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The Times of Peace
Once married, Alfred and Ethel set up their home in Prívoz in the northern outskirts of Moravská Ostrava. They rented a desirable, three-room, first-floor apartment. It was at Nádrazni ulice ("Station Road") no.154 - a smart block of flats, erected during the prosperous days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire They lived there with Fix, their Alsatian dog. It was in these surroundings that baby Heinz first saw the light of day on that Saturday morning, the 18th February 1928.
Although Alfred and Ethel must have left Prívoz to move into the centre of Moravská Ostrava proper before I reached the age of three, I do still have some distinct, though hazy, impressions of those early days. We had a nanny, who dressed in traditional, black, nun-like habit, and who would take me for walks, in the pushchair, in the local park a block or two to the rear of our building. Also in that area lived an aunt from my father's mother's (i.e. Henrietta's) side, who was somewhat higher up the social scale. This aunt, great aunt I suppose, lived in a smart detached house (or villa as such buildings were referred to there), complete with front and rear garden. This was a real sign of prosperity. The residence was even fitted with a high technology, electrically, remotely operated and locked front gate - just like the gated residences in the opulent St George's Hills estate in present day Weybridge. Visitors to this villa rang the bell at the gate and someone would release the door lock from inside the house - and that was about 1930!
Further clear memories, from when I must have been about two or three years of age, past the pushchair stage, was of my mother insisting on walking with me from our flat in Prívoz into town, rather than taking the tram. This walk took us past the big coal mine, the Jindrichuv uhelný dúl/ Heinrich Schacht on the Nádrazni ulice/Bahnhofstrasse. I always remembered this as a long walk, to which I objected to being subjected. That this was indeed a long distance was confirmed when Martin and I visited Ostrava in 1991 and we took that walk in the midday sun. Sadly, or perhaps not so sadly, by 1991 the black coalmine complex was gone. In its place there stood a clean, new, modern hotel complex, with only the pithead lift shaft tower preserved as a monument to the miners of the Ostrava district of long ago. The trams still ran and the walk was a long one - all of 20 minutes!
That walk to the shops and the market place in 'downtown' Ostrava used to take us past the home of Omama Slatner (grandmother Slatner - Emilie) at Nádrazni ulice no.26, on the left. Further along, at the corner on the opposite side at Stodobní ulice no.2, lived Omama Vogel (Henriette). Interestingly both these buildings were still there in 1991, including the cinema approached through the arcade on the left. This is where I would go later with my friends to see the children's Saturday morning matinees of American Westerns, Walt Disney Mickey Mouse cartoons and similar exciting programmes. One clear recollection of these visits to the cinema was the struggle to get your admission ticket, for queuing the English way had not got to that part of the world. In fact, people coming to England from those parts were particularly impressed, not to say puzzled, by this British discipline that got you your ticket, or whatever, requiring nothing more than a little patience.
To get back to the early days, life progressed in a leisurely manner. My father had one of the early, smart, black Škoda saloon cars. He used this regularly on business, when visiting clients in the outlying towns and villages around Ostrava, clients who did not make a habit of frequenting the Palace or Imperial hotels' coffeehouses. Whilst this should have been a convenient way of getting about, the country roads were not yet surfaced with tarmac, as was becoming commonplace in England at that time. Instead, they were mostly unsealed, gravel roads - at times, very uneven, to put it mildly. This meant frequent visits to the garage for servicing, greasing and, most importantly, the tightening of all screws, nuts, bolts and other connections, which had been rattled loose. Those were not the days of 10,000-mile services, nor even 1,000-mile (1,600 kilometres). Services were required more like every couple of hundred kilometres. To cut a long story short, one day, Alfred came home, having disposed of the car as too troublesome a device to tolerate. It was to be more than 30 years before he ventured once again to acquire a car - this time under rather differing motoring conditions, in central London.
