Petra Tonder, pt. 2: A childhood escape, pulled across a river on a plank on an inner tube

Petra Tonder, photo: Ian Willoughby

Petra Tonder’s father Ivo Tonder took part in the Great Escape in 1944 and later also succeeded in breaking out of prison in his native Czechoslovakia. There, like many former RAF aviators, he had been persecuted by the Communists after their 1948 takeover. In the second half of a two-part interview, Petra Tonder shares details about her own incredible journey to freedom as a very small child, and the lives her family led in the UK. But first she discusses her parents' post-war return to – and subsequent escape from – Czechoslovakia.

Petra Tonder,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“My father, very early on, made a little trip back, just a 36-hour trip, and he thought it wasn’t a good idea to come back. But of course, they came back.

“My father wasn’t very well. He went down to some ludicrously low weight at one point. He was just skin and bones. So perhaps for that reason he fainted.

“He was still in the Czechoslovak Air Force. They were living on Dlouhá and he was waiting to be picked up to be taken to an air field and he just passed out.

“So they took him to hospital and they never really did figure out what was wrong with him.

“But my parents decided – they really didn’t like what was going on in Prague, and also there was Daddy’s health – to move to the country.

“They bought a farm above Mariánské Lázně. I think my father was extremely happy there – my mum perhaps a little less so [laughs].

“They spent a couple of years farming.

“My brother Ivan was born in 1946 and my mother was pregnant with me in 1948, in February 1948, when the Communists ‘won’ the election.

“It was very, very clear to them that they had to get out. They had been told in Prague… my mother would go to Prague.

“And local people told them that if they didn’t join the Communist Party they would drive them off the land.

“They knew they had to go but they couldn’t get permission. They tried everything.

“So when I was… according to my father six weeks old according to my mother eight weeks old – my mother was more reliable… we made our first attempt to cross the border.

“And it was a disaster [laughs]. It poured and poured with rain and they both had backpacks filled with nappies, which became extremely heavy. They weren’t waterproof like nowadays [laughs].

“Local people told my parents that if they didn’t join the Communist Party they would drive them off the land.”

“Somebody saw them, and they were picked up.”

Was your father then imprisoned?

“My father was imprisoned, first of all in Cheb. Ada Hoffmeister, who was my father’s cousin, probably would have helped.

“So he didn’t stay terribly long in prison.

“Then they tried again and they put my father in prison for longer.

“Then my mother tried. That was a major, major attempt, with lots of people involved, to cross the border, at Sušice, and again we were caught. And this time they imprisoned my mother too.

“Actually my favourite bit of my father’s story was his trial.

“There was a time, in 1949, when we actually went to Brno and tried to steal an aeroplane. Karel Sláma was involved.

“My father was going to see Karel Sláma and he walked up the stairs and the StB took the lift, or the other way around, and he saw him being arrested.

“Everything was foiled. They had found a plane but it was pouring with rain… every attempt went haywire.

“So my father was imprisoned. He spent six months waiting to be tried and when the trial actually came around he was supposed to be the head of a group of 20 people which included politicians, doing some, I don’t know...”

It was some fabricated nonsense that they were accused of?

“It was fabricated nonsense… My father told this story really amusingly. It gave Daddy energy to talk about these things – he would laugh all the way through the whole thing [laughs].

“He said he was very lucky because as the purported head of this organisation he was the first person to be tried and everyone was fresh.

Ivo Tonder in 1940,  photo: archive of Petra Tonder
“Twenty people were being tried and they all had somebody in court, so there was a big audience.

“They started by saying, Have you ever been sentenced for anything before or tried before?

“He said, Yes. They said, What was the verdict?

“He said, I got the death penalty. They said, What are you doing here? He said, Oh it didn’t work out [laughs].

“He did it all like Švejk, with all this funny politeness that Czechs can do.

“And everyone slowly started to laugh. So in the end they didn’t give him very long – I think a year, and he had already sat for six months.

“He sat that out. But then they didn’t let him out.

“He thought, God, this is ridiculous, I can’t help my family, sitting here in prison.

“So he escaped, with a young man. The two of them escaped together and walked from Blansko to Vienna, I think. So he was out.

“The young man who he had escaped with decided to stay and work for, I’m not sure, maybe first the Americans and then the British, getting people out.

“My father immediately begged him to get my mother out. Which he did.

“But my mother’s escape was very, very difficult.”

With you and your brother?

“No, just by herself. She was in prison. My brother was in Moravia, in Přerov, with some people who had taken a huge liking to him when he was a small child.

“In 1949 we actually went to Brno and tried to steal an aeroplane.”

“I was in Prague with my grandmother.”

So how did all three of you get out?

“Mummy escaped, finally, on her ninth attempt. She had been in hiding in Slovakia for a long time and finally they got her out.

“And then Gustav Polák got us out. A year or two later he was caught taking a young woman, who was shot dead, across the border.

“He was tried and we read the trial records and he described how he came to Prague and picked me up and then picked my brother up in Přerov.

“The only thing I remember is he took an inner tube and put a plank over it. He sat us on it, took off his clothes and put them between us, and swam across the river, from Slovakia [into Austria].

“The British wouldn’t let my father come get us, but they did send a plane.

“It was dodgy, because we were in the Russian area.

“But somebody was very quick thinking and said that we were very sick, we had something contagious, and had to be taken to hospital in the West.

“1951 we arrived in London. It was in the newspapers. We used to have a cutting but it seems to have got lost [laughs].”

When you were growing up, did your parents talk a lot about their lives here? Or were they looking to the future and building a new life in the UK?

