The Escape

My mom is an amazing woman. When I was a little kid I knew it was her job to help people. It was part of what defined who she was to me. She started as a social worker helping children and later, as the Director of Soviet Resettlement for Jewish Family Service of Southern New Jersey, she helped newcomers to the United States who were fleeing Communist oppression, looking to give their children a better life. This was no coincidence. Having immigrated as a child, my mother sought to help those in the situation she had found herself on the eve of World War II.

When my mother came to the United States on April 5, 1939 she was a child fleeing the Nazis. They had already occupied her home in Czechoslovakia and turned it into Gestapo headquarters, it being the largest house on the main square of the town consisting of my grandfather’s general store and the living quarters. My mother and her family had narrowly escaped, fleeing with what they could carry in the middle of the night in September 1938 after being told by the townspeople the trees on which they would each be hanged had already been selected.

Last month, more than seventy years later, I returned with my mother to take my two oldest children on a “tiyul shorashim,” as it is called in Hebrew, a family roots trip. My mother and I had been back several times and it was always my intention to bring my children as a Bar Mitzvah present. However, we decided that the trip could not wait another two years. We would take the trip while my mother was still able to accompany us.

It had been twelve years since my mother and I had been there last. A lot had changed but mostly we were different and this trip had a different purpose. I now came as a father, imparting my heritage to my children and my mother, a grandmother, was very aware that this would be her last trip to her birthplace and her only chance to share with her grandchildren some of the sacred places which forms her identity. There were moments, at her childhood home and birthplace, at her grandmother’s grave, that she paused to say good-bye to some of people and places of her life.

One of the most defining moments of the trip came when we stood at Wenceslas Square in Prague. We had been making a video, documenting my mother’s memories at significant places during the trip. My mother tolerated this as she knew its importance for the future, but, not being one who likes to be in the spotlight, she seemed to find it awkward. I knew the story that was coming so as we stood at the bottom of the massive main square of the Czech capital, I gave her the cue and she began to tell my children about the first time she had been seen the square.

It was March 1939, six months after my mother’s family had fled their hometown in southern Bohemia right on the Austrian border, four months after the Nazis had occupied the Sudetenland. We had retraced their steps on our trip. My children had visited my mother’s home. They had seen the generations of our family’s heritage in southern Bohemia having visited the graves of their great-great-great-grandparents. And we had visited Votice, the town closer to Prague and not in the Sudetenland, where my mother’s mother’s family had been from and to where my mother had fled, sleeping on a hay mattress in the synagogue and eating in the soup kitchen until they got word that they should come to the Dutch embassy in Prague were tickets to America would arrive shortly. My mother had already become a refugee.

While my kids drank the cokes we had bought around the corner at McDonald’s, my mother told them about the place they now stood in 1938. After her family’s first night in the hotel in Prague, “Not far from here” my mother said, “when we started to come down the stairs in the morning, the whole lobby was full of German soldiers.” Her parents rushed her and her brother. They packed and her parents told them to only speak Czech so that the Germans wouldn’t know that they were refugees.. My mother started to get choked up and I could not help but think that at that time she was the same age as my son Shemer was now. He and his brother Maytav stood listening as my mother showed them where the Dutch embassy had been right in front of us. I could not imagine being in such a desperate situation with my children or as a child: homeless, a refugee and on the run. My world disappearing before my eyes.

My mother continued saying that they hurried to the Dutch embassy. As she recalled the scene on that first day of the Nazi occupation, she continued through tears, “When we got to square, it was full of Czech people who were,” she stammered, “who were, shoulder to shoulder standing in the square and watching the Germans march down through the bottom of the square over there.” She said, pointing to the tourist shops and the boutiques. “There were soldiers on trucks,” she recalled, “the officers had motorcycles with sidecars, some of them were marching. It was a terrible, terrible sight and we stood at the windows of the Dutch embassy and the Czechs got down on their knees and ….” overcome with emotion, my mother crying, she continued to share the memory, “and sang the Czech national anthem.” Again she paused, swallowing her tears, “which was very moving and we just… My parents explained that this is the end, probably the end of the Czech Republic as we know it.”

Wow, I thought, can you imagine your parents telling you that it was the end of your country. That the enemy had won?

