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Fleeing from Czechoslovakia to Britain in Spring 1939 - Part One - Family pressure to leave Prague. Arrival in Maida Vale.icon for Recommended story

by bedfordmuseum

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Dr. Walter and Mrs. Rose Mandler by their daughter Mrs. Vivien Holt
Location of story: 
Prague, Czechoslovakia, London and Ely, Lincs.
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
20 October 2005

Fleeing from Czechoslovakia to Britain in Spring 1939 - Part One — Family pressure to leave Prague. Arrival in Maida Vale and a move to Ely.

Part one of an oral history interview with Mrs. Vivien Holt about the experiences of her parents, Dr. Walter Mandler and Ruzenka Lene (Rose) née Fischl. Conducted by Jenny Ford on behalf of Bedford Museum.

‘I suppose the beginning is when they actually fled but to give you a bit of background they got married four years before they fled, in 1935. Mother was 21 and Father was 24. He had just qualified as a Doctor in Prague. He had met my mother while he was in Prague. He had been brought up in Bohemia, the Bohemian part of Czechoslovakia in a little village and sent to Prague to stay with a cousin, who because of the generations and how many people were born in each family, was the same age as his mother. So he stayed with them and he stayed with them while he did all his medical training and he met my mother and they wanted to get married. I heard about 10 or 15 years ago that it was frowned upon by the families because they got married while he was actually still training. Apparently in certain Jewish families this was considered unacceptable, he should have waited until he had actually finished his training. But they didn’t and they got married, they were very happy and every thing was fine. And of course with all of this unrest I think they probably felt it would all sort itself out and that they really didn’t have to leave, they didn’t want to leave. I mean looking back, Mother was 25 and Father was only 28, not very old to leave. Then various people said, ‘You ought to go!’ And the family started to say to them, ‘You have got to go.’ And the family decided that (their parents, both sides weren’t going to go, they were going to stay) they wanted them to actually go.

My Father, he had a brother who was about 12 years older than him who was already in the Czech Army. He actually perished in the Czech Army. But he was married and had had a son and my Mother and Father hadn’t got any children at that stage (they had us over here) and the family just wanted them to go, to get out. Father had been not called-up but had worked as a Doctor in the Czech Army but didn’t have to fight but he was using his medical skills. He worked there as a Doctor but he never fought. He actually wouldn’t have fought because he wasn’t well. He’d had St. Vitus Dance as a child and it had left him with a very - I think it’s on the same lines as rheumatic fever and his heart was affected and he had all his life had problems from that and died very young. He had problems from that so he probably would never have been allowed to fight but he was on the medical side of the Army.

His Father was an Elder in the Jewish Community in the village they lived in which was called Ronsberg and is no longer called Ronsberg. I could find out for you what is it called because my sister tracked it down and she has been there, I haven’t. They were quite senior members of the village. His Father ran a factory that employed quite a lot of people. They mined quartz and they actually powdered down the quartz so it went into fine bone china. And just an offshoot of that which may or may not be of interest - when I got married I went and chose my crockery, brought it home and Father turned it upside down and said, ‘We used to provide them with the quartz!’ which was actually rather nice.

They were in the situation were Father’s family wanted him to get out. Mother’s family, her Father had already died, I don’t know of what but I remember she was always very pleased he had and that he hadn’t to go through anything. She had a brother who was already in Switzerland, an older brother who’d been sent to Switzerland for a year or two before he was actually going to go into the business which was wine merchants, that had gone back two generations. Her younger brother had just gone into the Army, he was quite a lot younger than her and he ended up coming over here and being part of the Czech Army based over here near Alconbury and he survived. So her two brothers survived. Mother’s family didn’t do nearly as badly as Father’s family.

Before they left Prague Mother had been desperately trying to find a family in America to sponsor her, well to sponsor them. I didn’t know this until I came across a letter in a book and I left it the book and I can’t remember where it is now so it will come up at some stage - that was a copy of a letter that Mother had sent to a family called Fischl — no, it was the letter — it had gone to a family called Fischl that she had found at an American address saying: ‘I don’t know if we are related but we desperately need to leave this country for our lives, would you possibly, as we do share the same surname, would you think about just sponsoring us to the States?’ and the letter was returned. So, that when I found it - I thought, oh! because they must have been quite desperate. But I suppose in a way understandable because if you think about it. What would you do if somebody contacted you from Iraq and said, I’ve got the same surname as you and I want to come to England, are you going to help me? So you can understand that but when I read the letter I actually, I got quite upset because of the desperation that Mother must have felt. You know, OK, we do need to get out probably but where to and when and what are we going to do.

