Jitka Paterson Sigmund - a new life in England after the tragedies of war


Jitka Paterson Sigmund was born in Olomouc in north Moravia, where her family owned a pump manufacturers called Sigmund Pumpy; in fact that's where the name of the local football team, Sigma Olomouc, came from. After the war Mrs Paterson Sigmund left Czechoslovakia for a year or two and never returned. She is now a leading member of the British Czech and Slovak Association. When I spoke to her at her north London home she described the factory owned by her family.

"The factory was run on the kind of Bata model. There were social facilities, there was a swimming pool built for the workers, there was a football field built, there was a social house which is there to this day, called Spolecensky dum... when Sigma Olomouc (football club) separated itself I have no idea, because what happened to us a family was that the Germans appropriated the factory, they executed my father. Well, they first imprisoned him. If there hadn't' been the Heydrich time I imagine that he would have survived, but the Heydrich period was a very handy time for the Germans to get rid of people who they didn't want. So he was executed in 1942. By that time we were out of the factory, we were banished from the vicinity. And that was it, the factory never came back to us because after the war although there were the decrees of President Benes - which said everything that the Germans misappropriated would be handed back - well, we're still waiting. I'm pursuing a claim but it's like fantasy world, really."

After the war you came to England - why did you come here?

"Well, my brother and sister were here during the war, my brother was in the RAF. They'd come here as kids to school. Sigmund Pumpy manufacturers wanted to get a contract from the British government, which they actually succeeded in, but before that, I think as preparing the ground the idea was to show ourselves as anglophiles, so they sent both children - my sister would have been 14 or 13 and my brother a year younger - they sent them to public schools here. And it was very tough for them because there was no business of coming home at Easter or coming home...they came home twice during that time, they came Christmas '37 and Christmas '38. And by the next Christmas it was finished for us. We lost all contact and everything. There was also an uncle, there was a sister company in the north of England, manufacturing pumps. So when the war was over they kind of felt that because of the Nazi occupation and everything life had been a bit rough for me. I was 17 when the war finished, so they said oh, let her come over for a year or two. Well that's how I came, for a year or two, and I'm still here."

How was it for you as a teenager travelling across Europe just after the war?

"For a start it was my first time out of the country, I'd never traveled before. Secondly it wasn't travelling across Europe. There was no travelling then, the bridges were all blown-up, trains weren't going. Air travel was the only thing. But air travel was so limited that I remember I had my papers, my permits, even my ticket way back I think in September '45 and I had to go to an office in Prague, on Vaclavske namesti, some flight office, every day to see if I could fly next day. And then one day, December 15, 1945 they said you can fly tomorrow. And so I flew, in a Dakota that wasn't even properly converted, it just had kind of seats bolted to it. And it was very exciting."

What were your first impressions of London and of England?

"I had five pounds, I had one of those white five-pound notes that you see in museums, and I think a little bit of change and an address of my uncle in Newcastle-on-Tyne. We landed in Croydon and I took the bus, the air bus, to the centre and then somehow or other I got to King's Cross. And I got myself my ticket to go to Newcastle with my five pounds, that was enough. It was about three pounds, I had change. My train didn't leave till about ten at night, I was going on the sleeper, and I wandered around. I didn't really know what else to do till ten o'clock and I went into a cinema, and for the first and only time I was sitting next to somebody who was groping me. First impression, first time in England, you know. And of course I didn't know that in England your tickets weren't for a seat, for a number, and I had paid my money and I was going to stay. So I put my bag in between and everything...anyway, he got fed up and went off somewhere else, groping somebody else I expect."

Did you ever consider going back to Czechoslovakia?

"Oh yes, yes. I had a boyfriend that I left in Czecho and I imagined after a year or two I'd go back. But by that time 1948 came and then of course my mother started her efforts to come out. My brother, who had been in England during the war, had gone back with the RAF to Prague, was studying in Prague at this point, so when the Communist putsch happened they put all their efforts into coming out together and managed to come out in September 1948."

How long did it take you to begin to feel at home here?

"The answer would be if I knew when I started dreaming in English, wouldn't it? But I don't know when I started dreaming in English. Now when I go back to Prague I start dreaming in Czech for a day or two and then I come back and start dreaming in English again."

Did you or do you follow events much in Czechoslovakia and later in the Czech Republic?

"I became kind of settled here. I married, and I was raising a family, then of course we all got frightfully involved with Czech affairs during the Prague Spring and all the influx of young people were here who were students and got stranded. Lots and lots were sleeping on our floor, undecided - shall I go back, shan't I go back? Some of those I'm still friendly with now. But then again, once the crunch came down in Czecho you kind of lost interest and then it all started bubbling up again. When '89 and that came we were all telephoning each other and were saying it can't be, it can't be."

When did you first go back after November 1989?

"I went back in March, '90. I was very worried about going back, really mainly because I was worried how it was going to affect me - it was 40-something years since I'd been. And so I went back totally secretly, I didn't tell my sons or anybody. I joined a sort of group of people who were looking at churches or something and I went. It was absolutely wonderful. In a way I found it more enchanting than it is now because it was as though you drew back curtains on history. Now Prague is looking like any other city but it didn't then, and that was lovely. So after that when I came back I had no more problems, I told people where I'd been and next time I went with my brother and I've been going regularly ever since."