Newly published book from 1938 depicts life of pre-war Jewish family

Photo: archive of Wels family

A wonderful book written in 1938 by the Jewish brothers Martin and Tomáš Wels as a Christmas present for their family has just been released by the Prague-based publisher Triáda. The book is called Sancta Familia and on a space of just a few dozen pages, it paints an incredibly vivid portrait of a middle class Jewish family living in Prague on the brink of the Second World War. It was published in a trilingual edition, which was edited by Czech Radio’s David Vaughan.   

I met with David to discuss the book and we started by listening to a short extract from a podcast based on the story of the Wels family, which he prepares for Radio Prague:

Mother: In die Koruna willst du geh’n, du Lauser? Komm geh’Ma!

Suppot: Mom, speak Czech. We are in the Koruna now. You can’t speak German.

Mother: What’ll you have, Martin? A meatball?

Suppot: You bet! Get yourself one too, Mum!

Mother: No, no, I really shouldn’t. Here’s a crown.

I push my way through a crowd and return with a meatball.

Suppot: Hey, Mum, just look at the onion she gave me! Have a bite!

Mother: No, I’d better not.

Then all you see is a row of fine teeth, which carefully and cleanly bite off a piece of that fatty meatball.

Did you like it, Mum?

Mother: Ja, lecker.

“This is a short extract from a remarkable book called Sancta Familia, which was written by the two boys, Martin and Tomáš Wels. Tomáš was 18 at the time, Martin was 13. They wrote this book consisting of scenes from their family’s daily life, as we’ve just heard, as a Christmas present for their parents and their grandmother.

Sancta familia,  photo: Triáda

“This is 1938 and I think it is a delightful sort of fly on the wall picture of life of the second half of the 1930s for a, in many ways typical, Prague family. It’s also beautifully illustrated because Martin, even though he was only 13, he was already a very gifted artist. He was already going to courses at the private art school Oficina Pragensis, which is quite famous.

“There are various little scenes, like going to the market, at the dinner table, the scene we’ve just heard in the Koruna fast food at the bottom of Wenceslas Square, which was there until quite recently and Martin illustrated these scenes. And every now and then there is a full page illustration. They are wonderfully evocative of Prague in the 1930s.”

The book was written in 1938 and it reads like reality, but in fact it is set in the near future, isn’t it?

“It’s complicated. Christmas 1938 was just a couple of months after the Munich Agreement had been signed, which gave Hitler vast tracts of Czechoslovakia. The Wels family were a Jewish family and they realized that the future was looking far from certain. They had already applied, just a month or two before this book was written, for a visa to the United States.

David Vaughan,  photo: Pavla Horáková

“It is also a theme in the book, where they speculate, in a very humorous way, about their future life in the United States. But there is a fear underneath that, which is that things are going to get worse.

“They set the book in the near future, in the spring of 1939 and it is set at a time when Tomáš has just left on a train to Paris, from where he is going to go the United States. The rest of the family are hoping to join him soon.

“What they weren’t able to predict at that time was that on March 15, 1939, German troops would march to Prague and occupy what was left of Czechoslovakia. The result was that it became impossible to get out of the country.

“By a tragic irony they received a letter from the American Embassy just one week after the beginning of the occupation not rejecting their application for a visa, but postponing it. Which under those conditions meant that they were definitively trapped in occupied Prague.”

What the Wels brothers predicted correctly, though, was that Tomáš would eventually leave the country, even though under quite different circumstances.

He managed to smuggle himself via Poland across the border and ended up in Britain, where he spent the war and fought in the Royal Airforce. Unfortunately, the rest of the family was not that lucky, says David Vaughan:

“The rest of the family, after they were trapped in the Protectorate, in occupied Prague, they carried on their lives as normally as they could. But then, at the beginning of 1942, they were sent to the ghetto in Theresienstadt, where they spent a year and a half.

