A story from the war

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Here's a story for you. It's the story of an old lady I know, a widow of around 80 years old. She lives in a small town in east Bohemia. She's now frail with health problems, lonely maybe and prone to complaining. But back in 1939 when Nazi Germany took over the Czech lands she was a teenager doing what thousands have done before and since - preparing for her school leaving exams, what is known as the 'maturita' in Czech.

Here's a story for you. It's the story of an old lady I know, a widow of around 80 years old. She lives in a small town in east Bohemia. She's now frail with health problems, lonely maybe and prone to complaining. But back in 1939 when Nazi Germany took over the Czech lands she was a teenager doing what thousands have done before and since - preparing for her school leaving exams, what is known as the 'maturita' in Czech.

I don't know how she and her family felt when the Nazis took control of her country. But I do know that the Nazis changed much more than what side of the road people drove on. One thing the Germans changed was the education system. They changed the history books, and - unsurprisingly - they insisted on an increased emphasis on the study of German. The Nazis took over in May, not long before the lady I know was to do her school leaving exams. Her class had a Czech teacher of German, and he knew that there was just no way that his students would be able to pass the new course set by the Nazis, with such a short period to prepare.

So he did what I imagine a lot of people would do in his situation; on the quiet, he told his students what to expect in the exam itself, exactly what they had to cover to pass the exam. Then - and years after first hearing this story it still chills me - one of the students (a Czech) informed on the teacher. I can only hazard a guess as to why - to curry favour with the Nazis, hatred of the teacher, who knows. Anyway, the Nazis executed that teacher.

But the story gets worse. The informer never admitted to it, and the Nazis didn't give their source away. And remember - all of this happened in a small town. The people in the class had their suspicions, they thought they knew who'd done it. But they could never be sure. For many years afterwards - even when they were all in middle age - the person they suspected (it was a woman) came to class reunions. Imagine that, just imagine it.

By the way, the old lady I know had a boyfriend at the time, a couple of years older than her. He was taken away by the Nazis to be used as forced labour in Germany. I don't know how long he was there, but I do know that his girlfriend had no idea that she would ever see him alive again. He did return, they married and they spent many happy years together. They were lifelong Communists too, though I don't know if that was in any way related to their war-time experiences.

There is an ongoing debate in the region about whether the 2.5 million Germans who were expelled after the war should be compensated. The vast majority of Czechs are resolutely opposed to the idea. My elderly acquaintance is among them. And it's not difficult to understand why.