Witnessing WWII in Czechoslovakia – oral histories

Sudeten Mountains

Photo:  Marilyn Herman 2018.  Chomutov, near the death march route, looking towards the Sudeten mountain range on the border with Germany.

Following on from my previous blog, I very recently decided to visit Chomutov, in the Czech Republic.  I was interested to see what kind of place produced a heroine like the young woman who gave her life to give my father bread.  I wanted to get an idea of the context at the time.  

I am indebted to Jan Krupicka who grew up in Chomutov, who arranged for me to interview two couples and two widows who lived through World War II, taking me to the retirement home, and to Amalie’s village, and who interpreted between Czech and English during the interviews.

All but two of my interviewees had lived in other parts of Czechoslovakia during World War II.  From my interviews, I learned about the general situation for civilians during the German occupation of Czechoslovakia. Food rationing was imposed, and ethnic Czechs were restricted to the extent that one could not live on rations alone.  Czech men were sent to Germany for forced, unpaid labour, to fill in for German men who were in the army.  Czech women similarly had to engage in forced, unpaid labour for ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia, or if they were younger and without children to care for, they would be sent as forced unpaid labour to Germany.  “The only people who didn’t come back were the Jews.”

 From Karel and Kvetuse, a couple living in a retirement home in Chomutov, who had lived in other parts of Czechoslovakia during WWII,  I learned that the generation of Czechs at the end of the 19th century all spoke German.

They told me that there were Czech and German schools.  Once the German occupation started, it was stipulated that there should be a German class every day in the Czech schools, and history classes were only about the German Reich, and nothing else.  Pages of history books referring to previous history were glued together, and after that the books were thrown away altogether, and history lessons were just given through talking by the teacher, without books.

There were ethnic Czechs who said they were German during the occupation, seeking benefits. They also told me of hearsay about one ethnic Czech man who was really pro-Nazi and a snitch.

I interviewed Viera on 30thNovember 2018, and relay what she said below:

 The Germans were well-off, while food was very scarce for the Czechs following the German occupation. She knew a Czech woman who worked just for food.  Ethnic Germans in the area were on higher rations than the Czechs. 

I asked if this caused resentment.  She responded that there wasn’t much resentment.  Most of the Czechs left, [since Chomutov was being bombed by the allies – there were factories there serving German war effort].  Not many Czechs were left in Chomutov.  Those who remained had to cope with how things were.

Viera would take the animals and geese to the woods when there was an inspection [by the German occupiers).  They would be warned a couple of days in advance by Czechs working in the government office.  If these Czechs had been caught, they might have been executed along with their families. 

You couldn’t survive on the food stamps.  Life was better in the rural areas.  You were in a better position to survive – to have what you needed.

Viera was studying fashion design.  Her father was recruited at the age of 17 in World War I.  He fought in an Italian batallion.  

Czech men didn’t have to go into the German army.  They were supposed to be relocated to Germany to substitute for Germans who went to war, as forced unpaid labour.  German cities were under attack [by the allies] – the situation wasn’t good there.  Viera’s husband – a student – was digging ditches for the Germans. 

In Czechoslovakia, the men were gone, and food was scarce.

Viera’s brother was supposed to be relocated.  A German man saved him – he said that he needed him to work in his inn, where people would leave their carts and horses.  He was an old man, and said he was ill and needed Viera’s brother to work for him.

There were lots of Czech/German married couples.

 Some [ethnic] Germans collaborated with the Nazis, but others were perfectly fine.  There were people who sought benefit from siding [with the Nazis].  Maybe some Czechs were the the worst “snitches”.

 

Mrs Amalie Libuse Vinduskova had lived in the same village near Chomutov her whole life. I interviewed her on 2ndNovember 2018.  Amalie felt the need to talk about her experiences during WWII.  It caused her great anxiety to remember and talk about her experiences, but she felt it was important for them to be known.  This is what she said:

She told me about the remains of  a Jewish cemetery in a forest near the village.  Her daughter-in-law sent me photos and put stones on the graves in the Jewish tradition, since it was too late for me to go there after the interview.

 

 

Amalie also talked about where the victims were shot by Germans on the “Day of Executions”.  I am not clear about what she was referring to, but will try to clarify it and revise this blog post shortly.  I think she was referring to the death march after it passed through her village as she specified that it was in April 1945.  (My father related that on the death marches, as soon as they arrived at some distance from a town or village, the German guards would shoot prisoners who they thought could not continue, or would shoot a group of prisoners to reduce their numbers.)

