A black and white photograph of a smiling Jewish girl unearthed in a photographer’s studio some years ago has led a young Czech journalist to piece together the dramatic story of a large group of Jewish children who were smuggled to Denmark to escape the Holocaust. While the story of the Nicolas Winton children is well known, this one is only just coming to light and will hopefully reunite long-lost friends scattered around the globe. The freelance journalist who is singlehandedly tackling the task is Judita Matyasova whom I invited to the studio. She began by telling me how it all came about.
“It all started with a project for high school students. The project involved tracing the fate of Jewish people who disappeared during the war –something called the Lost Neighbours project. And this student group from the village of Velky Beranov close to Jihlava decided to try and discover the fate of a girl called Helena. Helena was 16 and she knew she would soon be forced to join the transport of Jews to a concentration camp. So she went to a photographer’s studio to get a photo made. She paid the photographer and when he asked when she would be back to pick it up Helena said – I’ll be back when it’s all over. But she never returned. Then in 2005 this old photographer was clearing out his studio and found the picture. He decided to try to trace the girl to give her the photo and had it placed in a local paper hoping someone would respond. Nobody did, but when in 2009 the students I mentioned were interviewing Holocaust survivors, one survivor mentioned having seen a photo of her schoolmate in a regional daily. The young girl in the picture suddenly had a name: Helena. And that’s how it all started.”
So you got hold of the photo and published the story in Lidove Noviny, the paper you work for?
“Yes it was a front-page story and three or four days later a woman rang me and said she was Zuzana Ledererova from Prague and that Helena was her cousin. So I arranged to meet with her and of course I had to ask how she herself had managed to survive the Holocaust and it was from her that I learned about the children who had been sent to Denmark to save them from going to concentration camps. ”
“Yes. It was such an amazing story to stumble upon. I immediately started searching to find if the story had ever been properly documented and found absolutely nothing.”
But seven hundred children is a large group....
“Yes, it was actually 700 children from around Europe who found refuge in Denmark – only 150 of them were from Czechoslovakia.”
So who organized this escape?
“It was a Zionist organization based in Jerusalem which organized “courses” in various European countries to prepare children for evacuation –and for a new life in Palestine.”
But they ended up in Denmark?
“Yes, the children were all aged 14 to 16 and if you were too young or too old it was almost impossible to get a ticket to safety.”
So when they ended up in Denmark what happened to them there?
“Well, most of them were city kids for whom it was a completely new environment. They were taken in by Danish farmers, placed with individual families around the country. So their lives changed radically and they started a whole new life.”
“Yes, they were spread out but the group around Zuzana were placed in farms fairly close to each other around the town of Naestved about an hour’s drive from Copenhagen. So they stayed in touch.”
So they led a fairly sheltered life there –for how long?
“They stayed there from October 1939 to October 1943 when they had to escape Nazi persecution once again and fled to Sweden which was neutral.”
So they had to cross the channel somehow?
“Yes, the sea journey usually takes about an hour, but it took them 12 hours. They were hidden in fishermen’s boats and it was a terrible journey - but they survived.”
They survived and they ended up in Sweden ....
“Yes, but after their dramatic escape to Sweden they completely lost contact and knew nothing about each other’s fate thereafter - until 2011 when I met Zuzana.”
So are most of them still in Sweden or are they scattered around the world?
“They are scattered all over the world. Many settled in Sweden but in 1944 most of the boys were old enough to enrol and joined the allied forces in England. The girls lived in Sweden until the end of the war and when it was finally over they came home - but most of them found that there was no one left to come home to.”
Did they not try to re-establish contact after the war?
“They were in a difficult situation you see. After all that time you are finally home. You are standing in your street, that is your house –but all your loved ones are gone.And you have to ask yourself so where is my home – because without your family it is no longer your home. So they wondered where to go from there. To Scandinavia where the war took them or to Palestine? They were torn from their roots and they ended up in South Africa, in Canada, all over the world. Just a few – like Zuzana –remained in Czechoslovakia.”
How many of them have you managed to trace? Did they never try to find each other?
“It may sound easier to do that than it actually is. You come back and you have a lot of things to deal with. You search for your own relatives, then you meet someone, marry and start a new life. And then where do you start searching? So is very hard for them to find each other.”
It must be a hard task for you after all those years – how are you going about it?
I have a list of names – but they are names from 1939 – and many may have changed their names. Women usually marry and don’t use their maiden name, so it is difficult. But I was in Denmark last year and visited these places where the kids lived and found that a lot of the locals remember them. They published my story in the local papers and I couldn’t believe the response. So many envelopes, so many calls. Letters saying “hello I am Hilda. I am 90 years old. I remember Hanka from Prague...” It was so touching. Most of these people are too old now to travel and meet in person but they are so happy when to hear what happened to the others and renew contact.”
So what is your goal now – what are you hoping to achieve?
“I am going to Sweden in March where I am going to meet with some of these war children whom I managed to trace and then I will be going to Israel where I have a presentation about this project and I am preparing a book and movie about this story – so many things. “