Carried Far From My Homeland
I LOOK at my mother, now so small and frail and stooped, her hair white and sparse, that gentle face with its deeply etched lines, those once piercing blue eyes now faded and faraway, as she sits and watches the television serials. My mother, who had faced trial and danger with such calm and courage. Although many years have gone by, I only have to close my eyes to relive that frightening time that followed the Munich Pact, when the Sudetenland, our homeland, was traded to the Nazis as temporary appeasement of their insatiable appetite for little countries.
How strong my mother was then. Throughout those fearful days and months it was she who had stood steadfast by her convictions, intuitively sensing the Nazi evil. It was she who had persuaded my father to forsake the family business, to abandon their pleasant, sunny home with its fruit trees and flower beds, to leave the familiar surroundings, family and friends.
In addition to his business activities, my father was quite involved in local politics and held a regional post in the Social Democratic Party. The combination of business travel and political involvement, as well as our proximity to Germany, made my parents acutely aware of the grim and ever deteriorating conditions that existed in Czechoslovakia.
The government's resignation within days of the Munich agreement, together with the urgent expression of my mother's fears and foreboding, convinced my father that we too should join the ranks of the expatriates.
And so, one day in the early autumn of 1938, my parents packed their most treasured possessions and we made our way to Pilsen - a city in those difficult times that was the gathering place for many of Bohemia's religious and political refugees.
Often my parents would have mysterious visitors in our cramped hotel room, their anxious, whispered conversations going on far into the night. Finally arrangements were made - my father and some other local officials left for England. The women and children were to stay at a farmhouse in Slovakia while transportation arrangements were being made.
With the other wives and children we spent the bitter winter months that followed in this makeshift refugee camp. There were some 50 women and children, all awaiting word to join their men in England. We lived crowded together in an isolated old farmhouse set in the middle of the countryside, surrounded by a wide, deep stream. We were afraid to venture out. No one came in. The weeks went by and turned into months. Tension grew and turned to fear.
Finally, one bitterly cold day in the middle of March, word came: In two hours we must be packed and ready to leave. At last the waiting was over. The old farmhouse sprang to life. There were bustling and hurrying as belongings were gathered together and quickly packed into boxes and trunks. A truck was coming to transport us to the railway station.
I don't know if it was a six-year-old's precocity, curiosity, or just plain disobedience that could have caused the death of us all. The truck that was to take us to the station had arrived. Some of the families were all packed and ready, the children bundled in their warmest woolens, with muffs and scarfs, thick stockings and leather shoes laced to the ankles. No one knew what lay ahead, and we were dressed for all eventualities.
We stood about, little knots of people, edging toward the truck, each family eager to be the first one to climb in when the tailgate was lowered. I was watching and waiting, anxiously looking for my mother, brother, and sisters, hoping they would be ready. But they were still in the house, neatening and tidying before leaving.
The tailgate was being lowered and still my family was no-where in sight. The scramble to get in began. I couldn't wait. I wanted to ride in the truck. It looked like no one else was going in. They were going to close the tailgate and I would not be able to ride in it. Someone would surely tell my mother that I had gone on the truck, so I too climbed in.
As the truck rattled along the bumpy country road, I thought about what I had done and how angry and worried my mother would be. I decided I had better stay on and return with it. But by now it was getting late. There was time for just one more trip to the station. This time there would be room only for luggage and children - small children. The grown-ups and older children would have to walk.
Tragedies, or near-tragedies, can be caused by very ordinary incidents. I had to go to the bathroom. I jumped off the truck and ran into the house. I was sure I was gone for only a few minutes, but when I came outside again the truck was gone and the people who were walking were out of sight. My mother was gone. I was alone.
Panic stricken, I started running about, calling for my mother. Suddenly I heard someone calling back to me. It was the caretaker. I ran to him. He picked me up, put me on his shoulders, and with great hurried strides he crossed the snow-covered fields in the direction the adults had gone.
There was a shortcut to the village and the railway station, through the fields and over the stream, via a narrow footbridge - a plank. It was to this footbridge that the adults were heading. The snow was deep. The wind whipped the breath from our mouths.
Ahead of us a string of people was trudging along, heads down, shoulders hunched. My mother and older sister were somewhere among them. The caretaker called to them. At last they heard. Heads turned. My mother and sister stopped, waiting for us to catch up with them. A mixture of anger and relief suffused my mother's face. She had been told that I had gone on the first truck and had assumed I was safely at the station.
The caretaker lowered me to the ground and I sank to my knees in the snow. My mother took my hand and hurried me toward the footbridge. By now the others were far ahead of us. I had delayed my mother and sister. We had been left behind. The wooden plank was icy and narrow. I slipped. Only her firm grasp kept me from falling into that bitterly cold stream.
Without a word, my mother motioned my sister to turn back. She had decided not to attempt crossing the plank. We would go back and cross the stream at the main road.
It seemed impossible now that we could get to the station in time. My other sister and brother were waiting there, my father in England, we in the middle of the snow-covered countryside. We made our way back across the fields, legs and hands numbed with cold, our breath whistling through clenched teeth. The bleak emptiness of the landscape was unbroken. Not even a horse-drawn cart was in sight. We were surrounded by stillness, broken only by the steady sound of crunching snow as we made our weary way.
Finally we reached the open road, and although by now the situation must have appeared hopeless, with purposeful, energetic steps my mother urged us on. She must have believed in miracles, and miracles do happen, because suddenly that awful silence was broken.
In the distance we could hear the sound of a motor. Its soothing drone became louder. In this remote corner of nowhere a car was coming. It came into view, drew alongside, and stopped. No words were exchanged. We spoke no Slovak, the driver spoke no German. He motioned us into the car and drove us to the railway station. We expressed our thanks as best we could and ran up the station steps, not knowing if the train had already come and gone. But we were not too late. The little country station was full of people. There were my brother and sister, anxiously looking about for us, calling to us to hurry, for as we reached the platform the train pulled in.
In the gray dawn we arrived at our destination, a seaport in Poland, where a ship was waiting to take us to England. Even before it came to a stop, the news spread from one end of the train to the other - Czechoslovakia had been invaded during the night. My mother's determination and persistence to reach the railway station had saved our lives, for ours had been the last train to get out.