Margita Rytirova - WAAF veteran denied job, flat by communist regime

Margita Rytirova, photo:

It's hard to believe that it's almost seventeen years since mass demonstrations brought about the end of Czechoslovakia's communist regime. Czechs have come a long way since 1989, but in many ways the country is still coming to terms with the four decades of totalitarian rule. Throughout November the Czech NGO People in Need is running a project called Stories of Injustice, showing schoolchildren powerful documentaries about communist-era oppression, and also bringing living witnesses into the schools. The children have also been asked to seek out members of their own community whose lives were affected by the regime.

One of those victims was Margita Rytirova, who fled to England in 1939 as a 14-year-old schoolgirl, helped by the legendary Sir Nicholas Winton. Three years later she joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force or WAAF, a decision which proved a fateful one after she returned to Czechoslovakia, as those who had fought with the British and Americans were persecuted by the communists. Margita takes up her story in 1942, when she joined the WAAF.

"I joined up in 1942. I volunteered when I was seventeen and a half, and I worked as an electrician. I went on a six-month course, and after that I worked on various kinds of aircraft - Wellington bombers and fighters and so on. I wanted to get to a Czech unit, only somehow they didn't send me. I asked, I wrote three times and they didn't send me until June 1945, when the war really was over, in Europe. Then I went to the Czech squadron at Manston."

How did you get to England in the first place?

"I was only 14 when I came to England. I had an uncle who lived in England, and he somehow got to know about Mr Winton. Through Mr Winton my younger sister and I got to England, and in England a very kind lady took us to her home."

So you were one of the 669 children saved by Sir Nicholas Winton?

"We weren't on his list. Somehow that uncle of his - my father's brother - I don't know, he never told us. In 1941 he lost his job and went to America with his family. I never asked him. We never knew how we got there really."

Where did your problems with the communist regime begin?

"I worked at the airport, at Ruzyne. I worked in the Briefing Room. In 1951, all those that were in the RAF were given notice, and I was sent to a little room upstairs so that I couldn't speak to any of the pilots that used to come to me. They told me that if I don't like it I could leave. So I left. My husband also worked at the airport, with the weather forecasts. One day they phoned him at home and told him that a friend was waiting for him. As soon as he walked out the house, some men caught him, put him in a car and took him to a police station, to the StB [Communist Czechoslovakia's secret police force], and asked him to join the StB. He refused, so he was given an hour's notice. He had to work manually."

How were you treated after you were forced out?

"I couldn't find a job either. I tried a few times. Whenever they heard how I speak English - at the time I spoke very well - they always said that they can't take me. So I knitted jumpers, and after about two years I found a job as a typist. In 1968, when everything seemed easier, I got a job at the technical publishing house in Prague, and there I worked until I retired."

So your involvement in the WAAF never led to you being imprisoned, it was limited to you being denied doing the job you wanted to do.

"Yes, I was never imprisoned, neither of us. Only my father-in-law, because he was a lawyer. But I just couldn't find a job, that was the only trouble. And my husband didn't find a job until 1968 - he did manual labour for almost twenty years."

So how did the students find you?

"I live in a village now. And one of the children - one of the mothers actually, she's a teacher - she called me, and asked me if I would go and tell the children about my life. So that was the reason. I'm very surprised - they called me and asked me if I'd like to come here [to the launch of the Stories of Injustice photo exhibition project at the New Town Hall] and I see there's a whole board about me. I didn't know that."

What do you think of this project, getting children to find out what happened to their neighbours during the communist regime?

"I think it's a very good idea, because the children ought to know. My own grandchildren all know about it, of course they're all grown up now. I'm surprised how interested these little children are. Last year I went to a few schools, because they asked me if I'd go. It was when they showed the film about Mr Winton. So they contacted me as well, and I went to tell the children about my life. I was so surprised how interested they were. Some of the children, they cried. I don't know why. They wanted to hold my hand, and I was quite distressed by this. Very nice of them."

So you think your story should be told.

"Well, I don't think my story is so very interesting, because thank goodness I wasn't locked up. I wasn't imprisoned or anything like that. We just couldn't find a job, we couldn't get a flat. Some people got a flat as soon as they got married. We waited twenty years or so."

And presumably your children had problems had problems getting to university etc.

"My daughter, of course, she couldn't go to a decent school. She had to work and finish school in evening class."

How did you feel, back in 1951, when you were told there was no job for you here anymore?

"We didn't realise it would be for such a long time. Because in 1951, I thought I'd find something. Then when my husband lost his job - I suppose when you're young you don't think all that much. I took it as 'that's life'".