Martin and Tomáš Wels,  phhoto: archive of Wels family

“Then they were sent on to the euphemistically called family camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they were murdered on the night of March 8, 1944. That’s Rudolf, his wife Ida and their son Martin. The other son Tomáš came back immediately after the war.

“He found the Štifter family, who had been good friends of the Welses. When they were sent to Terezín, they left a box of their most treasured items with the Štifter family.

“So after the war, when Tomáš came back, he was able to take all these things with him to Britain. By that time, he had a wife and a small child in Britain, and he went on to have two more children. Among the things he took with him was this book, Sancta Familia.

“So it’s a little miracle amid the tragedy of the Holocaust that at least the letters, the family photographs, this book and another book, the memoirs of Tomáš and Martin’s grandfather from 1919, survived.”

However, Tomáš was too traumatised by the fact that no one in his family had survived and that nothing of his world was left, and he never spoke about the past with his English family. Although they all knew about the box hidden in the cupboard, it was never opened.

It was only when Tomáš was dying that his son Collin opened the box and gradually started rediscovering the things that were in it, including the book Sancta Familia, which he of course couldn’t understand, having grown up in Britain.

Thanks to David Vaughan, who managed to persuade the publishers Triáda to bring out a trilingual edition of the book, readers can now discover the story in English, Czech and German.

Although Sancta Familia is only a few dozen pages long, it gives an incredibly vivid picture of the Wels family:

“It’s amazing. It’s only about 70 pages, but there are so many revealing little dialogues. At the very beginning of the book, in fact I can quote from it, the boys write:

Rudolf Wels,  photo: archive of Michael Rund

At some point, every sentence in this book has been spoken. That was our aim, to catch the idiosyncrasies in the way each individual speaks and lives, and preserve them for you for all time. We hope that we have succeeded at least in part.

“So there is a great sense of authenticity about the way everybody talks, because they really were trying to capture the qualities of the different members of the family.”

So what do we know about the Wels family?

“They were Jewish. They had been living in West Bohemia for centuries. We know that the Wels family had been in the family of Osek near Rokycany, not far from Pilsen, since the 17th century, probably even longer.

“Rudolf Wels’s wife Ida was from a wealthy Jewish family from Cheb, or Eger, in Western Bohemia. That was a part of Czechoslovakia where they spoke more or less almost exclusively German.

“So her native tongue is German, with this Egerland dialect, which turns up a lot in the book and the boys laugh a little bit at it. So that’s one of the reasons why in the family they sort of jump between Czech and German.

“Rudolf, the father of the two boys, was an architect, he studied architecture first of all in Prague and then in Vienna, at the Academy of Arts, rather ironically, the same academy that Hitler didn’t get into. And he studied and worked under the famous modern architect Adolf Loos.

“He went on to become a very successful architect in the so-called first Czechoslovak republic between 1918 and 1938. So the family were living in a very nice part of Prague and their flat was in a building that had been designed by Rudolf in what is known as a functionalist style.

“It was very modern and comfortable building with a terrace, where Martin would spend lots of his time.

“So we know loads about the family because their letters and other documents survived in this box in a living room in Oxford, Britain.”

The book is very humorous, describing all these little scenes from the family’s daily life, yet there is always a darker tone present underneath…

“Yes, there is. There is this sense that they are living on borrowed time. They are hoping to leave although they don’t want, but they feel they are left with no other choice.

“It is tragic that they didn’t succeed. One of the most moving moments of the book is right at the end, where Martin writes, in French in fact, because he was going to the French lycée:”

It is a family full of harmony when everyone is joking together, but quite capable of tearing itself apart when a fight breaks out. A family as it should be!

It has nothing to fear for the future, but let us hope that before long it will find a place to live, to carry on this play in peace and quiet. The family.

“Knowing what happened to the family, it is very sad and very moving to read these words.”

The book Sancta Familia by Tomáš and Martin Wels is available in bookshops throughout the Czech Republic or you can order it through the publisher’s website: www.i-triada.net. If you are outside the Czech Republic you can order the book by sending an email to the publishers: objednavky@i-triada.net.