The Shadows of War
The Munich Crisis and the German invasion
October 1938 - April 1939
The political situation had been deteriorating in 1936 all over Czechoslovakia, and Europe as a whole. Moravská Ostrava was not oblivious to these ever growing problems. Nazis were conspicuously around in numbers - not in overwhelming numbers, but those not in sympathy with them were conscious of their threatening presence. They did not wear uniforms, nor even black or brown shirts, except at special demonstrations. Nevertheless, we recognised them when we saw them - how, or by what signs it is really difficult to explain. But recognise them we did - probably mostly by their arrogant, provocative, demeanours. I was wise enough by then (at the age of nine or ten) to realise that you were well advised to keep out of their way, particularly if you were on your own. Ostrava was not a small town - the population now is about 300,000 and must thus have been well in excess of 100,000 even in 1938. But at the same time it was small enough for individual threatening Nazi sympathisers to be remembered and recognised and vice versa. One such young man in particular has remained firmly engraved on my memory. We had made eye contact on a number of occasions and although he never actually tried to harm me, the sight of him frightened me greatly and I would take care to cross the road before I had to pass him in the street.
That year of 1938 in Ostrava was, of course, the year of Munich and the now generally recognised betrayal of Czechoslovakia by the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, and his 'diplomatic friends' in England and France. Even though I was too young to appreciate the details of what was going on, I can well remember everybody's utter feeling of depression, defeat and desertion by our 'friends' when it was widely reported that The Times newspaper in London had put forward the British 'solution' to the 'Sudeten Problem'. This was, of course, by advocating the appeasement of Hitler, and the surrender to him what he was demanding. People at home could not believe that the democratic Republic of Czechoslovakia could really be asked to hand over all its border regions to Nazi Germany. These Sudenten areas contained the mountainous regions of the Republic's natural defences against aggression, which had been strongly reinforced, by modern military defences. It was widely understood that these reinforced natural defences would provide a very useful obstacle against German attacks, in the face of which the Czechoslovak army and air force could be expected to hold out long enough until the expected help arrived from our Western allies, France in particular. Furthermore, Czechoslovakia, alone amongst the Slav countries, also looked upon the USSR as a friend and was expecting to receive assistance from that quarter - in spite of the fact that the Soviet forces would have had to cross unfriendly Polish territory in order to come to Czechoslovakia's assistance.
However, the political situation as we now know was not that simple. France was unsure of her military strength. Germany had been rearming since 1933, and was perceived to be well equipped with modern weapons. It also had the advantage of recent experience in the Spanish Civil War where German strength had been well demonstrated in action, on the side of the Fascists under the leadership of General Franco. France was therefore looking for a plausible excuse to relieve herself of her treaty obligations to Czechoslovakia. Britain, in turn, did not have any such direct obligations to Czechoslovakia but would have had to support France in the event of war. Britain's government did not feel inclined to get involved in another war. As we now know, it grossly overestimated the strength of Hitler's forces in spite of Britain's relative unpreparedness. Furthermore, as Neville Chamberlain so graphically described it to his own and his country's discredit, Czechoslovakia was "a far off country about which we (Britain) knew little." He, therefore, announced in the House of Commons that Lord Runciman (a rich ship owner, then the owner of Eigg in the Hebrides) would go to Czechoslovakia 'in response', Chamberlain claimed quite untruthfully, to a request from Czechoslovakia. The object of this visit was to go and assess the strength of the case Hitler was advocating with regard to 'liberating' his oppressed German subjects in the Sudeten border regions - the so-called Sudetenland.
Mobilisation - War Imminent?
Hitler was not to be appeased, however. The strength of Czechoslovak defences forbade a sudden spring so Hitler had to resort to intimidation to isolate the country before moving in. And so it was that events took their destined course when, on 22nd September 1938, Chamberlain attended the historic conference at Godesberg in Germany to meet Adolf Hitler in a final attempt to resolve his demands on Czechoslovakia. Things did not go at all well and it was obvious that Hitler had no intention of giving way. In fact his demands grew by the hour. President Eduard Beneš, who was excluded from these vital discussions about his country, could only appeal at home for calm and unity as German provocations were orchestrated in the Sudetenland.
