From the Centropa Biographies - Alice Klimova

Alice Klimova
Born 1928 in Prague

Country: Czech Republic
City: Prague
Interviewer: Lenka Kopřivová

Date of interview: March - June 2006

Alive Klimova in 1939. Czecho-Slovakia

My parents apparently did what they could to protect me from everything unpleasant. When the opportunity arose for me to go to England, they said with a smile, 'That's amazing, you're so lucky, you'll go to England, we'd like that too, for sure you'll go to the sea.' They basically made it into something sensational for me, and I looked forward to it. Of course, not even they could suspect that we'd never see each other again, if they'd have suspected it, I don't know if they would have managed it. When it came down to the decision whether they should or shouldn't send my sister and me away, their best friends were persuading them to do it. They said, 'Look how they behaved to the Jews in Austria, what Kristallnacht in Germany was like, you can't expect anything good, let at least the girls be somewhere safe.' So in the end they convinced my parents, who then managed to serve it up to me like that with a smile.

Originally only I was supposed to go to England. As I've already said, my sister was a member of the 'Rote Falken' organization. Their leader traveled to England and there he made a connection with a similar organization, where he wrote a circular that here, in Czechoslovakia there was an entire number of endangered children whom it was necessary to get to England. He looked for people that would be willing to take some child in. I don't know why, but age-wise it was limited from 10 to 16, I think. My sister was 16 and a half, so didn't meet the conditions and I was supposed to go in her place.

When I was leaving, there was nary a mention of her going too. By sheer chance she managed to leave on the next transport, and all because she attended a German high school. Our parents sent her there so that she'd learn to read and write German properly. In 1934 some girl from Germany joined their class, whose father, a journalist, was jailed in a concentration camp. My sister became friends with her, and she used to come to our place to visit, and in the summer would go with us to our summer apartment. Her mother was a children's doctor, and after they released her father from the concentration camp, the entire family left for England.

When I arrived in England, they were waiting for me at the train station. Later it dawned on me that it must have been they who made it possible for my sister to come. Because the condition for the children's transports was that each child had to have a place to stay. And because that lady was a doctor and my sister arrived in England and already had it arranged that she'd immediately begin studying at a hospital to be a nurse, she must apparently have been the one to have arranged it. So my sister arrived right on the next transport after mine. Conditions were getting tougher; while I was allowed to leave with 50 kilograms of luggage, she was only allowed to have 20.

Grandma gave me a half kilo of apricots for the trip. At that time it was still quite early for apricots, they must have been imported. I said goodbye to her at home, and only my parents and sister accompanied me to the train station; we left around 7:00 pm.

I left on 29th June 1939. It was a Thursday, and by coincidence school had ended that day, so I'd completed exactly five grades of elementary school.

Today I can still see little girls clutching their dolls, little boys their teddy bears, and so on... Their fathers were trying at the last minute to teach them some English word or something similar. And everyone always: 'Write, write!' Then suddenly I saw those friends of my parents'. At that time they were already in hiding, but they also came to say goodbye to me. Well, and then it was time to get on the train. I remember sitting by the window. Everyone had their necks craned out the window, and as soon as the train started moving, I saw that my father started weeping. He simply could no longer hold it in, no one had any idea for how long we were saying goodbye. My last words to him were, 'Dad, don't blubber here and don't embarrass me!' That was the last thing I said to him.

My parents would of course have liked to have emigrated, if it would have been possible. As, it wasn't. Though as late as 1940, some people managed to get out, but they didn't. Years ago, when I was looking through the letters I had received while in England, I found a letter from my uncle, in which he wrote that my cousin Vera was supposed to leave on the September transport and that she'd be in Newcastle. That was the largest transport, and almost 300 children were supposed to leave on it. As the war broke out, and the transport didn't leave. As far as I know, none of those children survived, and neither did Vera. Aside from my sister and me, only about two other distant relatives managed to emigrate, one relative survived the concentration camps, and that's all; the rest of our family perished. Most of them in Auschwitz, and my grandmother in Treblinka.

Then we went to stay with families, but my family didn't have a bed for me yet, so for a few days I was with another family that lived nearby. This family also took in one girl, her name was Lia or Lea, and she was from the Sudetenland. I remember it as if it were yesterday: I went to the bathroom, and when I returned the girl was weeping profusely. I asked her what had happened, and she said, 'I'm homesick.' Suddenly I was homesick too. So we had a duo, a vale of tears.

We both wrote anguished letters home, as to how homesick we were. And that we'd cross the sea and I don't know what all. I threw the letter in a mailbox and already felt better, I no longer thought about it. A few days later I got an anguished letter from my mother, who was all upset, saying that I'd get used to it soon. And that she hadn't shown Father the letter yet. Then all my aunties began writing to calm me down..

They were young, pleasant, kind people who had a four-month-old baby. I had my own beautiful and large room, which by then also had that bed. I learned the language relatively quickly, and even though age-wise I was supposed to be in Grade 6, I began attending Grade 5, because it was taught by the sister of the lady with whom I was living. She devoted herself to me immensely, especially after class, and so when in May of 1940 I went to stay with another family in northern England, no one could believe that I wasn't English.

This family lived near London, so I could see my sister, who was working in a hospital in London.

But then May 1940 came, and the man from the family I lived with had to join the army, so I could no longer stay there. They were expecting another child, they wouldn't have gotten any support for me, and the support that soldiers got was so little that they could barely live on it themselves, when on top of that they had to pay a mortgage. So I had to move. At that time they also fired my sister from the hospital, because she was a foreigner. Those were exceptional cases, and she was one of them, she was literally suddenly out on the street. Later it came out that due to the poor conditions in which she lived, she got tuberculosis.