Move to Downtown Ostrava
In retrospect, I wonder whether the hassle of owning a car at the time was the only reason for disposing of it. I note this, because shortly afterwards, (probably) in late 1931, we moved into the centre of the town, into a modern, inter-war block of flats at the top of Nádrazni. This was opposite the German theatre and a stone's throw (across the road) from that universal meeting place, the Palace Hotel and, indeed, the Imperial. The flat was in the Art Nouveau style. It was a bright, four-room, apartment, very convenient and very desirable. It is possible that Alfred's job within the company had also changed and no longer entailed the same frequent visits into the surrounding area. This would have put most of his business within walking distance - of the Palace and Imperial's coffee houses and his office on the 'high street', Trída 28 Ríjna, maybe 200 to 300 metres up the road. The block of flats was also much nearer to where my two grandmothers lived. Iincidentally, it was just across the road from where my uncle Erwin lived, with his new wife Rosi and where they lived when their daughter Vera was born in 1935. This state of affairs did not last very long, however, since sadly, as noted earlier, Erwin died a few years subsequently.
Onkel Erwin was but the nearest of our relatives. Across the road, behind the Spaarkassa (National Savings Bank) a short walk away, lived Onkel Sigo, Tante Bertl and Edith and Pauli. They were at Tyršova 17 on the top floor of three or four. Cousin Pauli, as I mentioned, was less than two years older than me and was thus also a close friend. His sister Edith, on the other hand, being more than five years older than me, was someone I looked upon in quite a different light - an admiring light, as someone to be greatly admired in fact.
Further down the town, in the new development opposite the new Town Hall, lived Onkel Hugo and Tante Edith with Eva who, like Vera, was born in 1935. We used to visit all of these aunties and uncles regularly, as well as my Auntie Sophie who had her shop on the high street (Trída 28 Ríjna) and lived with Omama Slatner, together with Elli. Then there was also Käthe and Kurt, whom we tended to see at Omama Slatner's on special occasions like Jewish holidays. Indeed, the Slatners were a large family, spread out across the whole of Ostrava, yet were very much a close-knit family.
In contrast, although I was just as close to Omama Vogel, she was the only relation I had on my father's side at the time. Like me, Alfred was an only child, his mother's relations were across the border in Poland, and his father's three brothers lived at Opava/Troppau some 30 kilometres away - and with them we had very little contact. Omama Vogel used to entertain me by telling me about her earlier days in Poland and even tried to teach me a few words of Polish, particularly those involving the soft . All very elementary, but another little bit of knowledge which was to come in most useful not many years later, when we found ourselves in Poland.
Omama Vogel's apartment, in a pre-First World War block, was a rather smart one, with numerous antiques and antique furniture. One room - the living room - was always referred to as the Biedermeier Zimmer. Biedermeier was a style not generally known in England, but well appreciated in Austro-Hungary during the 19th century apparently. But the most impressive feature of all, to me at least, was a state of the art HMV, wind-up, gramophone player. This was not one of those old-fashioned boxes with an enormous horn sprouting from the top, but one in a beautifully polished mahogany cabinet with a heavy lid on top under which rested the turntable and pick-up arm. On the front of this cabinet were a couple of doors, which one opened to let the sound float out into the room. Omama Vogel also had a good selection of gramophone records. These included the red label (10-inch and 12-inch) HMV series with famous operatic singers of the day - Enrico Caruso and Fleta being but two that stick in my mind. They sang arias like La Donna e Mobile and Neapolitan folk songs, and Schubert Lieder with Richard Tauber and many others. Somewhat surprisingly, I was allowed to play these by myself. Even though I was unable to read them at that stage, I knew exactly which was which from the patterns on the labels. What puzzled me, however, was how these singers managed to get compressed into these flat, black, discs. I just could not understand how those sounds were able to come out of that box. Thinking back now, I also realise that it was there, in my grandmother's parlour, that I first developed my taste for that music - it was the most natural thing in the world, and my tastes certainly developed from there. But that is also why I still have a special affection for Tauber and Schubert and the Italian tenors and Neapolitan folksongs. How such little things can have a lasting effect on one's life.