"By late in the evening of September 23rd Hitler's latest demands were transmitted to the Czechoslovak Government, who met at the castle (Hradcany) at 8.00 p.m. The President, who was presiding in person, declared his conviction that war with Germany was now certain and, that being so, he proposed a general mobilisation of the Armed Forces of the Republic. This proposal was accepted and at 10.30pm the Prague Radio announced that the President of the Republic had ordered the mobilisation of all classes up to the age of forty.
"The effect was electric. Within a few hours the Government was able to declare that the Republic was ready for war. Within three or four days about 29 Divisions with all military services, admirably trained, admirably equipped, and admirably armed answered the ravings of that disappointed maniac in Berlin... Besides that another half-million men were standing by, ready for the call to arms."
(Dr Beneš by Compton MacKenzie, 1946)
Thus, on 23rd September 1938 my father, Alfred found himself going to war for the second time in his life. The first time having been in 1917, when he found himself in the Austro-Hungarian Imperial Army, reputedly helping to defend parts of Polish Silesia by guarding an important railway line, that had not seen a train since the outbreak of war. He fulfilled those duties properly though not very heroically, enthusiastically, or with any conviction. This time, however, things were very different and he reported for service immediately with strong convictions for the cause in spite of his determined pacifism.
At the same time, with the prospect of an imminent war, those women and children who were able evacuated the vulnerable towns into the surrounding countryside and villages. Ethel, without hesitation, packed a few clothes for herself and her 10-year-old son and made for the country. In her case, the obvious and instinctive place to head for was her place of birth - the small village of Velké Kuncice pod Radhostem, some 30 kms from Ostrava, on the other side, south-west of Frýdek. My recollections of this excursion are quite vague - but it did involve taking the train from the small Ostrava station nearby, going to Frýdek, from where a bus took us to Kuncice. Once there, Ethel made for a small farm, which she evidently remembered from her younger days, to ask whether they could put us up - temporarily. This seemed to be readily agreed and we settled down there for an uncertain future. These fears, of course, were quite excessive as it turned out. The Czechoslovak nation never did get an opportunity to defend its homeland against the German aggressors. To quote from Winston Churchill's memoirs:
"Thus for the third time Mr Chamberlain flew to Germany (at Hitler's invitation, along with Signor Mussolini, of Italy, and M Daladier, of France.) No invitation was extended to Russia. Nor were the Czechs themselves allowed to be present at the meeting. The Czech Government had been informed in bald terms on the evening of the 28th September 1938 that a conference of the representatives of the four European Powers (i.e. Great Britain, France, Germany and Italy) would take place the following day (at Munich). Agreement was reached between "The Big Four" with speed. The conversations began at noon and lasted till two o'clock the next morning. A memorandum was drawn up and signed at 2.00 a.m. on the 30th of September. The Sudetenland was to be evacuated in five stages beginning on October 1, and to be complete within 10 days... The document was placed before the Czech delegates who had been allowed to come to Munich to receive the decisions."
The Gathering Storm
by Winston Churchill, Chapter XVII
The war that never was was over and "Thus did Hitler finally become the undisputed master of Germany and the path was clear for the great design."
When, after his return from Munich, Neville Chamberlain waved this document at the waiting crowd from a first-floor window at No.10 Downing Street, he said, "This is the second time in our history that there has come back from Germany to Downing Street 'peace with honour'. I believe it is peace in our time."
A subsequent leader in The Manchester Guardian saw this differently:
"No one in this country who examines the terms under which Hitler's troops begin their march into Czech-Slovakia today can feel other than unhappy... Politically Czech-Slovakia is rendered helpless, with all that means to the balance of forces in Eastern Europe, and Hitler will be able to advance again when he chooses, with greatly increased power."
Time has shown the wisdom of that comment, for little more than six months later the rest of Czechoslovakia was dead.
