ST: So, I don’t know how it happened, but she ended up in a camp and I didn’t really understand this camp that she was in until after she died and I started doing some research. But basically what happened is after the war ended the Czechs took retribution, if you like, on the Sudeten Germans for having put them into the position that they’d been in and there was a lot of killing and raping and horrible activity kind of similar to the things that the Nazis did. So capability is everywhere isn’t it for horrible actions? And she ended up in a camp that was set up. It was probably a prisoner of war camp that was made into a camp for Sudeten Germans, a holding camp while they tried to organize with, I think, the Americans or the Russians to get the Sudeten Germans out of Czechoslovakia. They wanted rid of, it wasn’t genocide but they didn’t want the Germans in Czechoslovakia. And I think over a period of a year or two there were thousands of people transported out of Czechoslovakia. She, however, stayed in this camp until 1947.
INT: Oh dear
ST: And I did once ask her how she managed to get over to the American side then, because in 1947 the Russians had pretty much taken over Czechoslovakia, and she said she paid a black marketeer to get her over the border. She was very thin, she had lost, with gum disease she’d lost half the teeth on one side of her mouth and she was in hospital. They took her to Nuremberg and she was hospitalized for a few months until she became well. And then there must have been monies paid to people who had suffered because she was given money and she decided she would go to school. So she went to Hochschule in Nuremberg to study economics but unfortunately the money ran out before she was able to finish. And then there is sort of a gap in the story because I didn’t ask the right questions, I wasn’t interested, or I felt possibly things were… I didn’t want to bring that kind of story up too often. I was born in [Furth] Germany in 1954. The refugee camp, the Valka camp in Langwasser [a suburb of Nuremberg] is where we lived and from my memories that’s where I was born. Again, a story that my mother told me much later was that the man that I thought was my father was actually my stepfather. I should have clicked because I went to their wedding. There’s pictures of me in the church wedding. When you’re a child these things don’t count for anything do they? So actually I was born to an unknown father and I’ve spent a lot of my life looking for him but that’s another story. She had to put me into an orphanage when I was born. The story that she told me was that there wasn’t a lot of hope for people that were left behind in these camps. If you were in a family and you were capable of work, you were healthy, the chances of emigration were good but nobody wanted single men or single women who were sick and they certainly didn’t want single mothers because morality in those days was totally different to what it is now and she had to put me into an orphanage. She said that my father, she had met my father and he was Czech, from the area where she came from, and it was a love match but he already had his papers to emigrate to the States and although she had tried to emigrate they discovered she had TB and therefore instead of going to the States she ended up in a sanatorium. And it was in the sanatorium that she discovered that she was pregnant, 4 months pregnant before she knew because that’s one of the side effects of malnutrition is that your periods just go haywire. So I was born a big strong baby and put into an orphanage because she couldn’t afford to look after me, obviously still being in this sanatorium. And eventually… Well, she said that she kept writing to Karl, his name was, in the States and the plan was that when she was better she would apply but they weren’t married so I don’t think it was ever going to happen. I think after a year she realized that this dream was not going to come true. When I was three, she told me, she called it a marriage of convenience, she married a Polish chap who lived in the camp who agreed that he would give me a name, I would be able to come out of the orphanage, and as a family we would have a better chance of emigration. So this was in 1956, 11 years after the war there were still people in camps all over Germany. Langwasser was a big one. In fact it became quite famous for a while because they called it a model DP, displaced persons camp, and there was a film made about it and they showed this film in Germany recently, see what you can find when you trawl the internet! And I saw the film, you could view it on YouTube and the church, you know, where I made my first communion, the wooden church that my parents are standing in front of with me beside them at their church wedding. It’s all there on film, it’s quite amazing. Some of the people that are in the film also, children of people that had lived in this camp were saying that they had a long and difficult life voyage, if you like, coming to terms with living in this camp for so long. It was like there was no hope. So many years after the war they were still displaced, there was no home that they could go back to because of the way the countries were carved up after the war and even if they could get back what was the guarantee that the house was still standing or that somebody else wasn’t living in it. So I lived in the camp and we managed to eventually emigrate to the UK in 1961.
INT: And all that time you were still in the camp?
INT: My goodness.
ST: So I was 7 when we finally emigrated to the UK. And the reason that we managed to emigrate to the UK… I think my parents had tried for New Zealand and for Canada and so on and been rejected; my stepfather had also had a history of TB so the odds made it very difficult for them, the fact that he couldn’t work, be productive. In 1959 the United Nations launched world refugee year and I think it was actually inaugurated by…the British kind of pushed for it to try to finally clear these camps in Germany and other places. I mean there was Greece, Italy, there were camps all over the place. Just displaced people as a result of the war. And they encouraged communities within England, presumably Scotland as well, to sponsor families. The British Council for Aid to Refugees kind of grew out of that, and they were the ones that helped us with, you know, brought us over here. And our family, if you like, our family unit was sponsored by the Hertfordshire Teachers Association. And they found us and rented, and furnished, a house, a little terraced house in Hitchin in Hertfordshire and that’s where we settled after about three months when we flew here in 1961. I still have the airplane tickets.
