all sorts of medals, we were told when we enquired, that our Russian allies considered our behaviour on that evening offensive by putting on the same level heroes of the Soviet Union with young girls of Royal blood.
We had heavy losses at Dukla. Amongst others, one of the generals, when crossing the frontier exactly on the dividing line, he and his jeep were blown sky high by a mine. He was buried there.
When we were on one spot, we lived in bunkers and as I had my “British Officers kit”, which included a canvas bath, still with me, I used it and even lent it to some of the girl soldiers. They were telephonists and radio operators and were very good at their jobs and gave us courage because you dare not show fear with girls present. They came mostly from Czech families who had emigrated a long time ago to Volyn or Volhynia which was part of Poland, later of Russia and was then occupied by Germany in 1941. A lot of men from that part of the country had also joined our army. I wonder what happened to them after the war.
On 15th January, 1945, we i.e. the Artillery, moved back to Poland to support the Russian Infantry in a big onslaught on Warsaw. There was an uprising in Warsaw, but the Russians waited until it was over, so that they could appear as liberators. Anyhow, the last news I had had of my parents,
was that they were in Warsaw. The indication, however, was that they had perished in 1942. I thought maybe I could at least find the ghetto, where they lived and died. After a few days, we were withdrawn from that front and rejoined the Czech forces further south, so that I never got into Warsaw.
Today, in August 1993, when going through old papers, I found the following official letter in Czech and German, saying that
Karel and Nelly Ornstein were on the 28th January 1942 transported for racial reasons with transport No … to Terezin and from there on the 25th April 1942 with Transport No … to Warsaw. They did not return. The 25th of April is just one day before my birthday. I wonder where I was and what I was doing. Makes me feel guilty.
The 15th of January is now being celebrated as the Day of the Artillery (Battle of Jaslo), though I don’t know why. On that day, we were on the observation post and watched the battle. Wave after wave of Russian Infantry was trying to get through the German lines. Finally they succeeded, but at what cost. Small wonder, that the Russians say they lost ten million men. It could have been handled differently, but human lives were obviously cheap (‘nas mnogo’). When chaps were wounded they had to find their own way to a field ambulance or hospital – no medical personnel helped them to get there. We, who saw all that, and on the other hand knew of the glowing reports that would appear not only in the Russian, but also in the British and American press, were very disillusioned.
When we were in Prague in 1990, just by chance, I happened on an exhibition, celebrating the activities of the Artillery in the war. There was, for instance, the fur coat of the CO of the Corps in a glass casket. There were also letters re-instating Sacher, my CO, to full General, and his decorations, and his pipe and watch. It was a strange feeling to see objects that one was familiar with and quite ordinary, to be worshipped almost as relics from a glorious past.
But now, back to the war. We took prisoners of course and I remember one pair of old boys from Vienna, whom I was supposed to interview as our intelligence officer was otherwise engaged. They were really much older than we, and had a sense of humour because they called themselves “Hitler’s secret weapon”. We were told to find out from POWs about the effect that bombing of the Hinterland had on the civilian population. They told me that they had just returned from a few days leave in Vienna so they were a very good source of information. I spoke to them in the Viennese dialect which astonished them and even more when they told me that a bomb had come down on a certain location and I asked them whether a certain butcher’s shop had been hit. They had the shock of their lives. You must imagine the scene: we were in a dark forest in deepest Poland not far from the front line, in a foxhole and I should know the name of the butcher. What they did not know, of course, was that the butcher used to be our butcher when we lived in Vienna. Anyhow, I saw to it that the two old boys were properly fed and had a good night’s rest before they were sent with an escort to the rear.
Another thing comes to mind: Sacher and I were on an observation post in a ditch on top of a hill. Suddenly the German Artillery must have spotted us and started shooting at us with anti-aircraft guns. We ducked, of course, and one shell landed in the rear wall of the ditch between Sacher’s behind and my head and failed to explode. I must say, that from that moment on, I assumed there must somewhere be a higher force that looked after me.
