By Katherine (Gita) Leben
The year was 1939, the month March. Hitler was expanding his reach to overtake Czechoslovakia; the winds of war were blowing fiercely all over Europe. My family was living in Prague at this historical time. We were a family of four, consisting of two parents, an infant and a two-year-old.
My father, Asher Yeshaya Bitterman, a”h, was walking the streets of Prague, when he saw a long line of people outside the British Embassy. He got on the line, and when he reached the end he found out that one could go to England without a visa, if you had a valid Czech passport. He had a valid Czech passport! My father went home and discussed this with my mother. They immediately went to Kosice (Kashau) where my maternal grandparents lived, to get their approval and to consult with the Stropkover Rebbe a”h. The rabbi advised: Asher, leave as soon as you can. He left within the week, thus starting the arduous trek for survival.
My father traveled to England by train via many countries including Amsterdam in Holland, where his brother (whom he had not seen for many years) lived. The brother was married with a child. Since it was before Pesach, my uncle begged my father to stay and spend the holiday with them. My father was on a mission and wanted to reach his destination as soon as possible. He continued on to London, England. He knew no-one there, no relatives or friends, only bitachon in the Ribono Shel Olam that he would succeed in saving his family. When he got to London he was advised that there was a family named Berger, who lived at Myrdle court in the East End of London. There he would find heimishe people and a hot kosher meal. He headed there and was not disappointed.
Once he got settled in the East End, he started to try to get his family out of harm’s way. My father started making the rounds to all the government offices that dealt with immigration. He spoke no English, only Yiddish and a smattering of German, which every Jew knows. He had a great advantage that he could grease the official palms with English pounds. He had money for this mission. It was a long and arduous task, but he never wavered from his goal, spending time and effort to get us out of Czechoslovakia and to freedom.
The time was running out – on the 1st of September, Nazi German hordes attacked Poland without officially declaring war. The world was embroiled in the worst war that ever befell humanity. The Jews lost six million of their best and bravest due to Hitler’s war against the Jews, including a million and a half babies and small children who were snuffed out before they even had a chance to live.
With the onset of the war in England, on September 3, 1939, new officials now came to power. My father had to approach them, and start the process of our leaving Czechoslovakia all over again, including the new palms that needed greasing. Whatever my father had accomplished till the war needed changes – new people in charge, new rules. He was back to square one. He never wavered in his mission and continued until it reached the success he sought: being re-united with his family. He finally got the necessary documents, and we were on the way to freedom! This was in January 1940.
My mother’s leave-taking was very bittersweet. To leave your place of birth, home, parents, siblings and everything that you held dear for some unknown country and freedom – it was not an easy decision. Before leaving for London she went to say goodbye to my paternal grandfather, at a distance of about an hour by train. She took me with her, and left my baby brother Leiby with the grandparents in Kosice. But what was supposed to be an overnight visit turned out to be six long weeks of frustration and fear, being separated from her baby boy. What happened was that the Germans changed the borders: Kosice was allocated to Hungary and Spisske Podhradie to Slovakia. It was a very difficult six weeks. It finally ended and we were re-united with our grandparents and baby brother.
Now the journey was about to begin. It was very heart-wrenching to leave everything one held dear all one’s life, to go to a foreign land where everything was different – language, culture… She knew no-one in England besides my father. She spoke Hungarian and a smattering of German. English was an unknown language. My mother had never undertaken such a life-altering journey in her entire life. But my father was
We traveled by train through neutral countries – Yugoslavia, Italy, France. To say that the journey was difficult and very strange is an understatement! Different people, different languages, difficult circumstances. She soldiered on! When we arrived in France, my mother was instructed to stay at the hotel very near to where the boats left, and not to get undressed, so she could leave at a moment’s notice for the departure to England. It was night time when she was summoned, and we left. We traveled on a military boat. The sailors were sitting opposite us during the crossing.
Finally, my immediate family was re-united! We had nowhere to live. A kind family, living at Myrdle Court, gave us permission to stay in their children’s bedroom. At least we had a place to rest our bodies.
My grandparents and all my mother’s married sisters, husbands, and their children – all perished during the Holocaust. Her youngest sister also perished. The paternal grandfather and two of his children also perished at the hands of Hitler.