Amalie said that more than 30 people were shot.  She said they may not have [all?] been Jews.  Germans who lived in Czechoslovakia were also among those who were executed – those who went against the regime.  Some of the graves in the woods are of German communists. None of the graves have names.

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I am arranging to have the notice board (above) translated, and will add the translation here.

Amalie’s mother asked a [German] soldier where they were taking the prisoners.  He responded:  “Up the hill, and when we’re done, you’re next.”  

Amalia heard the shooting and was shocked.  When they heard the shooting, she went out and saw a prisoner in a white-collared shirt lying by a small apple tree.  He couldn’t talk, but pointed to his mouth to indicate that he was hungry.  The German guards wouldn’t allow him to be given food.  On the way up the mountain, he grabbed some grass. He was about to put it in his mouth, when the German guard stabbed him with his bayonet.  Amalia was crying and shaking (as a girl) thinking of this man.

She was 13 when she witnessed the death march passing through her village. She turned 13 in February 45.  When Amalie saw the death march, she was shocked and couldn’t move.  Her mother went to sit in the creek for the whole day

Czech adults didn’t approach the death march.  Her mother and aunt went to hide.  The children approached the march because they were children and spoke German. The prisoners were so weak and helpless! 

I asked Amalie if she thought the woman who gave my father bread on the death march would have been Czech?  Amalie was sure that a German girl wouldn’t have handed him bread.  The Czech girl must have known what she was getting into. The guards were so threatening! It was huge, huge bravery! 

Until the War, nobody cared who was Czech, German, Jewish, Polish.  Only after the War started, such distinctions started to be made.  As soon as these distinctions started to be made, marriages started breaking up. 

Heller was a Jewish woman with a German husband.  He divorced her (after the German occupation) and she was deported together with their two daughters to Theresienstadt.

Amalie’s mother had had a hard time in 1937 when there was a rubella epidemic. Three of her children died.  She collapsed and received treatment for half a year.  After that, her peaceful place was in the creek where she would retreat to. 

Amalie’s father was Polish.  He was the only Polish person there, having come to that region when he was only 16. He had paid a farmer to keep (hide) the family, but her mother refused to leave.  As soon as he heard that the Germans were crossing the border, her father shot himself.  He had heard what the Germans had been doing to the Jews in Germany.  He committed suicide to save the family.  He could have killed the whole family together.  He shot himself to avoid deportation, and to save his family so that they wouldn’t be endangered by association with him. 

Previously her father would join the Germans going to work.  Once he shot himself, he became “the Polish bastard”. The Germans didn’t mind that the Jews were in the death march.  Before the War, the Germans wanted to leave for their “home country”.  Then [after the War] when they were being chased out, they didn’t want to go.  Her own uncle was one of the worst Germans who was beaten and chased out [after the War].  

28 German soldiers were put up in their house.  The officer would stay there all day.  He was very civil to her mother.  When a neighbour came round and said: “Do you know who you are drinking coffee with?” (in order to betray her because the family was Polish), the officer asked where the neighbour lived, and threatened her.

You couldn’t tell who was German, or who was Czech [or Jewish?] [from looking at or speaking to someone].  But once the War started, the [ethnic] Germans started feeling superior. 

The Jewish people were gassed in trucks, with the exhaust pipes discharging inside the trucks.  The local German people approved of this.  Her mother spent that day sitting in the creek.

Her older siblings protected Amalie from it.  She was the second youngest.  They didn’t talk about such things in front of her.  She was called a “Polish bitch” [by Germans?] once the War started.  They mostly spoke German at home.  Her parents were scared to speak in Czech.  After the War, her mother said she was not going to speak German anymore.

There were Germans who were neither communist nor pro-Hitler.  They wore white bands, and got food from the Russians. There were good and bad Germans.

It was a German-speaking region, and Amalie went to a German school.  There was only a German school in her area. Everyone went to it:  Jews, Czechs.  After the German occupation, at school, when she put up her hand to answer a question, her teacher told her there was no point in her learning.  Her teacher didn’t expect her to survive the War because of her Polish identity.  It was local Germans from Chomutov who were teaching in the school. 

The German pupils would get food first, and the Polish and Jewish pupils would get whatever was left, if anything.  They would be sitting on the steps [while the German pupils were eating]. In the winter, only the German pupils got meals at school, and the other children didn’t get anything.

The German flag was raised at school and the children had to raise their arms and say “Heil Hitler”. 

