… and my grandad!
My paternal grandfather was born into the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1900 in the German-speaking Sudetenland. This later became a part of Czechoslovakia after that country’s creation following the First World War. Prior to the Second World War, he was one of Wenzel Jaksch’s Sudeten German Social Democrats that opposed German nationalism within Czechoslovakia.
As a consequence of the Munich Agreement of September 1938, under which the Sudetenland was ceded to Nazi Germany, thousands of refugees flooded from the Sudetenland into what remained of Czechoslovakia; amongst them were communists, Jews, and Sudeten Germans. My grandfather was one of the latter group, comprising Sudeten anti-Nazi politicians and activists
Subsequently, Czechoslovakia itself was invaded by Nazi Germany, but even before then it was clear that Hitler would make demands for the Czechoslovakian government to hand over the Sudeten anti-Nazis into his protective custody. ‘Protective custody’, or Schutzhaft, was the power given to the Geheime Staatspolizei (the Gestapo) to imprison people without any judicial proceedings or legal oversight, and was initially established to imprison communists and social democrats in the Nazi state’s nascent concentration camps (of which Dachau was the intended destination of the Sudeten anti-Nazis).
We have to thank the efforts of a small number of people and, predominantly, a 34 year old assistant economics lecturer from University College, London, for the fact that many of the refugees were not imprisoned, but spirited away from Prague in a pre-cursor to the better known Kindertransport, with their families following.
That 34-year-old was Doreen Warriner. Along with other largely unremembered names she helped to save the lives of thousands of refugees. The story in her own words can be read here (requires free registration to the JSTOR archive) or, briefly and in the more recent words of others, here.
After arriving in the UK as a refugee and eventually being joined by my grandmother and father (11 years old at the time), my grandfather and his family fairly soon ended up housed with other Czechoslovakian refugees in temporary shelter at a Lake District youth hostel in Troutbeck, the impressively named High Cross Castle. They were then moved into short term accommodation not far away in a country house, Ibbotsholme, close to Windermere. The intention was for these refugees then to travel to Canada, where the authorities had agreed to provide a permanent home.
After a health check, my grandfather was diagnosed with a heart condition and because of that neither he nor his family were allowed to enter Canada, so they remained in the UK as the last of the refugees at Ibbotsholme and, eventually, entered service in the household of a Mr Eric Crewdson as cook and houseman.
The Crewdsons were a Labour-supporting ‘county set’ family and owned a large, imposing house, Low Slack, that looked over the town of Kendal. My grandparents and father lived upstairs in two attic rooms and downstairs in my grandmother’s domain – the kitchen. It really was ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’, but the Crewdson family took them to their heart. They also owned an engineering works in the town where my father was ultimately apprenticed and spent his working life. (On the day of my grandfather’s funeral in the early 1980s – he had lived into his 80s – we were told by one of Eric Crewdson’s sons, himself a doctor, that my grandfather’s heart problem had been misdiagnosed.)
As a consequence of his history, my grandfather’s name appears in two very different books. The most recent of the pair was published in 2020. His name appears, as do those of my grandmother and father, along with pictures from what is formally-but-amusingly referred to as our family’s photographic archive. The book is entitled A County of Refuge: Refugees in Cumbria 1933-1941, and was written by Rob David (who I knew of as ‘Mr David’ a young history teacher that joined the staff of Kendal Grammar School in the mid-1970s when I was in its sixth form studying sciences – tempus fugit – we’re both retired now!). It’s an academic treatment of the experiences of refugees in Cumberland and Westmorland (both now a part of Cumbria) at that time; much of which was positive, but some negative.
My grandparents’ experience is related in a chapter devoted to Mary Crewdson, married to Eric, and an indomitable woman in her own right. She was the driving force for much of the good that befell the Czechoslovakian refugees in the twin counties.
The much earlier book in which my grandfather’s name appeared is the Gestapo Handbook for the Invasion of Britain compiled by an SS General: Walter Schellenberg (translated into English and published in 2000 as Invasion 1940). It is both literally and figuratively a book of two halves. Its first half is a primer on Britain: its institutions, its social structures, and what supposedly made the British tick. The second part, Die Sonderfahndungsliste GB (the ‘Special Wanted List’ or, literally, ‘The Special Search List Great Britain’) is where my grandfather’s name appears along with nearly 3000 others including, for example, Winston Churchill, Rebecca West, Noël Coward, Paul Robeson and Sylvia Pankhurst!
