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A 'Transient' Refuge in England
June 1939 - May 1940
20th June 1939 was the turning point in all our lives and nothing was ever going to be the same again. The future looked bright indeed. We were all convinced that our stay in England would be just a temporary one and that, in due course, we would be able to return home to Czechoslovakia - to all the friends and relations we had been forced to leave behind, and once again to resume our lives there. To be sure, we still had no belongings, Alfred had no idea of how he could earn his keep to support his family in a foreign country - the language of which he understood only faintly. This language problem would prevent him applying his main expertise - the central European insurance business. On top of all that, the family had no home in which to settle. However, circumstances were not to turn out too badly since there were charitable organisations in place once again to look after refugees in general and - in particular - the Jews and political refugees from Nazi oppression like my father, largely German speaking socialist and anti-Nazi Sudeten Germans.
First Stop London - West Ham
That red and white East Kent coach to which we were directed off the boat at Dover gave us our first glimpse of the green and pleasant land of England, the Garden of England in fact. As we drove in pleasant summer sunshine through the Kent countryside, we noted a town called Maidstone en route, and arrived at London in the early afternoon. Arrangements had been well handled, the group of us being given a warm welcome at our first refugee camp - a transit camp in the London district of West Ham. This was a hostel housing perhaps 40 to 50 people in a large, Victorian, red-brick building, which might have been a school or some other semi-public building or institution in earlier days. Unfortunately I was never able to locate it in later years, so do not know exactly where it was. On arrival there, we were delighted to re-establish contact with the Pick brothers, Kurt and Hans, with whom we had formed such a close friendship in Kraków. Alfred and Ethel had much to catch up on since the Picks' departure from Poland some two or three weeks earlier. As far as Heinz was concerned, it was school time. On his third day in England was sent to school - an English school, because to go to school is the rule and that's what you do in England. It did not matter that his knowledge of the English language was minimal.
In the event everyone - the children and teachers - turned out to be very sympathetic and helpful to the refugee children who had been thrust upon them, for Heinz was not the only one present there. Attendance at this West Ham school was, however, severely curtailed. Within a matter of days, the Vogels, along with the Picks, and others in a similar situation, were sent back to Kent, this time to the lively seaside resort of Margate and Cliftonville. There we found a new refugee hostel for Czechoslovakian German-speaking socialist refugees and their families. So, within a few days of arriving in England, and London, we made for that famous terminus of the Southern Railway, Victoria Station, partially to retrace our steps back to Kent and Margate before the end of June.
Montrose College - Margate and Cliftonville
The hostel in Margate was actually in Cliftonville, the 'smarter' part of the town, and had been established in another imposing building with the name Montrose College emblazoned at the gate. Montrose College stood well back from the road, in its own grounds, with lawns and driveways at the front, and large gardens with lawns at the back. The building was on three floors and students there had evidently had ample individual rooms or studies, for now each of these rooms held a refugees family from former Czechoslovakia. In total, there must have been of the order of 40 or 50 rooms so occupied, all with Czechoslovak German speaking political refugee families. As befitted an English boarding school of the day, furniture was sparse but adequate, consisting of iron-framed beds, chairs, built-in wardrobes and washbasins with running hot and cold water. The inmates there soon found various ways of expanding the range of furniture, for example, with orange boxes of the day, scrounged from local greengrocers and placed on end to make very acceptable bedside cabinets.
Life at Montrose Camp was comfortable, though the men were to find their enforced inactivity increasingly difficult to bear. The women found plenty to do, while the 20 or 30 children were kept busy with schoolwork - German schoolwork - as one of the members there had been a headmaster back home and had lost no time in organising a school for the younger residents. This little in-house school at Montrose Camp was, perhaps, instrumental in starting me off on my engineering interests, for here there was one young 'teacher' who took it upon himself to encourage the making of things. In aid of this he set up a Bastelstube - a workshop for pottering about - which he had somehow managed to equip with woodworking tools and other useful implements. I took to what this had to offer most enthusiastically and it was there that I took my first steps at making things. This Montrose set up seemed to work pretty well, at least for the first couple of months (July and August).