At home, we lived a comfortable, middle class, Jewish life. Alfred, apart from his insurance job, was very active politically in the local (German) Social Democrat party, as a sideline of which he frequently contributed articles for their weekly newspaper. These articles tended to be political commentary pieces or reviews of the latest productions at the German theatre in Ostrava. He was a keen theatregoer and, indeed, was very well versed in German culture, literature and the proper use of the German language. The writings of Goethe, Schiller, Heinrich Heine, Thomas Mann and such like were part of his cultural foundation and had their places on his bookshelves at home. Music, on the other hand did very little for Alfred - apart from Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus, which probably had more to do with memories of happy days in Vienna than any purer musical appreciation. Orchestral concerts he could never bear to sit through, these being, by his definition, just 'organised noise'. As often as not, Ethel would accompany him to theatrical first nights which he went to review. But otherwise their social life was fairly uneventful, consisting mainly of occasional dinners with friends and acquaintances.
Ethel, on the other hand, had a natural love for music. In her earlier years in Frýdek-Místek, she must have frequently attended operatic performances for she could sing any number of well known arias by Puccini, Verdi and others - in German, for that was the usual performing language there at the time. Opera was considered as theatre, to be enjoyed, rather than as a classic art form to be performed, and appreciated with difficulty, in a foreign language. Clearly, opera was accessible in the 1920's even in provincial little towns like Frýdek-Místek. But then, that was only a few kilometres from the musical culture of Moravia and Hukvaldy, Janácek's home village.
Annual holidays, whilst being taken regularly, were a much simpler undertaking than nowadays. With Czechoslovakia being completely land-locked, indeed its boundaries were largely natural mountainous terrain, people tended to take their holidays in the spas and mountains scattered throughout the lovely countryside. Faraway foreign holidays had not as yet taken off.
Our holidays usually took us by train into the nearby Beskydy mountains, starting at the small inland resort of Ostravice, which boasted some nice hotels and the river Ostravica with its weir and spacious banks, which played a similar part to other peoples' seaside strands and beaches by the sea. For more active breaks we would walk, with rucksacks on our backs, up into wooded mountains from Ostravice to spend a few days at some of the hotels. The highest point in that area was the 1323 metres high Lysá Hora, where there also was a comfortable mountain hotel. We took that walk from Ostravice on numerous occasions, our rucksacks containing all the necessary belongings for the holiday. It was quite an experience, therefore, when more than 60 years later I also returned to those foothills of the Beskydy Mountains at Ostravice with Martin. We savoured lunch at the, no longer smart, hotel opposite the station - a simple lunch of goulash and good local beer - for the princely sum of less than Ł1.00's worth of Czechoslovak Koruny (Crowns) each. Then we retraced some of those steps of 60 years ago. We walked past the small weir at the bottom in which I used to paddle and on into the wooded ascent towards Lysá Hora. The fir trees were still there, but atmospheric pollution had taken its toll. In fact, during the Communist regime after the Second World War, the whole Ostrava region became notorious for its pollution - a problem persisting into the 1990's. Living there in those days 60 years previously was a most uncomplicated life in many ways - at least, it was so for me as a boy.
But back to the more mundane day-to-day happenings in Ostrava. It was from that location at the top of Nádrazni that I also attended my first school on Dubna 30, near the new Town Hall, in the autumn of 1934. That was Form 1 of the German Deutsche gemeine Volks und Mädchenbürgerschule (elementary school). Somewhat to my surprise, that smart, red brick, building was also still there in 1991, though by now it served as a (Czech) technical college. The first day there, 3rd September, was quite an event, as I had not previously been out on my own, outside our greater family that is, having not even attended a kindergarten. Though full of trepidation, I managed to survive that first day, though I did not manage to establish where the lavatories were.
In retrospect, looking back these 60 years in the knowledge of present-day educational systems, this school employed a novel, very modern, approach to the teaching and learning of reading and writing. Whether it was unique to that school, or whether it was common practice in the state schools of the day - at least the German speaking ones - I cannot tell, but it seemed to work well enough. The principle was that instead of trying to teach the young children to recognise the normal characters of the alphabet, they offered a phonetic alphabet consisting of easily drawn straight-line symbols in the first instance. These simple symbols were to be imagined as being made up of matchsticks - straight lines (squares, triangles etc with diagonals of various lengths and inclinations, etc.) - the appearance of which was supposed to be related to the shape of the mouth and tongue when producing the various sounds. The details of any of these are beyond recall, but I do know that these were easily learned and, interestingly, caused no difficulties whatsoever in a class of more than 30 children. I have never come across or heard mention of this system ever since. Furthermore, the transition to conventional characters, reading and joined up writing, by the third term of that first year was achieved very smoothly and without any apparent problems. Consequently, at the end of that first year, the children had no difficulty in reading normally (in German).
