One on One Gisela Cheffer: “I even sat on the lap of some Nazis. Of course, they had no idea that my father was Jewish”
Gisela Cheffer was born Gisela Duschinský in Brno in 1932. Her Viennese father was Jewish, which made her a target for the Nazis, and her baptism as a Roman Catholic very likely saved her life. She later came close to being forced to leave during the mass expulsion of Czechoslovakia’s German population after the war. But she stayed – until, that is, a meeting with a Finn led to a life abroad.
“I was born in Brno. My mother was a big Czech person. Even though she had Italian-Austrian parents, she studied at Masaryk University in Brno and became a doctor of philosophy, art and history.
“She did everything for the Czech people. She was never Austrian or Italian. She was only Czech and that’s how I was brought up.”
And your father was a Viennese, German-speaking Jew?
“Yes. But he also spoke Czech.”
Was that common in those days, to have such mixed families, bilingual families?
“No, it wasn’t. I was really suffering in school because of my name. Because Gisela is not a Czech name. Everybody is Ružena, Božena, or Anička. They were laughing and always said, Gisela je kyselá [laughs].”
Which means ‘sour’. Were your family part of the Jewish community in Brno?
“No, we were not. Because my father’s mother lived in Litomeřice and we just went there to visit. That was all.”
You were born in 1930, so seven years before the beginning of the war. Your parents must have been hugely worried as war approached. Were you aware of that as a kid?
“No. The only thing was that my father wanted to leave Czechoslovakia, to England, and my mother didn’t want to go, because she loved this country.”
So what happened? Did your father go and did your mum stay?
Tell us about your own war experiences. Is it the case that you survived the war because you were baptised a Christian?
“I survived it only because when my mother died and my father was gone, they started to persecute the Jews. My grandmother was afraid because…they called it Mischling, when you were half-Jewish.
“Even though Jewish people don’t recognise somebody whose father is Jewish – you are only supposed to be Jewish when the mother is.
“My grandmother sent me to a little village called Nemčiče and there they baptised me. There I had a godmother and every time I came to Czechoslovakia I used to visit my godmother.”
And you spent the war years living in a convent?
“Yes, at a convent called Boskovice. The convent belonged to a count called von Mensdorff. The nuns were actually contributing… they had a little farm, that’s how they were living. And von Mensdorff came every day to the chapel, we had a little chapel.
“And because I spoke German, fluently, thanks to my grandmother, I used to go play with the von Mensdorff children, because they spoke German.”
I understand also that you had some visitors at the convent – the Gestapo.
“Yes. Actually, we had to move from our bedrooms – we were about 150 children – and they shoved us all together into two bedrooms. And the Nazis stayed a while there.”
How was it, sharing quarters with Nazis?
Were you afraid?
“No, I wasn’t. Because I felt very safe there.”
Brno was bombed during the war – I think towards the end of the war. Do you have memories of the bombing?
“Yes. Because my grandmother was not afraid of bombing. Everybody was down in the basement when they heard the sirens, but she was the manager of Hotel Pasáž and she lived on the top floor and looked out at what was going on.
“She saw the smoke coming from the bombs and after everything became quiet we went to see if any of our friends got bombed; I remember seeing half buildings, half toilets.
“I also saw a bomb that hadn’t exploded. There was a big hole and an unexploded bomb.”
What are you recollections of the end of the war in May ’45?
“That was very scary, because we were for two weeks in a basement. We had of course everything there: mattresses and plenty of food. But every time a bomb exploded the lights went out and of course as children we were very afraid.”
I guess also when the Russians came your grandmother must have been concerned for you, because you must have been a pretty young girl at that time?
“Yes. We actually had the bad Russians, the Tatars or whatever you call them, and they were raping girls.
“Every time I went out she told me make sure you put a scarf on your head so they don’t see that you are blonde. Everybody was afraid of rape.”
Your parents didn’t survive the war?
“No. My mother died in 1942 of lung tuberculosis. And my father got lost in the war – he was flying for the RAF, for the British air force. My grandmother investigated it and they said he’d just got lost in the war somewhere.”
Had you been able to communicate with your dad during the war?
“No. All I remember is when I was six years old he came to say goodbye and he brought me a doll. I remember it just like it was today. That was all.”
After the war what became of you? Where did you go? What did you do?
“After the war it was bad, because my grandmother for some reason had got German citizenship. Probably she was afraid of being deported, or something.
“At the end of the war, they announced that all German citizens had to come to a kind of office in town. There was a big line – kilometers long. She had to go also and of course I had to go with her.
“Before we went about 20 Czech citizens came and vouched for her, that she also did very good things for the Czech people and that she was a good person. So, they let her stay.”
Otherwise you would have been among the two or three million people who were expelled from the country?
Then you moved with her to Prague, where you worked as a governess at various Western embassies?
“Yes. My first job was with a fabulous family. He was a military attaché – Jim Simon was his name. And I got to know the English culture a bit [laughs].”
But eventually you left Prague after meeting a Finn?
“But because he was a representative of [state body] Centrotex…in that era, if Finland wanted to buy something from Czechoslovakia, they had to send something to Czechoslovakia.
“Finland was overproducing butter and cheese. We were sending butter and cheese and paper from Finland to Czechoslovakia, and we were importing textiles to Finland.
“He had quite a high name, because at that time they weren’t many foreigners doing business. It took me nine months to get permission to leave the country.”
What’s fascinating to me is that you left the country and had a son with this Finnish guy and then he came back to Prague to study dance as a teenager.
“Yes. He came when he was 12 years old. He had actually been dancing from the age of six. I brought him up in a Czech spirit. I sent him to German schools, so he had one international language.
“From when he was nine months old I came every year or two years to Czechoslovakia. When he was five years old I sent him to a family in Brno who I knew from when I got baptised – it was the family of my godmother. And he stayed the whole summer when he was five with this Czech family.”
You used to visit him when he was here studying – and he’s stayed here all this time?
“Yes, he stayed. He graduated from the dance academy. The professors absolutely loved him, because he was brought up as a Czech.
“Nobody understood why he was speaking about Finland – how come you know so much about Finland?! He speaks Czech without any accent, completely like a Czech person.”
You lived in Finland, you lived in the States, you now live in Venezuela, and you have remained in touch with Czech culture partly through the women’s magazine Květy?
“Yes, Květy. Because when my son was small I put an ad in Květy to find a Czech friend who could visit us in Finland and then my son could come visit him. And it happened.
“From that time I receive Květy magazine wherever I am in the world. My son pays for it for the whole year. And it comes punctually, even to Venezuela.”
And for 50 years you’ve been reading this Czech magazine?
“I find that the Czech Republic has lost its identity a little bit. Because I was looking for a Czech doll, in a Czech national costume, the one from Kjyov – because I had a costume like that when I was a child.
“So I went to a store and they tried to sell me a Polish one. I said, no, no, no, no, I am Czech and I know how my costume looks. Thank you. Then I went to another store and they tried to sell me a Hungarian one. I said, no, no, no.
“In the end, where the Jan Hus statue is, on the left side I found a store and at last I found a store with Czech dolls. I bought one for myself and we have in Venezuela Lebanese friends and I bought another Czech doll for their daughter.”
So you’ve introduced them to the Czech kroj?
“Yes, the Czech kroj!"