From the Centropa Biographies - Alice Klimova

Country: Czech Republic
City: Prague
Interviewer: Lenka Kopřivová

Date of interview: March - June 2006

My parent’s wedding was on 29 January 1922, in Prague. That same year, on 22 November 1922, my sister Emilie was born, and six years later, on 5 July 1928, so was I.

At that time we lived in Dejvice [a Prague neighborhood]. After my grandfather died we moved into my grandparents' apartment, where we were for only one year, and then we moved to Vinohrady.

I remember our home in Vinohrady as being a very pleasant, sunny place. We lived in this neighborhood of villas that was near Flora and we used to go on foot as far as Wenceslaus Square. It was simply this pleasant place to live.

We had a beautiful four-room flat. It had a vestibule, across from it a living room where my parents slept, a dining room, Grandma's room, and a bedroom where my sister and I slept. You'd walk through our bedroom to get to the bathroom. There was also a kitchen, of course. I've got very beautiful memories of that place.

As children my sister and I would snap at each other every so often, argue and call each other names. But as a small child I was always ill, the flu and bronchitis and so on. Of course at that moment my sister would have done anything for me, mostly [she'd bring me] glass figurines or something like that. So during that time we loved each other, but as soon as I got better we'd be at each other again.
When we were in England, Mimka was more of a mother to me than a sister. I don't remember us ever arguing there. There were more of us who had a sibling in England, but I don't think that anyone had a sister like I did. She was absolutely unique in how she took care of me. As I say, she was an amazing person, she was exceptionally kind. Not only to me, she was willing to do anything for anyone. When she found out that someone wasn't well, right away she'd go bake something and take it to him and would look around at what she could arrange, help out with and so on. Many times it was even to the detriment of her own family.

I'd say that my father was probably politically left-leaning, even though he definitely didn't belong to any organization. On the other hand, he was a member of the Freemasons, who definitely weren't some sort of leftists. But my sister was a member of one very left-leaning youth organization. They were named ‘Rote Falken', Red Falcons, so if our father allowed her this, he must have been somehow inclined towards it. Let's call it a social conscience. It was through these ‘Rote Falken' that I actually got to England.
To this day I remember 15 March 1939 [the beginning of the occupation of the remainder of the Czech lands by Germany], it was a Wednesday and snow was falling. When we arrived by the water tower on Vinohradska Street, there were tanks sitting there. I'll never forget what it's like for a ten-year-old child to walk by tanks, when he has no idea why and what is going on, and now those muzzles are aimed at him. I walked by German soldiers; they had these hats with peaks on them. It didn't make a pleasant impression, definitely not.
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, you'll go to the sea, for sure.' 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 had 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 persuaded 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 the girls be somewhere safe at least.'
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 travelled to England and there made a connection with a similar organization. There he wrote a circular that here, in Czechoslovakia, there was a whole number of endangered children that needed 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 paediatrician, 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. The condition for the children's transports was that each child had to have a place to stay. Because that lady was a doctor, and because my sister arrived in England and had it already arranged that she'd immediately begin studying at a hospital to be a nurse, apparently she must have been the one who organized 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. Luckily we didn't have the chance to experience those types of measures, where Jewish children weren't allowed to attend school, you weren't allowed to go to parks or to the movies.
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!' 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 of how long we were saying goodbye for. 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.
The Prague leader of ‘Rote Falken' was waiting for our group of about fifteen children with an English colleague of his, and then they took us to this camp in eastern England, where we were supposed to get acclimatised, so to say. It was this gift from them, very kind, nice, we slept in tents.
My family 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. I think that once every 14 days she had the entire day off, so we'd get together every second Saturday. It was a short way by bus and then the subway, plus I paid half fare. The little tiny bit of pocket money that my sister got, she gave it all to me. Either for the movies, for ice cream, or something like that, to make me happy. Which she really did. While all that time, as I found out years later, she was always hungry in that hospital. But instead of buying something for herself, she invested everything into me.
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, and, 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 all of a sudden 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, simple people. I did have my own room, but their little house had no washroom. They used to go to some sort of public bathhouse. The town had a very strong Jewish community, which, when they learned that a Jewish child was living with 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, 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 wrote that some rabbi was living beside her, with whom I could live, and for me to come for Christmas. Suddenly it was possible.

