Friendship in spite of Hitler: stories of survival from around the world
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.
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?
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. “
“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?
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.”