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Heinz's Memoirs

Letter to Kerrie

29th January 1992

Dear Kerrie

It was lovely to receive your letter and cassette tape which we both enjoyed. So much so, in fact, that I played it to Mrs Lambie when she visited us on the day it arrived. She was most impressed with the playing and thought that you had a good strong sense of melody and rhythm and that you were doing very well indeed.

I was also very much taken by your project on the Second World War. As you said, I was still quite young when those momentous events were taking place and I certainly remember how we had to escape from Czechoslovakia when the Germans invaded our country in March 1939.

We were very lucky really, because the German invasion of Czechoslovakia was just one of the events leading up to the war, events which started with the rise to power in Germany of the Nazis (a German abbreviation for the NAtional SOZialist party) the leader of which was ADOLF HITLER. The Nazis were intent on taking power in Germany at all costs and, by spreading lies, blamed all their economic problems on the Jews who formed quite a large proportion of the population at the time. They also blamed all problems on their democratic political opponents, such as the Social Democratic Parties and the Communists. They encouraged the population to riot against these and attack these Jews and political opponents with ever growing violence. To this end the Nazis formed the STORM TROOPERS, or BROWN SHIRTS (SA), who encouraged and led these attacks. From these developed the even "better" elite militias known as the BLACK SHIRTS or SS At the same time Hitler also formed the GESTAPO (German abbreviation for GEheime STaats POlicei - Secret State Police). These were led by the notorious Heinrich Himmler and were largely responsible for leading the operations which led to the deaths of millions of Jews, gypsies and other people from countries which they over-ran during the war to come.

Little by little, Hitler managed to over-run, occupy and annex neighbouring land and countries such as Austria in 1936 (I think) and parts of the Czechoslovakian border areas known as the SUDETENLAND, where about half the population were of German origin. This part of the country also contained the well established military defences which persuaded Neville Chamberlain - the then British Prime Minister - together with his French counterpart, to allow Hitler to occupy in the Autumn of 1938, so starting the destruction of Czechoslovakia. This destruction was finally completed in March 1939 when, without anyone's agreement or approval, he occupied the remaining, now defenceless, parts of western Czechoslovakia - that is Bohemia and Moravia. At the same time by agreement with other Fascist elements in the eastern part of Czechoslovakia, in Slovakia, he managed to set up a "puppet" government which was so friendly to him that it did everything he told them to do.

Anyway, at that time we were living in Moravia, in the northern industrial, border, town of Ostrava and I can remember quite clearly March 13th that year, when the German armies rolled into our town in the evening to announce the next day that the whole of Bohemia and Moravia had been taken over by the Germans and declared it henceforth to be a German "PROTECTORATE" - which in effect meant that the independent Czechoslovakia was no more and everyone would have to submit to the Germans.

That was bad news for us, because everyone knew by then how the Jews were being treated in Germany - having their businesses closed down or destroyed, being deprived of their livelihood and sent to special prisons (CONCENTRATION CAMPS) on the slightest pretext or no other reason that they were Jewish or that they were not sympathetic to the Nazi cause of a Germany which would rule the world! My father, your great grandfather (Alfred), had always been politically active in Czechoslovakia and opposed to what the Nazis were doing there and had been trying to do to Czechoslovakia. Consequently, when the Germans invaded our country he had immediately to go into hiding as the Germans had "black lists" of their past opponents whom they would want to put away without further ado. To go into hiding for my father meant going to Prague, the capital of Czechoslovakia, which was a much bigger city. Because he was not known there he would not immediately be found by the Germans. So, while there for a couple of weeks or so he had to make arrangements for his escape before returning to Ostrava from where he would have to do this, going into neighbouring Poland. Ostrava at the that time was probably less than five miles from the Polish border.

So when he returned from Prague, he joined an organised group of men who would be helped across the border at night by a guide who was supposed to know the area well. In actual fact, they managed to get past the German border guards on their way out but were intercepted by the Polish border guards, who would not let them into their country. So they were now faced with the added danger of having to get back in into occupied Czechoslovakia without, this time, being captured by the German border guards. To cut a long story short, they achieved this and my father was back at home in the early hours of the morning, very much shaken by the experience. A couple of weeks later he joined another organised group for a fresh attempt at escaping from German occupied Czechoslovakia, only to find that he was on the same trail as the previous, unsuccessful, one. So, not waiting to be caught by either the Germans or the Poles, he turned back on his own and was once again back home in the early hours of the morning. He must have been getting very worried by now, for sooner or later the Germans would catch up with his name on their black list and would want to find him - and that would have been the end of him, and his family.

Anyway, it was now the second half of April 1939, and more than a month since the German invasion, when he was lucky enough to get to know about a quite different escape route which had been organised to get people like him out of the country and into the somewhat safer Poland. This route involved making use of the coal mines in Ostrava which, being near the polish border, had some mines with entrances on either side as a result of Poland also occupying some border territories at the time of the German occupation of the Sudetenland the previous year.

