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In Transit: A Polish Interlude
April - June 1939
Our arrival in Kraków, which must have been quite inauspicious, is another of those momentous moments of which, in retrospect, I have been left with no strong memory. Historic Kraków, the ancient capital of the ancient kings of Poland, was to be our shelter for the next eight weeks. In 1939 Kraków was full of that special character that British cities like York or Chester or Edinburgh exude - or rather did before traffic congestion choked them all. There was the old town hall in the ancient Market Square with its market stalls and shops, where almost anything could be found. The imposing Wavel Castle, the residence of those ancient kings of Poland on top of the hill, towered over the town, as no doubt it will do to this day and in the future. Below, all the narrow little streets leading to the ancient market square with its houses dating back to who knows when. Also, as in Biala-Bielsko, there was a large, long established, Jewish population in the town. Unlike the Jews in Czechoslovakia, however - the western part of the Republic primarily - these Polish Jews still followed the orthodox doctrine and traditions. They were thus easily recognised by the men's large black hats and long sideboards and beards, for the cutting of hair (and thus shaving) with metal blades was not in order. Kraków in those days consequently had quite a cosmopolitan appearance, while oozing history through its castle, its old town square and the many imposing churches, monuments and synagogues.
Having arrived off the train in Kraków as a family, we were immediately accommodated by the local organisation in 'digs' - a single room - with a friendly Polish family. My parents, like most other refugees from occupied Czechoslovakia, had by and large come out of their country in little more than the clothes they stood in and without money with which to support themselves. Alfred, with the little suitcase he had been able to bring with him on that train through the coalmine was thus exceptional as far as quantity of personal belongings was concerned. Fortunately, however, refugees fleeing oppression in those days did have the benefit of both public and official sympathy. Thus, in the case of my father, the Czechoslovak Deutsche Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterpartei (German Social Democrat Workers Party) in association with their Polish political counterparts, the Bund, covered all our living expenses.
There, in Kraków, my father met up with former colleagues from Czechoslovakia, friends he knew from the past and new ones he met there from further afield in the Republic. One of these, indeed, was to become a lifelong friend not only of Alfred and Ethel, but also of mine - one Kurt Pick. Kurt and his brother Hans had arrived at Kraków from the northern Bohemian town of Kommotau / Komotov. Kurt, in his early thirties, had been a journalist on a German language socialist newspaper in Kommotau, while Hans, a few years older, was a doctor, a qualified general practitioner. Kurt was not very tall (about 157 cms) and round, though he could not really be called fat. Hans was of more average proportions, about 175 cms tall, weighing perhaps 75 kg and sporting a smart black moustache. The two brothers were inseparable and very soon they and our family formed a very close friendship under these novel circumstances.
All our fellow Socialist refugees there were settled in with Polish families, but we all had our meals provided in a church-hall like building in one of the wider, tree-lined avenues near the town centre. It was there that most of them also spent a large part of their time during the day. They talked about days past and hoped for early news of their next destination, for nobody was under any illusion that Poland was a safe place in which to settle down in those explosive times.
We were fortunate in being placed with a family, about the same age as ourselves, who had two daughters aged perhaps 11 and 13, with whom I was able to strike up an easy friendship. This helped enormously with my transition from the Czech to the Polish language during the eight weeks we spent there, before the end of which I was as near fluent in the Polish language as made no odds. This was not as difficult as might be supposed, for both these Slav languages are closely related, the main difference being in their pronunciation and spelling, rather than in their fundamental grammar and syntax - although there are some words which have different meanings and, vice versa some meanings which have completely different words. It has always been the case that when a Czech was conversing with a Pole, each could use their own language and be relatively easily understood by the other. This, of course, also helped the learning process tremendously. The Czech language is unique amongst the Slav languages in having very hard, almost guttural, pronunciation whereas the others, Slovak, Polish, Russian etc. have basically very soft pronunciations. But Ostrava, being close to the border with Poland, always did have a local dialect corrupted by Polish, which was another factor in easing the learning / transition process.
As far as this group of Czechoslovak refugees was concerned, the next refuge on offer was to be England, or Sweden, or Canada - these being the countries that were ready to welcome us. How it was decided who went where seemed to be somewhat unclear, or even haphazard and, under the circumstances, of academic interest. All everyone wanted to know was the soonest date of their departure for their new, presumably, temporary home for the duration. Details of the actual destination were of secondary importance, for day by day it was becoming obvious that war was unavoidable and liable to break out at any moment. Notice was however taken by the organisers of families' desires to join other friends or relations who might already be in one of these countries. And so the Vogel family waited, carefully examining the notice board in eager anticipation each day for the next six weeks or so. The Picks, having arrived before the Vogels were in due course sent off to England in the latter part of May. From then on every day that passed seemed to make the situation more desperate and the waiting more unbearable.
