Friendship in spite of Hitler: stories of survival from around the world

Jewish teenagers from Czechoslovakia in Denmark in 1939, photo: archive of Judita Matyášová

Judita Matyášová is a young Czech journalist who by pure chance happened to come upon the story of some 700 Jewish children from around central Europe who were smuggled to Denmark to escape the Holocaust. Unlike the story of Nicolas Winton’s children this one had not been researched and Judita made it her own special project to find as many of the 100 Czech children as she could, reunite them and tell their story. Her close to three year endeavor is the topic of a book due to come out in October. Judita visited Radio Prague’s studio this week to talk about the search for survivors, her book and how it all began.

Judita Matyášová,  photo: Barbara Rich
“Actually, this project started with just one photograph which got published on the title page of the newspaper I work for, Lidové noviny. It was a photo of Helena Bemová who knew she would soon be forced to join the transport of Jews to a concentration camp. Before that she went to a photographer to get her picture taken and when he asked her when she planned to pick up the photo she answered when everything is over, and she never returned. As the years went by her story was forgotten. Then one day the photographer found the photo and tried to trace her. He showed it to people asking do you know this girl and one lady said yes, I remember her. And I thought what a great story! So I published it, thinking no one would have survived from Helena’s family. But then I got a call from her cousin and she said she was the only survivor from the family because she was smuggled from Czechoslovakia to Denmark and that saved her life. “

And that was how you found that there were several hundred children who made this journey?

“Actually, it was a group of 80 to 100 teenagers from Czechoslovakia and in total it was 700 Czech, Polish, Slovak, German, Austrian teenagers, so in all it is 700 teenagers from central Europe.”

And they all spent the war in Denmark?

“Yes, they were placed in Danish foster families and they were there until 1943 when they had to escape to Sweden, a very dramatic escape because they were hidden in fishermen’s boats, but most of them survived. That was when most of them parted ways and lost touch for the next 70 years. And they were finally reunited last year and again this year. “

How did you go about searching for them when they were scattered around the world, presumably?

Jewish teenagers from Czechoslovakia in Denmark in 1939,  photo: archive of Judita Matyášová
“When I first heard this story from Helena’s cousin I thought there must be something preserved from that time, so I decided to go to Denmark and ask the locals in the area if they remember these children. And I was so surprised because the response was like a storm. I got so many letters, emails and calls from Danish farmers who said yes, we have a wooden suitcase in the attic these children left behind – would you like to see it? And I said of course and it was full of letters and diaries and then I went to Sweden and again, I got a similar response, though I have to say the biggest activity was in Israel where I met a lot of these war children. We met at the Yad Vashem - Holocaust memorial in October of last year, a get together of 45 to 50 war children from all over the world.”

All these are people whom you personally traced?

“Yes, yes, survivors and some descendents from the second generation, they came from America, from Africa, from Europe so it was something incredible.”

Did you personally visit these places or just write and contact the authorities for information? How did you find these people?

“It is like detective work. Some links I got through emails, Skype and other communication channels. And it was amazing to meet them – all together.”

How did they respond to this endeavour of yours?

“The survivors? A lot of people asked them how does it feel to see your friends after so many years? And they said –it is like we are still teenagers. You couldn’t stop them. They were talking and talking and it was an amazing atmosphere. They were very, very emotional. And I expect that this year in October when some of them come to Prague it will also be great. “

Photo: archive of Judita Matyášová
How old are these people today?

“They are 88-89.”

What were the highlights of this project for you personally?

“For me it is not just a Jewish story. It is an amazing story of friendship, an amazing story of unconditional help extended by the foster families in Denmark and also people in Sweden, and a story of incredible love between parents and children. It is a sign of great love to send your child away to safety thinking- this is the best I can do for them.”

Presumably, you goal in searching for these people was not just to help them to meet once again but also to tell their story –how many stories have you collected?

“I think 40 to 50 stories and it is still snowballing because a week before finishing my book I got a message via Facebook from a woman in Israel who said I was just on the Internet and found my grandmother’s name on your list of war children. She is here in Israel –would like to contact her? So for me it is not just about the reunion, but also about presenting these stories as a great example and inspiration for us and especially for the young generation because when I visit schools and talk to young people I see that they are really interested in the story because they are teenagers and this is a story about teenagers in a very special situation.”

You have just finished work on a book called Friendship in spite of Hitler which is due to come out in October in Czech. Will it also be available in English?

“Yes, the book is being translated into English now and it should be ready by the end of this year and will be available as an e-book on the Internet and hopefully next year I will find a publisher in Great Britain or the US because I feel it is important to bring it to the attention of the international public.”

Can you tell us a bit about the book – is it a collection of the life stories of these war children?

Jewish teenagers from Czechoslovakia in Denmark,  photo: archive of Judita Matyášová
“Deciding on the structure of the book was difficult for me because I was sure that the book should not just be a collection of all the stories I was told, but a selection of those that were extreme or very special. So in the end I chose 11 stories of boys and girls of different temperament and character – both introverts and outgoing, adventurous types. So I selected a mix of characters and I do not tell their stories chronologically, I focussed on a given part of their life –for instance what it was like to leave Prague and go to Denmark, so that’s in the first chapter, the second chapter is about my research –how I travelled to Denmark, Sweden and Israel and how people still remember these kids and this chapter ends with their reunion. It could be a Hollywood-style happy end, but I was thinking that this is not the end because the story continues with their families, in the second and third generation, so the third chapter is about their families –one family in the Czech Republic, one in Israel and one in America because it is very different how they talk about this experience in Czech families – especially before the fall of the communist regime, and how this story was told in an Israeli kibbutz and in America – it is very, very different.”

What would you like your book to bring readers?

“I think this book might bring something new in the field of survivors’ stories, because there are so many movies and books and materials which are mainly focussed on wartime, but I think it is important to see the war in the context of what happened before and after. This book is mostly about searching for your home. Is it still your home without your parents, without your loved ones? When you are an immigrant in Denmark, in Sweden, anywhere in the world, how do you go about creating a new home? Is it a Czech home in an Israeli kibbutz, or Boston or New York? Is it still your home? For many survivors home has come to mean the Czech language, Czech culture, Czech history. They live all over the world and they still speak almost perfect Czech and for them this is something so important, so deep that this may the answer to the question –where is their home.”