INT: That was the first time you had been on a plane, I would imagine? So do you remember what that was like?
ST: I was absolutely enthralled by it, my mother wasn’t because I remember there was a big dip, you know sometimes you get that, and she screamed, her stomach was obviously left behind and she screamed and I thought “Oh mum, what’s wrong?” I thought it was fantastic. We flew into Heathrow. Yes I think it was quite unusual in 1961 for anyone to fly, it wasn’t as common as it is nowadays.
INT: I was going to ask, were you able to bring much with you? Or were you restricted to how much you could bring?
INT: Did you have much to bring?
ST: We had. When I was in the camp my mother managed, there must have been some, again I don’t know how that worked, that there was government money for people that lived in these camps somehow but there was certainly over the…I can see from the photographs at Christmas that the furniture changed and we had lovely bedroom furniture and new curtains and so on. But we left the furniture behind and the thing that I remember that my mother brought with us was her feather bed, which was a duvet basically but its different to the duvets you get over here, this wonderful feather bed, and the other thing that she brought with her was a coat, a camel coat, which was fur lined because it kept you warmer on the inside than it did on the outside. That was her theory anyway.
INT: Saskia, can you tell us a little about what life was like in one of these DP camps?
ST: Yes. I have a memory of the wooden huts, but they were razed to the ground and I’ve got pictures of what they were like, just long rows of barracks. Essentially this camp had been a prisoner of war camp initially used by the Nazis but in, I think it was ’57, they started rebuilding because they obviously realized people were going to be there for a while. And it was single story; long rows of buildings; and families were allotted rooms by size. There was sort of a central doorway with a toilet and then four rooms leading off that, and as a married couple with child we had a kitchen and a bedroom. And in the other two rooms were two single gentlemen. This camp had been set up originally after the war for Latvian origin people who had been displaced, so it was originally a sort of displaced camp and then it became a refugee camp after the Russians, you know, closed the borders, and people were escaping. So the people that came in were not always affected because of the Nazi system, it was also the Communist system and so on. My mum because of where she lived in Czechoslovakia could speak Czech, she could speak Polish and German obviously, working in Hungary she could speak Hungarian, and she also knew some Russian which I think she might have picked up during those Freiwaldau years. So she was able to talk with a lot of the people in the camp. As a child, I think, it doesn’t matter what language you speak. You can play with children whether you speak the same language or not. I remember it was a very gregarious place, I remember people sitting gossiping on the steps, I think it had a nice atmosphere.
INT: What language did you speak at home?
ST: My stepfather spoke Polish to my mum but somehow I never picked it up. But that was probably because I spent a lot of time not actually living there. Because of TB in the camps the Red Cross and the Catholic Church were very aware that children were at risk and there was a lot of programs to foster out the children, send them to the mountains for better air and better food and so on. And although I came out of the, which I didn’t know at the time obviously, the orphanage, when I was 3 I can tell from my Kinder Passport that, 6 months into my third year, I was sent to Switzerland to be fostered for 6 months and I do have memories and I have photos of that. In a farm playing with the children, gathering the hay, it was, you know, lovely. I was only 3 and a half, I’ve got a picture of me sitting on a horse, and in a pig pen not looking very happy but it obviously did me the world of good because my mum said when I came back I was chubby and I was brown and I just looked wonderful. And then 6 months later I think my father went through another bout of TB, I remember seeing him off at the railway station to go off to a sanatorium, and my mother always tells a very funny story of what happened when we were at this train station. There were a lot of G.I s in Nuremberg and I had just finished waving goodbye to my stepfather on the train and off the next train came a whole load of G.I’s including one large coloured gentlemen who I was absolutely fascinated by seemingly. And he bent down and spoke to me and obviously I didn’t understand a word but I just had to touch his hair, and I am sorry if that sounds racist but my mother thought that was a wonderful story and she told that to everybody. So the next trip was to Belgium and I was fostered to a couple who lived on the Schelde, maybe about half an hour’s drive south of Antwerp. And they were unable to have children. She had a hole in the heart and she was desperate to look after some, she was very happy to share her house with a child needing help I suppose.
INT: I was going to ask you, how did they find these foster parents? You are seeming to go very long distances away from Nuremberg.
ST: I think it was the Catholic Church.
ST: And the Red Cross. Between the two of them they seemed to organize these things. And certainly this lady who looked after me who had a hole in her heart was, when she had difficult periods when she was ill, the catholic nuns that lived across the road came and looked after her. So the church was very much a factor in this. And I went back there every 6 months until I started school; in fact I started school in Belgium. And in those three visits she actually fell pregnant and had a little boy. And after we moved to the UK I still went back over to visit these families that I got to know, not just her but her friends and so on and I still keep in touch with them even now.
INT: That’s marvelous.