Auschwitz and A Letter From A Mother To Her Son
The Children's Train - Kindertransport
Hitler's Secret Plans For Czechoslovakia
The year was 1938. With much fear and apprehension, the Jews of Czechoslovakia had watched the news very closely on a daily basis. An ever-enlarging, ominous, dark cloud hung over their country, and that cloud was the fear of what Hitler was intending to do with them. Czechoslovakia bordered Hitler’s realm, and respect of borders should have been enough of a safeguard against Hitler coming into their country, but he had begun to use the pretense of coming to the aid of ethnic Germans who were living in the Sudentenland, a border surrounding Czechoslovakia, and the false claim that these ethnic Germans were being harmed and threatened by Czechoslovakians. Signs all pointed to a desire by Hitler to annex Czechoslovakia. After all, in September of 1938, Hitler had signed the Munich Agreement with Britain’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain that essentially said that Hitler would not ask for any more territory if he were given the Sudentenland. Later, Hitler would privately complain to his SS guards, “That fellow Chamberlain spoiled my entrance into Prague.” In October, just three weeks after signing the Munich Agreement, Hitler ordered his generals to prepare for the liquidation of the remainder of Czechoslovakia. Whether through the grapevine of rumor, or the daily glimpses brought by the newspapers, those who paid attention suspected that Czechoslovakians were seeing their last days of freedom as Czechs, and the beginning of the end for many of them, especially those who were Jewish.
A Dark Storm Approaches
Each day brought new terror to their hearts. Now, if there had ever been any doubts as to the future of their country, those fears of doom were further compounded when, in October, just after signing the Munich Agreement, the President of Czechoslovakia, Eduard Benes, fled to England fearing that Hitler would waste no time having him assassinated. In his place had stepped the frail, 66-year old Dr. Emil Hacha, a man with a bad heart condition and absolutely no political experience. Within months, two outlying areas of the country were seized by Hungary and Poland with the approval of Hitler. Hitler had already been rounding up Jews in areas he controlled, and he had built concentration camps for their eventual extermination. Persecution of Jews had become more open and accepted. On the nights of November 9 and 10, 1938, the infamous Kristallnacht stunned any who still thought that Hitler would recede like a Spring flood, that somehow, sanity and normalcy would be achieved and all would go back to the way it once was. Sadly and horrifically, the nightmare was no passing dream, it was the new reality, and this new reality was spreading rapidly toward the Jewish families in Prague. Prague was in Hitler’s crosshairs, and Jewish mothers and fathers knew that something had to be done, if not for themselves, at the very least for their children. But, with great consternation and fear for the worse, many struggled with limited and rapidly dwindling options. Like facing rising flood waters, soon one can barely think of an exit strategy, and emotions quickly become impossible to fight with logic and reasoning. Before now, some parents had resisted suggestions that they take their children and leave their beloved city and homeland. They had reassured themselves that the borders to their country would be respected, that the world was watching, that good would prevail over evil, but the rising tide of Hitler and his darkness could no longer be ignored or minimized. Demonic Hitler was coming, and now, every Jewish parent in Prague was ready to accept that they were seeing the end of their dreams.
Sir Nicholas Winton
As fate would have it, there was a twenty-nine-year-old stockbroker in London by the name of Nicholas Winton who was about to leave for Switzerland on a skiing trip. It was December 1938, and Nicholas received a phone call from his friend, Martin Blake. Martin urgently asked him to cancel his skiing trip and come to Prague. He desperately needed Winton’s help. Nicholas agreed, and upon arriving in Prague, he was taken to witness the refugee camps where he was immediately struck by the deplorable conditions suffered by thousands. Nicholas Winton became convinced that the annexation of Czechoslovakia was inevitable, as well as an ensuing destructive war, and he knew the fate that awaited those whom Hitler hated. He immediately decided to try to arrange for evacuations of children to a safe haven in England. However, the task posed nearly dauntless challenges, such as raising funds and getting necessary documents to allow the children to leave Czechoslovakia. He tirelessly posted photos of the children all around England to try to find the requisite sponsors, and he eventually resorted to forging documents to speed up the process of helping these children get to safety. Winton wasted no time getting started, and he set up an office using nothing more than a dining table in his hotel at Wenceslas Square in Prague, eventually setting up a better-equipped office on Vorsilska Street. Word spread, and soon there were hundreds of parents lining up to seek his help. Thus, word reached the parents of my friend Jorg that there was a man who could get their son out of Prague and to safety in England. That night, my friend's parents spoke with each other about getting Jorg out of the country. After tucking him into his bed and saying good-night, Jorg's mother cried herself to sleep in the arms of her husband, knowing that this would be their last days with their son. The next morning, she would fight back her fears and seek out the help of Nicholas Winton at his office on Vosilska Street.
