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Plucked from Perdition: One Who Lived To Tell Her Tale

Posted By Jascha Kessler On September 5, 2007 @ 12:06 pm In Great Britain,History,Non-Fiction Reviews | 3 Comments

The Munich Agreement Signatories

A letter came recently from a friend who has had a long career as one of those men of whom it is said, “You wouldn’t notice him when he passed you on the street.” He is at an age where he reminisces about places he has been to and some of the assignments he carried off. This time he wrote about the months he spent in Prague during that ominous year, 1938. Lately he’d wondered about the fate of people he had helped, and learned that amongst those who were children then almost none could recollect much of what had befallen them. There were however a few whose memories were not drowned in the oubliette of childhood. He sent questions out to them. One answered with her story, which he enclosed with his notes to me. I have his permission to offer it for any readers who might be interested. His letter prefaces Laura King’s recounting with a relation of events in which he played a part:

The “Munich Agreement” was signed on the 30th September 1938. Britain and France had caved-in to Hitler’s blackmail, handing over to Germany the mountainous Sudeten regions of Czechoslovakia.

One immediate human consequence was that thousands of the inhabitants of its districts, of German extraction but Czech nationality, fled their homes and sought refuge in what remained of Czechoslovakia. For many months, they had been struggling against Nazi-inspired terror. Now, together with the Jewish community, as well as the many Jews who had fled Germany and Austria in previous years, they felt trapped. The country itself, and especially its capital, Prague, was filling with Nazi agents. The new government, completely isolated from the outside world, was desperately trying to placate its insatiable neighbor. Everyone knew what Western statesmen refused to acknowledge: that it was just a matter of time until Hitler would renege on his assurances and the Wehrmacht would invade and overrun the land. In fact, it was on the 21st of October — just three weeks after the Munich Agreement — that Hitler gave his staff instructions to prepare without delay the extirpation of what was left of independent Czechoslovakia.

There were quite a few people in Britain who were afraid that just this aggression was imminent. They resolved at least to try to rescue as many as they could of those whose lives were endangered. Sir Walter Layton’s News Chronicle took the lead in making the situation public. The Jewish community, the Quakers, with the Rowntrees at their head, the unions led by Citrine, various Members of Parliament, especially Eleanor Rathbone — all decided to help. They formed the “British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia,” and sent Doreen Warriner, a Lecturer in Economics, to represent them in Prague.

Warriner made the Hotel Alkron in the heart of the city her headquarters. It became the center of a rescue operation for thousands of people. She and her helpers visited camps, established coordination with local organizations and the remaining agencies of the Republic who could be relied on for the work of screening. The Committee back home raised funds for visa guarantees and/or group transports to Canada, whose Government and people proved to be both generous and welcoming.

Time however was pressing, especially for ordinary, non-political Jews, whom scarcely anyone considered to be in mortal danger — not in “our civilized day.” People knew different in Nazi-penetrated, or Nazi-dominated countries. Panic-stricken parents promptly began to appear in Doreen Warriner’s offices, begging that at least their children might be taken to safety in England, or anywhere in the West for that matter, although they themselves would be sacrificed.

At that point, a second rescue operation commenced. Photos and documents went to London where it was mainly Nicholas Winton who badgered the Committee and anyone he could buttonhole who had the influence to find guarantors and homes for these children. In Prague itself Jewish families offered their houses as centers to collect children coming from elsewhere. Doreen Warriner’s aides, Trevor Chadwick among them, gathered them up and helped organize transport by train and air. People in Norway and Sweden learned about the project and sent their own representatives who relieved the pressure: between them they extricated about 200 Jewish children and brought them to Scandinavia.

And then the Germans came. The long-anticipated invasion took place on 15th March 1939. After that, all activity was forced underground until the War finally started.

