Frank’s moving account follows him from childhood in Germany and Czechoslovakia up to the time he spent in labour camps at the end of World War Two. He talks about his later life in Britain and Canada in the second part of this story.
Life through two wars in Germany and Czechoslovakia
I was born in Berlin, the capital of Germany, in October 1928, which makes me now in my 93rd year. During my early life, from birth to the age of about five I lived with my parents. We lived in a villa which my mother’s twin, Uncle Fritz, had designed and built to accommodate his family and any children of his marriage, his sister’s family and any children of her marriage, and their mother Emma.
The villa had a very large garden and I had a sand pit with an all-round seat at the end, and I remember playing with a girl whose father had emigrated with a Leica camera. I remember it, and I had a picture of her. My cousin Ernest was born nearly the same time as I was and we went to the same school. He wasn’t a good mixer and he only felt safe at home with his mother. He came to England in what was known as a Kindertransport, suddenly torn away and put on a transport, but he didn’t realise that was the best they could do for him.
My father was in the Austrian army and having come through the war having been captured at one end of Russia, and travelling on the Trans-Siberian railway right across Russia where he finished up in Vladivostok in 1920.The Czech Republic was established in 1918 but he had to wait another two years before he got home on an American troop ship.
Grandmother Emma died at the beginning of January 1933, so she did not live to see the rise of the Nazi regime.
My mother took me along everywhere she went, to the hairdresser, where I felt bored – ladies hair crimped into waves with curling irons, then fashion – or to visit her aunt Helen, a widow who wore a choker and who died in 1942 in Theresienstadt. Anna, another relative, was a shop assistant in a chain of shops selling decorator’s goods such as buckets, brushes, whitewash, colouring powder, soft soap, flycatchers and mops. Just one room, very poor.
My father worked at a small private Jewish bank which was located on Unter den Linden, the main thoroughfare in Berlin. He started there round about 1921 and he actually ran the show. He was their representative on the Berlin stock exchange; he did their annual accounts, checked clients, and one of his jobs was as an arbitrageur – that’s to say that he took advantage of small differences in currency…. You didn’t have any instant communications as you have now, you had to use telegrams, but when you knew that in one country the dollar or peso or whatever was different from somewhere else, if you bought large quantities you could make a profit. You counted the profit per mil not percent, per thousand, you know it was a very small amount.
He had a business friend, a German, who worked in the same building, he was a stockbroker. I remember him coming to visit us and I remember him throwing me to the ceiling and catching me, the ceiling was very high, and he gave me, God knows why, a pocket watch, very thick, and it showed everything from the moon to the constellations, not only the hour and minutes.
School in Berlin
I was six and a half years old when I started school. I had been to kindergarten, but I didn’t like it. The kindergarten was run by white Russians and my father rather liked the idea because he could practise his Russian, which he learned whilst in Russia, but I just hated it. I was happy at home.
There was just Ernest and of course once I started school there were my schoolmates but again, you couldn’t make friends really because they would disappear, their parents would get a visa somehow and they would just go. They would come to England or France, Holland or South America, but the children themselves would just disappear from school.
It was quite a big school, it had been an old people’s home, in the middle of town, so there was nowhere really to play. I mean we couldn’t play football or anything like that, there wasn’t room, all we could do was walk around slowly in an anticlockwise direction and we had to talk only to our neighbour so as not to annoy the Germans, who would complain and maybe the school would be closed. As it had been an old people’s home, the staircase was marble, and there was an aula, like a theatre (aula is the Greek word for it). It had sloping seats and a stage. It had an organ! I remember as a student having to heave up the bellows which were huge, made of leather, and then let go. My second year teacher did everything, taught us German literature, German writing, both types of Latin and Hebrew. I can still read it, I know the letters. I still remember the poems that he drummed into us, strange because I forgot much of my mother tongue but I remember the poems. It is quite amazing how you remember things from very early on.
He also played the organ and took us for PT. Now we did have a wonderful large PT hall, all new, it was marvellous. I used to love climbing ropes, I don’t know why but I did. School was staffed by excellent teachers and the reason for this was that teachers had lost their jobs in German schools from January 1933 onwards. So whoever chose them had a choice. My first teacher was a lady, but all I did was needlework, I was quite good at it and it helped me later darning my socks. But other boys were much better, they would make figures and animals out of plasticine.
I didn’t eat at school, but I know that I had a bottle of milk in the morning during our free time, but I must have gone home in the afternoon. I went there by double-decker bus and I remember on the way seeing a tall building on fire. Very exciting.