All the necessities of life seemed, once again, to be provided and accounted for, given the circumstances. The food was good and the residents were even given pocket money - half a crown ( 2s 6d, or 12½p ) per week for each adult and 6d ( 2½p ) for each child. This was actually quite a generous amount. To appreciate the buying power of half a crown, it should be remembered that Woolworth's at the time were advertised as the "3d and 6d Store", that is, all the goods on sale were priced at one or other of these figures. Admittedly, some items did cost more, such as a small hand drill, for which the main body of the tool cost 6d and the (vital) chuck another 6d. However, 2s 6d was a useful amount of pocket money and with care one was able to go shopping even in the trendier shops at Cliftonville, such as Bobby's department store - part of the Harrods Group at the time - and to be able to buy some modest luxuries once again.
The summer was beautiful and the novelty of the sea was very inviting. It was only a short walk from Montrose College down to the beach, where we spent much time. Margate was filled with holidaymakers, all making the most of the beaches and the sea. Wandering amongst these holidaymakers we discovered another new, British, attraction: cigarette cards. One of these was to be found in every packet of cigarettes at the time. Each brand had a different theme, and each of them usually consisted of a series of 50 different cards, which could then be mounted in special albums, on sale at 6d each, and which displayed the contents of the reverse, text side, of the card alongside the card itself. There were literally dozens of such series in circulation and, what is more, the manufacturers changed the theme in their packets from time to time, to encourage the collectors. There were card series of famous footballers, famous film stars, aeroplanes of the Royal Air Force, railway engines from all over the world, railway equipment and endless variations on these themes. We soon discovered that most grown-ups did not bother with the cards which, consequently, we found in their discarded cigarette packets strewn all over the beach. By beachcombing for these (and nothing else) we soon managed to build up very large collections of cards which we could then swap with each other to complete our own individual sets. This kept us out of mischief for many, many, hours - or so one would think. Apparently, though, our beachcombing excursions had come to the notice of some of the holidaymakers and local residents who, assuming the worst, believed that what we were after was the cigarettes themselves, to be used as currency! We were far too innocent for such subterfuges, nor did we have any use for any money these cigarettes might have brought us. So, as the summer drew to a close, so did our cigarette card collecting.
Also as that summer drew to its close, the expectations of war grew even in this isolated island. External signs of these perceived dangers became more commonplace - people digging up their back gardens to build air raid shelters, ARP (Air Raid Precautions) notices pointing the way to public air raid shelters and the likes. So the inhabitants of Montrose College also rolled up their sleeves and started digging up the playing fields at the back to build rather larger air raid shelters. We were under no illusions. Sunday 3rd September 1939 came and went. The Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, made his lunchtime announcement on the radio that the country was now at war with Germany. As many of the people in the hostel as it was possible crowded into the sitting room, where the one and only wireless was, and listened to this dismal message. As the implications of what this meant were sinking in, we were quickly faced by the reality of those very first air raid sirens of the war which went off shortly after the Prime Minister's broadcast. As it happened, this alert turned out to be a completely false alarm. But these sirens did reinforce the fact that the country was now at war. For a time, life continued to proceed in a leisurely, not uncomfortable, manner, the men spending rather too much time in the smoky sitting room, going over the past and adapting their political views to the situation in hand.
One case in point concerned Wenzel Jaksch, the leader of the Deutsche Sozialdemokratische Arbeiter Partei (German Social Democratic Workers Party) of Czechoslovakia. Jaksch got into trouble when some of his party members took exception to him calling himself 'London Representative of the Sudeten German Social Democratic Party'. The point of conflict here was that introducing the term 'Sudeten' was considered divisive as the German Social Democratic Party never specifically identified with the Sudeten Germans as such but, rather, represented all German-speaking citizens of Czechoslovakia. This came to a head when Jaksch threatened to expel from the party the five elected Montrose Camp Council Members. Consequently, a majority of Montrose inmates, Alfred among them, signed a declaration of solidarity with their elected members stating that any measures taken against the five would be considered by the undersigned as also being directed against them:
CAMP "MONTROSE" DECLARATION
"Die Unterfertigten haben erfahren, dass gegen die fünf im Camp "Montrose" gewählten Lagerratsmitglieder-Vertrauensleute - u.z. Giesa, Hoffmann, Dr Koutnik, Lippert, Schwarz san., a?in Verfahrenzwecks Ausschluss der partei eingeleitet werden soll."