We were in Slovakia now and a Slovak division or at least part of it had come over to our side. Slovakia, under its Premier, Monsignor Tiso, was a republic or rather, had become a republic by Hitler’s grace and was on the side of the Germans. There was an uprising in favour of the Allies, helped by our parachute brigade. Again, the Russians let it die down, before “liberating” it. We stood at the foot of the Tatra Mountains, which was quite a sight. Coming from the East, we actually saw the mountains rise up steeply from the flat terrain around them. I had known the gradual rise of the mountains from the other side as a young boy on holiday. By that time, I had become Chief of Staff of the Artillery Brigade, which was quite a feather in my cap as all the others who fulfilled a similar function were regular officers and I the only reserve officer. On the 26th April, Brno fell to the Russians and round about that time we had to cross the “Fatra” mountains which was a difficult task for a motorised unit. My boss who must have been a Lieutenant-Colonel by now ordered me to get all the oxen from the surrounding districts in order to drag the guns up the mountains. It was Hitler’s birthday, so he wanted to be quite sure that we could see properly our targets for direct fire, as he expected the Germans to celebrate the birthday of their Fuhrer with some show of strength.
Some of our batmen were gypsies. Of course, the function of a batman in war and particularly, in Russia/Slovakia is very different from that of a batman in peacetime England, who polishes buttons and cleans shoes. When we were somewhere near the front, or on an observation post on a mountain and the kitchen could not reach us, it was up to the batman to see that we had something to eat. Mine made an excellent shashlik.
But I wanted to say something else. One of the batmen was a gypsy and he must have had a sixth sense, because he knew in advance when a shell would come our way and when we were going forward, and he was with us we could duck just in time. They were good lads and not that rotten lot that is in Prague now, robbing foreigners.
A further memory is of a friend of mine whose sister lived in Bradford. He was in France in the front line, having left all his belongings and his papers in the depot in the South of France. When he returned, the Germans had looted the depot, including all his papers. This time in Russia, as he explained to me, he was going to be careful to carry all his papers with him in his breast pocket. As it happened, his unit conquered a hillock but when they were on top the Germans counter attacked and as there was no time to retreat, he lay down and pretended to be dead. Needless to say that the Germans came and again took his papers.
Long after the war, we found out that at one time or other Uncle Willi and I must have been in the same sector of the front, opposing each other. Makes one think.
One day we reached Moravia. We were about to enter the first bigger town and waiting on the outskirts we could hear the populace shouting encouragingly in our direction. Some of our infantry had of course long gone through the town in pursuit of the Germans. We thought that a triumphal entry on the part of the group of guns, lorries, jeeps and personnel, assembled on the outskirts was called for. I being just by chance the highest ranking officer present took the first jeep, with
outriders, Czech flag, etc., and entered the main square. People standing on the pavements were waving to us and shouting things like. ‘Long live our glorious Czech army’ and similar. Suddenly, out of the crowd, jumped straight across my jeep a lovely blonde, whom I had known from before the War and shouted in German, “Um, Gottes Willen der Herr Ornstein”, (roughly translated into English, it means “Goodness me, Mr Ornstein”), which made me think and I came to the conclusion that one must not hate a whole group of people or a nation only because they are covered by one name or one word or one characteristic. The individual and his or her behaviour matters not the collective noun.
By the 8th May, we were deep in Moravia. In fact we were just about to put down an Artillery barrage on a town, called Prerov, because we had news through our intelligence that a German armoured brigade was still in that town. Suddenly Sacher appeared and said “Don’t put a barrage on there – my father lives in that town. Put “disruptive” fire there but only on the outskirts as my father lives in the centre. Of course I did as I was told, but this has a sequence: many years later, here in London, we were at a party and there was a nice bloke next to me and we started talking about the war. He was a German and told me that he knew Czechoslovakia because at the last day but one of the war, he and his brigade were in a small town in Moravia. “You would not know it”, he said, “It was called Prerov, and do you know, the Czech army which was facing us, left us alone apart from a few artillery shells. If they had used a proper barrage, I would not be here today”. Small world.
On 9th May, at midnight, was officially the end of the war and I fired my pistol in the air for the first and last time in order to celebrate. We were a few miles from Brno and so, next day, with two more friends and a driver and a jeep we made our way to Brno. On the main road, there was still fighting as the commanding German General did not want to surrender. His name was Schoerner and as it turned out one day, many years later, he was a relation of Percy Shannon, whose father had his name changed from Schoerner. Anyhow, the four of us got into Brno as the first Czech soldiers and people stopped us and greeted us as liberators and I don’t know what. This was the pleasant part. The sad part came when we went to see a relation of one of my colleagues. She was the wife of the ex-deputy Mayor of Brno. She and her sister had been raped many times by Russian soldiers. When I got to the house where we used to live, I did not find anybody there who knew of our family or who remembered my parents. In our flat lived a family whom I did not know, and the only thing that I recognised was a cushion cover which bore the date 1915, and which my mother had received from a friend when I was born.