Moving to Prague and those left behind
My mother and I went to Prague first, that would be around June 1938 when I was 9 or 10. Both my parents had Czechoslovak nationality.
My mother had arranged some quite cheap hostel accommodation run by nuns. I didn’t go to school. I didn’t go to a German school because that was full of Nazis. I couldn’t go to a Czech school because I didn’t speak the language. What is interesting, going back to Berlin, my parents thought that I ought to have a smattering of Czech at least. My father found an elderly Czech gentleman, there were quite a few living in Berlin, but his book was terribly old fashioned. It was a book all about horses and hens and geese and that, absolutely useless for ordinary conversation. But what he did say, and it didn’t click with us, was that he had another client to whom he taught Czech and it was the Berlin police. Now why on earth should Berlin police want to know or to learn Czech? It is a difficult, Slavic language, it has seven cases and rules and exceptions. The simple answer is they knew full well they were going to invade Czechoslovakia and therefore they needed police to interview people whose affairs didn’t fit and therefore they needed a smattering of Czech.
My parents thought that a move to Prague was going to be better because Berlin was pretty unbearable. Again though we were an exception, we were Czechoslovak citizens because of my father who was born in Moravia. He went into the Austrian army but then the Czechoslovak republic was declared and he chose Czechoslovak citizenship. We wore a little Czech flag on our lapel, like a talisman to protect us. My mother’s family were Berlin Jews and they suffered terribly, so there was no point in staying. Why we went to Prague I don’t know, because it was far too near. If you look at the map it’s quite obvious that it was going to be his [Hitler’s] next aim and ambition.
We lived in the hostel and although I didn’t go to school, the luck of it, it was near Wenceslas Square and there was a library which had pre-Nazi German books. So I read a book a day more or less and my mother did the same, it’s the only thing she could do. You see, German was the only language we spoke and it wasn’t the flavour of the day because of the Munich Crisis; the Czechs felt that they were sold down the river and nobody was going to help them, and nobody did. They had their own German speaking problems in Sudeten who were all for Mr Hitler, so we found life rather difficult.
I can’t remember who else lived with us at the hostel, my daily life was limited to the library but I didn’t mind as long as I had a book.
My father followed about six months later. He had supervised the liquidation or ‘Aryanisation’ of the bank which some German took over. He had his teeth seen to too, lack of vitamin C in Russia.
When he arrived he joined a short lived mobilisation to the despair of my mother, who thought, you know, it might be war, he might be in the army. That didn’t last long though and on being free he rented a small one bedroomed flat in a newly finished block of flats on the outskirts of Prague. If you were on the first floor balcony and looked down, there was a farm. My parents brought a few pieces of furniture, there wasn’t room for much, we settled down as much as we could in the circumstances. He found a Czech boy who didn’t speak German to teach me Czech, and after a few months I was fluent and mistaken for a native. If you are young, you know, your voice can imitate anything.
My father wasn’t going to sit at home. He went to the Jewish authority, which was quite small, all they had was an orphanage, a cemetery and that was about it, and suddenly they had tens of thousands of refugees from Germany, Austria and later Sudetenland and so they were absolutely overwhelmed with German-speaking refugees. He said, ‘Look I speak both languages fluently, can I be of assistance?’ and they said, ‘You are just the man we are looking for’ and he got in at the bottom rung of the ladder and then they realised that he had organisational ability and they made him head of department and that saved us.
The rest of my family from Berlin didn’t come with us. My Uncle Fritz and his wife remained there and they obviously lost….
Uncle Fritz had been in the German navy, he and my mother were twins and they were quite small, maybe the doctors didn’t know how to feed mothers who had twins. But he was a PT instructor; now for a Jewish boy to be a PT instructor is quite something. He also played very good chess and learned Latin and Greek at school and was pretty fluent.
He worked for Dresdner Bank and lost his job in late 1937, I remember they gave him a mantelpiece clock, they gave him a small pension and then they stopped that. He had to do forced labour, which must have been pretty strenuous, because you used up shoe leather, but you didn’t get shoes, you didn’t get a clothing ration, Jews didn’t get that. So it was very difficult. He also had to walk for at least an hour if not longer because he wasn’t allowed to use public transport. His wife, Hildegard, the same; she worked for AEG the electrical firm and she had terrible hands. They weren’t sent together to Auschwitz… She was apprehended by the Gestapo. I found people who have researched the family and know more about my family than I do. They found that she entered Auschwitz but a week later she was gassed. Uncle Fritz travelled on a different transport and was gassed on arrival.