Sir Nicholas Winton With One Of The Children He Saved
Hopes For Safety
After having breakfast with her family, Jorg's mother left him in the care of her husband, and, wrapping herself in a long overcoat to protect against the cold, wintry March weather, she walked hurriedly to the address that she had been given. When she turned the corner to Vosilska Street, she knew instantly which building housed the office she was seeking, because there was a long line of worried parents standing there, the line reaching around the block. The looks on the parents’ faces was one of sadness, deep sorrow and grave concern. No one was smiling, no one was talking, all were fearful that at any moment they would be stopped short of their goal, as if fate was playing some cruel joke on them, a taunt that would leave them right back in the hopeless place they occupied before they left their homes to come here. Jorg's mother joined the back of the line fearing that the line was so long that she would be told to leave before she got to the office. She just knew that they were going to tell her that there were no more spaces available, as if freedom and life were rationed by some cruel master waiting for them all with a harsh stick. But she was determined to stay the course no matter how long or how hard it was to the destination. Giving up meant losing her precious son to Hitler’s death machine that was coming for all of them. Suddenly, a series of black sedans came careening around the corner and pulled up in front of the building. The worst nightmare! Gestapo! They wanted to know what was going on, why the long lines, and they barged rudely into the building demanding answers. While the Gestapo were inside, a number of parents left quickly out of panic, but desperation kept Jorg's mother firmly in her spot, even though her heart was now in her throat. The line had thinned, and she was now only ten people from the door. She could hear the Gestapo barking their demands at the people inside, and through the window, she could see a gentleman showing them official documents at which they glared, then threw back at him. As quickly as they had come, they abruptly left. Jorg's mother felt an even greater sense of urgency. The Gestapo appearing meant that this operation could soon be shut down. She had to get Jorg out of danger at all costs. She was staying here and getting those documents for passage no matter how long it took...and she did! Her hands trembled as she reached for the large card with the official seals and documentation that would free her precious son from the hell that was coming. As soon as the card was pressed into her hands, Jorg's mother felt a great weight lift, and with no regard for her own safety, she allowed herself one moment of joy at the thought of her son surviving. She scurried home, praying that the Gestapo did not intervene.
The SS Bodegraven
Hitler Arrives In Prague
On Tuesday, March 14, 1939, Czechoslovakian President Hacha was summoned to meet with Hitler in Berlin. He was frightened by the mere presence of Hitler and begged for mercy for his country, but Hitler was unmoved and raged against the poor frightened Dr. Hacha. The President was allowed no rest, and was harshly treated, relentlessly, until he succumbed to the pressure, signing a declaration at 3:55 a.m. on Wednesday, March 15th. The declaration permitted Hitler to take control of all of Czechoslovakia. Two hours later, even though a winter snowstorm was blanketing the country, Hitler’s army rolled into Czechoslovakia. Later that day, Hitler arrived personally in Prague to spend the night in the Hradschin Castle, former home to the Kings of Bohemia.
The Train Ride To Freedom
Word travelled swiftly through the city that night. The Devil, himself, was in their city, and there was no time to waste. Jorg's mother had to get her son on that train before Hitler stopped this escape. The appointed day and time had come, and once they were at the Wilson Railway Station in Prague, Jorg's father told him that he was going on a long journey, one on which his parents would not be able to accompany him. Jorg's father assured him that they would join them later, and even though Jorg's mother had promised herself not to cry in front of her son, lest he fear leaving, she was overcome with speechless grief at what she feared was true—this would be her last time to see her dear son. The young boy boarded the train, Jorg's mother standing there like a statue of false bravery, and just as the train was about to depart, she saw Jorg take his seat by the window. Emotions swirled in her head, one part of her heart wanting the train to stay, the other part gripped with fear that the Gestapo could arrive at any minute and destroy her hopes for the safety of her son. She had had a life, she wanted him to have one, as well. Jorg slid the window down to say good-bye, and his mother instinctively took off her beautiful wedding ring. Handing it to her son, she said, “Never forget we loved you.”
