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My Mother, Ethel, and the Slatner Family
My mother, Ethel (Etelka in Czech), was born on 6th December 1899 in the small village of Velké Kuncice pod Radhostem (Kuncice pod Ondrejníkem since 1925) in central northern Moravia. Her father Leopold was of German/Hungarian origin, born in Slovakia on 2nd November 1850. When he married Ethel's mother, he was already a widower with four children, making his living off a small farm in Kuncice.
His second wife, Ethel's mother and my maternal grandmother, was Emilie, nee Altmann, some fifteen years his junior, born on 7th May 1864. There is no evidence that the Altmanns were anything other than local to that area of Moravia. Leopold and Emilie were married in 1892 and remained on the farm in Kuncice until the turn of the century, by which time Emilie had borne him four children - two boys, Erwin and Otto, and two girls, Sophie and Ethel.
Presumably to improve their standard of living and to be able better to support their growing family, the Slatners moved some 25 kilometres east, to the nearby town of Frýdek Mistek, (which in turn is some 20 kilometres south of Ostrava). There, Leopold Slatner started, or acquired, a grocery and general store. This, as it turned out, did not so much provide an income as something to live off for the large family, which ultimately comprised ten children. Once in Frýdek Mistek, Emilie also had Olga, who was born in 1902 and, the baby of the family, Hugo, who came along in 1905. Leopold's four children from his first marriage were Charlotte, Sigmund, Heinrich and Wilhelm. By all accounts Leopold, Emilie and the children lived together as a happy and close-knit family, no distinctions existing between these ten (half) brothers and sisters. In this extended Slatner family of my five aunts and uncles and four step-aunts and step-uncles, I got to know only a relatively small number.
Charlotte, who was the oldest, born in 1887, I never knew. She married a cousin of hers, Josef Zlattner from Zagreb. Sadly, Josef died of the Spanish 'flu in Budapest in 1918 and Charlotte in turn died in Zagreb two years later, at the early age of 32. They left behind their only daughter, Elli, who was then at the tender age of seven. Following her mother's death, Elli found herself, unhappily, in the hands of an unsympathetic guardian in Zagreb. Luckily, that situation did not persist for too long. It was arranged for young Elli to move in with Leopold and Emilie, her grandparents, to be brought up there under much happier surroundings. In the circumstances my mother, then in her twenties, became very much involved in her upbringing and Elli came to look on her as a second mother.
Uncle Zigmund, Sigo, (born in 1888) I did know well. He was married to Auntie Bertl and had a tobacconist's shop in Ostrava. They had two children - Edith, who was born in 1922, and Pauli, four years later who was thus nearest my age and consequently my most intimate, closest, cousin and friend. Edith on the other hand, was significantly older than me at that age and always made a fuss of me, as a result of which I developed something of a crush on her. The Sigo and Bertl Slatners lived on the top floor of a four-storey apartment block in the centre of town, not far from the shop, which was just off the market place. We frequently visited them, both at home and in the shop and also met up at my grandmother's home, as all of these places were within easy walking distance from where we lived.
Heinrich died of cancer, in his forties, in Ostrava in 1931, having been in the antiques business - possibly in Vienna where his only daughter, Käthe, was born in 1909. By all accounts, Heinrich was full of charm, generous to a fault, and treated his stepbrothers and stepsisters like his own. He certainly found a special spot in Ethel's heart, and Alfred could not speak too highly of him. His daughter Käthe was a gifted linguist and emigrated to England following the German occupation in March 1939. She readily found a place at the BBC, monitoring German broadcasts during the war. Käthe married Walter Brief, another refugee, in London in 1940. They set up home in Slough and had a son, Johnny. Käthe, however, also seemed to carry the curse of the Slatners, as she died, in 1942.
Wilhelm (born about 1890 at Kuncice) died young in the First World War as a soldier in the Austrian army. All that is left of him in terms of memories is a faded picture in Ethel's photograph album of this young man in Austrian army uniform.
Of the Slatner children born to my grandmother, Sophie the oldest, born in 1893, never married and was to have a women's undergarments shop in central Ostrava.
The second was Erwin, born in 1895, who married Rosi - a catholic woman from Vienna - in 1932. They had a daughter, Vera, who was born in 1935. Erwin was involved in an egg wholesale business, but sadly died suddenly in 1936, at the early age of 41. Rosi and Vera subsequently moved to Rosi's hometown, Vienna, before 1939. They settled down and survived the war, keeping their Jewish connections secret.
Otto was the third of my grandmother's children. He was born in 1897, married Nora (Traubner) and had a son Kurt, who was born in 1922. Otto died even younger than Erwin, in his early 30's. Nora and Kurt remained in Ostrava after Otto's death, and I would meet them occasionally at my grandmother's home.
Then came Etelka, my mother, who was born in 1899, followed by Olga in 1902, by which time the Slatners were living in Frýdek. Olga married Ernst and, sadly, she too died, of cancer, at a mere 22 years of age, in Ostrava.
Finally came Hugo - the youngest. He was born at Frýdek in 1907 and was to live to 1964, when he died, in New York, of a sudden heart attack. He married Edith (Elsner). They had Eva (Eve), born in Ostrava in 1935, and Thomas, born at Marple, Cheshire, in England on 1st May 1940.
