In the fall of 1939, a group of 150 Czech Jewish teenagers said goodbye to their families and friends, and boarded a train to Denmark. For many, it was the last time they’d see or hug their parents — because their families, the ones who stayed behind in then-Czechoslovakia, for the most part, perished.
At the ages of 14 to 16, the youngsters had started a new life. Their escape was planned by the youth division of the Jewish Agency (Aliyat Hanoar, or Jugend Aliyah) in affiliation with Zionist youth groups like Maccabi Hatzair as well as a Danish peace league and several Jewish communities.
They were taken in by ordinary Danish families; they lived in foster homes and worked on farms. Why farms? It was more than a means of escape. One of the goals of the youth groups was to prepare a class of Jewish land-tilling pioneers for future settlement in the State of Israel. (The plan worked. Many of those who made their way to Mandate Palestine or Israel ended up working in natural sciences or on the large farms of kibbutzim in the north.)
In Denmark, life was relatively good for the Lucky Ones: They were spared the fate of so many other Jews during the Holocaust, and they didn’t need to wear a yellow star. Nonetheless, they were refugees, and as the war raged on, the Nazis were ever-present.
They grew to be like a tight-knit family. Those who lived in the southern farming region of Sjaelland, for example, met at least once a week in the city of Naestved, offering each other a modicum of stability and continuity in a sea of change.
Some became best friends, and others met their future spouses in the group.
But in 1943, the Nazis suddenly announced that the 7,000 Jews in Denmark were no longer free. Until then, Germany had somewhat respected Danish institutions, calling the nation a protectorate. Now the Jews were to be arrested and deported. Many of the youngsters were smuggled out on tiny fishing boats to Sweden, which was neutral — and many Danes risked their lives to get them out. Other Jewish teens were chosen to go to Palestine.
The group was shattered. In an era when mass communication was not yet the norm, the friendships were instantaneously lost. They moved on. Many began over, again, in South Africa, Israel, the US, Canada, or Britain, never knowing what became of their childhood companions. With the years, the memories started to fade. Until last year, when a relentless and meticulous Prague-based journalist, Judita Matyasova, began piecing together the histories of this extraordinary group, setting into motion a reconnection process for many.
Last week, at a bright and airy house in Neve Ilan outside Jerusalem, six of the former refugees, and relatives of others who passed away or couldn’t make the voyage, met for an emotional reunion. For most of them, it was one of the first times they reopened the chapter of their World War II past — when staying alive meant leaving their families, and when childhood was fleeting and mass killing raged.
At the gathering, two recently reunited friends — Anne Marie ‘Nemka’ Steiner (née Federer) and Judith Shaked — sat outside, on a big deck overlooking the Judaean hills. They laughed as they sipped their black teas. They spoke in low tones, the way sisters do when they’re sharing a secret, and their heads were tilted toward one another. Their conversation flowed, nonstop, as if not a year had gone by since they last saw each other.
“I haven’t seen her in about 70 years!” exclaimed Shaked. Nemka was her best friend in Denmark, but they hadn’t had any contact since they parted ways, when Shaked came to Palestine and Nemka escaped to Sweden. “But we were so close… Really, we were,” Shaked said, adoringly looking up at her friend.
‘Sophie’s choice, the Czech way’
Flying in from South Africa, Linda Fine — the daughter of Edita Moravcova (known by her diminutive, Dita), one of the refugees who had passed away — put it this way: “It wasn’t easy [for the teens’ parents], you know… Some families had several kids around the ages of 15 who were active in the Jewish youth groups [which planned the children’s escape] — but they could only send one child on the train to Denmark. Can you imagine having to make such a choice? Knowing your other [children] may die?”
Other families at the reunion confirmed Fine’s heartbreaking account of events, and the impossible choices people had to make.
Dita was wise beyond her years. Her mother had died when she was only 9. She was 14 when she left Prague. She sold her mother’s jewelry collection to pay for the train fare, and went to the Jewish Agency youth office on her own to arrange the details of her escape.
After Denmark and Sweden, Dita came to Palestine, where she worked as an air hostess for a Czechoslovakian airline. Unbeknown to her, she helped smuggle documents for the Stern Gang via those flights. She was arrested by the British, and wrote in her diary that she had felt used “by her own people,” Linda Fine recounted.
“I think that’s one of the reasons she didn’t stay in Israel,” Fine added. “After all she had been through, escaping the Holocaust, it was painful for her.”
Dita experienced “wonderful years” in Denmark, but the cost of being saved carried bittersweet memories, the reuniting refugees said.
“The brave ones were our parents,” said Dagmar Pollakova, one of the six survivors at the intimate gathering. “They were so brave to say goodbye to us, only children, never to know if they were going to see us again.” In fact, most of them didn’t.
Dan H. Yaalon (a Hebraicized version of his Czech name, Hardy Berger), an erudite geologist formerly of the Hebrew University, whose son Uri hosted the reunion, said the memory of saying goodbye to his mother is the most vivid of all his memories.
“I was 10 when my father passed away,” Yaalon said. It was the first time during the conversation that raw emotion peeped through his otherwise jovial appearance. “Then, just a few years later, I had to say goodbye to my mother, a widow, and depart for Denmark,” he said, tears welling up.
He was able to communicate with his mother for a period, via the Red Cross letter forms, which only had space for 25 words, but that soon stopped as the Nazis took control of Denmark.
Some of the teens did find their parents after the war — they were the happy exceptions. Dina Kafkova found her father, one of the few Jews who escaped from Prague in 1941.
Kafkova’s daughter, Barbara Rich, a lawyer from London who flew in to represent her mother at the gathering, said she wished her mom was still alive so she could ask her more about her wartime experiences.
“You know how kids are, your parents are infinitely boring when you’re a teen… And my mother never spoke about the war,” said Rich. “Perhaps it wasn’t as acceptable to speak about the Holocaust as it is now.” Or, maybe the experiences — a remnant from a previous life — were still too fresh, and speaking about them proved too painful.
This meeting in Israel was instigated by a random chain of events: Years ago, while Kafkova befriended a stranger at a London tube station, a woman who, many years later, noticed an ad in a local Jewish paper. That ad was taken out by a man named Yaalon asking if anyone had information on Czech Jews who had lived in Denmark during the war. When the ad was passed on to Kafkova, she closed a gap that had spanned over 40 years. Although she had known him by his Czech name, Berger, Kafkova recognized Yaalon right away, and she wrote to him.
They got in touch, and she even came to Israel for a visit — but the entire group was still not yet aware of who else was out there.
“This [reunion] would have meant the world to her,” Rich said of her mother.
Matyasova (who works without funding) says the effort to reconnect the members of this group and capture their untold stories — not just for their sake, but for their living family members, and for generations to come — is far from over.
“A few individuals, or even one individual, is more than just a number,” she said at the meetup. “There are more Czech teens who were saved by Denmark during the war, and I want to find them all.”
You can read more here about Judita Matyasova’s project, Sophie’s Choice, the Czech Way.