“No, they talked a lot about Prague. They had grown up in the First Republic, both of them from comfortably off families, and it had been wonderful.

“There was an excitement during those years. There was so much energy.

Ivo Tonder receives the appointment decree to the rank of Major General from Czech ambassador Karel Kühnl,  photo: archive of Petra Tonder
“I especially grew up thinking there’s this wonderful, wonderful country where I want to go and live [laughs].”

I presume you spoke Czech as a child?

“I spoke Czech until we went to school. But because my parents had been in England during the war and spoke perfect English, it was just so easy to drop into English.

“So I’m afraid we didn’t keep up our Czech as much as other children did.”

Did you regard your father especially as a kind of superman, because of all these escapes and so on? I think I would. He must have been a hugely impressive fellow.

“No, he was an extremely likable man. He was laughing all the time, very laid back, so he wasn’t…

“I don’t know how one imagines a superman would be [laughs], but he wasn’t. He was a very, very nice man.”

What did your folks do for work in England?

“Next year, in February, there will be a big exhibition at the Museum of Decorative Arts [in Prague] of what my mother’s brother, Zika Ascher, did.

“Just by Stavovské divadlo [the Estates Theatre], on Rytířská, the Aschers had a shop selling silk and fabrics mainly.

“My uncle continued to do that in England and asked everybody who was painting at that time to do designs for fabric: Matisse and Henry Moore and just about everybody. The most unlikely people, like Lucien Freud. Hugely unlikely people did designs for him.

“My father worked there for a while. But they didn’t get together terribly well. Both my parents worked for Zika for a while, but they soon left.

“My father started up his own business, doing the same thing. Well, not the same thing.

“For Zika what he did was silk-screen printing, hand printing. Not all the other amazing things that Zika was doing.

“Daddy just did printing and he decided to open his own business, just printing. He wasn’t in competition with Zika.”

Did your parents much follow events here?

“My father said, I got the death penalty. They said, What are you doing here? He said, It didn’t work out.”

“Absolutely. Mummy worked for the BBC and for Radio Free Europe.

“She didn’t miss a news bulletin [laughs]. She walked around with a little radio and knew who was choosing the news that day. She was a news junkie.”

I guess both your parents lived to see the end of communism?


Was your father rehabilitated or did he receive some award? Can you tell us about that, please?

“Yes. First of all, in 1989, the three of us – mummy, daddy and me – jumped in a car. I was living in America and I don’t know how I happened to be there.

“We drove here without stopping. We didn’t even stop to have a coffee [laughs], we were just so excited.

“We went up to Mariánské Lázně to see the farm and spent the night there.

“We then came to Prague and it was, Havel na Hrad, Havel na Hrad.

“My parents never took British citizenship so they were able to vote for Havel. I wasn’t – I was British by then [laughs].

“It was wonderful. Then we came back, quite a few more times.”

Wasn’t there some point where Havel – if this is the right word – rehabilitated the RAF men?

“They came back I think in the beginning twice a year. Certainly once a year.

“They were flown in, red carpets, tea with Havel.

“They moved them around and kept them really busy [laughs] – all these poor old people being dragged off to listen to talks and to dinners.

“And then… now I’ll tell you about my father’s death.

“In 1995, 50 years after the end of the war, he was supposed to come here. I think even the Queen was supposed to be involved.

“Mummy escaped, finally, on her ninth attempt.”

“But he was very ill by then.

“My brother phoned me – I was living in America – and said, If you want to see Daddy alive, you’d better come.

“I somehow managed to come. He was in hospital but they let him come home and I in fact spent three weeks sitting with him.

“He had got married on May 3, at the end of the war.

“He couldn’t do any of these things [participate in memorial events] but five days before he died the Czech ambassador, a lovely, lovely man, came to the house.

“We had a party, champagne, lots of people came, and the ambassador gave him something making him a general or whatever. And Mummy became a major [laughs].

“He gave him a certificate, because he couldn’t come to Czechoslovakia.

“So then, I was sitting with Daddy. It was May 2, at night, about four in the morning, so actually it was already May 3.

“And he said, Right, now I’m going to die – call your brother.

“Mummy had hurt her back and was sleeping. My brother, who was coming over whenever he could, was exhausted because he was also running his business.

“I said, Daddy, you’re not going to die right now [laughs]. Perhaps I didn’t say it, but I really thought he wasn’t going to.

“But what do you do? You have to obey at such a time.

“So I phoned my brother and said, Ivan, you’ve just got to come over. I woke Mummy and she came down.

“He insisted that we all take a glass and he poured out something or other, some alcohol [laughs].

“He made speeches: what a wonderful wife my mother had been, he said really nice things about my children and my brother’s children, all of this stuff.

“And he said, Now I’ll die. He sat back. Around an hour or two later he woke up and said, Hergot, co tady ještě dělám?! What the heck am I still doing here [laughs]?!

“But in fact he was on a lot of morphine and he didn’t properly wake up again and died that night.

“But he had been a little shocked to find himself still there [laughs].”

Wow, that’s quite a story. What’s your story? You were telling me earlier you moved here in 2010.

“I feel a sort of sympathy with the people. I don’t think they’re any better or worse than anyone else, but somehow I feel more sympathy for them.”

“Yes, when my mother died.”

What led you to come here?

“I had always wanted to. I had always known I would, if circumstances allowed. So that’s what I did.”

What was the draw? And how have you found living here?

“I love it. I love the country.

“I feel a sort of sympathy with the people. I don’t think they’re any better or worse than anyone else, but somehow I feel more sympathy for them.

“These are kind of my people. Even though my Czech is horrible and I’m a foreigner here, just as I have been everywhere. But that’s OK [laughs].”