Most of the children of those years, long since grown, indeed now well along into late middle age, remember little about their circumstances in Prague, their parents, or even their early days in England. However, there were two or three teenagers in that group who can recall the events accompanying their rescue. What follows is the story of one of them, written down fifty years later: Laura King’s poignant little memoir sheds a light of its own on that time in Europe and on pre-war, and war-time Britain. It begins with Laura waiting for her travel documents, while she also acts as a courier for the organization based at the Hotel Alkron.

…There is a very clear picture in my mind of several men and women sitting together at a table in the Alkron each time I called there to be given names, addresses and short messages (usually just a time and the the name of what I assumed was a meeting place). I can also pinpoint fairly accurately the time of my own departure and the circumstances surrounding it, at least that part of it which I experienced and what I was told by the lady who gave me my “marching orders.”

It was sometime during the latter part of April ’39, because we landed in London on April 30th after a crossing from Gydnia, where we stayed in a Youth Hostel for a few days to await one of Hitler’s speeches. It seemed the tone of that speech would determine our route either through the Kiel Canal or the longer, but for us safer route via Scandinavia.

I was told in Prague at midday that I had to be at the Wilson Station at 5 pm that afternoon, to take only one small suitcase and nothing which could identify me, not even newspaper as wrapping. At the station, the lady explained through an interpreter (another refugee living in the same house as my mother), I would see people I knew, but I should on no account appear to know them. In due course I would be approached and given further instructions. All this, she explained, was necessary because someone who had been helped to get away had sent a telegram of thanks to the Alkron, naming names and the named people had to leave. It was felt I might be in danger, too. It was all very cloak & dagger and heady stuff for a 15-year old. I had no visa, in fact now had no passport, the Rescue Mission took charge of it, nor did I have any idea of my destination. I don’t recall that I cared, this was ADVEN[T]URE and I had no sense of danger or probably just no sense.

At the station I did indeed see English faces I knew but it seemed an eternity before someone approached me. I was to be, for the purposes of this journey, the English niece of one of the English ladies departing after a visit to my aunt en route to Gdynia to visit another aunt. I was to speak to no one on the train, in fact I wasn’t to speak at all until told to do so. The logic of this escaped me then and does so now, but trying to puzzle it out helped to while away the long silent hours of that night ride. A lady, bearing an armful of English magazines spoke to me — in English, of which, thanks to my half-American mother and reasonably good education, I understood about one word in 6. She hugged me, kissed me and after I had been told (must have been by some else and in German, because I understood perfectly) to lock myself in the toilet at the end of the corridor whenever someone opened the door and looked at me and to stay there until I heard a certain knock, the lady handed me into a compartment — I had a window seat facing the engine [ — ] kissed me again, thrust the magazine into my lap and stood outside the window, still talking loudly in English, to which I ventured the occasional “yes” or “no” in what I hoped were st[r]ategic places. I wish I could remember who the lady was, I don’t think I’d ever seen her before. She was a brave woman. There were by then about eight or nine other people in the compartment, all adults, with one exception, a girl traveling with[,] as I was later to find out, her mother. All th[r]ough that long night I sat staring out of the window at pitch-darkness, there was absolute silence in the compartment broken from time to time by distant official German voices shouting “Passkontrolle.” I never saw the owners of those voices, because long before they reached me a head would poke through a half-opened door stare at me and withdraw and I would retreat to the loo to await the knock which told me that the coast was clear. At dawn I heard band music and a few minutes later someone came to the compartment[,] anno[u]nced that we were in Poland, that we were all members of the same transport of over 80 people, mostly adults and political or Jewish refugees[,] that we could now talk to each other and no, the band on the station platform was not for us but for some other group getting off there. We were bound for Gydnia and thence to England. And we talked — and talked. Most of my travel companions had viewed me with suspicion — a possible German agent [ — ] and each time the German customs cont[r]ol had come in (while I reposed in the loo) they had pointed out my poor little suitcase as belonging to an English person. That case had been turned over very thoroughly.