My next family was a childless pair in their forties, they were kind, but how should I say it, these simple people. I did have my own room, but their little house had no washroom. They used to go to some sort of public bath house. The town had a very strong Jewish community, which, when they learned that a Jewish child was living in a Gentile family, could not leave it at that. I had no problem with it. Due to their efforts, I ended up with another family, this time a Jewish one. Which wouldn't have been a problem, but they were really very Orthodox. They had emigrated either from Lithuania or Latvia in 1917, and now they were around 60. I wasn't at all used to their lifestyle, I knew only the most important holidays. And now this.

Once it happened that the building where we lived was bombed, and we had to move somewhere else. I didn't see my sister very often, as the town where I was living was quite far from London. My sister didn't have the money to come, so she wanted me to come see her, as I paid half fare. But this family said no way, London's also being bombed, we can't take responsibility for that, that if something happened, that they were responsible for me. And they kept saying no, no, it's not possible. Until my sister apparently realized what the main reason was, and then once wrote that some rabbi was living beside her, with whom I could live, and for me to come for Christmas. Suddenly it was possible.

So I went to see my sister in London for Christmas, it was a Friday evening. Of course the trains were late, it was wartime, and it was already dark. We found ourselves right away, we hadn't seen each other for a year and a half, maybe longer. And the first thing I said was, 'Here's my suitcase, carry it for me.' Because I wasn't allowed to carry them, but she - a Jewish woman - could. [Editor's note: "could" carry them because she wasn't observing Jewish laws regarding the Sabbath.] My sister just gasped, but grabbed the suitcase.

We arrived at the hostel where she was living along with some other Czechs.

The school that I started attending had originally been set up for the children of government officials, soldiers and airmen, which is why there weren't that many children in it at the beginning. Their numbers gradually started increasing, and so the capacity of the school at Henton Hall was no longer sufficient, plus it was in quite poor shape, which was the reason why we moved to Wales in the fall of 1943.

We were given a former hotel, which had now been converted to a boarding school. It's hard to say exactly how many of us children were there in total. Someone would arrive, someone would leave, graduate, or if he had parents in England, they'd take him and put him into an English school for his last year, so that he'd learn at least a bit of English. I think that there could have been about 150 of us, but that's an estimate. Recently we were discussing how many of us had been Winton's children and someone said that it might have been about 25 percent.

We were able to stay in touch with our parents only up till the war broke out, so those [first] two months. Then we kept writing with the help of their friends in Holland, but it took a terribly long time for an answer to come back, plus Holland also fell not even a year later. Then there was also the possibility of keeping in touch via the Red Cross, but even including a so-called paid reply, you could write a maximum of 25 words. What can you fit into 25 words? We're fine, we're healthy, and that's about it. After our parents left for Terezin in November 1942, we had no more news of them.

I think that sometime around 1944, the English newspapers began writing about the cruelties taking place in concentration camps. But I guess youth has some sort of protective filter, and I simply couldn't admit to myself that it could have anything to do with my parents. I wasn't even sure whether they even were in a concentration camp. Overall, few people in English society believed that something like that could be possible. In 1945, after the war ended, the school received long lists of those that had survived.

By June of 1945 my sister had already returned to Czechoslovakia. Because she'd taken some sort of quick course in chemistry in England, she was able go to Terezin and help there with delousing and the typhus epidemic. At the same time she tried to find out who in our family had survived. There were places, like for example U Hybernu in Prague, where long lists for survivors hung. People would pin up notes by names like: 'I'm alive.', 'Frank, contact us at such and such address.', and so on. A lot of people searched and for a long time. Every little while the radio broadcast information... there were many ways to help people find each other. Sometimes people found each other, but more often they didn't. Our school repatriated us at the end of August 1945. By then my sister knew that as far as she knew no one had survived.

The return to Czechoslovakia was a complete shock. Much worse than the departure for England. For one there was no one here; aside from my sister and me no one from our family had survived the war. My parents had been deported to Terezin, and my father had continued on to Auschwitz on 28th September 1944.

Another thing was that I was 17 and up till then had been used to someone taking care of me. Either in that family or at school, but now, here, all that was over. We had absolutely nothing. Nowhere to live, nowhere to sleep, nothing.

For the first four months or so I slept where I could. When she returned, my sister tried to find out where our parents had hidden things. Our parents had probably left a letter with someone, in which they described where things were. Afterwards, my sister told me about having been here and there, and who had refused to return something.

I met my future husband, Robert Klima, four days before my departure from England. He was also a Jew, and along with his brother had emigrated via Poland. I knew his sister, at that time she had a ten- month-old baby and the two of us met at her place.

After finishing high school I went to university. Our wedding was in April 1948. I worked for a year at a nursery school, and then our first child was born. My husband worked for the Ministry of Foreign Trade, and in 1951 they threw him out. More or less because he was a Jew, though they didn't say that directly.

Wedding of Alice Klimova and Robert Klima in 1948, Prague, Czechoslovakia

I met Mr. Winton for the first time in 1990, when we had a school reunion in Wales. He came there. By coincidence he lives not far from Vera, in England, so always when I go there to visit her, I see him. He's an enchanting man, who will be 97 in May [2006]. And he's immensely mentally spry, active... to an unbelievable degree. In May he may come to Prague again, the director Mr. Minac is preparing some sort of continuation of the film about Winton's children, more of us have cropped up.

Alice Klimova in Prague.