There were one or two distant relatives too, but they soon disappeared. There was a girl, who came to see us once, and she brought with her a quarter of a loaf. Now these loaves were baked in a communal oven in the village, it must have been a huge oven and everybody would bake their bread. It was a huge loaf, even a quarter was enormous and it was a good present as at that time we just didn’t have enough food.
Before the Germans arrived life wasn’t too difficult, there was no real shortage of food. You still had the systems that had existed since 1918, and had always existed for hundreds of years under the Austrian rule, the Imperial Austrian-Hungarian rule. The idea of a republic was good. You had Slovakia attached to Bohemia which was agricultural. You had the Czech part which was industrial, so they complemented each other. The idea was very good except of course the Germans took over the industrial part and that helped them a lot, they made steel and had coal pits, and everything.
Invasion of Prague 15th March 1939
I remember where I stood. I came back from school, and I stood at a point where I had to cross the road because the troops were going past, they had large containers and knew exactly where they were going. They were emptying all the large warehouses of all food. They were on motorcycles, BMWs, with a sidecar and the sidecar had a little machine gun. They knew exactly where they were going and what they were up to; before that, apart from the political situation, it was normal. From that day it wasn’t.
It was very sudden, once they marched in, the people of Prague, they realised immediately that all the negotiations, all the diplomatic hoo-ha, had been a waste of time. The Germans had made up their minds. They had already seized Sudetenland, with the approval of the Sudeten Germans, who were really Austrian and they surrounded Bohemia. I have a map showing that it was like a crocodile’s open mouth and all it had to do is snap shut and that was it.
That is why I can’t understand why we went to Prague. It could be because my father’s brother lived there, you know, brothers close to each other, maybe he thought that was a good idea. Although he, as a foreigner, could have taken money out, he could have come to England. But he didn’t, that’s the end of the story.
Daily life changed. Gradually they thought of restrictions and gradually they thought of forcing us to hand in things they needed, from musical instruments to radios to woollies. The army in Russia didn’t have woollen underwear so the Jewish ones would do. I had a violin and I had to hand that in, my mother had a sewing machine, she had to hand that in, we had a camera, we had binoculars…. anything the army could use.
You had to take your things to a central depot and then they would distribute it into various stores. Later when they had deported people they would go into their houses and flats empty it completely and again distribute the goods they found into various stores. There would be wardrobes in one, pianos, upright and grand, in another, there would be refrigerators, although there were very few of those, there was clothing, furniture, porcelain, works of art, each had a separate store. It was well organised I must say.
Everybody did as they were told, you couldn’t do much else. In fact, you had to do a very detailed form detailing every possible item you could think of. I have a copy. You had to give the value at 1939 times. They wanted to know not what I could get immediately but what I would get in the future. They also ruled that you were not allowed to give any other people any of your possessions. Now that made it difficult, you see children grow, maybe we grew more slowly of course because of the lack of vitamins, minerals and food in general. But we did grow and we did grow out of our clothing, and people had clothing from their older children but they were afraid to hand it over, in case they looked up on the list and found ‘This is missing, where is it?’ But people were sent to their deaths anyway, but you didn’t know that.
We were limited as to the time we could shop, which was the afternoon. Now don’t forget there was no refrigeration, so you had to get vegetables and fruit in season only, so that by the afternoon there was nothing left, and that was the object of the exercise.
On the corner where we lived was a corner shop and he would keep things and I would collect them, but you had to pay for that and it was dangerous. I even went to a pub on the other corner and got Father some beer, I didn’t go into the pub, I went into the kitchen, in the main pub there were German soldiers. I didn’t look Jewish at the time and got away with it.
The school closed around May – June 1942 and we each had to find a job, I did gardening. My father didn’t want me to help the German war effort and he got me a job at a Jewish cemetery, a huge cemetery called Olšany. It was quite a walk up hill, before it levelled out. I was there from autumn ’42 to around June ’43. As the school was closed my father arranged for private tuition with another girl but the Germans got wise to that and they prohibited that too. They also said that Jews could not go to a barber and barbers must not go to Jewish households, because they realised what was happening, so you were a bit hemmed in.
So I got this job in the cemetery. I was the only assistant that the chief gardener had and I learned quite a lot from him. I learned how to prune trees, how to collect leaves and make a huge leaf mound which got so hot that in the end all we had was grey ash –it had burned inside and created its own heat. I grew tomatoes from seed, because the winters were so cold the trays were left in the workman’s room because it was heated. I would take the seedlings and put them into small pots, then larger and larger pots. The area at the end of the cemetery was quite bare, other classmates joined me and we dug it over and planted all sorts of things: tomatoes, leeks, onions, spring onions.