From Gydnia we sailed through the Kiel Canal (Hitler, it seems, made a conciliatory speech, though how anyone was ever able to understand a word of those speeches is one of life’s unsolved mysteries to me) on a coaster called the “Baltrova.” London was, as I expected, damp and drizzly and we went by coach to what I now know was a typical small hotel of the period in Highbury. You know the sort of place, largish rooms partitioned to make two, basement dining room table lamps scarlet-shaded and decorated with black braid with bobbles on and the tea-urn. My first experience of stewed English tea had me convinced that Hitler’s minions had followed me expressly to poison me. My previous experience of tea had been of China tea in thin china cups or glasses, dispensed from a pot in which had been dipped a perforated “tea egg,” and decorated with thin slices of lemon. May day was gloriously sunny and some of us were taken to what I think must have been Hyde Park where we watched the May Day procession.

During the week following my arrival I was kilted out in the most amazingly lavish manner at Bourne & Hollingsworth in preparation, so I was told, for school. The term Boarding School in the sense it is used in the English education service meant nothing to me. Where I came from, only disruptive or unmanag[e]able children were sent to such institutions. Badminton, in Westbury-on-Trym, Bristol, is, or, at least was then, a very enlightened and select Public School for Girls, run by the Society of Friends, who must have borne all the costs for me and the other eleven refugees from Spain, Austria, Germany & Czechoslovakia who were there at the time. Not until years later did I realize how privileged I had been. My room-mate during those first weeks while I found my feet and unravelled the complexities of the English language was the 8 year old Lois Mitchison (all bangs and ponies at that time). I met her mother Naomi, too, but was neither perceptive enough nor adept enough in the language to appreciate her. Another missed opportunity. The announcement of the outbreak of war found me in Newport, in the kitchen of what had been the Workhouse and was then used to house Basque Refugees one of which was also at Badminton. We youn[g]sters cheered and couldn’t understand the adults’ tears. Once war started, no school could hold me, for though it stopped the harrowing, accusing letters from my stepfather, who almost daily instructed me to visit the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, the King (not easy for a 16-year old behind 8 foot high school walls with 6d a week pocket money) and holding me responsible for whatever fate awaited him, my mother and their baby son (my brother and stepsister arrived in England a month after I did, more of the Committee’s good work), it did not stop the guilt and sense of helplessness. I wanted to “do my bit” in the war. At the end of the year 1939 the school and I parted company by mutual agreement. I was sent to Broadstairs to a refugee hostel in a school, vacant because the school had evacuated to a less dangerous location. There I met again most of my travel companions from the train and the “Baltrova.” It was like coming home. I helped to look after the children while whoever had charge of my destiny decided what to do with this troublesome young person. I wanted to be an Undercover Agent, no less, but “they” thought I needed a career. Having talent in that direction and having had, at school, the chance to foster that talent for art and design I took myself and my portfolio to Margate School of Art and was offered a scholarship which would take care of tuition fees but not living expences [sic]. Art and Design, however, was not considered a sensible career for a refugee and how about becoming a nanny. I suggested hair dressing and/or beauticulture, having taken a crash course for refugees in Prague, but it was not a suitable career and how about becoming a nanny. So off to Uxbridge to a residential nursery cum-school for unwanted embarrassments from such families and run by two ladies who were, if nothing, else, very good at marketing their enterprise. The prospectus read for instance “Breakfast consists of orange juice followed by a hot dish with toast and marmalade.” It was all true, 1 orange between 15 children diluted with water and doled out per teaspoonful (the staff were so desperate for anything, we were glad if there was a spoonful left over for us), gruel and waferthin slice of toast with a tablespoon of marmalade to share. I spent the first month in a hut washing by hand endless streams of nappies (it was winter and the hut unheated) and returned at night to the nurses’ home all bare boards, rows of army cots and thin blankets and no heating. When one of my fellow nurses nearly died of pneumonia I wrote and smuggled out a letter detailing conditions and shortly afterwards, after an unannounced but very thorough visit of inspection, all refugees were removed. I found myself back with my original travel companions and the friends I had made in Broadstairs. They had all by this time been evacuated to Brampton near Carlisle, to a country house called Edmund Castle, complete with 2-bedroomed Lodge, a mile-long carriage drive, acres and acres of rather overgrown grounds and woods, derelict cottages and a rabbit population of astronomical size. It was paradise for the children we were caring for and for me. Trout in the stream (brown trout, grilled over a wood fire at sunrise — magic!), the rabbits, blackberries and wood mushrooms providing welcome additions to wartime rations, long, safe rambles for the children, parties and entertainments we gave for the local population (and to raise funds) and for me, a room of my own after 6 years of making do. It was a long, narrow attic, freezing in winter and boiling in summer, but it was my home. Once again I was too callow to know how lucky I was to be invited to the “Cottage” inhabited by the Earl and Countess of Carlisle and meet there most of the members of the Howard family, to dance reels and goodness knows what other unfamiliar dances at Hogmoney in such distinguished company and to talk about art and plants with Winifred Nicholson, whose paintings I first saw on the walls of her all-white bedroom and recently saw again at the Tate.

