From the Centropa Biographies - Dagmar Simova

Country: Czech Republic
City: Prague
Interviewer: Lenka Koprivova

Date of interview: March - April 2006

I don't know when and where my parents actually met. It must have been some sort of coincidence, when each of them was from a different part of the country. But their wedding took place in 1926 in Prague, at the Old Town Hall. At that time my father was already living and working in Strakonice, my mother moved there to be with him. I was born on 19th March 1928, and my sister Milena four years later, on 9th December 1932.

We lived in a building that my father had had reconstructed. It was someone else's building, but my father had another story built onto it, which we had all to ourselves, four rooms, a kitchen and a little room for the maid. Through our windows we looked out on the one side over this little square, and on the other side out on the Volynka and the Strakonice fez factory. In this little square there was a little park, and in it a beautiful pub. Single-storied, from sometime around the year 1600, it was decorated with frescoes and its owners had inherited it from generation to generation. And behind the pub stood a synagogue. When the Communists came, they demolished both the synagogue and the pub. The synagogue, OK, that I don't care about, but that beautiful antique pub... I'll never forgive them for that.

Before the war, religion classes were compulsory in schools. Everyone had to attend them according to which birth register they were in. So I attended the Jewish ones, we were taught by the Strakonice rabbi. He was this beautiful man: young, with a gorgeous voice, he had small children that we used to go play with. He taught us the Old Testament and Hebrew, but I don't remember any of it. Of the Jewish holidays that we celebrated, it's Chanukkah that's mainly stayed in my memory, I quite liked it. We used to go to the synagogue with lights, we used to get candy... But at home we celebrated Christmas as well, and I even used to walk with my girlfriends in the Corpus Christi procession, but the rabbi never saw that. Once I made this big blunder. We had a Christmas tree at home, and I thought it was a matter of course, so out of great love, this was probably in Grade 1, I invited the rabbi to come to our place to have a look at it. He didn't come, of course, and to top it all off he was horrible about it. So thus ended my great faith, even though I had to keep on attending religion, which was mandatory.
Before the war there were relatively a lot of Jews living in Strakonice, I'd say that maybe even thirty families. We had our own synagogue and rabbi. The community was fairly cohesive, so my parents had quite a few Jewish friends that they saw, but also had a lot of non-Jewish friends. Of course, I didn't pick my friends according to what religion they were, but among others I was friends with the children of the co-owner of the Strakonice fez factory, the Menkators, who were Jews. They lived not far off in a large building we called the palace, surrounded by a garden. The Menkators had four children in all, though I knew the two older ones, I was mainly friends with the younger ones, twins, a boy and a girl. This was the only Jewish family in Strakonice that survived the war complete. This was because in 1938 they went to the United States on vacation, and when Munich [4] came, they stayed there.

My father was short, fat and bald. He was very popular with his patients, and had a lot of them. This of course gave those that envied him a reason to resent him. There was this one doctor in Strakonice that didn't have many patients, but before the Germans arrived, the malice was more or less latent. I'd perhaps call it a competitive struggle. But then, when the Germans came, this doctor joined forces with the head doctor at the Strakonice hospital, you can probably imagine what he was about, if during the time the Germans were there he became the mayor of Strakonice, and they arranged for my father to be thrown out of the medical chamber. But at that time I was already gone, I didn't find out about it until after the war.
So, my father doubtlessly had experiences with anti-Semitism, even though in Strakonice up to the war it was relatively good. Basically anti-Semitism didn't exist there, I know only of one explicitly anti-Semitic family. I knew that we were of a different religion, but as far as coming across some expression of enmity? Not in school, there no one cared who was of what religion. Perhaps only that I would have very much liked to have joined the Scouts, but as a Jewish girl they didn't want me. The Scouting movement, at least the one in Strakonice, was a very anti-Semitic organization. So that disappointed me.
In 1938 my grandfather retired. It was already looking dicey. Hitler was in full bloom, so Grandpa and my uncle decided to sell the wholesale business in Sporilov. My uncle then left for England to found a construction materials factory, his family went to join him, and then they stayed there. When during the war London was bombed, and so many people lost the roof above their heads, it was necessary to build quickly, and so my uncle Jan invented ‘panelaky' [prefab apartment blocks]. You could build them quickly. So my uncle Jan has all of these eyesores here on his conscience. In England, however, they took it as a temporary measure, and have long since torn them down. It's only we that still have these blots on the landscape. The other uncle, Josef wasn't even in Prague anymore at that time before the war; he was working as an attaché in Belgrade. [Korbel, Josef (1909 - 1977): original surname Körbel. Czech diplomat and political scientist. The father of Madeleine Albright.]
People had been talking about Hitler for long years already. Of course, everyone was afraid. We were required to take German in school as a second language, so I didn't want to learn it. I always said that I wouldn't study a language that... Then the Germans came and it was worse and worse. I remember how on that 15th March 1939 [9] it was snowing, a terrible snowstorm. And the Germans were driving across that bridge. I can still see it in front of me, how it's cold, snowing, and the Germans are arriving in Strakonice.

