William Teltscher - debunking myth of "idyllic" pre-war coexistence of Sudeten Germans, Jews

William Teltscher

It's not often you get the chance to talk about history with those who participated in it. But recently while covering a festival of Jewish culture in the south Moravian town of Mikulov, I had that chance. The festival marked the 70th anniversary of the foundation of Mikulov's Jewish museum for Moravia and Silesia, which was closed when the Nazis arrived in 1938. Among the guests was William Teltscher, son of the museum's founder Richard Teltscher. William Teltscher fled the Nazis in 1938 and emigrated to London, where he's lived ever since. Now 83 he made a special journey to Mikulov to commemorate the anniversary.

William Teltscher
"I was born in the nearest maternity home to Mikulov, which was Vienna, but I lived in Mikulov till the age of fifteen."

So it must be an extraordinary feeling for you to come back here so many years later.

"Well, it's a mixture of nostalgia, "recherche pour temps perdu" and at the same time a memorial to my father and to his collaborators who so tragically perished."

Tell me a bit what life was like for a Jewish family here in Mikulov.

"It was a happy time overshadowed by what we were witnessing in Austria after the Anschluss, and it came to an end with the Munich Agreement."

And how old were you at the time of Munich?

"That would have made me 15 years old."

So you were a 15-year-old schoolboy, but were you very aware of the events going on around you in Central Europe?

"I was indeed. It was inescapable when half the family, in fact, lived across the border in Austria. Also locally there were parades of Nazified majority ethnic Germans. Relations between the Jews and the Germans - the word 'strained' is not a sufficiently strong term and it particularly touched my family because my father was a representative of the Jewish party, which was a minority party in Czechoslovakia, and behind the scenes inspired local coalitions trying to ward off the spread of the anti-Semitic Sudeten Deutsche Partei, which in fact was the guise of the Nazi party within the Czechoslovak Republic."

Can you tell me how you escaped and survived the holocaust?

"Oh my escape was simple. I was dispatched off to England because there was already a nucleus of uncles and aunts that had lived in Austria. The escape of the rest of the family was by means so easy. The worst was my father, who was on the Gestapo hit-list. They looked for him on the very first day of the occupation in Brno, by which time he was in Prague. When they looked in Prague, he was on the Polish frontier. He crossed illegally into Poland and had then the unpleasant experience of being arrested by the Poles together with another group of refugees, with the threat of an immediate return to the Czech border into the hands of the Gestapo, which prompted him to get permission to use the telephone. The Warsaw chief rabbi took this to be a matter of life and death and intervened with the Polish authorities who in turn put pressure on the British to grant asylum and eventually a boat was chartered and they came into the port of London".

So you were reunited with your father in England. Did most of your family then survive the holocaust?

"In the immediately family, an indirect victim was my sister. We only had permission to stay in England with the view to leaving again and emigrating somewhere else. She had just reached 18, and had been a brilliant student at the French Lycee in Prague. Her aim of studying some art subject was frustrated, she became depressed, she met a young man who was equally depressed, and in the upshot they jumped from the Seven Sisters at Beachy Head. In the wider family, which was a large one, there were various uncles and aunts who were caught by the Holocaust and perished in the concentration camps. As did a cousin of mine."

Were you ever tempted to move back to Czechoslovakia after 1945?

"No. The decision that I'd made in England, and particularly after serving in the British Army, was that I was going to make my home here - here being in England, I'm forgetting where I'm speaking from - and that I had to write off the previous experiences."

When did you get the opportunity to return to your Homeland?

"I returned in 1968. It was at the time of the discussions between the Russians and the Czechs at Cierna, and we felt that the couple of weeks we were going to spend were reasonably safe. In fact, we retuned at the very moment that the Russians invaded."

What were your feelings when you returned to Mikulov for the first time since 1938?

"It's a strange thing to define. The degree of nostalgia I suppose played its part, but the main thing was that it was a completely new population. At that time not as interested as the present generation in the continuity of the history, due to the various political developments that intervened I suppose."

Today I'm speaking to you on the launch of this festival of Jewish culture in Mikulov. What do you think of these efforts to bring back to life the Jews of Mikulov?

"I applaud it. I must say there is one thing which troubles me slightly and that is not the Czech part of this, but the Sudeten German part of it, which is trying to create a myth of the idyllic coexistence of the Jews and ethnic Germans. In my generation this did not apply. From 1933 onwards, things got progressively worse and worse. I think it was a German historian [Leopold von] Ranke, who said 'write history as it is true'. And this is not true."