It was not all idyllic, of course. There was never enough money, there was often sadness, sometimes despair (I was the first to raise the alarm when one poor lady hanged herself, leaving her baby boy screaming in his cot) but the war seemed a long way away. However, I still wanted to do my bit and through one of the ex-inmates of our hostel, I found work in a big London hotel. Now old enough to join up, I haunted the recruiting offices of all the services only to find I was “an enemy alien” and thus unacceptable to them. So, I went to work in a factory, and later, when it was discovered that I could read blueprints and “set up” a machine (only a matter of common sense and simple mathematics), in a small toolmaking workshop. [Sentence incompletely constructed.] There I met and married my first husband, set up home in a flat and from there was evacuated to give birth to my first child and only daughter near Widnes in Lancashire. With my daughter I returned to London at the end of 1944 and ran a day nursery until my daughter became very ill and I was told to take her out of London and to keep her out. Now also the mother of a baby son I took both children to Devon where I became a farm laborer which gave us a home (a tied cottage) and taught me which end of a cow yielded milk and how to keep from being stepped on by the horse you used in those days to plough with. Later I also discovered how not to drive the tractor straight into its shed and out the other end and discovered that goats are remarkably stupid creatures hellbent on poisoning themselves with uneatable substances unless you tie them to something, in which case they promptly attempt to strangle themselves. I also learned that pigs are not only charming characters but also remarkably clean animals given half a chance. I ended up head herdswoman to a herd of pedigree Guernseys but reluctantly gave it up when my family, now 3 sons and a by now very healthy daughter, needed me at home when the cows needed me on the farm. The children took priority, of course. Later, with two children launched into careers and two at secondary school I, too, went back to school, trained as an F.E. teacher and taught first German and later English as a Foreign Language. I thought I had retired from that but find myself at 65+ back in harness and having a whale of a time, which is why this letter (more a mini-soap opera really, sorry about that) has been so long coming. So, here then is Lore Warschauer that was, nearly 50 years ago and 2 ex-husbands later, with 4 children (3 of whom live within a 10 mile radius) 3 grandsons and hopefully, if my younger sons marry, more to come, sitting in a house I helped to build with my own hands and paid for alone, on a hillside overlooking beautiful Torbay, still working and tending a huge garden in my “spare” time and enjoying being alive. It could so easily have been otherwise and for that chance I thank my rescuers.

I am sorry this has turned out to be such a longwinded story but you did ask. My mother and her little family survived Theresienstadt and returned to Germany in 1968, where she died a few years ago. My brother, whom the organization got out later, became the first British journalist into Prague in 1968 ….

Yours sincerely,
Laura King

— Edited by Jascha Kessler


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