From within the Dutch embassy, their allusion of temporary safety was shattered when the Dutch said that they could not really leave Czechoslovakia because, as my mother told us only a few feet away from where she had heard it, the Dutch officials explained “we only had Czech exit visas and now that the Germans were here, we need to get German exit visas. The Czech ones are not good anymore. So,” my mother paused, ”my father had to go to the newly-established Gestapo headquarters.”

My mother recalled how my grandfather had gone at about one o’clock to apply for the new exit visas and, as she put it, “He just didn’t come back.”

“Finally, my mother in the early evening around 7:00 told us children that we should sleep in the Dutch embassy and she would go and see what would happen with my father.”

My grandmother, who was a very cultured and educated woman, having been raised in Vienna and speaking a sophisticated dialect of German insisted on seeing the head officer. He was impressed with her and told her that she and her children could leave, but her husband, my grandfather, would have to stay and go to a work camp. He assured her that my grandfather would be OK and that she didn’t have to worry.

We listened to my mother relive that day. “My mother had a lot of courage,” she continued, “and said that we’re a family and either the whole family goes or the whole family stays and he was so impressed that he gave her the visas for the whole family. So that’s why they let my father go.” Thinking back with hindsight, my mother seemed a bit amazed and in awe that her mother as a young woman would have stood up to the Gestapo officer like that, especially now that she knew what my grandfather had been through that day. All of us, my mother, myself and my children could not have been, had things been different in that moment of decision.

As people dressed in European fashion passed by us as part of their daily routine, my children absorbed this pivotal moment in our family’s history. “My father told us that when he got there in the afternoon, they made him and other Jewish people stand in a room with their hands against the wall. They couldn’t move. They couldn’t even go to the bathroom. They had nothing to eat and they didn’t know what was going to happen to them.”

The next day, my mother continued the story, they rushed to the train station. I imagined the train station scene in the classic film Casablanca as people scrambled to escape the Nazi invasion and that is exactly as my mother described it, saying that although it was a mad rush, fortunately they got on the train. However, she said, “It was not a pleasant ride because on every train car there were a lot of German soldiers who were examining each person to make sure that they didn’t have any jewelry or diamonds or money.”

My mother’s family had to take the train through Germany and switch trains in Munich. My mother, who grew up speaking German was now told by her parents to only speak German so the soldiers would not know they were Czechs. She was also told that if anyone asks, to tell them that they were on their way to England to bring their grandmother back to Germany. At the Munich train station, waiting for the next train, they sat at large round tables and German soldiers started talking to my mother. She recalled it was a good thing that her parents had told her what to say because when she told the soldiers their story, they said “that we are such good people because now that the Fuhrer is here everything will be much, much better and it will be a wonderful, wonderful world and we’re very good for bringing our grandmother back.” As anyone who has ever truly known hunger can attest to. It is a feeling that changes you. My mother explained, “We were very hungry, but my father said that he’s not getting on line to get anything to eat; we’ll just have to be hungry. He didn’t want to be stopped by anybody who might ask some questions because he just wanted to be safe.”

They made it to the train station in Rotterdam, Holland and whenever my mother tells this part of the story she cries. Although I have heard the story many times, I cry too. As she began to speak, I knew what to expect in the middle of Wenceslas square. My children did not.

They listened as their grandmother told them about her experience arriving in Holand when she was their age. “There were Dutch ladies there with big trays of bread and butter and chocolate sprinkles for the children.” The tears started again. “And we were very hungry and, and,” my mother sobbed, overcome with the memory of the kindness of the women, the relief of safety, even all these years later, she remembered “and that was the best meal I ever had.”

Years later my mother would emulate those women as she met Soviet Jews arriving in Cherry Hill upon their arrival directly from JFK airport. Now she shared her story with my kids who didn’t quite understand why grandma was crying, but gave her a big hug in the middle of the busy square. Nothing else mattered. We were together. We were safe. And the memories of yesteryear, while making us who we are, were of a different reality which my children, born and raised in Israel, can’t quite comprehend.


The author on a recent visit to his mother's birthplace in the Czech Republic. Pictured with his mother, Edith Holzbauer Kalech, and his two sons, Shemer and Maytav, in Rosenberk nad Vltava, Southern Bohemia, the site of the Jewish cemetery of his mother's childhood community, a large proportion of which are graves from their family, some dating back two hundred years.


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