Iska Lichter: remembering a time when "we all got along"


Iska Lichter was born Jindriska Zofie Roudnicka in the town of Kolin, in 1930. The daughter of a Jewish father and a gentile mother, she lived a normal life until 1939 and the Nazi occupation. Her parents divorced - deliberately - to avoid the family being persecuted. Her father sent the family to the countryside, he himself went to his mother's town of Podebrady. He was deported to Terezin in 1942 and later sent to Auschwitz, from which he never returned. Iska, who now lives in Colorado, says hardly a day goes by when she does not think of her father, and her life before the war.

Can you explain the name "Iska" and recall for me your early life in Czechoslovakia?

"My name is Jindra Lichter - Jindriska. So the end of my first name is 'Iska'. I was born in 1930 in Kolin. I grew up in Kolin until 1940. Then because of the German occupation and my father having been Jewish, we moved to our country house near Kutna Hora. I studied at home for one year - fifth grade - and then I went to Kutna Hora Realni Gymnasium [secondary school] for three years, and then I could not study any more because I came from a Jewish family. I worked in a factory for one year, which was very hard for a fourteen-year-old. My hands got frost-bitten: peeling potatoes, going out into the yard, getting boiling water. We had to peel a minimum of 60 pounds of potatoes a day. So I think it was a very important year, although to this day I suffer from that with my hands. In 1945 I became a student at the Ceskoslovenska Akademie Obchodni (the Czechoslovak Commercial Academy). I could not really continue at the secondary school because I'd lost a lot of time, and also during the Communist regime, having come from a so-called capitalist family, I could never even think about going to university. So in the winter of 1948 my cousin came back from Palestine as it was at the time, and said 'I don't want you stay here any more. I want you to live somewhere else.' And he introduced me to some of his friends from abroad, and I married an American. He was a so-called capitalist who had five dollars in his pocket basically. He was a World War Two pilot and an instructor for the Israeli Air Force, and I got to meet all these very lovely people at the Israeli embassy in 1948-1949. Anyway, I married and I was promptly, literally thrown out of school again because I'd married a capitalist, so that was about the third time in my life by the age of eighteen and a half that I couldn't continue my education. I left, and spent the summer in the United States, studying English, and in September '49 I followed my husband to Israel, where I lived for a year and a half. We came back from Israel in 1951 to live in the United States. We lived in New York, in the suburb of Long Island, and we raised our three children there. Our children grew up, got an education, and as it happens in many families, the parents split up, after 27 years. So we got divorced - we're still friends. And all of us now live in Boulder, Colorado - everybody. I think our children somehow feel that it's good to live close together since our family was literally strewn all around the world - from concentration camps to Palestine, to Great Britain. So now they all live in this small city."

What did you do in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s? What was your profession?

"I had no profession, because I wasn't trained for anything in particular. I raised my children. I worked in a travel agency for about 15 years, part-time. But nevertheless all the time I studied some language. Not that I am so fluent in these languages, but I had to learn five alphabets, starting with German and ending in Arabic. I'm very grateful for that, because if I go to any one of these countries, knowing how to read and write I can speak in a few weeks again, quite fluently. So I had the privilege of not having to work very hard, because my husband provided very well for me and our family."

You're currently in Prague, why are you returning now to your home country?

"Well in 1989, one of my sons telephoned and said 'Mum, mum - put on the radio, they're talking about a man called Vaclav Havel. And that was the beginning, Charter 77 and so on, and they kept reading for hours from his work, about him and so on. So we became very much aware. Then the Velvet Revolution came, and at the end of December 1989 we started something called the Czechoslovak Institute in Los Angeles - I was studying in Los Angeles at that time. You may know a lady called Mia Vallert - she managed to incorporate many interesting organisations under the heading of the Czechoslovak Institute, which was loosely affiliated with UCLA. It wasn't officially affiliated, but we could meet there in the student's centre and so on. We were very devoted to the new Czechoslovakia after 1989, and we tried to help as much as we could. This is how we got reconnected, since we're all Czechoslovaks of the 1930s, having in our hearts the tradition of President Masaryk. Today we feel the Czech Republic is very important, and it's very important from many different points. I think now with the new globalisation, with opening the doors, I think that Czech culture is so strong that no matter what globalisation does to individual nationalities, the Czech culture will flourish with the benefit of the European Union or globalisation, speaking in general terms. I had the possibility of starting the memorial concerts in Kolin, in the Jewish synagogue, which is 300 years old."

When was the first concert?

"The concert was in 2000 I believe."

Was it your idea?

"It was my idea. I felt that a wall is a wall. Names written on the wall are still not living. But a living memorial and music would forever remind people of this common heritage. I myself felt we have to remember and celebrate the twenty years [1918 - 1938] when we all got along."