It was not until she could no longer see her son as the train left the station, that Jorg's mother collapsed in tears on her husband’s arm. They walked silently back to the car and drove to their home to absorb what they had just done. Sadly, Jorg's parents, like so many other Jews in Czechoslovakia, would never see their child again. Hitler built the Theresienstadt Concentration camp in Lidice as a gateway to further horrors for the Jews he intended to exterminate. What Hitler told the Germans was that the Jews were being resettled in the East where they would be used for forced labor. However, once they were interned in Theresienstadt, many died there from the brutal conditions. Those who survived were then sent to the death camps. On February 26, 1943, Jorg's mother and father were sent to Auschwitz where they were soon sent to the gas chambers. Two weeks before they were taken to Auschwitz, Jorg's mother wrote this memorable letter:
My Dearest Son,
I don't know when you will receive this letter, or even if you will ever receive it. Although I pray that God does indeed deliver it to you. By now, you must know the truth, and the truth of our departure must have been made abundantly clear, thus, you will also know why we sent you away.
I am sad for our loss, but know that Papa and I have both known a greater peace for our having had the knowledge that we were able to help you escape the horrors that awaited us. It is this knowledge that gives us hope each day, if not for our own survival, then for the future we know that we have given you.
God gave you to us for a short time, and we never stop loving you. One by one, we have seen our neighbors taken away. Two weeks ago, we said good-bye to your grandmama and your grandpapa, and with their leaving us, we knew that our time was soon to come, as well. We have today received a letter informing us that we are on the list to leave shortly, and we feel joy in knowing that you are not on that list, that you will have a life filled with wonderful opportunities.
Our hearts were broken when we gave you up, but we know that you will grow into a fine man with great promise and hope. This hope will sustain us through whatever becomes our fate in the days ahead. We have not heard from anyone who has been taken before us, so we will leave here with some fear, but also some hope that perhaps we will once again see each other.
Until we meet again, remember us always, and know that Mama and Papa love you with all our hearts. Thank those who have taken you in and sheltered you from this present evil, and pray each day, as shall we, that the day will come when all of this is over, and we can return to our home in Prague to live in peace and happiness together.
I love you,
Some Final Thoughts
Nicholas Winton selflessly fought to save as many children as he could from the horrors that were soon to engulf Czechoslovakia. He appealed to various governments, but only Sweden and Britain offered any help. Here is a letter he wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt:
Perhaps people in America do not realize how little is being and has been done for refugee children in Czechoslovakia. They have to depend entirely on private guarantors to get into England, which means that somebody has to take full responsibility for maintenance, upkeep, and education, until they are 18 years of age. No other country is taking an interest in them except for Sweden, which took 35 children last February. We at this office have case-papers and photos of over 5000 children, quite apart from a further 10,000 whom we estimate have to register. Actually, so far, we have brought only about 120 into England.
In Bohemia and Slovakia today, there are thousands of children, some homeless and starving, mostly without nationality, but they certainly all have one thing in common: there is no future, if they are forced to remain where they are. Their parents are forbidden work and the children are forbidden schooling, and apart from the physical discomforts, which all this signifies, the moral degradation is immeasurable. Yet since Munich, hardly anything has been done for the children in Czechoslovakia. Many of the children are quite destitute having had to move more than once since they originally fled from Germany.
Is it possible for anything to be done to help us with this problem in America? It is hard to state our case forcibly in a letter, but we trust to your imagination to realize how desperately urgent the situation is.
Believe me, Esteemed Sir, with many thanks,
Your obedient Servant,
On August 2, 1939, the last trainload of rescued children left Prague. The total lives saved by Nicholas Winton's efforts was 669. On September 1, 1939, a train carrying 250 children was to leave Prague for the safety of England, but on that same day, Hitler invaded Poland and closed all borders. These 250 children were never seen or heard from again.
I urge people to research Sir Nicholas Winton and witness the many wonderful stories from the people who call themselves "Winton's children." May it inspire you to stand up against hate and bigotry under any and all guises.