An English girl and a Czech soldier
In the last programme in our series marking Radio Prague’s 80th birthday we heard recordings of Czechs and Slovaks fighting in the British armed forces during World War Two. This week our tour of the radio archives brings us forward to the heady days immediately after the war. It is May 1945, Czechoslovakia has been liberated, and Czechs and Slovaks who fought in the Allied armed forces are returning home. One recording evokes this moment vividly. It is a dramatized reading of a letter, written by a Czech soldier to an English girl at some point shortly after he has returned to his home country, still in his British army uniform. More from David Vaughan.
The recording opens with the voice Mary, the English girl to whom the letter is addressed. She speaks in the clipped English so typical in Britain at that time.
It was in the dark days of early 1942 that I met Gustav, the first Czech boy I had ever known. I still remember vividly that party, where he asked me to dance with him. To my surprise he could express himself quite well in English and I felt a little ashamed that I couldn’t even say one word in Czech. We very soon became the best of friends and thanks to him I began to see other countries through different eyes, particularly, of course, Czechoslovakia. Now I have one great wish – someday to accept his invitation and go and see Czechoslovakia for myself. For he has already invited me.
Two of my journalism students from the Anglo American University, Katherine Wettermann and Owen Burt, chose to look at this recording as part of their course on the history of journalism
OB: “Yes, they met in 1942 at a party in Britain, while the Czechoslovak Army was over in Britain in exile. They started exchanging letters while he was going round Europe in the army and this letter is after the liberation of Czechoslovakia. He’s just saying what has gone on and how happy the Czechs were to see him again, and how thankful he is to the British.”
Dear Mary, Your letter has been delivered to me in Czechoslovakia and please forgive me if I did not answer immediately, but you will understand that I had to search for my folks and therefore had no time to waste. Soon after my landing in France I somehow lost all contact with you. Three or four letters of mine were returned to me and I thought – please forgive me once more – that you had become a V1 or V2 victim. I was therefore very, very glad to hear that my old pal is still very much alive. We went to Dunkirk, through Luxembourg, lovely devastated Germany, to Czechoslovakia, where the Yanks and the Russians had the situation already well under control. But as long as I live, I shall never forget the welcome in all the villages and small towns we had to pass. And the Czechs simply went mad to see after all those dreadful years their own chaps, equipped with the most modern weapons, gay and happy and gum-chewing, instead of looking through closed windows at Fritz’s jackboots. Then we had to parade through Prague, another day I cannot forget and describe. Speaking in true Churchill fashion I must say that never before have so few been hugged and kissed by so many. It made up for all the sad unhappy days which are behind us now.
At this point, Gustav mentions the Czechoslovak President, Edvard Beneš who had spent the war in exile in Britain. When he left Czechoslovakia in October 1938 after the humiliation of the Munich Agreement, he had been seen as a failure, unable to stop Hitler annexing the Sudetenland, but now, with Czechoslovakia on the side of the victors, his popularity was immense.
And amidst the madly cheering crowd was the great man who alone made this miracle come true. He carried our father Masaryk’s ideals and ideas to England and brought them back again purer and lovelier than ever before. Yes, Doctor Beneš – we call him our “great boss” – has also had the day of his lifetime, and we love and admire him just as he loved and admired the great human heart, Old Man Masaryk.
KW: “He also talks a little bit about the concentration camps and how his family was in the concentration camps and he lost a lot of family members. But his brother survived. He talks about how they were mentally fit after it, which was an interesting fact.”
Now my family: another miracle. I did find my brother and his wife, both returned from different concentration camps, one liberated by the Yanks, the other by the Russians. Both are physically not too bad, but mentally are a hundred percent fit, which is more than I could expect. My old father died in the arms of John, my brother, in the concentration camp. The rest of my relatives have been slaughtered.
KW: “I definitely found it moving, especially after he talks about losing family members; there’s a really long pause in the recording and I think that was done for dramatic effect, but it definitely made you think.”
OB: “Yes, I noticed the pause after him talking about his family as well, and I actually found it very interesting, because I’m a British person in the Czech Republic, so it was interesting to see what the relationship was like back then as well. It’s quite weird that it hasn’t been listened to for so long, but yes, I found it really interesting.”
When I got home, or to what used to be my home, the whole district was busy to find John. Within two hours we were reunited. My brother knew all the time that I’m in the army and he was sure that one day we would meet again. I’m unable to tell you how nice everybody was. John took me around and presented proudly his brother, “the Englishman”. It was ever so nice to come home to. How about England? Everybody wants to know about you. They admire and love you and have a deep and sincere admiration for this grand and happy breed: the best ambassadors England has ever had and all day long you could see them explaining to large groups of hungry civilians that your king is a democrat, how you live and fight for your own freedom and that of others, about Winston – public sweetheart number one even over there – about the raids – V1 and V2 – your National Fire Service and Home Guard, your grand civilians, the hospitality and cheerfulness, that you had no onions, no eggs, that you still have no stockings and that you are still very short of food, because you have to share it with millions of hungry people, how the Battle of Britain has been won, how the Merchant Navy did wonders and so on.
At this point, we get a hint of how Czech views of Britain changed with the war. Before the war, and reinforced by what was seen as the betrayal of the Munich Agreement, Britain had been perceived as a country of “golf-playing Englishmen”, as Gustav puts it – somewhat aloof and snobbish.
Forever has the golf-playing Englishman gone from the minds of the people and now they know what you really are like. You must be very proud to be an English girl. Dear Mary, I can’t write too nicely in English and it is very hard to express my present thoughts, but can you somehow tell everybody how thankful we are for everything you have done for us and that we will never forget the way you have adopted our small army?
KW: “Well, I definitely thought that it was recorded by people who were hired to record it. It wasn’t the actual people who wrote the letters because, with the fact that they lived in separate countries it wouldn’t have made sense that they would be in the same country recording this.”
OB: “Yes, I think it was crafted. It wasn’t clear in the recording if it was the real people or not, but it did give the impression that it probably was actors who were hired to talk about it – to make pro-propaganda about Britain and anti-propaganda about Germany, because he talks a lot about the horrible things the Germans did in Prague.”
The section in which Gustav talks about German atrocities is interesting in the context of the debates of the time. Gustav refers to the British diplomat Lord Vansittart, who believed that Germany could not be reformed and should not be allowed to rebuild itself with the end of hostilities. President Beneš saw things in a similar light and felt justified in expelling the German-speaking minority from Czechoslovakia.
Will you also please tell everybody that the Germans have, while fighting for their very lives in Prague, nailed little kids on the doors of their mothers’ houses, have ripped pregnant women’s bellies wide open, have thrown hundreds of dead mutilated bodies in a hole and used this place for their lavatory? That is for those who don’t believe Lord Vansittart. The German has shown his real soul. Don’t let him camouflage it again.
The expulsion of Germans from Czechoslovakia went ahead, and it remains a sensitive issue to this day. In the long run, fears that a revival of Germany would inevitably lead to a new destabilization of Europe proved ill-founded, and today the Czech Republic and Germany enjoy better relations than at any time in the past.