This was just as well, for in the following Summer (of 1935), my father's job entailed a transfer to the Company's office in Opava (Troppau), in Silesia, some 30 kilometres west, and I was to change schools, and language - from German to Czech - and learn to read properly.
While Moravská Ostrava had been a bilingual town, with more or less equal numbers of Czech and German speaking people, Opava was much more of a German town - with a predominately German speaking population. By 1935, Hitler had already been established as Reich's Chancellor in Germany for a couple of years. He and the Nazis had considerable support in the border regions of Czechoslovakia from significant parts of that German speaking population - by no means the majority, but enough to make life distinctly uncomfortable. This, clearly, meant that Jewish children did not attend the German speaking schools. Thus, along with the other Jewish children in Opava, I went to the local Czech public (as in state and not private) school, the II Štátní Obecná Škola. This offered a normal environment in which we were to be quite happy. In my case, that also meant this change from German speaking and writing to Czech at school, but I am not aware of any particular problems this might have caused me, initially or subsequently, or that it affected my progress through the school. I had, in any case, been brought up to speak both languages, even though we spoke German in the family. Any problems I might have experienced were certainly not due to any language difficulties I might have had.
The apartment we moved into in Opava was located in what was at that time another desirable area of the town, on the top (2nd) floor of a smart, architect designed, villa - the Villa Warzog in Grätzer Strasse / Hradetská 48, so named after the architect, Herr Warzog. This lovely Art Nouveau white villa stood on elevated ground with its own terraced front garden and rear garden, with a smooth lawn surrounded by flower beds and a vegetable patch at the rear. My mother was ultimately to cultivate the garden very successfully growing redcurrants, cucumbers, peas, beans and other vegetables, as well as flowers. It was a very comfortable place. Herr Warzog himself and his family occupied the first floor. On the ground floor lived a quiet, old, retired couple, the old man having been an officer in the Imperial Austrian army before the First World War and still very much trying to live in the style and with the culture to which he had been accustomed with the old Emperor Franz Josef's Austria.
And so, on 9th October 1935, I entered Form 2 in that school on Beethovená, which was located in a quiet, wooded, parkland area of the town, some 15 to 20 minutes' walk from where we lived. My memories of that are much clearer than Form 1 in Ostrava, from where I don't seem to remember any school friends. In Opava, in my year, we must have had at least half a dozen Jewish children in a class of 36, all largely oblivious to any serious anti-Semitism - though even then some of the Czech children would occasionally refer to one as 'Jew' in that derogatory manner. This was not supposed to happen in politically correct Czechoslovakia and general attitudes were accepted sufficiently for us to be able to complain to our teacher when it did happen. Unfortunately, our particular teacher was not one of the more enlightened (or intelligent?) persons and did nothing about such problems, ignoring our protests, and carrying on as usual, no doubt hoping that the problem would go away. Thinking about this now, it is probably the only thing she could have done, as these offending children were not really anti-Semitic but rather were only reflecting long-standing common, working class, prejudices they heard from less educated adults. And so we lived there, quite happily, even if dark threatening clouds were gathering over all of us in Czechoslovakia.
On balance, everybody mixed quite naturally, but the Jewish children also had the benefit of attending religious education classes, after school, at the rabbi's house once a week, which brought us even closer together as a group. These religion classes were not taken terribly seriously by any of us, but we did manage to learn to read Hebrew and came to understand better what the various holidays signified.