Thus, one evening in late April he went off, with only a little suit case containing just a few essentials, to the organisers who were to take him and three other people to the coal mine in Ostrava where they were taken underground, to travel on the footplate of the railway engine which was used to transport the coal from the coal face to the lift shaft. It was by this means that they managed to cross the border from German occupied Czechoslovakia into Poland - underground, to surface on the opposite side of the coal mine, in Poland. There, at the gate, special transport had been organised to meet the four escapees and take them to safety (away from the Polish border guards) into Poland. The town where he ended up was Biala-Bielsko, in upper Silesia - which in fact was from where his mother originated some 60 years earlier, when all that part of Europe was in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There he went to stay with some relatives and managed to get the message through to my mother that he had arrived safely and that we were to follow him as soon as we could.

And so, a few days later she was ready to leave with her 11-year-old boy, me, to join my father in Poland. She told me to tell my teacher at school that we were about to go on holiday into the country and that I didn't know exactly when I would be back again at school. "A good idea" he said and hoped we would enjoy it, for he knew enough to realise what "going on holiday" meant.

The next day, after lunch in the early afternoon, my mother and I left our apartment, with all our belongings in it, and only my grandmother - my father's mother - to look after it for the duration, we hoped, as she was unable to come with us.

We got on the tram in the middle of the town and went all the way to the terminus on the edge of town. From there we started to walk through the woods towards the German and Polish border, for it wasn't very far. We must have walked about 15 minutes when we came to the German guards who were most uninterested in a woman and her little boy, apparently out for a walk in the forest. So we got past them without any problems and walked on, perhaps another 200 metres to where the Polish guards were. As we got near there, my mother told me to go and play by the roadside while she talked to the Polish guards to persuade them that we had been out to Ostrava for the day and that we were just returning to our home, which was on the Polish side of the border. This was quite a plausible story after the various changes of country boundaries following the German and Polish moves during these times. However, it appeared that they weren't completely convinced by her story, for she stood there arguing for about an hour without success. Well, an hour is a long time for a little boy to be playing on his own by the side of the road, so being fed up with this I walked over to my mother. When the guards saw me, my mother had to admit that I was with her - and somewhat to her surprise this seemed to convince them that she did indeed belong on the other side of the border and so they waved us through. You can just imagine the relief my mother must have felt, and me also. So we walked as quickly as we could to a public house which she had been told was only a few hundred metres into Poland, and got there in no time at all.

The landlord let us in immediately once my mother had explained our situation and he told us to wait in his back room, out of sight of customers or anyone else. We weren't there very long though, for luckily there was a lorry there which had delivered some goods and was due to return inland within about half an hour. The driver agreed to take us, in the back under the tarpaulins, and delivered us to Biala-Bielsko where we were re-united with my father.

And so it was how we escaped from the Germans. We were lucky, you see, because as a result of my father's anti-Nazi activities before the invasion, he was one of the first people they would have wanted to catch, and it was very urgent that he got out without delay. Those other Jews, who had not been active specifically like my father, had a false sense of security in that, although they knew that they would be persecuted by the Germans and would in due course also have to wear the star of David, nobody could have imagined even at that time that Hitler would embark on a campaign to exterminate all Jews - something he very nearly succeeded in achieving in German occupied Europe later in the war. In fact it was to be almost another year before the Nazis really started moving the Jews from their homes into concentration camps and ghettos as a preliminary to transporting them to extermination camps where they killed some 4 million of them. But that is another story, and one which none of my relatives who stayed behind lived to tell - other than my cousin Elli, who managed to stay in hiding in eastern Slovakia throughout this time, with the help of friends.

But to get back to Biala-Bielsko. From there my father, mother and I travelled further into Poland, to Krakow, where organisations had been set up to help refugees like ourselves. They were organising transport to move the refugees out of Poland before Hitler and the Germans set their sights on that country - which we now know signalled the outbreak of World War 2 on September 3rd 1939, a mere four months after we got there. Fortunately, however, we were not to be there for that long. These organisations were getting the refugees out to the three most helpful countries at that time, which were Canada, Sweden and England - and it was the luck of the draw as to where any particular family ended up. Our name came out of the hat for England and so on June 13th 1939 we embarked on the Polish liner Batory in the Polish port of Gdynia, bound for Dover and our future life in England, where we arrived on 16th June 1939.

Well, you wanted to hear my story, Kerrie, and I bet it's taken a bit longer than you expected - about 2250 words so far - and that's only leading up to the outbreak of the war. I am pleased though that you made me do this, for it's part of our family heritage which is well worth preserving and now that I've started on it I would hope to be able to continue it and fill in some of the detail about your great grandparents as well as the rest of my relations from those pre-war days. The material is there, for on my recent visit to Czechoslovakia with Martin we got my cousin Elli to give us an insight into who's who on my mother's side - a family tree which I am now in a position to draw up. So look out for the continuation of the definitive Vogel story, hopefully, in the not too distant future.

It's been a rather long letter, I know, but perhaps you can extract a little from it for your project at school. Best of luck with that.

Lots of love.


Front page
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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© 2002 Heinz Vogel