I was there... the Nazi invasion of Prague

Julia Legge / 24 July 2019

Saga Magazine reader Bronia Zelenka Snow, 91, remembers the Germans marching into Wenceslas Square in March 1939.



I grew up in Prague, living with my father, mother and little brother Leo. My parents had a small film distributing company with offices in Wenceslas Square, the main square in Prague. On 15 March 1939, I was getting ready for school (I was 11 years old) and my father was shaving. He was listening to the radio when there was an announcement: ‘Attention, attention. At six o’clock in the morning, German troops crossed the frontier and are marching on Prague. All citizens are advised to remain calm. All resistance is useless.’ I remember those very words. We had felt so safe before – Czechoslovakia had a well-equipped army, but when Chamberlain signed the Munich Agreement in September 1938, allowing Hitler to annexe part of Czechoslovakia, my country was defenceless. Alarm bells rang as my parents’ main business was in the annexed territories – and we were Jews.

 

I stood with the masses on the pavement and was shocked to see people giving the Nazi salute

 

They began discussing emigration – my mother’s brother lived in the United States and he sent an affidavit to say he could look after us. Along with many other people, we applied for a visa at the American Embassy. Our apartment was in a side turning off the square, so after the announcement we walked there and, instead of going to school, I stood with the masses on the pavement. I remember soldiers marching through, no tanks, and was shocked to see people giving the Nazi salute. There was quite a large German population in Czechoslovakia from its years as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and they were happy to see them. Soon afterwards, those long red Nazi flags with black swastikas appeared all over the buildings. Then to our horror, the beautiful castle that overlooks Prague had German flags, and Hitler appeared on the castle balcony. It was horrendous.

Bronia and Leo
Bronia and little brother Leo in 1939, their last outing together

By that time, the Nazis’ reputation had gone ahead of them. You heard news from Germany that Jews in prominent positions were being sacked. We had seen pictures of shops being smashed up, with big swastikas drawn on them. Now they were here. The next day I went to school. Between that day and May, I never received any insults there – people were very kind to me – but as Jews we were vulnerable. My piano teacher told us she could no longer teach in a Jewish house – the Gestapo HQ was behind our flat – and one day my father rang a client to get payment and was told ‘You shut up you filthy Jew or I’ll report you to the Gestapo.’ My parents were desperate to get out.

At the end of May, I found myself packing a rucksack with my favourite things – a book, my dolly and an autograph book. My mother packed a suitcase with some clothes, and at the bottom of my rucksack she put a little gold bracelet and gold watch on a chain from my grandmother, and some silver cutlery – three spoons, forks and knives – so that I didn’t arrive in England empty-handed, and we would also have something when the visa to the States arrived and my parents could collect me. I had no idea that I was going on the Kindertransport. The main railway station was swarming with parents and children, and armed German soldiers. We were trying to be cheerful – it never occurred to me that I would never see my family again.

The journey was two days and one night. I sat in the corner by the window. I don’t remember anything except once when the compartment door opened and a uniformed German came in. We froze – he was going to check our luggage for valuables. Then a fat little boy got up and offered him some chocolate. I was horrified he was fraternising with the enemy, but the German took it, turned on his heels and left. Wasn’t that boy clever? I thought to myself that he would either become a crook or a great entrepreneur! We arrived in Holland and it was the first time I’d seen the sea. We sailed from Hook of Holland to Harwich, then got the train to Liverpool Street. We sat in a large hall with tickets round our necks and people came to collect us. I lived in London with my mother’s cousin, who I’d never met before, and his wife. They had three daughters; the youngest was my age. I had come from a very loving home but here the children were in the nursery and the parents had a posh social life. I didn’t get the love and affection I’d been used to. I spent the summer with my cousins at a holiday camp and I was picking up English.

On Sunday, 3 September 1939, Chamberlain announced we were at war. My family were now stuck behind enemy lines – their visa didn’t arrive in time. I went to school, which I loved, but there was always a fear for my parents – they were always at the back of my mind. Until 1942, I had regular letters from my family. But then they were deported to Theresienstadt camp in Bohemia. I had one letter from there, then all communication ceased. By then I was in the sixth form and I received a letter in May 1944 to say my family had been deported to Auschwitz and nothing more was heard of them. They must have been sent straight into the gas chambers on arrival. It had been my dream to be reunited with them. So there I was, all alone in the world. But the first thought was, ‘I will not hate the Germans for murdering my parents and brother because hatred will poison my soul and never bring them back. But I will never set foot in Germany.’ I had to get on with my life. I went on to pass my exams, did a course in shorthand and typing, and became a secretary. I got married and had two sons, then after my first husband died, I was happily married again for 30 years.

Bronia in 2019
Bronia in 2019.
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