It was during that time also that I had my first experience of developing a special affection for a girl. I wouldn't know whether it was love or what, but our friendship seemed to be important to me, and to her. Unusually for a Jew, her father held a commission in the Czechoslovak army, as a doctor. Dr Goldschmidt had two lovely daughters, Lydia - who was the one in my class - and her sister who was about two years younger.
What happened to Dr Goldschmidt and his family after we left I never found out. Opava was in the Sudetengebiet and was thus in the area handed over to Hitler with the connivance of Neville Chamberlain and the Western allies in the autumn of 1938. By that time, we had moved back to Ostrava while the Goldschmidts had stayed behind. From passing remarks after the war I understood that none of them had survived. Sadly once more, all signs of the Goldschmidts had disappeared when we visited in 1991, although the house in which they had lived, and which I had visited so often, was still. Also still there was the Czechoslovak coat of arms over the front door, signifying that it was still an official army residence.
Those were carefree times for the children and my friends at school seemed to come from all walks of life. For one there was Alois Jablonek, whose father was a poor labourer. He lived not too far off one of my routes to and from school and so the two of us often walked home together. Sometimes at the end of the day, I would stop off at his home, which was always very friendly and cosy. At other times he would come back with me, but he wasn't fully approved of - he was not as clean as he might have been and was not considered to be a good influence on me. However, we did keep up a friendship of sorts.
Much more acceptable to my parents was another boy in my class, a Czech boy, who also lived on the same route home as Alois. His family's way of life was much more akin to ours - his father worked in a bank and may well have been a bank manager, though things like that were never of great interest to me. We used to meet outside school and partake in more cultural activities, such as going to the cinema. Opava, like Ostrava, also had a cinema - only one - which was located on the far side of town, in Katerinky (Katherein).
There was another friend, a Jewish boy, whose father had a sauerkraut factory. This was a real traditional sauerkraut factory with the enormous, wooden, barrels, like the French ones in which the grapes were treated. In these, the shredded cabbage was treated in a similar manner. Teams of women would be treading on the cabbage in their bare feet to create the correct desired consistency. After that, the sauerkraut would be left in these large barrels to ferment (with all the appropriate ingredients added) until it was ready for packaging. That consisted of transferring the sauerkraut into normal, smaller sized, barrels with a heavy wooden lid that fitted inside the barrel, from which it was then sold in the shops. There, as the sauerkraut was gradually used up, the wooden lid would rest on the cabbage, with a heavy weight, or brick on top of it, to keep it fresh. The special treat for me, of course, was to be able to climb into these large vats and help myself to the remains of this luscious, juicy, fresh sauerkraut. My friend, somehow, did not derive quite the same pleasure from this, but that did not stop us from playing around there occasionally.
And then there was Lydia, of course.
Opava was, and still is, quite a small town, but it had all the facilities expected in a town. We made good use of these - such as that cinema, a theatre, two department stores, parks and, in the winter, open air ice rinks.
One of the two Opava department stores was Hermann und Vogel, the Vogel half being one of my grandfather's three brothers. Hermann und Vogel was an old-fashioned shop, with those cash dispensers that shot capsules along wires across the store, and was located on two floors in a building probably not purpose built. But it had a good reputation. I, of course, disgraced myself on an occasion that I was never allowed to forget. Evidently, when asked by my uncle how I liked their shop I replied expressing a clear preference for their main competitors Breda und Weinstein, who were rather bigger and carried on their business in a purpose built, modern, multi-storey building at the other end of the town. But Breda und Weinstein was a more impressive shop. Hermann und Vogel has long since disappeared - destroyed by fire, I believe, during the fighting there in the closing stages of the Second World War. Breda und Weinstein still exists to this day, though now bearing a different name and without that smartness it exuded in the 1930's.