The decision that I should go to England took place sometime after the occupation. Then it all went lickety-split, I was supposed to leave on a transport in July [1939]. My sister was also supposed to go, and we'd been picked out by some family, that we'd be staying with them. But then my sister broke her leg, and what then happened is something I'll never forgive my parents. They said that she can't go anywhere with a broken leg, and that she won't leave until the September transport, when she's well. As is known, the September transport never left. The family that I was supposed to live with backed off, they wanted siblings, so that it would be easier, so then it was in some way arranged with those uncles of mine, who were both already in England, so I was told that I'd go visit my uncles for the summer holidays, which I was terribly looking forward to doing. When I was saying goodbye to my parents and my whole family, I had no inkling of how things would end up, that I'd never see them again. I can't imagine that my parents wouldn't have been afraid for me, but doubtlessly their fear was less than that of parents that had no idea of what was going to happen to their child.
The decision that I should go to England took place sometime after the occupation. Then it all went lickety-split, I was supposed to leave on a transport in July [1939]. My sister was also supposed to go, and we'd been picked out by some family, that we'd be staying with them. But then my sister broke her leg, and what then happened is something I'll never forgive my parents. They said that she can't go anywhere with a broken leg, and that she won't leave until the September transport, when she's well. As is known, the September transport never left. The family that I was supposed to live with backed off, they wanted siblings, so that it would be easier, so then it was in some way arranged with those uncles of mine, who were both already in England, so I was told that I'd go visit my uncles for the summer holidays, which I was terribly looking forward to doing. When I was saying goodbye to my parents and my whole family, I had no inkling of how things would end up, that I'd never see them again. I can't imagine that my parents wouldn't have been afraid for me, but doubtlessly their fear was less than that of parents that had no idea of what was going to happen to their child.
When Grandpa sold those Litice shares of his, he divided up the resulting revenues among his three children. Uncle Jan was already in England, and because they knew that I'd be going there too, my mother transferred her portion to England too, and it was basically intended for me. It paid for the boarding school that I entered. There were a lot of boarding schools in England, and it was considered to be this better education, especially because this school was considered to be something posh, because Mrs. Churchill had studied there in her youth.
I loved it there at that school. When I started, I knew almost no English, so they gave me to Jenny to look after. And she looked after me perfectly. Along with another girlfriend, Sheila, who was the granddaughter of some long-ago premier. Those two girls were excellent, and Jenny and I are best friends to this day. When during Communism we weren't allowed to leave the country, Jenny used to come visit me here. We have a cottage near Mirotice, so she used to come to our cottage, which she really liked. My grandchildren have known her from birth, just imagine that.
Children in England started school at the age of five, not at six like here. So that I'd be among children of my own age, I had to take some tests, and because I did well at them, I even went a grade higher, so I was two years ahead. At school I learned English very quickly. The first year I still had a few problems, but on the other hand the entire class took advantage of this when they weren't sure of themselves. They told me to hold things up, what I should ask the teachers about...and I obliged them, gladly. I've got to say that my surroundings accepted me very well. The English are very friendly people.
Besides me, there was one other Czech girl, a bit younger than I, in the English boarding school. We weren't supposed to talk to each other, which is why they put us each at different ends. But when it was possible we talked to each other anyways, and decided that because we were terribly homesick, that we'd return home. That we wouldn't stay in England any longer. The war was raging on, but we simply decided that we'd return. We had it planned that we'd hitchhike, she to Prague, I to Strakonice. We squirreled away cookies, because nothing else would keep, until the day came when we said, ‘All right, tonight we're taking off.' And we took off. We crawled out of a window in the hallway onto a fire escape... and that's as far as we got. Someone saw us, so someone nicely explained to us that this just wouldn't do... It was sometime in 1939. There was no bombing yet; we didn't even know what war looked like.