Alfred returned from the army some 10 days after signing on with all those other patriotic citizens of the day. "That's the second war I've lost - not bad for a convinced pacifist," he remarked bitterly when he came home. As we shall see in due course, he was to suffer the defeat of a third army he joined (in the lead up to the fall of France in 1940) before he was finally to be on the winning side. This, of course, was his return to Czechoslovakia in 1945 alongside the US General Patton's 8th Army. But even that victory was to have its bitter aftertaste. After demobilising in the UK in 1946 he was never again to return to the land of his birth. This was the land for which he cared so deeply and for which he had spent more than five years of his life (now in his 40's) in the army in order to be able to take part in its liberation from German oppression.
After this defeat at Munich in 1938, things were never to be the same again. Life did manage to continue in what was left of Czechoslovakia, even if things were difficult in many unexpected ways. An example of this is the cunningness with which Germany chose to define the Sudetenland it was claiming. The new borders, as agreed by the Western 'allies', cut across numerous main railway lines and trunk roads making travel in the Republic very tortuous at times. Alfred continued his insurance activities, Ethel ran the home and I continued at the school in Podebranova ulice, this time with, apparently, exemplary good behaviour.
Time, however, was running out and people, Jewish people in particular, were very conscious of this. Private English language lessons suddenly became the vogue. Possible foreign havens were sought - not just in the obvious places like the USA, Palestine, France, Scandinavia and Britain, but also unlikely places such as Java, Borneo, Sumatra and even in the Caribbean, the Central American Dominican Republic in particular, for some reason. The only question regarding the latter was where Dominica actually was, for nobody seemed to know. Nevertheless, it was looked upon as being a highly desirable place to which to escape.
As for those private English lessons, my father, my mother and I all attended these and the books we used (e.g. Basic English for Czechoslovak Students) are somewhere on my bookshelves to this day - a sober reminder of those eventful days. It was clear to most people that there was a bleak future in store, so that even if one had nowhere to escape to at the time, provision was made for the eventuality. Ethel managed to pack a cabin trunk full of some of our most precious possessions - photograph albums, cut crystal, silver candle sticks, linen from her dowry, a tapestry table cloth she had made, clothing and who knows what else. This trunk, having been cleared by a customs official was then despatched to an accommodation address in England, to be collected or passed on further if and when the opportunity ever arose.
German Invasion - Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia
And so time inexorably moved forward to that ultimate invasion by Hitler's armies. The fatal day for that was officially 14th March 1939, though in actual fact the German army had crossed the border into Ostrava the evening before. They rolled in with their tracked personnel carriers, tanks and large guns, the latter largely as a show of strength to the outside world, but also to intimidate the population at large in case of the slightest signs of any resistance. It was all very subdued however: no demonstrations, certainly no cheering - just a few onlookers standing by glumly in the evening twilight. By the next morning it was all over. Traffic, which had hereto driven on the left changed overnight to driving on the right, trams included, and all anyone could do was to contemplate the situation and wait to see what was going to happen. By 15th March, Hitler personally drove into Prague in triumph and by the 17th of March had even found time to visit Brno, the provincial capital of Moravia.
Like so many socialists (and communists) who had been politically active, my father was in no doubt that he was on the Nazis' Black List and that his days of freedom were numbered. It should be said at this point, that whilst the Nazis were quite intolerant of any leftist supporters and communists, they were particularly incensed by the German speaking anti-Nazis. My father, of course, having started off as a communist in his younger days after the Great War, soon turned to the German Social Democratic Party (Deutsche Sozial Demokratische Partei) of Czechoslovakia. This German speaking Socialist Party participated wholeheartedly within the Czechoslovak Republic's Government and Constitution and was completely opposed to the Sudeten German Nazi party and their leader Konrad Henlein. Little did anyone suspect that this political exposure and notoriety was a blessing in disguise.
Accepting that discretion was the better part of valour, following the Germans' arrival in Ostrava, Alfred immediately 'disappeared' to Prague, where he would be unknown and less likely to be traced, while awaiting developments. As nothing drastic happened in the days immediately following the German invasion, Alfred returned to Ostrava after about two weeks determined to escape across the border into Poland at the earliest opportunity. This did not seem to be too difficult an undertaking at first sight, as guided escape routes were organised practically overnight and it appeared to be just a case of getting on to one of these to get out of the country.