12th July 1943 Theresienstadt
I did that until we left our flat on the 12th July 1943 and went to the assembly point.
Because my father had risen to the top within the Jewish organisation we were the last ones to leave Prague: if he had not done that we would have been deported earlier, but we went with the last lot of about 680 people, the clerks and their families.
All we could take was one bag of clothing, but we were also told that we ought to take eiderdowns because there was no heating in the ghetto and there wasn’t. So that took a lot of room, but we took very bare essentials.
As it happened we travelled in an ordinary train, a third class train, not with a gangway in the middle like you have now. Each compartment was separate and you had two doors. I could be locked. It had wooden slatted seats; it wasn’t uncomfortable. When we arrived at the assembly point on the 12th we made ourselves as comfortable as possible on our one piece of luggage and a rumour navigated that the island of Sicily had been invaded and that was true. It had been invaded on the 10th and it had taken just two days for the rumour to reach us. Now, we lived on rumours, we didn’t have newspapers, we didn’t have radios, we just lived on rumours and some could be false. I mean you could think of a rumour, spread it, wait for it to come back and it might be distorted. Anyway it actually happened, we said, ‘Oh the war will be over soon’ but it wasn’t, it lasted for a long time.
The Nazis had their own government department in the middle of town, but the organisation of transport, food distribution and healthcare was left to the Jewish authorities, the Elders, This was a terrible job because they had to find who to send to the east and we didn’t know what the east meant. The first half of a large number of transports were sent east, they were sent to extermination camps, and the survival rate was less than 1%.
When we arrived we found that it was overcrowded. It was at a point where more people had arrived than had left. They’d come from everywhere, Germany, Austria, Holland, a few from Denmark and a few from all over the place but not enough to mention separately. Lots of different languages and each lived their separate lives. The Danes kept very much to themselves, the Germans couldn’t talk to the Czechs, only the older ones could speak German, the younger ones couldn’t. The Czechs lived, again for language reasons, on their own, and they were the first ones to be sent, so they were, as it were, the ruling crowd, they were in the best jobs. Because they were there right from the beginning they established the ghetto, they made bunk beds, tables and chairs as best they could, and open kitchens.
The Germans came later, the Sudeten Germans, Jewish from Sudetenland came even later. So, you had people separated and segregated which made life for allocation of accommodation very difficult, you couldn’t mix them up.
It was so overcrowded that they allocated my father and myself a place in the loft of one of the large army barracks. I mean these army barracks had been built in 1780, they were pretty ancient and they had huge floor beams from which the ceiling was suspended. There were no services in the loft, if you wanted to go to the loo you had to climb over them and go downstairs and use whatever was available, and that wasn’t sufficient. So I shared with my father. It was terribly hot. July can be very hot and the tiles would radiate heat that would radiate into the loft. At least we had room, something we came to appreciate later when there wasn’t any room.
My father remained in the loft; I was asked to go to the floor below into a room with boys of my age. It was there that a boy called Charles Popper who was utterly brilliant, taught me the elements of trigonometry, something the school should have done but didn’t. They had a reason for it, the Germans didn’t want educated children, I mean they were going to kill them anyway, so there was no point. Then I was moved into a house.
Now the ghetto had houses too, not just army barracks, the houses had been built to support the army, the Austrian army. There would be a smithy for horse shoes, there would be tailors, gunsmiths, cooks, bakers, things like that and they would live in small houses in between the barracks. There was also a courtyard. We were rather cramped, there were something like six of us in a small room on three tier bunks, and one of the fellows was named Paul King. Paul King was a Wunderkind on the violin, he performed at the age of seven with the Vienna Philharmonic, a violin piece by Mozart, it was just fantastic. He lived for his music, that’s important to realise what single mindedness is.
The Germans, because they wanted to make it a show ghetto would take a few violins and cellos out of their stores of looted ones, they distributed them and would say, ‘Anybody who can play, take it’, and Paul got a violin and a bow. He used to tell me that a bow is as important as a violin. He would practise and you couldn’t stand next to him because there wasn’t room, you know it was that cramped. And he would play a piece by Paganini just as exercises – it would lift your spirits! He was sent to Auschwitz with his brother and he survived. He went to Vienna and then Tokyo, he was the leader of the Tokyo Philharmonic. He went to Louisville Kentucky, again being leader and he finished in British Columbia as a professor of music. And I met him, he was giving a master class and interrupted his journey to meet me. We lived in London at the time, but we met at Paddington Station and that’s not a good place to meet, it’s too noisy and you know, anyway…. There was a huge number of very talented people and very nearly all of them died.