Amalie’s mother had lived through World War I, when she had had to be very self-reliant and creative (resourceful).  When there was a wheat harvest, her mother would collect whatever remnants were left on the field after the harvest, (although they were gardeners before the occupation) and would make little breads, and sprinkle sugar on top.  She told her children to eat these in the bathroom so that the other children wouldn’t laugh at them. 

Amalie’s cousin was mother to a six-week old baby.  As a punishment for giving frozen bread to a Polish worker, she was imprisoned for two months – despite having a six-week old baby at home.  The German mayor was nice, and arranged for her to be released early.

Amalie’s three sisters had to work as maids on local German farms.  They had to be German [i.e. the farmers they worked for].  They were nice people.  Ordinary people.  Some of the farmers could be mean to the girls [who worked for them].  It was forced, unpaid labour.  They were just given board and lodging. 

Her two older sisters were dating Germans, one of whom was very much in love with her sister and wanted to marry her.  He was sent to the Russian front, because he wanted to marry a Polish woman. 

Her brother was stationed with a Czech army unit guarding the border.  They were forced to surrender.  He went to Benechov and hid, so that he was not deported. Her younger brother worked in salt mines in Thuring.

Ritter was a nice farmer.  He would take a loaf of bread, carve it out and put lard in it, and give it to her mother. 

The German farmers were producing food for themselves and also had to give produce to the Nazis.

The Czech people were not allowed to breed animals or grow plants.  Amalie’s family used to have commercial gardens: they were gardeners who grew food [before the occupation], and now her mother had to collect remnants from fields after the harvest. 

I commented that the Czechs were being starved, like the Jews.  Amalie said that the German approach was that if you eliminate someone, you get what’s left.

Amalie’s first husband was from the Ukraine, from a village called Lapaus in the Damidovka district.  There, they brought the Jews to a forest and made them dig a grave. 

In Chomutov, there were lots of Jewish shop owners who were very nice. One Jewish shop owner would let his first customer have her shopping for free.  The second customer, he would let her have her shopping on credit.  If someone owed him money, he would come round and collect a little at a time.  He wouldn’t collect the whole debt at once. 

There was a Ukrainian general:  Vlasov who joined the German side.  When the tables turned, the “march” of Vlasov’s men took two days – to send them to Siberia.

There was a huge community of Czechs living in the Ukraine.  They came to the vacated farms (i.e. vacated by the expelled Germans.)

People need to know what was going on in the War.  Now they are making a lot of noise about how the Germans were expelled. But they are not talking about how the Germans behaved.  They would take a baby from its mother, and smash it against a wall. 

The Angel of Chomutov

Angel copy

Photo: Marilyn Herman 2018.  Angel – from a monument in Chomutov for protection against the bubonic plague.

In April 1945, my father, Abraham Herman, and his brother, David Herman, were prisoners on a forced death march from Rehmsdorf to Theresienstadt.  When they crossed over from Germany into the Czech Sudetenland, in the town of Chomutov, Czech bystanders were throwing food to the prisoners, but there would be such a scramble, the bread would break up, and nobody would get any.  (I have very recently visited Chomutov, and interviewed some people who lived through WWII.  They informed me that during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, ethnic Czechs and ethnic Poles were effectively subjected to a policy of slow starvation – with food rationing enforced to a degree that it was not possible to live on the rations alone.)  The German guards threatened to shoot anyone who gave the prisoners food. One heroic, defiant young woman ran inside the line of prisoners, placed bread firmly into Abraham’s hands, and as she ran back out, a German guard smashed the butt of his rifle down on her head.  In all likelihood, she never got up again.

I am composing a work to commemorate this unknown Czech heroine.  I was scouring poetry and psalms for words, and even ordered an anthology of Czech poetry with translation.  Finally, I decided to use my own words:

 

The Angel of Chomutov

 

To risk your life

to give bread

to a suffering child

Not knowing if he would live

another hour

another minute

 

To give your life

not knowing

if all he would live to know

was that you risked your life

to give him bread

 

Most precious of gifts

More than all the garnet of Bohemia

all the gems of Moravia

Your bread – bestower of life

 

To risk your life

not knowing

that the last thing you would do

would be to give bread

to another woman’s starving child

 

To give your life

to show a tortured child

Life almost extinguished

by forces of darkest destruction

To show this captive child

the precious value of his life

 

Tower

Photo:  Marilyn Herman 2018.  Chomutov