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Heinz's Memoirs

Chapter 1

Ostrava, Czechoslovakia: A Brief History

To begin at the beginning, I was born to my parents, Alfred and Ethel in the early hours of a cold Saturday morning on 18th February 1928 in the north-east Moravian town of Moravská Ostrava in Czechoslovakia. They had been married for a couple of years and lived a comfortable life typical of Jewish middle class people of the time - nice, three-room apartment in a good part of town, good profession, culturally well placed and, last but not least, an Alsatian/German shepherd dog by the name of Fix.

Otherwise known as Mährisch Ostrau in German, this was one of the bilingual towns of Czechoslovakia. The German language, a relic of the old Habsburger Austro-Hungarian Empire, was widely spoken, particularly by the better educated. They had had to be fluent in the language to command good employment under the 300-ear Austrian rule of the Czech provinces of Bohemia and Moravia.

In the new Republic of Czechoslovakia, born after the First World War on the 28th October 1918, Ostrava was an important industrial complex - with the Ostrava-Karviná coalfields at the centre of the Moravian/Silesian coal basin and heavy industries based on steel, as well as a large chemical industry. This, indeed, had also been the case before the formation of Czechoslovakia as this had been part of the industrial heartland of the old Emperor's empire. Reference books also record that Ostrava is located near the confluence of the Odra (Oder) and Ostravica rivers and is important as a transportation hub and leading metallurgical centre. Moravská Ostrava, along with Slezká Ostrava and other new communities is nowadays incorporated in greater Ostrava. It has iron- and steel-rolling mills, boiler and power plants, and railway workshops. Aluminium alloys, chemicals, drugs, synthetic gases, plastics, petroleum products, building materials, apparels, ceramics, furniture and food products are all manufactured there. This was also so during my formative years, except, of course for new products, such as plastics and aluminium alloys, which had yet to arrive on the scene. On the other hand, one was very much aware of the coalmines, which were scattered far and wide - starting virtually from the centre of the town. The State College of Mining and Metallurgy, which was founded in 1716, is also located in Ostrava to this day.

Mährisch Ostrau, founded in 1267, contains the site of the 13th-century Wenceslaus Church and the 17th-century Old Town Hall. Coal mining started there in 1767. Other than that there remains little of old, historical or architectural interest, as the town only really grew up during the 19th-century industrial revolution. Its population in 1991 was some 327,000, although in 1939 it will have been somewhat less, perhaps 250,000. Its historical importance is so insignificant, that 19th century maps rarely show it, concentrating instead on the much smaller, but older established Silesian capital of Opava (Troppau), some 30 kilometres to the west.

However, Ostrava is where I was born and to me, at the time it was a most exciting place on earth. My strongest, longest, enduring memory is of the coalmines, which pervaded every part of the town. There were the usual pitheads, not only in the surrounding countryside and districts of the town, but also in the very heart of Ostrava. The Palace Hotel, with its flourishing coffee-house, one of the main focus points of the social and business life of the town, was in the very centre of the town and yet, there, right behind it was an enormous coal mining and coke manufacturing plant. This had not just the usual pit head lift shaft erections, but also an enormous array of cable cars carrying coal to the coke processing plant and or to the slag heaps further out. These fascinated me enormously and it was just a short walk from across the road of our last apartment to be able to roam there at will. The town had a bustling shopping centre and market place, with much traffic - cars, trams, buses, lorries, but little in the way of horse-drawn vehicles.

Facing the Palace Hotel was the Bahnhofstrasse, or Nádrazni Ulice, leading past both my grandmothers' houses, past another pithead towards the district of Prívoz, where Alfred and Ethel lived when I was born. Trams coming up the Bahnhofstrasse from Prívoz could turn left, up the Hauptstrasse (High Street) towards the market place and that 17th-century Old Town Hall. From there they would make their way past the modern, glass and steel, Bata shoe department store and on towards the bridge over the river leading to Slezká Ostrava or Schlezisch Ostrau (or even Polnish Ostrau in even older, Austrian, days). Before reaching the bridge, however, the trams and most of the traffic would turn left again and on towards the new, very modern, art noveau, town hall and that part of the new residential district of the town built since the end of the First World War and the foundation of Czechoslovakia.

Slezká Ostrava, in contrast to Moravská Ostrava, was not trendy. In fact it was positively underdeveloped and largely ignored by the more prosperous parts of the local population. It did, however, have one very important social asset - Slezká Ostrava had a football team and football ground and on Saturdays people would drift there to support what was, in fact, the local football team. This team has graduated these days to being the Ostrava Football Club. Slezká Ostrava's football team was not very distinguished, but my father liked seeing them play and, of course, I would go along too. There we could see such superior teams as Sparta and Slavia from Prague, Kladno from another Bohemian industrial area and numerous others in the league, the names of which have long since been erased from my memory.