In my grandfather’s case, his entry on the list was followed by the code: “RSHA IV A 1 b”. This means that, when found, he was to be put within the protective custody of the directorate for the Reich Security’s Bureau IV (RSHA AMT IV), that dealt with opponents of the regime. The ‘A 1 b’ relates to political opponents, mainly communists and social democrats. The AMT IV bureau was, of course, the Gestapo.
Both Doreen Warriner and Mary Crewdson’s involvement with the refugees lasted a relatively short period (with the exception of the Crewdsons’ involvement with my grandfather and his family). However, my grandparent’s story, and that of the other Czechoslovakian refugees, speaks volumes for the drive and determination of a small group of people, predominantly women, of whom I have highlighted two. Mary Crewdson’s contribution is now documented in Rob David’s book and Doreen Warriner’s history is more widely published (although still little known) and includes a biography written by her nephew, Henry Warriner, published in 2019: Doreen Warriner’s War.
It is noteworthy that (most) political leaders within Cumbria today seek to emulate the former twin counties’ welcoming history during the modern-day refugee crises, although the ‘below the line’ keyboard warriors in the local online news media, who seek to hide their xenophobia beneath an abundance of tendentious bollocks, remain a shameful embarrassment to the county.
Postscript#1: Warriner’s personal account of her winter in Prague mentions others who courageously aided the Sudeten political refugees and their families. In particular Quaker women from the UK’s Society of Friends such as the cousins Tessa & Jean Rowntree and Mary Penman; a Canadian, Beatrice Wellington; the journalist Alec Dickson (later to found the UK’s Voluntary Service Overseas organisation) and John Ingman of the Workers’ Travel Association.
Postscript#2: I’ve blagged the following text from the Association of Jewish Refugees Journal, Volume 4, April 2011 which summarises just how Warriner created the route by which the later and better-known story of Sir Nicholas Winton and the Kindertransport children arose.
Ever since his part in the rescue of 669 mostly Jewish children from Czechoslovakia on Kindertransport-style trains in 1939 was revealed on BBC TV’s That’s Life (February 1988), Sir Nicholas Winton has, belatedly, received something of the recognition that he deserves. A knighthood, a statue in Prague’s Wilson Station, a feature film by the Slovak director Matej Minac (1999), the Masaryk Medal of the Czech Republic and, most recently, the Channel 5 programme Britain’s Secret Schindler are but a few of the distinctions that honour his name. However, Sir Nicholas was, as he freely acknowledges, one of a group of people, mostly British, who were involved in the rescue; the others, long dead, have been almost totally forgotten.
It was in January 1939, in the interim period between Munich and the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, that Nicholas Winton spent some three weeks in Prague and threw himself into the task of saving children. But others had been there well before him – and stayed well after, under the far more difficult conditions of the German occupation
The key figure in the rescue of refugees from Czechoslovakia was Doreen Warriner, a young academic from University College London, who arrived in Prague in October 1938, soon after Munich, to provide assistance for those who had fled there from the German-occupied Sudetenland and, if possible, to bring them to safety. Warriner was mainly concerned with political refugees, especially anti-Nazis from the Sudetenland, mostly Social Democrats under the leadership of Wenzel Jaksch; she did not focus on Jews, though many of the people she rescued were Jewish, and she did not focus on children, though in bringing out the families of anti-Nazis she also saved children’s lives. It was Warriner who underpinned the rescue organisation in Prague. She established and headed up the office on Voršilská Street, where the other rescuers, including Winton, worked, and where the trains that took refugees across the border to Poland were organised; and she recommended Winton to the BCRC [British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia], thus making it possible for him to create his children’s section of the BCRC when he returned to London. Warriner stayed in Prague until April 1939, when it became too dangerous for her. She had been smuggling anti-Nazis illegally across the border into Poland, and the Gestapo were about to arrest her. The number of people Warriner saved ran into the thousands [my highlighting].
Footnote: Winton, never sought to understate the contribution of Warriner (or, specifically regarding the Kindertransport, Trevor Chadwick), or overstate his own, saying “I wasn’t heroic because I was never in danger”.