The medical front was as good as it could be, which was very limited. For instance, I suffered from hay-fever, there is a hollow over your eyes and that got inflamed, so I was sitting in front of the doctor, no anaesthetic and he pushed a thick needle up my nose and I could feel the crackling of the bones and he would say, ‘Don’t move there’s an eye nerve there and if I hit that you could go blind!’ ‘Thank you’ I said. I could feel the crackling as he pushed the water through and it came through the mouth and caught in a kidney bowl. And although my eye nearly came off it did the job.
On another occasion I said that I found blood in my urine and they whisked me off to the children’s hospital. Now in that children’s hospital you were given white bread. My parents didn’t have enough to eat so I passed it on to them. I was there for something like six weeks, that served two purposes. Firstly they wanted to make sure that I was alright again and that it wouldn’t recur. Secondly they had beds to fill to justify their existence so I was there for quite a long time. After that I had been moved to another room with an awful lot of other people.
Here I must explain. There were a lot of Czech children who had a Czech Christian mother and a Jewish father, there was a lot of inter-marriage because Jews stopped being religious, they didn’t care, you know they talked to Czech girls. But, that protected them, those children were not sent on a transport. Being sent on a transport was our main worry, they didn’t experience that, not until the very last end, so their outlook on life was quite different it wasn’t like our life was.
I was in Theresienstadt for 15 months.
The ghetto was cleared between 28th of September and 28th of October 1944. There was something like 10 transports leaving every other day, with a thousand, fifteen hundred, two thousand people on each. That meant that the ghetto was emptying, although not completely, seventeen thousand stayed behind. They could have been those children, but it did mean that in the last week when everybody had more or less gone, I got a job in a bakery. That was marvellous. They gave me, I think, half a loaf per shift and I shared it with my mother. I wish that it had happened sooner but you couldn’t get a job.
The Red Cross washed their hands of us altogether. We had one visit from a Red Cross delegate who followed the SS rules on the prescribed route, and didn’t talk to any of us. We had great hopes that would at least stop the dreaded transports, increase food. No, no such thing. As soon as he left transport restarted.
October 1944 Auschwitz
I was moved to a transit camp in Auschwitz. however we didn’t enter Auschwitz proper. It was the same as Auschwitz, it had its gas chamber and its crematoria, everything. What happened was, a manager of a German firm who got a contract to make propellers for the German air force and who had already received 300 prisoners from there wanted 165 more. So our fate had been decided before we even left the ghetto and therefore we were apart from those who went straight into the gas chamber which was the vast majority of fifteen hundred men, women, boys, girls and children; only 78 survived – 39 or so men, 39 women you know, it’s just a guess but that’s about it and I am one of the 39.
My father was sent a fortnight earlier than my mother and me, and he just disappeared. We couldn’t say goodbye, he just disappeared. I know which transport he was on, I traced it later, but my mother said, ‘Your father is gone’ and it’s awful. It’s something that’s been with me all the time that I could never say goodbye. It may be that you didn’t want to, because you realised that you wouldn’t see each other again. But nevertheless you lost that chance to see him for the last time then and that’s pretty awful. Out of the fifteen hundred again only 78 survived and he wasn’t among them.
My mother and I arrived in Auschwitz, not that we knew what it was, doors were opened. I have read books on this and quite often you know, people were chased out, there were dogs and whips and all sorts of things. It wasn’t like that with me, they tried another scheme. They said, ‘If anybody feels sick or old or can’t walk, we’ll take them on a lorry into camp’; so people volunteered: of course, they went straight into the gas chamber. We were put about six abreast, women, girls and children in one column and men and boys next to them in parallel. The women went first and they were disposed of in every sense of the word, very quickly.
There was a fellow at the end, along what later became known as the ramp. It wasn’t a ramp, it was a flat place to walk on and he would judge you as you approached. He would point his finger either one way or the other, if he pointed right, which was most of the time, you went into the gas chamber and if he pointed left he thought that you were fit to work. Now my mother was in the women’s group. I didn’t see her but she spied me, I was near the front and so was she and she came over to me shook my hand and went back. That wasn’t quite the last I saw of her, I saw her move down this ramp and I saw her being told to go to the right. When it was my turn, I didn’t notice anybody pointing a finger, I just followed where I’d seen her go but I was pulled back. Apparently he got fed up pointing one way and was pointing the other way and so that was my first, I’m not saying this was a bit of luck but it was a link in a chain that kept me going or allowed me to keep going.