I was at that boarding school until 1944. Then, at the age of 16, I graduated. Their system is a little different from ours; each university has some high schools that fall under it that they take care of during graduation. In the spring university professors arrive and the students do the oral part of their graduation exams. Then in June written exams are sent to all the schools, and everyone writes them on the same day. And all summer you wait in suspense how it ended up, the results aren't published until August, in the newspapers. Those that pass their exams with honors can right away register with a higher grade of high school graduation and go to university. This I managed, I had Oxford final exams, and now what? Though I was at boarding school, I didn't forget my Czech, I was at home with my uncles for a relatively long time three times a year. A month at Christmas, a month at Easter, and two months during the summer. But my level of knowledge was at a 5th grade level. And because there was a Czech school in Wales, they put me there for that last year.
My uncle Josef in London associated with exiled Czech politicians, and I also met them occasionally. My uncle was in charge of the Voice of the Free Republic [12], Czech broadcasts, and when they occasionally needed a child's voice, I went there to read. There I used to meet Ornest [Ornest, Ota (1912-2002): real name Ohrenstein. Czech theater director, translator] and Tigrid [Tigrid, Pavel (1917-2003): real name Schönfeld. Czech journalist, publicist and politician], who I liked very much, we were good friends. Jan Masaryk [13] also used to visit the Korbels regularly, he was this big wisecracker. He often took part in debates on the English BBC, it was called Brain Trust, and he was better known through these debates than as a Czech diplomat. Living on the floor below us was Prokop Drtina [Drtina, Prokop (1900-1980): Czech lawyer and politician], later a minister, and living with him was his niece, Sylvia Loewenbachova, who was my friend. I met Benes [14] only once, by chance, and I was so stupid that I was too embarrassed to speak up.
In that Czechoslovak school they divided children into classes by age. That's why I couldn't go straight into oktava [8th year], but had to go into sexta [6th year]. Well, I didn't learn much at that school, but at any rate it was absolutely excellent there. For one, a lot of us children from that transport met up there again, we hadn't seen each other since then. And then the relationship between students and professors was completely different, because they were in charge of us 24 hours a day. There were some attendants that were supposed to keep an eye on us outside of class hours, but basically it was all up to the teachers. Some of them weren't much older than we were. For example, we really liked our Czech teacher. His wife had accompanied us on the transport, she was already 19, so she couldn't go as a child, but due to some lucky circumstance she succeeded in leaving as well. She then worked as a guardian at that Czech school, and married the Czech teacher, who taught there. While still in England they had a daughter, Marenka, and so when the two of them wanted for example to go to see a movie, we were happy to babysit her. That's the kind of relationship we had with them. This little Marenka is the mother of Pavel Zuna [Zuna, Pavel (b. 1967): up to 30th June 2006 moderator and manager of several TV Nova projects], who works at Nova [the most-watched Czech commercial TV station].
We didn't have any information about what was going on at home. We were able to keep in touch with our parents only up until the war broke out. Then for some time it was still possible through friends in Switzerland, but soon not even this. During the last years of the war news of the horrors that were going on here gradually began to filter through. Right after the war ended there were lists from the Red Cross that came, but they were unreliable and a person didn't find out much from them. I found only my mother in them, that she'd died while still in Terezin, where there were still relatively well-kept records. With those that had continued on it was worse, we had only very scant information at our disposal. I found out gradually what had happened to my family. When I was returning to Czechoslovakia, I knew only what had happened to my mother, otherwise nothing.
I actually returned as soon as it was possible, with Uncle Josef's family on the first repatriation transport. It was sometime in May, at latest in June, there were still barricades in Wenceslaus Square. The repatriation was organized by the air force, and we were transported on bombers, we sat on wooden benches in the space that before had held bombs. We couldn't see a thing, and I was terribly bored there, so I went forward to have a look, to where the pilots were. They then did this one crazy thing, when we were flying above Dresden, they said they'd show me how they'd magnificently destroyed it there. So they did vroom... I didn't mind it, but the poor wretches sitting in the back flew all over the place. So the first flight of my life took place in a bomber in place of a bomb.
When I arrived in Czechoslovakia, right away I started trying to find out who'd survived. It was clear to me that if someone was to return, our meeting point would be Strakonice, only there could we meet, otherwise no one had anyone's address. We kept asking around in Strakonice, but nowhere, nothing. At the time I was going there, I still needed a pass into the American zone. At the U Hybernu building in Prague, the Red Cross had lists posted, so I used to go there to have a look too. Finally my two cousins from my father's side returned, from my mother's side, no one. The last thing I found out, about a year after the war, was that my father had died in Auschwitz.
The fact that our departure for England was organized by Winton was a surprise for me as well. We knew that some organization was behind it, but we didn't know of any concrete person. So we were surprised more by the fact that he surfaced than that it was him in particular. I met him for the first time when he came here. And it was beautiful. We were at the airport, each of us with a flower... Each one of us spent a bit of time with him. Then we invited him when we had a reunion of our school. That was in 1998. Back then our class was still complete, and we celebrated our 70th birthdays together. It was a wonderful get-together. Then last year was the 60th anniversary of the end of the war, another reunion took place in Wales, but I didn't take part in that one, I only went to a reception at our embassy in London.