In today's One on One Jan Velinger's guest is Susanne Medas, a British citizen of German-Czech-Jewish descent who is a sprightly 81, but still regularly visits the Czech Republic to teach English. She has been coming back since the early 90s even if returning means a certain coming to terms with the past. In her youth Susanne was lucky to escape following the Nazi occupation, one of the children saved through Nicholas Winton's famous kindertransports. But, although she escaped, she never saw her parents again. In this One on One she tells the story of her parents and their fate.
"My father was Viennese and my mother was from the Sudetenland and they were Jewish but they were not believers and, indeed, when they got married they left the Jewish community in order not to have to marry under the "chuppah", I guess. Um, my father should have studied chemistry in Vienna because his father wanted him to go into his tannery business. But while he was at university in Vienna Socialism was born, so to speak in Austria, so he became a member of the Austrian Arbeiter Partei - the Worker's Party.
Much to the horror of his father he became a socialist, and so was sent to the 'far-flung' corners of the Austrian Empire, which happened to be north Bohemia, to actually tell the workers of their rights! He ended up in Jablonec nad Nisou, met my mother and ended up working for a small paper which didn't give him much scope as political editor. So, when he was still quite young, only 24 years old, he wrote a letter to a well-known editor in Germany and asked him if he couldn't find him a job in Germany."
At this point how did things turn out?
"He began in Nuremburg but was eventually called to Berlin to begin working for a Social Democrat paper called "Forwards" (Vorwarts). He started working there and because he could do shorthand he used to go to the Reichstag in Berlin to take notes of parliamentary speeches and so on, part of his work. A very interesting thing, which I only found out about him just a few years ago was that before Hitler came to power it was hoped that the Communists and the Socialists could find a 'united front', in which case it might have been possible to prevent the fascists from coming to power; because he was considered a reasonable person and not a hothead he was asked to try and build bridges between the Communists and the Social Democrats.
But, then came 1933, Hitler came to power, and the editors of Forwards immediately had to leave the country and most of them came to Prague."
You were still young when you left Germany with your parents, so I imagine the transition to Czech life must have come relatively easily...
"Very much so, very much so, for me that was never a problem. A ten year-old child I went to a German school because my parents thought we would be returning to Germany. The best part of my life then and almost to this day was that I became a member of the Rote Falkon, the Red Falcons, which was the youth of the Social Democrat Party. We were totally mixed: Jewish, non-Jewish, the language spoken was German, but most of the children had also learned Czech. So, indeed, I had a very happy time in Prague."
How do you remember the time leading up to the Second World War - the agreement at Munich, the annexation of the Sudetenland and so on?
"Well, first of all in our classroom all the decent teachers were thrown out, the headmaster who was a Jew had to leave, and everyone else was already 'Heil Hitlering' there. And this was before the occupation of Czechoslovakia itself but after the annexation of the border region. In the autumn of '38 I started my fourth year at school. Turned up at school at our beautiful staircase and I'm standing at the bottom about to go up and my fellow students, previously my good friends were standing at the top shouting 'Here comes the Jewish pig!' I couldn't really believe it because the week before - nothing. Nothing like that at all.
That was one thing, another was that when we were in Prague at this time my father was no longer working for a paper as such but had become a foreign correspondent, which meant that he had to know what was going on in this country. And one of the newspapers was the Daily Herald in Britain, which was the organ of the Labour Party. After Munich when Chamberlain had returned to London and told his people there that there was nothing to fear, my father who knew of course what was going on at the border, that the soldiers were coming closer and closer - I remember this distinctly - my father came home after speaking to the Daily Herald and telling them this 'Don't be taken, this isn't true'; even they didn't want to know."
"So, so I know for sure my parents tried to get out but didn't succeed. But, because I was a member of the Rote Falcon in my case it was the leader of our group who gave my name to Mr Winton. Indeed, when we got to Britain something similar to the Rote Falkon are the Woodcraft folk and twenty woodcraft families had offered to take twenty children, so I was one of them.
As for my parents, the last time I saw my father must have been in April or May of 1939, when he wasn't living with us but was in hiding. My mother said we're going to see your father today at Wenceslas Square, I've got something to discuss with him, but whatever you do don't address him as "Dad". We went to Wenceslas Square and I saw a man with a hat low over his eyes, a false beard and dark glasses and barely recognised my father. So, my father was very much in fear of being caught as he obviously was on the 'wanted list'.
The extraordinary thing was that after I left for Britain I got a postcard from my Dad from Oslo, Norway, in 1940. What happened, as I understand, was that the Czechoslovak Red Cross was able to take out some of these politically-threatened people who were known anti-fascists - how they managed this I don't know but the Red Cross is able to do wonderful things - because my parents travelled through Germany to Norway, that was the only way to get there, and indeed when they reached Berlin by train their friends plucked up enough courage to meet them at the station and gave my parents some fruit, or money, or something like that. And then my parents went to Norway but when Norway was occupied they were put on two ships - the men on one and the women on another - bound for Poland and Auschwitz.
One of the boats - the one with my mother - went aground on a British mine. But, the Germans were determined to take these people to Auschwitz. Even when the boat sank they fished out the survivors rather than leave open the possibility that some Norwegian fisherman might save their lives. I can see that you're shaking your head: when I tell this story to young people they always start crying because it really... I mean, it's really only a small detail of the machinery how it worked: 'we want these people to Auschwitz because we want to gas them because we want to able to say that 'this is the extinct race that doesn't exist anymore'."
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