I stayed there for about a week. What happened was, on the second night the door of the hut opened and a civilian appeared. A civilian was simply guided to the right hut because all the huts looked exactly the same and he wouldn’t know by himself where to go. He stayed at the door because the light from outside from the electrified wire supports was far better than the low wattage light inside. He looked around and I happened to stand there and he saw me and pointed at me and I was his, you see, simple as that.
There was boy who had been in my class in Prague who had been through the same thing. He was chosen to work on the first selection but he happened to stand at the back of the hut and the stupid man didn’t ask people from the back to come forward to give him a better choice. There wasn’t enough of us, I mean I say he wanted 165 and there weren’t 165 people left by any stretch of the imagination.
Friedland – labour camp
After a week, when it was dark we were put into cattle trucks, standing room only. We were taken, we didn’t know where, to a place called Friedland. The trouble is there were three Friedlands in the area. One is Friedland, a battle that Napoleon won, another was further away near Bohemia and then there was another one. I think that the driver took the wrong turn at one point because it took a long time to turn back. Anyway we arrived, it was a single track line passing our camp, really right next door, they couldn’t miss us. We disembarked and marched to Friedland camp. Now, again we were terribly lucky, that camp had held Italian prisoners – the Italians had changed sides and all the soldiers had been captured, as it were, accommodated and then taken somewhere else. We took their place, their beds, it was quite a small camp.
The manager who had pointed his finger at me in Auschwitz he had a contract to make aluminium propellers from castings. They were duralumin, a small amount of copper is added to aluminium that makes it very tough. There was a production line. You got the castings, somebody would cut the edges, somebody would make a thread at the back. Mine was the last job which was to straighten, make sure it’s in a straight line. And that was difficult because you had a hydraulic pump, which was foot operated and that was quite an effort. If you pressed too much it wouldn’t spring back and it would be what they called permanent set, you couldn’t do that too often as it would ruin the aluminium and it had to be thrown away. I didn’t produce many, that was at a time when the rumour was that the Russians were approaching. There were Germans fleeing past our camp, so the attitude changed.
The firm had originally come from Hamburg and had been bombed, and they had been relocated into a cotton mill. The cotton mill had been closed and the firm put their machineries in to this concrete building and employed us to operate them. As I say I didn’t produce many, but the German foreman who had come from Hamburg didn’t mind, he didn’t tell me off for not producing anything. In fact, at times he gave me pieces of very hard crusts of bread, he said that they really were meant for his rabbit, but maybe I would appreciate them more.
We were working, I think, seven days, either a night shift or a day shift. A shift was far too long, 12 hours. We wouldn’t last really and we tried to slow down and what we’d be looking forward to was the meal that arrived, or soup that would arrive halfway through the shift. People died, you know, of hunger.
Feeling that things were changing
We felt that things were changing but we didn’t know how. I mean, there were these death marches, we didn’t know about that but we could easily have been put on a death march, and I would not have survived that…but we were not.
On the last day the German SS who was an elderly man really not fit for front line duties, called us as usual to be counted and he said that we were going, and would we remember please that he treated us well, or reasonably. I mean we had Ukrainian SS guards and they were prevented from hitting us with rifle butts because they were told that we were skilled people and they couldn’t replace us. So in a way he did help us, although we were still in a labour camp.
The last day in the labour camp and returning to Prague
He left and his deputy left. so we were subjected to the Ukrainian SS who took a long time thinking things over. Now they stood on a watch tower with a machine gun that could have easily killed us, but they were more interested in their own skin – they knew that if they were caught by any approaching Russians what their fate would be – so in their own interest they left too.
We were still in a locked-up camp with electrified wire and then one of us must have shouted across to people walking past, would they open the gate or switch off the electricity, which they did.
We had a fellow, I met him later by email, he was a chemist who became professor at New York University. He was fluent in French and there were other French workers. They were in forced labour too, probably not making propellers, but stacking wood, there were only two or three of them who did that. He asked them, you know, would they open the gate. The rumour was that a Ukrainian SS general was near, they might just have thrown a few hand grenades over the wire, and would we go into the woods nearby and come back the next day. And we did. It was warm there, May was warm and we came back and we found that the Russians had arrived.
So they didn’t really liberate us, but they did in a different sense, they had arrived and the war had come to an end. It was the most odd group; they were on carts with horses. The advantage of that was that a horse can feed itself by the roadside, whereas if you use a petrol driven car you had to carry petrol for thousands of miles. So that was the right idea. They also had children in army uniform, only boys, they were probably orphans which they had picked up, but they did carry little machine guns. They had military police, who were women. They were square, you know, really square! Soldiers who had faced the Germans who were being resolute and heroic, their knees would tremble meeting one of those. But they took absolutely no notice of us, didn’t give us any bread, something which we could digest, they just ignored us.