So there they were, Mother had got a tremendous amount of cousins and most of them didn’t come out at all, they didn’t try. But one cousin who she was very close to kept saying, ‘You’ve come out, you’ve got to come out!’ And they said, ‘No!’ Then one day this cousin went round to her and said, ‘You are coming with us. We are leaving in two days time.’ This cousin had got twin boys. ‘You are coming with us, we are not having NO! Pack a bag and come.’ Oh, they made them. These cousins, well they are second cousins now, have said to me they can remember, their mother, who was quite a domineering, tiny little woman, but you know very forceful saying, ‘I’m not having, NO! You’re coming with us’ and virtually packing for them. And I think that was the feeling from both sides of the family, both Mother’s and Father’s parents, and they did just that. So they left everything and came. Their idea was to go to America. So they got on trains and got through to Holland and then they got through to England where they actually had to stop because there was the rule that once you had got to a safe country you had to be there two years before you went on. In the meantime some furniture had been shipped by - I suppose family still over there — to America in the hope that eventually people would meet up with it. But apart from that they hadn’t got anything, so they ended up here.

Mother’s cousin, her husband and the two boys - they ended up in Hendon and we used to go and stay, we knew them the best of any sort of family, and one of the twins is still alive. He’s 72 now and he loves to tell the story of remembering that he and his parents and his twin brother were in First Class on the boat coming over but my parents were in Second Class, so they were allowed to visit them. They could pop over to see my parents but my parents weren’t allowed to go into First Class to see them, so obviously they had a bit more money than my parents had at the time to pay for their passage and they got over here. I don’t know if her cousin wanted to end up in America as well but they didn’t, they stayed. He started a business - he did alright for himself as well really. He was a qualified Civil Engineer and had introduced - he had got his own system for central heating and of course central heating wasn’t really in this country, it was in Prague - central heating was common because of the cold. So when my Father and Mother ended up buying a plot of land and building a house on it they had central heating that this other cousin had done for them. He just said, ‘Oh, put this in and this in.’ So of course doing that just at the beginning - after the war and bringing that in, he — well they were never really, really rich but they were OK. They ended up here.

Now Father’s cousin who he’d stayed with in Prague and her daughter actually fled as well but I can’t remember, I don’t know when they left. They definitely didn’t leave with Mother and Father but they ended up in Holland and stayed there and I don’t know why because that was quite interesting.

My parents never spoke very much about the actual flight. And the older I get the more I realise what they didn’t talk about. It’s amazing what they didn’t talk about and what they didn’t let impact on our lives. The only thing they always talked about and instilled in us was that you don’t say you are Jewish to anybody.

I don’t know what happened as they arrived in England, I was not given details of — who they were met by or who they were processed by — but they ended up in Maida Vale, a big Jewish Community. I think probably in a boarding house or something like that and they stayed there for a while, they didn’t know what they were going to do. Father realised he couldn’t practice medicine, Mother had no qualifications at all, she’d been at University doing an Art Degree, so she hadn’t got anything in that respect. And then, I don’t know, I think they stayed there until the following year.

They could understand the language and Mother also spoke — Czech, German, French and a bit of Italian. Father spoke German, Czech — I’m saying it in that order because of where he was born, his first language was German and then of course Czech because of the country and his going to Prague where he would have had to speak Czech. He spoke Hebrew and a bit of French and they’d both got English as another language as well. But they’d got a smattering of languages. I was never ever told they went to English classes or anything like that so they must just have picked it up and needs must, so they did.

The following year the Bishop of Ely, now I don’t know if the Bishop had contacted Jewish community in Maida Vale or something but he wanted somebody to come and nurse his mother who was ill and Father went and Mother went as well. Mother ended up teaching some people around there, including I think the Bishop’s daughter, German, so she just spoke German with them a bit and they were there for a couple of years.

So again there must have been very few foreigners there, but they were under a very important person’s patronage. They only ever spoke kindly of their time in Ely and neither of my parents continued with their Jewish faith, we never did any ceremonies or anything. But Father and Mother were always very kind to anybody in the Clergy who they came across. Because I think this must have been from Ely - and their families — I mean they couldn’t do enough to help and I think that came from there. I assume the Bishop and his entourage couldn’t do enough to help them and it was returned in other ways because both my parents were very, very kindly people. So that was interesting.”

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