But to get back to my not very distinguished school days in Opava. The elementary schools had five forms, and at Opava I went through my second and third year there. It was common practice for the form master or mistress to stay with the one class throughout the five years as the pupils progressed through the school. I was unfortunate to have a (Mrs?) Marie Vecerková, with whom I did not get on at all well -our feelings being mutual. My mother felt it her duty periodically to visit my teacher, dreading every time what she was going to hear. I don't think that I was particularly naughty, but I did have a rather loud and distinct voice and thus the common complaint was that whenever Paní Vecerková entered the classroom, whom could she hear above everyone else, but Vogel. Looking back at my school reports from there, by the time I got into the 3rd Form I had received a "2" grade in behaviour - a terrible indictment. I should point out here that grading in subjects was on a scale out of "5", "1" being good, "5" almost deserving of expulsion. Thus my "2" was not good news. I also notice that while in Form 2, I rated 1's and 2's in equal proportions. By the following year, not only did I have that 2 for behaviour, but I had 3's in language (Czech), drawing and writing. The only 1's were in religion (which she could not judge as I had that out of school), German - which we spoke at home - geography and arithmetic. There were 2's in something called citizenship doctrine and education (Obcanská nauka a výchova - presumably something akin to the 'citizenship' classes under consideration in this country), singing, physical education and (boys') practical work. Not a very distinguished record - but I was happy. The last date on my report (from Form 3) is 26th June 1937.
That summer holiday in Opava was our last one there. The political situation was deteriorating rapidly, in so far as the Sudeten German Nazis, led by Henlein, were getting more threatening in the border regions - and Opava was rather too close to these for comfort. To add to all this, war clouds were gathering strongly even as early as 1937. A few air raid shelters were being constructed - not enough if the need for them had arisen at the time - and much emphasis was placed on the danger of poison gas warfare. The shelters that did exist were equipped with heavy curtains, which at the first signs of danger were intended to be soaked in vinegar, which was said to help keep the poisonous (mustard?) gases out of the shelter.
No secrets were made of the horrors of war, for not only was there that threat from Nazi Germany, but Czechoslovakia also provided a welcome haven for many refugees from the Spanish Civil War (as well as from Austria and Germany). These Spanish refugees were able to give first-hand accounts of their experiences, covered in considerable graphic detail, of what such conflicts with German involvement meant. In any case, the callous destruction of Guernica by the German Air Force on 26th April, 1937, had received wide press coverage not only in Czechoslovakia, but world wide, so there was no question of not believing what one heard. War was certainly not considered as something of a remote possibility, but rather a distinct likelihood by early in 1937. Though I had not suffered fear in darkened rooms as a child, by this time in Opava I would not have been the only one to experience such fears in the night. These were fears of the horrors of war and destruction and death as I looked down at night onto the quiet town from our top floor apartment; and those fears were not just childish fears.
Return to Ostrava
Either by good fortune, or more likely by design as I suspect, the autumn of 1937 found us back in Ostrava and another change of school. This time there was no question of going back into a German school. I was enrolled in a pleasant school not 10 minutes walk from where we now lived, on Trída 28 Ríjna number 20, where we had another nice three-room apartment on the second floor. This was in an apartment-block right opposite the Coxanstallt - the coking plant attached to the largest coal mine in the town, and which provided free district central heating for the houses across a large area in the vicinity.
Our move must have taken place during the school summer holidays, during which time Omama Vogel went for a holiday in a nearby mountain resort and took me with her for a change - a pleasant change. After about a week there, some busybody of an acquaintance of hers, who also happened to be there, asked me whether I would like a lift home in his precious car, to which I readily agreed. My grandmother made no efforts to dissuade me, thinking no doubt that I was homesick, and let me go with him. This holiday thus came to an abrupt end when he dropped me off outside our apartment block and I made my way home, up the stairs. Arriving there was something of a comedown, to put it mildly. My grandmother returned, on her own, a week later.
The summer holidays over, I started at my new school at the start of a new school year - which would have been September 1937. I was faced with a young male teacher, aged around his mid thirties, who was, naturally, interested to see my last report from the previous school on which, sticking out like a sore thumb was that "2" for behaviour.
"What's this?" he asked, or words to that effect, to which I could only reply, "It was that woman schoolmistress". "Oh yes," he agreed, with a knowing smile on his face, "It always is!" But it must have been, for there, at his school, I had no problems and when my mother finally got up courage to visit him and find out how her boy was doing, much to her surprise, she received a glowing report. But then, he must have been a good teacher; he was having to cope with a class of 40; and all boys at that.
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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