So, out of that family of ten children, I really only knew three uncles - Sigo, Erwin and Hugo - Auntie Sophie, and my cousins Elli, Kurt, Edith, Pauli, Vera, Eva and Thomas. In retrospect, the Slatners were a most unlucky family, too many of them dying too young, only Hugo, Ethel and Elli making it past the age of 50. One wonders nowadays whether there might not have been some environmental pollution effect that caused so many of them to succumb to cancer at such an early age, particularly as that part of Czechoslovakia was to become notorious for its extreme pollution problems during the Communist era.
Grandfather Leopold, however, did make it to the grand old age of 79, dying in Frýdek in 1929 - but then he had never lived in the polluted atmosphere of Ostrava. By all accounts, Leopold had been a strong and loyal admirer of the old Emperor Franz Josef. He would have classified himself as of German nationality - perhaps not surprisingly so, as he was some 68 years of age at the time of the foundation of the Republic of Czechoslovakia. Following his death, Emilie and the surviving family, including Elli, moved to Ostrava, which was where I caught up with her.
My maternal grandparents' family home was also a traditional Jewish home, following observance of the Friday evening shabbes (Sabbath), the candles, the barches and all the other little activities that went with that life. They were Jews; like so many, they observed the traditions without being strictly religious. Being Jewish was not primarily having the Jewish religion, but rather following Tradition as the milkman Tevye it put so well in Fiddler on the Roof, that marvellous musical of the 1960/70s, based on the stories by Sholom Aleichem. Being Jewish was about belonging to the Jewish community, the Jewish fraternity, though not, then, thought of as a nationality. It is perhaps analogous to ethnic grouping in modern-day parlance, but even that does not describe it properly. This is clearly an ambiguous situation for Jews, but is nevertheless one that defies definition, a problem that persists to this day. Yes, they did observe all the big Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and even managed to fast for most of the 24 hours on those occasions. Achievement of this fast was greatly aided by a large, festive, meal the night before and staying in bed the following day until past midday. They also observed some of the dietary rules without being orthodox, more out of a long instilled habit and tradition. Ethel certainly was to be slightly squeamish about eating pork for the rest of her life - although smoked ham and bacon seemed to be a different matter years later. But being Jewish was good and it was comforting and you moved in circles in which you knew you belonged.
My mother had professional training in millinery, but never, to my knowledge, practised it or, for that matter, ever left home before she was married. Where and how exactly Ethel met Alfred I am unsure. I have always understood that Alfred came across her on one of his political excursions from Ostrava in the mid 1920's. Like so many thinking, progressive, young men at the time, Alfred harboured strong Marxist, socialist, even communist, ideals - and he retained strong socialist political convictions throughout his life. In those sedate environments of Frýdek Mistek, Alfred's revolutionary ideals must have taken a little getting used to and his in-laws-to-be seemed to be very patient and understanding in accepting him. Little did anyone know at the time that these very convictions would ultimately be instrumental in saving him and his family from the horrors of the Holocaust. Be that as it may, he did do a lot of commuting between Ostrava and Frýdek in his courtship days, which lead to their engagement on the 18th October 1924 and marriage on 23rd May 1926.
Having visited the Jewish State Museum in Prague in May 1942 to find out what had happened to my relatives during the war, I received a letter from Anita Franková, herself a survivor of Auschwitz, giving the following information.
My grandmother Emilie, aged 77, was transported to the Terezín ghetto (Theresienstadt) on 20th July 1942. From there she was transported to Auschwitz on 15th December 1943.
Sofie, aged 58, was transported to the Terezín ghetto on 8th September 1942. From there she was transported to Auschwitz on 15th December 1943 by the same transport as her mother.
Otto's son Kurt, aged 21, was transported to the Terezín ghetto on 10th August 1942 and from there was deported to Auschwitz 6th September 1943.
Uncle Sigo was to end up being arrested by the Germans on 17th October 1939. He was deported by the first Jewish transport from the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, and dispatched from Ostrava to Nisko-on-the-San, two years before the beginning of regular deportations to Terezín. This transport contained only men between 16 and 70 years of age from the districts of Ostrava and together with the second, on 26th October 1939, numbered altogether 1,291 people. The Nisko camp was abolished in April 1940. Of the initial number of deportees, 460 returned to their homes, only to be deported subsequently, mostly in September 1942, to the ghetto of Terezín. Part of the remaining inmates of the Nisko concentration camp perished directly in the camp, part tried to escape across the Polish-Soviet border. Many of them were driven by the SS guards to this border by force, and then were shot at from both sides. Those who succeeded in crossing the border passed through Soviet camps. Those that did not perish in them subsequently joined the Czechoslovak military unit in Buzuluk. 123 of those who had not been killed during the war returned home after the war. Sigo, therefore, was either shot crossing the border or died later in the USSR.
Bertl, Edith and Pauli were deported to Terezín on 30th April 1942 and from there to Treblinka on 22nd October 1942. As Treblinka was exclusively an extermination camp, it can be assumed that they perished in the gas chambers immediately on arrival.
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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