"Wir stellen fest, dass diese gewählten Vertraensleute mit unserem Wissen und in unserem Auftrtage gahandelt haben u. handeln."
"Deshalb erklären wir dass sie auch weiterhin unser Vertrauen geniessen und wir uns mit ihren Vorgehen solidarisch erklären."
"Alle gegen unsere Vertraensleute gerichtete Massnahmen betrachten wir als gegen uns gerichtet."
"The undersigned have learned that the five Camp "Montrose" elected members of the Camp Council - Confidants - i.e. Giesa, Hoffmann, Dr Koutnik, Lippert, Schwarz are to have proceedings instituted against them for their expulsion from the party."
"We confirm that these elected Confidants have dealt and are dealing with our (full) knowledge and under our instructions."
"Consequently we declare that they continue to enjoy our confidence and that we identify with their behaviour in solidarity."
"Any measures directed against our Confidants will be construed as being directed against us."
Looking at this declaration, most of the names associated with it mean little to me, except for Dr Koutnik. Wenzel Koutnik and his wife and their twenty-something daughter became close friends of my parents and Wenzel, Kurt and Alfred formed a close-knit threesome when they joined up to fight in the war.
This question of differences of identity between the Sudeten German and German-speaking Czechoslovaks was an ongoing minor cause of friction. One example of this manifested itself at Montrose through the ex-schoolmaster, who was very satisfied where he was, running his little German school for the children at the camp, and who showed no interest in extending the children's education by arranging for them to attend local English schools. True to form, being impatient with bureaucracy and establishment individuals, Alfred took the matter into his own hands and having faced obstruction from the 'headmaster', and without any further arguments took his son away from the hostel's school and arranged for him to attend the local school. While this initially caused a number of disagreements and arguments internally, before very long most of the 11-plus age group children were going to that school also, and the subject was closed. From then on, I never looked back and learnt English the natural way - that is, as in Poland, by using it in everyday life rather than by learning it from textbooks. I was communicating with the other children at school in no time at all - although, with the number of refugee children from Montrose College there, it was perhaps easier to stick with them for day to day contact. This convenient state of affairs did not last for very long.
Beaconsfield House - Birchington-on-Sea
It was now obvious that nobody would be returning to the old life in Czechoslovakia for some considerable time and more refugees kept on arriving in the UK week by week. They were Czechoslovaks of every ethnic origin: Czechs, Slovaks, Germans, Jews, Christians, etc etc. By the spring of 1940, another hostel was established and flourishing in Kent, this time at Birchington-on-Sea nearby. Men anxious to join the fight for the liberation of Czechoslovakia had got together to form what the plaque outside the gate of the hostel referred to as the 1st Czechoslowakian (sic) Home. This was at Beaconsfield House in Alpha Road, Birchington - reputedly a previous residence of Benjamin Disraeli. There must have been about 36 of them, ex-Great War soldiers and younger men, reservists from both the Czechoslovak Army and Air Force. By March of 1940, one year after the invasion of Czechoslovakia, we had moved to Birchington. Alfred (in company with the brothers Pick and Wenzel Koutnik) joined the volunteers at Beaconsfield House, while Ethel and Heinz went into rented rooms with Mrs Huntley at 72 Station Road, just up the road from Beaconsfield House.