I made friends with a boy who could speak Russian and of course Polish – he came from Poland and was looking for his mother; he was sure that she was still alive. He arranged for a room on a dairy farm, the farms extended into the village, he had a pint of milk a day and that sustained us, that was good enough we didn’t want anymore. And then I remember a group of former prisoners called me over and said, ‘We’ve been to the factory to see if anything is worth having, we know you’re interested in metal working and here is a side gate, do you want it?’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure’. On another occasion I was called over and they said, ‘We got a bicycle, do you want it?’ Well, the bicycle was a continental one with thick tyres, real balloon tyres and you brake by pedalling backwards and that wore out pretty soon. I didn’t really have the muscles to ride a bike, you know you do need some effort, but I said, ‘I’ll have it’, and after a week this friend of mine left to look for his mother and I left on the bicycle.
It was a very flat area and I didn’t know which way to head, but I happened to head in the right direction because the Czech border was quite near and I happened upon it, and the terminus of the Czech railway line, just a small line. They saw me and they were probably aghast you know, the way I looked and they asked me where I had been and where I wanted to go. All I could think of was Prague, although I knew that there was nobody there. They said, ‘You are just the man we were looking for’, because they had no news and everything that happened, happened in Prague so they wanted me as an excuse. So, they put a fire in the locomotive, coupled on a carriage, put me in, I think that I fell asleep, I can’t remember anything, and off we went.
That was the only time that someone laid on a train for me and I got out at a Prague railway station, I can’t remember which. There was no Red Cross lady to offer me a cup of tea and a biscuit and nobody was expecting me. It’d taken about ten days, a week to ten days, from being liberated to arriving in Prague, which was quite soon really.
The beginning of a new life
So, I left the labour camp and returned to Prague on a train which the railwaymen ‘laid on’ for me from a station near the camp. I was on my own as were literally thousands and thousands of other people. They were either prisoners or forced workers who had been taken to the West, who wanted to go home to the East, and people who had been taken to the East who wanted to go back to the West, including French prisoners of war who simply wanted to get home as quickly as possible. Czechoslovakia still had a functioning railway system whereas those all over France, Belgium, Holland, Germany and Austria had been bombed, as a prelude to the invasion. It was terribly difficult until I got to the border. Prague was the hub. Everybody went to Prague and the local authorities, being overwhelmed, put iron bedsteads into school classrooms and I was allocated one. I still didn’t know what to do with myself.
By then Prague was pretty shabby and very neglected, nothing like it is now. When I arrived I knew where I was and the shabbiness didn’t worry me. The Czechs copied a lot from the Austrians, who ruled the place for hundreds of years, and copied their bureaucracy so they had clerks taking down everyone’s details and I think that is how, later, distant relatives found me, possibly through the Red Cross. I was befriended by a real communist (the ones later on were just fakes) whose husband had just been set free from a concentration camp. She arranged for me to go to a convalescent home in Tábor, an ancient town in Bohemia. So off I went. They had a delivery of bags of flour, each a hundredweight, and I volunteered to help unload them, and I collapsed. I couldn’t possibly lift them. I was taken to the nearest hospital on a rackety horse and cart along a rackety road. The hospital was quite new but there was only one doctor and one nurse. They discovered that I had an inflammation of the lining between the lungs and the gut so they put me on a chair the wrong way round and put a thick needle through and extracted the liquid with a syringe, and that worked. I was there for several weeks while it healed. It wasn’t very nice because right next to me was a boy who had been run over by a car, probably because there were so few cars and he hadn’t expected one, and his relatives were wailing.
Life as an apprentice at the Zeiss factory in Teplice
I returned to the convalescent home and they said ‘If you like, stay for another six weeks’. I had no family or friends in Prague and I said ‘No, I can’t possibly do that, I have got to catch up on my six lost years’. So I went back to Prague, the only place you could go to and I went to the equivalent to the Ministry of Works and said ‘Here I am, what can you do for me?’ They were dismissing the Germans in the Sudetenland and could offer me a three-year apprenticeship at a Zeiss factory, with accommodation, food and some pocket money. So that solved my problem and I went off to Teplice. It was an extraordinary plant, two reinforced concrete two-storey buildings, one for mirrors and the other for metal parts for anti-aircraft guns. The mirrors were for the split image on the cameras. If the image matched you could read off the distance.
The apprentice department was on its own. We were not part of production or anything. It was a very well-established and furnished workshop where every apprentice had his own little lathe, vice and drawers for tools, and you were given a drawing of ever-increasing difficulty. Our first job was to produce a cube one centimetre square. It’s very difficult to have all sides square and finish with the right measurements. It took me ages. They really trained you which is why the apprenticeship lasted three years.