Going back to that traffic junction by the Palace Hotel, trams coming from Prívoz and turning right there, as they do to this day, would be heading towards Vitkovice and the great steel works along the Trída 28 Ríjna (Avenue of 28th of October - Czechoslovakia's independence day). This was also the route past that coke manufacturing installation that I could see from our window in the late 1930's and, further along, past the railway station heading out towards Frydek-Mistek and the Jewish cemetery, further up the road. The site of the coke plant looks neglected these days some 60 years after our departure, the cable cars have long since gone and, before you get to that small railway station on the left, the road there now boasts a flyover/road interchange, which largely obstructs that building in which we had our last flat. The Jewish cemetery disappeared during the German occupation, presumably, and no attempts had been made by the early 1990s to erect a memorial where it once was. The great steel works of Vitkovice have also suffered from the depression following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and looked positively derelict in places on my first visit there in 1991.

Taking a longer view backwards, it is worth remembering how the formation of Czechoslovakia came about. Having been under the German yoke of Austria for about 300 years, by the beginning of the 20th century the people were prepared for a battle of liberation from the subjugation of Austria and complete national independence. The Great War of 1914-1918 decided the issue. The Czech and Slovak soldiers in the Austro-Hungarian army went over to the Allies and, under the political leadership of Thomas Garigue Masaryk, formed the famous Czech Legions fighting side by side with the Allies on all the chief fronts - in France, in Italy and in Russia.

The victory of the Allies thus brought all these conflicts to a head. On 28th October 1918 the former Czech Crown Lands of the Austro Hungarian Empire were set free within the territorial limits that they had enjoyed under the last Habsburg rulers. There were, however a few frontier adjustments in south-eastern Bohemia (the districts of Ceské Velenice), in northern Silesia (the district of Hlucín), and southern Moravia in the district of Valtice, which had a predominantly German population and would all contribute to the problems which came to a head some 20 years later. Liberated Slovakia joined the Czechs by a proclamation of the Slovak National Council on 30th October 1918, confirming Czechoslovak unity and declaring, in accordance with the principle of self-determination, that the Slovaks had ceased to form part of the Hungarian State. They had already shown the same spirit as a people in the part that they had played in the fighting of the Czechoslovak armies abroad.

The people of Carpathian-Ruthenia (Podkarpatská Rus) secured their independence at the same time, and expressed their wishes through prominent countrymen of theirs in the United States. A plebiscite was held among Carpathian-Ruthenians living in the USA and 70% of them voted in favour of union with the Czechoslovak Republic. The population at home voluntarily associated itself with this decision.

The Peace Conference agreed to the wishes of the overwhelming majority of the nation, and on 10th September 1919, a treaty was signed at St Germain-en-Laye, Article 10 of which laid down the designation of the liberated area. The extent of the Czechoslovak Republic was at last defined, permanently as was thought at the time. A final adjustment was made after the Czechoslovak-Polish conflict in 1920, during which both States submitted the case to arbitration. The arbitration award divided the Tesín territory and made some small alterations in the northern frontier with Poland. This, finally, was the Czechoslovak Republic, whose Independence Day of October 28th is celebrated to this day in the Czech Republic. All these minor boundary 'corrections' and 'adjustments' were, sadly, to contribute to the break up of the Republic as a result of the infamous Munich agreement of 1938. Following that annexation of the Sudetenland to Hitler's Germany, both Poland and the Hungary were to jump at the opportunity to take over the other areas covered by those 'corrections' and 'adjustments' of the 1919/20 period.

Unlike in the United Kingdom, all Czechoslovak citizens also declared their 'nationality', a distinction brought about not necessarily by an individual's mother tongue, but also, partly, by their ethnic/cultural origins. Thus the composition of the 15 million population on this 'nationality' basis was as follows: Czechoslovaks 70.7%; Germans, numbering 3.2 millions, 22.3%; Hungarians, numbering 700,000, 4.8%; Jews claiming Jewish nationality 1.3%; Poles 0.6% and Gypsies 0.2%. The Gypsies, numbering some 50,000, were scattered over various parts of the country, but were most numerous in the east. The seeds of future conflict were thus clearly sown, though it took the venom of Hitler to make these germinate in the late 1930s.

By current UK standards, Czechoslovak equates to British, while the 'minorities' do not have an equivalent. 'Ethnic origin' would not describe the 'nationalities' within Czechoslovakia, as the great majority of these people had lived there for many generations. Thus my father declared himself Czechoslovak and not Jewish nor even German, even though German was his mother tongue.


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