Birchington-on-Sea offered new stimulation - no longer were we in a large German-speaking hostel, but rather part of a multilingual Czechoslovak community, speaking Czech and German, just as in Ostrava, with new friends to make. That move also, of course, necessitated a change of school for me. I now found myself, in a very modern, new, school that had apparently opened only shortly before the outbreak of war, just across the Council boundary in adjoining Westgate-on-Sea. The school was built on the classic square principle, with a green quadrangle in the middle, but with the novelty of making wide use of glass. When passing the school on the bus it was possible to look right through the school, the two parallel corridors of the square and to see the playing fields at the rear. Also unheard of at the time, the schoolroom blackboards were WHITE, the teachers using blue chalk for writing on them. This school was only a short bus ride, or a longer walk, from Birchington but was well worth it. For the first time, I was on my own, as far as refugee children were concerned, and my progress in learning the English language progressed by leaps and bounds. Thanks for that rapid progress must also go to the school, the pupils and the staff, for once again I had no problems in making new friends.
Our stay at Birchington was not to be a lengthy one. Only two months after we settled there, the Beaconsfiled House volunteers set off for France on 7th May to join the liberation fight. Ethel and Heinz seemed well placed to wait out the war there, but that was not to be so. History records the German breakthrough on the Western Front only one week later, following which things moved quickly with France heading for a collapse and surrender to Germany. Consequently, following the strategic withdrawal from France of the British Expeditionary Force, i.e. the evacuation via Dunkirk, the South Coast of England was declared a 'Protected Area' and all non-essential 'visitors' and particularly aliens, were obliged to leave to find somewhere else to live. On 30th May, Ethel and Heinz once more took a Southern Railway train back to London having booked single tickets to north-west England. In London, having successfully negotiated the Underground on our own for the first time, we made our way to St Pancras, that imposing Victorian wedding-cake edifice and railway station, the likes of which we had never seen before. We boarded a Manchester bound express train of the London Midland and Scottish Railway, the LMS. Our ultimate destination was an, as yet, unknown part of England - the village of Marple in Cheshire, where Hugo, Edith, Eva and their newly-born Thomas were living in a Quakers' hostel for Jewish refugees.
To get to Marple, we had to change at Chinley, north of Buxton, there to pick up a slower, stopping, train to Marple. That journey was quite a memorable one, for having got used to the Garden of England, and the lush, green, countryside, it came as quite a shock, looking out of the window along the way to see the grimy, unattractive, Victorian heritage that was industrial England. There were rows of back to back houses on all approaches to bigger towns en route. What's more, things did not appear to be getting better the further north the train went. Sure, there was open countryside, but that looked uninviting with its grey-black, dry stonewalls in every field. We began to feel if not upset and disappointed, at least quite trepidatious about what we would be finding in Marple and nearby Manchester. In due course, when we arrived, it wasn't bad at all!
So the first phase in England of the lives of Alfred, Ethel and Heinz was over. By this time, in June 1940, letters from Alfred had ceased. No more was heard from him, or any of the others until the first half of July when news came through that survivors of that Czechoslovakian Expeditionary Force to France had landed back safely at Liverpool, off a merchant ship. They had managed to get on to one of the last ships leaving the South of France before the complete take over by the collaborative Vichy government late that June. They had sailed through the Mediterranean, past Gibraltar and round the Middle East, to arrive three weeks later at Liverpool on the 13th July 1940. It is opportune, therefore, to interrupt my progress in England and attempt to put together what little is recorded elsewhere and what fragments I have been able to gather of my father's experience during that first battle for France. This was the third occasion on which he found himself in the army. The first was in the Emperor Franz Josef's army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918. The second time was in the Czechoslovak army in 1938 at the time of the Munich crisis mobilisation, and now, for the third and hopefully last time, with the Czechoslovak Brigade of the French army - but still not within sight of victory - and all this despite his strong pacifist convictions. He did not enjoy talking about this period in his life then or afterwards and, in fact positively avoided doing so.
Ostrava: A Brief History
The Vogel Family
The Slatner Family
The Times of Peace
The Shadows of War
A Polish Interlude
A 'Transient' Refuge in England
Alfred Goes to War
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