When I arrived I was completely on my own while the other apprentices, who came from Prague, could go home at weekends and their mothers would do their washing and ironing and feed them up. The organisation was poor. The house had belonged to a large Jewish family. The cooking was rather miserable with nobody to do it. The first people they sent was a commissar and her mother. Most odd, so that wasn’t very good. Unlike the others, I didn’t have any help. Things weren’t terribly good because there were two Hitlerjugend (Hitler youths) who were fiercely anti-Semitic. They were indoctrinated, they had been brainwashed, and it didn’t go down very well with me. Next door was another house, for girls, and I met four Jewish girls, apprentice dressmakers, who were on their way to America. In those days you didn’t buy ready-made, it was all to measure and dress-making was still a trade. I befriended one of the girls, Magda, who said ‘Well, if you don’t like it, up the road is a Jewish hostel’. Communications were very poor so I hadn’t known that. So after about three months I moved there and, oddly enough, it was as chaotic as the first place.
The chance to move on to London
A soldier arrived. He was from the Jewish Brigade of the Eighth British Army, Montgomery’s, and he knew about us. He said ‘There’s no guarantee that you will actually land in Palestine because the Royal Navy has orders to intercept ‘illegal immigrants’ because you are not included in the quota allowed in per year. We try, but ships do get intercepted’. I wanted to go to Palestine because I couldn’t think of anywhere else. I didn’t want to stay in Czechoslovakia. I had no connection with the country, I wasn’t born there, all my relatives had been murdered, I didn’t know anybody. I had learnt the language in Prague and spoke it almost perfectly. When the soldier mentioned we could be intercepted and put into displaced persons camps, either in Germany or on Cyprus which had a reputation for water shortages, I hesitated. Of course in ‘45 you didn’t know what was going to happen in the future. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. The fact that in 1948 the Jewish state might be established meant that’s where I wanted to go. I had been a Zionist before the war as it seemed the only solution, to get a state of our own, not to be dependent on others.
However, a distant relative invited me to go to London. I have to go back to my grandfather to find the relationship. It was two Viennese brothers who married two sisters from my father’s village. The relative was one of their sons and another very distant relative, who offered to pay for me, wrote saying ‘If you like, you can come to England, we shall apply to the Home Office for a visa and you can stay with us’. They must have found me through the Red Cross lists. I replied ‘Yes, I shall be very pleased’. I didn’t speak any English at all. In fact, my friend Magda, who came from Ukraine, had an English boyfriend, probably a prisoner-of-war. She asked if I could translate a letter from him but I couldn’t. It was pretty awkward. She spoke Hungarian, Russian, Czech and Yiddish, but not English.
Strangely enough, in Teplice a woman had offered to read my cards. I was all against it because to me it was only through the logical thinking of the Greeks that you arrive at a reasonable proposition. Reading cards wasn’t among them. She said ‘You are going on a long journey and you will meet one man whom you will not get on with and you will find three women with whom you will get on very well’. Alright. ‘And you just have to wait. Your visa is at the bottom of a pile of papers’. Quite true. I had met another distant relative who went to the British Embassy to ask where my visa was. At least I had somebody who could speak English. They couldn’t find it. Eventually, after a nerve-wracking time, it was found. I had a photograph taken, very prim and proper, with brushed hair, looking stern and I had a passport. I had a Czech guardian, because I was underage, and I had to tell him that I was going to return. I couldn’t possibly say I wasn’t coming back and my Czech passport which was only for six months expired after I had left the country.
The people in London arranged for my travel by plane as all the railways had been destroyed. I went in an old Junkers 52, a German paratroop plane which had been left on a Prague airfield because anything that flew would have been shot down. The rest of the passengers were Czech diplomats on their way to the United Nations, in Los Angeles, I think. We flew in hops. The plane couldn’t fly for long so we stopped in Frankfurt and Brussels, at an American military airport. As the plane was for paratroopers you had seats along the fuselage, not individual seats, and smaller holes to look through so you had a crick in your neck if you wanted to see. We flew very low. I can’t remember which airfield we arrived at in London. On the flight they gave me the address, 11 Don Place, St. John’s Wood.
Frank Bright MBE (b. 1928) talking to WISEArchive on 25th and 27th May 2021 at Martlesham, Suffolk
Frank was awarded an MBE for services to Holocaust education in the New Year Honours list 2022.
His story continues in Labour camp to municipal engineer Part Two (1946-2021) Part Two
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