Alfred left home one evening, with nothing other than the clothes in which he stood. He joined a small group of potential escapees, led by a guide who was to take them through the woods into Poland, or rather Czech (Silesian) territory annexed by Poland at the time of the previous year's Munich Crisis. It was the guide's job to lead them the best way, avoiding both German and Polish border guards, across the border. In the event, all seemed to be going well as they passed the German guards unnoticed. They were not so lucky with the Poles, however, who intercepted them and insisted they returned whence they came. This, of course, turned out to be the most hazardous part of the whole exercise, for the group were now faced with getting past the German border guards from the opposite, wrong, direction - the direction from which the Germans were at the time guarding that part of the country. Luckily the group managed to get past these guards a second time, and Alfred returned back home in the early hours of the morning, a shattered, nervous wreck. That hadn't worked out and it clearly was not going to be as easy to escape over the border into Poland as had been expected.
Having had this experience, Alfred cautiously made further enquiries about organised escape routes and, about a week later - it was now the middle of April - he set out once more on an evening departure. This one, however, was no improvement on the previous one. When Alfred realised that the guide (a different one from the first attempt) was taking them very much along the same route as the first one he had so unsuccessfully attempted, he turned back on his own volition before even getting to the border, and returned home that evening. The situation was now becoming seriously worrying, if not desperate, for it was obvious that it would not be too long before the Germans began rounding up their political opponents. He therefore placed maximum priority onto finding a further attempt at escaping - hoping for a case of third time lucky.
The third attempt turned out to be a completely different proposition, a well-organised, underground (literally) escape route. This escape route involved using the widespread coalfields of the Ostrava district. Fortunately, as it turned out, when the Poles had annexed the disputed parts of the adjoining Silesia at the time of the Munich crisis, this also included parts of the rich Ostrava coalmines. It was these coalmines that were at the heart of this new, secret, escape route. Well thought out and properly organised, it seemed to have the makings of success. Alfred set out, this time being even permitted the luxury of a small suitcase filled with personal belongings - a special privilege indeed. At the appointed time a "taxi" called and drove him to the gates of one of mines in central Ostrava - which one I never found out, but could it have been the one I had passed with my mother so often as a very small child? On arrival he was rapidly cleared through the main gate and deposited inside the site. He met two other escapees, with whom he was then escorted on to the footplate of the train that operated within the grounds of the mine. This promptly took off in the direction of the other end of the site, the entrance, or exit, of which was now in Poland! Arriving at the northern terminus of this railway, they were once again met by a "taxi" which quickly drove them inland, away from any Polish border guards.
They travelled through Tešín and into the 'safety' of inland Poland, where the authorities were more sympathetically inclined towards refugees from what had been Czechoslovakia. There, also, the various political parties and other societies had set up organisations to look after the Czech refugees with the object of moving them out into other countries which were offering the refugees a temporary, or even permanent, haven.
Having thus arrived safely in Poland, at the end of April, Alfred made for Biala-Bielsko, in Polish Silesia, where he had a number of relations (cousins?) from his mother's side. He sent a coded postcard home giving the good news. As previously arranged, it was now Ethel's turn to get out with her 11-year-old boy.
Ethel Escapes with Heinz
Ethel's intended escape was to take a potentially much less exciting and adventurous route than Alfred's, but then a woman with her young son was not yet, at that time, considered to be an important target for the Nazis. And so Ethel went ahead with the plan. We were not to take anything at all with us, for our cross-border escape was to have all the appearances of a normal afternoon excursion from Poland to relatives in what had, not that long ago, been one country.
Under the circumstances it was not possible to have any heartbreaking good-byes, but neither did anybody suspect that we were never again to see any of my grandmothers, uncles, aunties, cousins and friends alive ever again. My mother and I did manage briefly to visit most of them, but without foresight of the future these goodbyes were not as heartbreaking as they should have been. After all, most people thought this was only a temporary set back and that, before very long, we should be able to look back on this as just another one of these unpleasant experiences of life. In spite of the long passage of time, I do still have a clear recollection of my grandmother Slatner, who was now a frail old lady of 70-something and of saying good bye (or au revoir as we then thought) to my two cousins, Pauli and Edith, Tante Bertl and Onkel Sigo - none of whom were to survive the Holocaust.
