On 20th January, 1942, the Wannsee Conference kicked off in Berlin. The aim of this meeting was to brief the Nazi leaders on Hitler’s plan for ‘the final solution’ to the ‘Jewish problem’: extermination. The Jewish populations of each occupied country (or country intended for occupation) had already been detailed, and the Nazis intended to comb Europe from west to east to weed out the Jews. In all, 14 million Jewish people were marked out for death. The idea was that those fit for labour would be worked to death, while the rest would be ‘dealt with appropriately’. Men and women were to be separated, and the idea was that the Jewish ‘genetic seed’ would be stamped out. First in line for this treatment were Germany, Austria and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, i.e. Czechoslovakia.
Part of Czechoslovakia, the much disputed Sudetenland, had been annexed in 1938 under the terms of the Munich agreement, and on 16 March 1939 Germany broke that agreement by moving into the rest of the country. As ‘The Holocaust’ by Martin Gilbert explains, on 10th October 1941 Theresienstadt, a small Czechoslovakian town, was chosen to act as a Jewish ghetto-cum-transportation hub (there was already a small concentration camp in the area). Jews were sent there from all over Europe if they were elderly or deemed as having been of use to Germany in the past (e.g. Iron Cross winners). The supposed “model settlement” was overcrowded, and shortages of food and sanitation meant that, in the years it was inhabited, 33,529 people died of malnutrition and disease. As well, between 1942 and 1945 88,191 people were transferred from Theresienstadt to death camps. The real evils of the town were largely concealed, with the Nazis allowing a Red Cross visit in July 1944, though not before they’d hastily set up all kinds of false resources such as banks and kindergarten classes. They even used the town as the subject of a propaganda film the following month, entitled “New life of the Jews under the protection of the Third Reich”. Just after filming finished, the Council of Elders and almost all of the Ghetto’s children were sent to Auschwitz.
Some 669 mainly Jewish Czechoslovakian children, however, knew nothing of these horrors occurring back home. They were the ones lucky enough to have been transported to Wales and other safe havens on one of Nicholas Winton’s trains. Winton was nobody especially notable, simply a well-off stockbroker born into a family of German-Jewish origin. Having visited Prague with a friend in 1938, aged 29, and seen the situation of the refugees fleeing the Sudetenland, he decided to do what he could to help. At that time his family had refugee friends staying with them who had fled Germany, fearing for their lives, so he knew more about the growing dangers of the political climate than the majority of ordinary citizens, or even politicians, in Britain. Returning home, he immediately began badgering the Home Office to allow Jewish Czechoslovakian children refuge in the UK. He organised eight trains full of those children over the next nine months, cleared their entry into Britain, and arranged for Foster families to meet and take charge of them when they arrived. A ninth train of 250 children, which was meant to leave on 1st September 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland, was tragically stopped at the border. Every one of those unlucky children is believed to have been killed during the war.
The others found a warm welcome waiting for them. As ‘Wales Online’ reported on 24th January this year, over 130 of them ended up in Llanwrtyd Wells, a tiny town in Powys, Wales, where a special Czechoslovakian school was set up at the Abernant Hotel. Former pupils are reported to still have great affection for the area, with Lady Milena Grenfell-Baines saying, “At that time people in Llanwrtyd Wells hadn’t had foreigners but we were welcomed. After arriving we put a concert on and sang the Welsh national anthem, in Welsh, and from that moment they adopted us.” Fellow pupil Vera Gissing adds, “What was so important, especially for those of us who lost our parents, was that that little town was, in effect, a very loving home… the school was a home in a town which was our town. We felt we belonged.”
The pupils’ affection for the place that kept them happy and sheltered during the war, even as their relatives were being beaten and slaughtered like cattle, has endured. As the paper reports, the first link in the town’s solid gold mayoral chain was presented by those children, by then grown up, in 1985. In return, they were granted the Freedom of the Town. Another act of commemoration was the donation of a bench and planting of a tree in memory of Joe Jones, the former owner of the town shop. The friendly man, realising that none of the pupils had parents to attend to them, took them all to sports matches in his own van.
Neither has the life-saving kindness of Nicholas Winton – who is still living – gone un-rewarded, though for years the children had no idea why they had been transported out of Czechoslovakia, or to whom they owed their salvation. The story only came to light when Winton’s own wife discovered a scrapbook detailing his acts 50 years later. In 2002 he was reunited with hundreds of the children that he had saved along with thousands of their descendants, in March 2003 he was knighted by the Queen, and in October 2014 he was granted the Order of the White Lion, the Czech Republic’s highest state honour, by the country’s president.
The importance of the actions of those who helped and sheltered the children cannot be exaggerated, especially when you consider the suffering of those left behind – if indeed they survived the war. ‘The Jewish Brigade’ by Morris Beckman carries a quote from Mr Aharon Hoter-Yishai, who served with the Brigade and gave evidence at the trial of Otto Adolf Eichmann, one of the key organisers of the Holocaust:
“The dimension of the Holocaust threw the whole Brigade into relief work. I went from camp to camp. Hundreds of creatures, you could not call them anything else, fought amongst themselves with all their feeble strength to touch the shoulders carrying the flash. They kissed the Jewish flag on our vehicle. They crawled on stomachs to hug the feet of the Jewish soldiers and kiss their boots. In Bergen-Belsen some 27,000 of the 52,000 liberated did not have the will to live or respond to efforts to restore them to health. They died.
“In June 1945 I visited Theresienstadt camp. 4,000 Jews there were disappointed that only one truck had been sent to fetch them. Survivors and Jewish soldiers wept together. Children clambered on to the military truck and begged to leave right away. I don’t know of any paragraph in the King’s Regulations or the Standing Orders of the Eighth Army which could have gotten an officer to tell those children to climb down.”
What must “those children” have been through? The youths who spent their war in Llanwrtyd Wells will, thankfully, only ever be able to imagine, and their own children will live on to propagate the Jewish faith.