We returned to our unit and started on our way to Prague. However, we were not allowed to enter Prague, but had to wait for at least three days in a small village near Prague. On our way, we met a few British POWs and you can imagine their surprise to see some of us in British battledress and peaked caps. As a matter of fact, one chap was from Yorkshire and I gave him a message to a friend in Bradford which he duly delivered as I found out much later. The message was: I’m alive.
We had to wait until the Red Army had arrived from what was to become East Germany and entered Prague as liberators. We entered a few days later and drove down Wenceslas Square, past his statue and eventually got to the old town square where in front of the town hall with the clock, there was a tribune with President Benes and most of the government who took the salute. As I told you, my CO, a Colonel by now, had promised his wife that he would return on a white charger, so I had to borrow one from a farmer in the village where we were waiting.
After having passed all those VIPs, we crossed the river and settled near the Ministry of Defence. We occupied flats that were obviously vacated by German families. More importantly however, one of my colleagues got into our jeep, went back to Slovakia, to get barrels of wine for us to help celebrate. We did so for three days and three nights, and I seem to remember there were a few British personnel from the liaison mission also present. Apart from that I don’t remember much.
Coming back once more to the attitude of the Russian Army towards its allies, i.e. America and Great Britain: when we pointed out to them that they were receiving a lot of help from the allies and that all their jeeps were American, for instance, they replied that everything was written in Russian, even the trademark was Russian. In fact it was ‘Willy’s’, which in the Cyrillic read ‘Vilus’. The same with food: when we pointed out that their tinned meat was really American, they argued that because it said “Tushonka” on it in Cyrillic, it must be Russian. They could not read the “Made in US” in Latin Script at the bottom. I am not saying that that was the argument of everybody, but certainly the lower echelons were convinced of it.
Another thing which astonished us was that before every big action, officers flew in from Moscow, beautifully turned out. The ordinary muzik did not mind that these chaps had fur coats, fur boots, while he, himself, was freezing with a blanket round his shoulders. The privileges went with the office and the muzik was quite happy to accept this and it possibly gave him the incentive to achieve similar privileges. Anyhow, the reason for their coming and inspecting everything, was that the high command did not believe the reports they were receiving from the front line and wanted to convince themselves that there was enough ammunition and all the other necessities for an attack to succeed. You must understand that if somebody could read and write that was already an achievement. It must also be said that on our sector of the front there were mainly men from Mongolia or places near. According to reports received from the front line the German Army was annihilated twice over because every unit wanted to appear successful and there was no greater joy than being mentioned in dispatches by “Stalin” in the radio broadcasts every evening.
One day, I went to Brno from Prague just for a visit and in the tram I met Uncle Ernest, whom I had known from before the war. I also knew his two beautiful sisters which was more important. Anyhow, I asked him whether his family was all right and whether, particularly the younger of his two sisters was at home because I would like to come and see her next day, 11.00 am. I am told that when he came home, he said that he met some Jewish officer from England but did not have a clue who I was.
Next day at eleven I was there. They lived in a flat, not in the mill any more. There was grandpa Essler, granny, mum, Hannerl and I think, Rita too. Mum was in a brown blouse with flowers on it and she was very pretty. Granny guessed immediately that something was in the offing. I had known mum from before the war. There used to be four of us and we used to play tennis on Sundays. Didi and I were one pair and mum and her boyfriend, Karli Beckmann. Karli was married after the war and Didi was the wife of Karel Koenig, so we were the ones left, eager to do something about it – at least I was eager. I can’t quite guarantee the sequence of events that followed, but I do remember that I returned to Prague and greeted Leo, who had come with the Czech brigade from the West. They had beleaguered Dunquerque and finally conquered it. They too had to wait somewhere in Bohemia until the Red Army and our corps had entered Prague.
So we were back “home”. It had taken six years. We found a country very different from the one we left. The people, too, were different. Their attitude had changed. Their main concern was how to get food and clothing (if need be, on the black market ); how and where to find jobs, which was of course understandable.