Alfred and Ethel hoped to follow Kurt and Hans Pick to England, partly because of that friendship which had been formed during these weeks and partly because, by then a message had come through somehow that Ethel's brother Hugo and his wife Edith, had also managed to get to England. Hugo and Edith Slatner had been able to achieve their transit with the help of English friends they made in Zlin (strictly speaking these should now be referred to as British friends, for only Mr Russell was English - his wife was Czech), and with the assistance of the Society of Friends the Quakers. One of the refuges the Quakers had set up was a small hostel for Jewish refugees - near Manchester, at Marple in Cheshire and it was there where the Slatners ultimately found themselves. Also, and I was only reminded of this quite recently, Eve Slatner had been sent to England (on an evacuation known as the kindertransport) in advance of her parents, to get her out of the clutches of the Nazis. Neither the children on the kindertransport nor their parents knew at the time whether they would ever see each other again. Most of them did not do so, but in the Slatners' case, with the help of the Russells, it worked out well and they were all re-united in England. In retrospect, though, it must have been a traumatic experience for Eve. She put all this out of her mind until she was reminded of it much later in life. By this time she still felt aggrieved that her parents could have even contemplated sending her off on her own, little realising what a sacrifice they would in fact have been making.
However, for an eleven-year-old boy the time in Kraków was not at all bad. For a start, any language problems had been quickly overcome with the help of those two girls at the digs. So much so that I read Polish translations of Czech books, which I had not, as yet, had a chance of reading in their original language. Furthermore, although as a family, the Vogels had lost all their belongings in addition to being cut off from the family at large, they were not suffering in poverty. There was somewhere to live, somewhere to eat and the Party made sure that their refugees had a little pocket money - enough to spend some time in the coffee-houses, to explore the tourist attractions of Krakow and to buy some modest souvenirs here and there. This was really a totally incongruous, unreal, situation, bearing in mind that we had lost all our worldly belongings, did not know where our future lay and at the same time were able to behave like, on the face of it, normal tourists. Thus we were able to pay to have family photographs taken, in front of the grand statue of one of the Polish nobles and to buy one of the traditional wooden painted trinket boxes in the old town hall market square. I even had a few spare Zlotys with which to spend some happy hours going through boxes and albums of Polish postage stamps in some of the small philatelic shops in those narrow old streets around the ancient Market Square. It really was not that obvious that the family had been abruptly uprooted, had fled their home country leaving all, everything and everybody, behind and owning very little more than a bare minimum in worldly goods.
But there was still that looming shadow of an impending war and the desperate need to get out of Poland before the worst happened. Consequently as the weeks dragged by, people were getting more and more short-tempered, even though they were quite incapable of affecting the overall outcome in terms of getting their names on to that notice board at the daily meeting place. Most of them had a favourite place to which they hoped they would be shipped but, in the limit, were only too happy to grab at any straws and accept wherever was on offer. And so, finally, after what had seemed to be an eternity, but was only a matter of a few weeks, the names Alfred Vogel, Ethel and Heinz did finally appear on that notice board, and the destination - England.
It was all working out at last, as we made our way to Krakow's main railway station that Friday evening, the 16th June (1939), to catch the night train to Gdynia on the Baltic - Poland's one and only access to the sea, at the end of the (to the Germans notorious) 'Polish Corridor'. We travelled through the night, stopping at Katowice, and subsequent places, which I, at least, slept through, to arrive in Gdynia the next morning. I had never had sight of the sea before, Czechoslovakia being completely land-locked and having never been abroad. To tell the truth, that first sight of the sea was a great disappointment. There was little to be seen in the docks and even our ship - the modern Polish liner, the MS Sobiesky (sister-ship to the MS Batory, which actually survived the war) did not look at all impressive. The Polish line, as far as I could determine subsequently, operated their service from Gdynia to Le Havre, skirting Denmark via the Kattegat and Skagerrak, through the North Sea, calling at Dover en route.
Once settled on board this smart ocean liner, things began to look distinctly promising and by the time the ship left Poland that evening (Saturday 17th June) we were all very excited. The actual journey took three nights and two days so that the MS Sobiesky drew into Dover harbour in the early hours of Tuesday morning - 20th June 1939. This had to be a memorable day indeed and one that Alfred was to make a point of remembering every year for the rest of his life.
Truth to tell, although obviously on a larger scale, Dover harbour did not look much more imposing than Gdynia, though there was much more in the way of open space. What really impressed me, however, was the sight of the Southern Railway, which came right up to the edge of the quayside. Furthermore, we were told, complete Southern Railway trains could board (drive on to) the cross-channel steamers with their London passengers Paris bound. This seemed a most remarkable system, but the Southern Railway was not to provide our next form of transport. As it turned out, we were directed to a bus, a coach in the smart red and white livery of the East Kent Motor Company, which would take us to London. London was then the biggest city in the world, with a population seven times as great as that of Prague or more than half that of the whole of Czechoslovakia. Strangely enough though, in the knowledge of even late 20th century customs and immigration procedures at Dover, the formalities on our arrival there must have been perfunctory, to say the least. They made no impression on my memory, for having seen some officials on board, we seemed to be off the MS Sobiesky in no time at all and waiting at the quayside for our buses. I wonder how cursory these formalities in fact were, however. Certainly there were no inquisitions into whether we had any rights to be entering Britain, or the type of unwelcoming unpleasantness present-day refugees and immigrants have to experience. There was no waiting about while official decided whether we were to be allowed to enter the country. Quite simply: we were welcomed and that was that, and we were very, very grateful to be in England.
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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