I was forgetting Czech. When I arrived for my visit, I spoke with an English accent, searched for words and so on. Because she'd learned that there was a Czechoslovak state school in England, she arranged for me to start there. 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 per cent. It's possible. Thanks to the fact that we were in that school together, we knew about each other. Nothing is known about many other children that Winton saved, and it's hard to search something out.

The countryside there was beautiful. We barely knew there was a war going on, so we were protected in this aspect as well. But for a few exceptions, I think that everyone liked it there, we were very happy there.
When school was out we'd sometimes borrow a bike and ride around in the hills, especially on weekends. The countryside there is beautiful, gorgeous. The property also had a lake, so it was nice for a walk of 20 minutes or so. It was quite varied, from dance parties, listening to gramophone records through various quizzes, plays, Czech ones as well as English, or discussions. We'd discuss various subjects, the equality of women, about what would be once we returned...
Teaching at this school must have been very demanding. Not only were there no textbooks and the teachers had to write them themselves, but we had also arrived there with very different levels of knowledge. Children may be quick to learn, but they are even quicker to forget, so we'd forgotten a lot of Czech. What's more, we were also all at different levels in different subjects. The school that I'd been attending before this one had very low standards, and even though I'm not the studious type, there I excelled. There they taught only the most basic of the basics. But here it was something different, and I had a lot of catching up to do. Even English each one of us spoke differently. The same went for history, geography and mathematics. So to meld all this was no easy task. Disregarding the fact that we were adolescents, far from our parents. Nothing immoral took place, but we did get up to all sorts of mischief.

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.

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. But they didn't take women into that transport. And all the while they had so desperately wanted to accompany their men! No one knew what awaited them in Poland, that is, aside from the fact that it was most likely even worse than in Terezin. They didn't know about the extermination camps. My mother also wanted to follow my father, and left on 1st October [1944]. Whether they met again, I don't know, it's likely that when she arrived in Auschwitz, he was no longer alive.
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. Worries came, where to get money, where to get food coupons, who will give you [financial] support, what school to attend. Now to at least graduate from high school... And no one told anyone anything. No one gave you advice. I understand, it was the end of the war, and everyone had heaps of worries, but that officials could have been a bit accommodating to those who had survived, and especially to us children, no. On the contrary, everyone tried to grab what they could for themselves. From apartments left behind by Germans, and wherever else, everyone was very sharp that way. But that didn't even occur to us, we who had lived in England for so long and were used to true honesty. So it for example took a very long time before we were assigned an apartment, even though as a soldier my brother-in-law had priority.
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. In November 1941 he joined the Czechoslovak army and when the war ended, he returned to the islands; they'd gotten a week's holidays to take core of personal matters. I knew his sister, at that time she had a ten-month-old baby and the two of us met at her place. For me it was love at first sight, but he had some Englishwoman. He wanted to talk her into going to Czechoslovakia with him, but she didn't want to go. We didn't meet again until we were in Prague.

Some of my classmates remained abroad after the war, some of us that had returned emigrated once again. And now we're scattered around the whole world. Literally. In Tasmania, in Israel, in the United States, in England of course... what's interesting is that none of Winton's children are in France. One of our classmates is there, but he wasn't among those whose life Winton saved. So, a person can travel all over the world, as long as he's got money, and everywhere he's got the feeling that he's welcome, that he's not imposing, that people are glad to see him.
It was my friend Vera who wrote me that Nicholas Winton was the one behind our transports. She then arrived here with a video cassette with that English program. A few of us got together here and watched it, along with my daughter and grandson. And to my embarrassment I have to admit that they realized more than I did what it actually contained, contains, what it's about. My grandson had just turned eleven, and although back then he didn't know English yet, his eyes flowed with tears. My daughter as well, because she realized that it affected many children of her son's age.
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.