To avoid anyone being alerted to our departure, I was told to tell my schoolmaster only that we were going away on holiday and that I did not know when I would be back. When I did so he nodded knowingly, agreeing that this was a good idea and wished me well! And so we went. At that time we were still living in that flat opposite the cokery and grandmother Vogel was living with us, having given up her apartment and moved in with us a few weeks previously. She, it was agreed, was to look after our flat in the meantime as we took our leave from her for the duration.
We walked up the road, past the Palace Hotel, towards the Czech Theatre of Ostrava and the tram terminus, where we boarded the local tram for Karviná, which, since the Polish invasion of the Silesian vicinity, was now very close to the border. It was a pleasant spring afternoon and, to all intents and purposes we had come over from the Polish side to visit my grandma.
We got off the tram like so many other normal passengers, walked up the road to the edge of town and up the road leading through the woods. We walked as casually as we could - I expect my mother was terrified, while I was largely unaware of her tension and the dangers of the whole venture. We soon came upon the German border guards on this forest road. Again, rather like in my father's experience during his nighttime outing, they took no notice of this woman and her 11-year-old boy, no doubt relying on the Polish guards, a few hundred metres further along, to sort out any unwelcome intruders into their country. A while later we came upon the Polish border which was easily identified with a railway-level-crossing-type of barrier across the road, guarded by one middle aged policeman (certainly not a soldier). My mother impressed upon me that, under no circumstances should I come near her while she was talking to this guard in case he started to question me. When the time was ripe, she would call me to, hopefully, get through to the other side.
I went off the road into the edge of the woodland and tried to play around the trees as best I could - for there was no one to play with. It was difficult, but I did as I had been told and could see my mother talking to the Polish border guard; quietly, not excitedly, but without apparently any progress either. Time dragged by, but still she was talking to him and I was doing my best to play by the roadside like a good boy. In the end, I could stand the boredom no longer (in fact after more than an hour) and strolled over to see how my mother was doing. This had a dramatic effect on the border guard. "Is this your boy?" he asked. When my mother confessed in the affirmative, this seemed to place the whole of her last hour's story in context for him. He accepted her story that we had been over to Ostrava for the afternoon to visit my grandmother, told her to not do it again and to get back home (on the Polish side) as quickly as possible. On this, Ethel grabbed me by the hand and indeed started running up the road, out of the wood and into Poland, as quickly as her legs would carry her.
My mother had evidently been told that half a kilometre, or so, up this road was an inn with a small village shop, for which she made a beeline. A kindly woman opened the back door and must have weighed up the situation in an instant. Without hesitation, we were taken inside the kitchen and given a hot cup of coffee. She told us to wait quietly for about half an hour or so. She promised that by that time the lorry, which was due shortly, to deliver produce for the shop (fruit and vegetables), would be able to take us inland, and safely away from the border patrols whose job it was to turn back any refugees.
True enough, the lorry came, we got on the back, under the tarpaulin, and off it went. It was dusk as it passed through Tešín (no longer Cesky Tešín and Polski Tešín) on to Biala-Bielsko, where Alfred had arrived after his, rather more dramatic, escape to stay with those relations on his mother's side. Bielsko or Bielitz - its German name - had a large Jewish population, largely orthodox, with long beards, peies (sideburns) and big black hats. By the time we arrived it was quite dark and, following this happy reunion, we all went to bed for an early start the following morning; Bielsko was still too close to the borders to be considered a safe place for refugees. In any case, there was no organisation there to take these refugees in hand. One of the main refugee centres, and one where the German Social Democratic Party was handling the situation, was in Krakow - some 80 kms further inland. And so it was for Krakow that the reunited Vogel family headed, by train, the following day - 15th April(?). The first part of the escape had been successfully accomplished with the prospect of further emigration to who knows where.
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
Send Your Comments