A TALE OF TWO SUDETEN GERMANS
Before I go further (or, as Chaucer would have it, ere that I ferther in this tale pace), I want to talk about a couple of men who are important to this story. (Or, if you will, me thynketh it acordaunt to resoun to telle yow al the condicioun of ech of hem, so as it semed me, and whiche they weren and of what degree…)
I give you, then, Josef Lenk and Otto Kriesche: the first to illustrate the kind of creature who held power in Czechoslovakia from 1948 until 1989; the second to show that, even in the worst days of World War Two, there was such as thing as a German with a noble character. Kriesche’s story may not seem central to this particular story: but he helped my father survive the Holocaust and so I think that, without him, there would be no story at all.
Lenk was a pre-war Social Democrat who spent World War Two in the safety of London. At some point, sniffing which way the wind was blowing, he discovered Communism. After the war, he returned to Czechoslovakia. As a Sudeten German and a Communist, he became part of an organization tasked with processing and expelling the three million-strong Sudeten German minority from the country.
The expulsions involved extraordinary cruelty and great loss of life: possibly up to a quarter million. (After the Reich, by Giles Mac Donogh, is a good, and very disturbing, reference.) This is not a part of Czech history to be proud of. To say that the Russians, Poles, Romanians, Hungarians and others did the same and worse means nothing. Evil is evil.
The expulsions were understandable because of the Sudeten Germans’ despicable role in the pre-war destruction of Czechoslovakia. Still, the process was inhumane, though this is easy to say when one speaks from the comfort of temporal and generational distance. I sadly acknowledge the inevitability of the process: after the war, no one had any use for anything German, and the Slavic peoples particularly were incandescent with rage and in no mood for giving quarter.
But the expulsions only fed the cycle of hatred which is famously harder to eradicate than the common cockroach. I suspect that the final chapter of this saga is not yet written. The Sudeten Germans and their descendants in Germany had agitated against the Czechs ever since 1945, demanding a right to return and reparations for confiscated property. During the Cold War, this had been an unwelcome distraction for the West and another opportunity to incite anti-German/anti-NATO opinion for the East, but today there is no particular reason (except, of course, common sense) to ride herd on the Sudeten Germans. And now that the 81 million-strong Germany all but dominates the European Union, we shall see how long the German government will resist the temptation to give in to the Sudeten Germans and start pressuring the ten million Czechs in earnest. (Already, there have been some semi-official rumblings.)
During the expulsions, our Comrade Lenk had distinguished himself by his cynicism and his cruelty, unwittingly touching our family in the process. That is where Otto Kriesche comes in.
Kriesche, too, was a Social Democrat. He was also a journalist and a Czechoslovak loyalist. As such, he ended up in a concentration camp the moment the Nazis marched into the Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia. That was where my father encountered him – either in Lieberose or Sachsenhausen (it would have been late 1944 or early 1945). Being German, and having been in camps since 1938, Kriesche was now the senior prisoner (known as Lagerälteste, though Dad sometimes used the term Lagererste). For some reason, Kriesche had become fond of Dad, protected him as much as he dared and occasionally slipped him some extra food. It is fair to say that he made it possible for Dad to survive. Certainly Dad always said so, and he practically worshiped Kriesche.
Because of his documented history of loyalty to Czechoslovakia and persecution by the Nazis, Kriesche was one of the few Sudeten Germans to be offered the option of Czechoslovak citizenship after 1945. But he had read the ugly mood of the Czechoslovaks correctly and knew that it would be practically forever before they could distinguish between a “bad German” and a “good German.” (Even today, in 2010, there is strong anti-German feeling in the country.) And the Communists, who were clearly in the ascendant, were doing everything they could to keep the hatred alive for their own purposes. Kriesche therefore joined the stream of German expelees from the country.
Like other Sudeten Germans, Kriesche could only take forty or fifty kilos of personal effects with him. He was apparently a bit over the limit; and Lenk nabbed him on the train platform, made him unpack his luggage and get rid of enough things to conform to the weight limit. And so poor Kriesche went to the American Zone (future West Germany) with even fewer of his meager belongings. (Later, Lenk would boast of this feat in front of my father, all the while knowing what kind of man Kriesche was and the kind of debt Dad owed him.) But at least Kriesche was safe now, and able to resume a normal life. Dad corresponded with him from time to time even though contact with anyone in the Free World was a liability (you were automatically considered a potential spy or counter-revolutionary).
After the February, 1948 Communist coup d’état, Lenk rose through the ranks, ultimately ending up on the staff of the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. His wife was similarly placed. They had lived two floors above our apartment which my uncle Menyi had left us after emigrating to the United States in 1948. (Menyi’s is long story, to be enlarged upon later.)
Our relationship with the Lenks was complicated. On the one hand, they genuinely liked us kids, and they must have had positive feelings about my parents. Certainly, they both always consulted Dad on medical issues. Mrs. Lenk would often watch us kids, and gladly so, when our parents were out. They visited often, watched TV with us (they didn’t have one) and generally socialized with us. On the other hand, they had to be politically vigilant, and they most certainly watched us and everyone else in the building.
Lenk’s sadistic streak showed through on occasion. During the 1956 Arab-Israeli war, for instance, he boasted to my father, whom he knew to be a Jew and a Holocaust survivor, that “we” (meaning all the progressive folks of the world like the Communist bloc, Egypt, Syria, etc.) will “drive those Jews into the sea.”
More trouble came when we were watching the 1960 summer Olympics on TV. I had cheered for the U.S. sprinter Wilma Rudolph. She was a great inspiration to me because of her life story: childhood bout with polio, doubt whether she would ever walk right, and so forth. At the time, I was laid up myself, stuck in traction for the better part of 3-1/2 years because of a bad hip, and incidentally wondering if I would ever walk again. Watching her succeed was an extraordinary boost to my morale and did much to restore hope for the future.
Afterwards – so my parents told us – Lenk gave my father hell for allowing me to cheer for a (horror!) capitalist American. What kind of political awareness are you building in your children, doctor? he asked, with many similar landmine-style questions following.
Who should I have cheered for, according to Lenk? Well, for the Soviets first, of course, and us the Czechs second.
Note that transgressions like mine could get people into all sorts of trouble, up to and including loss of job and jail time. I don’t mean us kids, but our parents. Collective guilt in families, social classes, and everywhere else is part and parcel of socialist ideology. Fortunately, Lenk didn’t do anything against us that we knew of, but the incident was likely recorded in my parents’ cadre assessments.
I don’t know how many more times Lenk had intervened in our lives, but I imagine it was more than the few instances that I know of. For example, in 1964, my parents had applied for emigration to Israel under the Israeli right-of-return policy. Some Czechoslovak Jews had apparently managed it, but not us. Lenk was likely the reason, but there is no way to prove it. But it would have been in character for him.
We were told that, during the 1968 Prague Spring, Lenk was visibly afraid. I must admit that, when we heard it, we laughed heartily, hoping that he would get his just desserts. But no: Soviet tanks rescued him and his ilk on the night of August 21st of that year, and he lived on to die in his bed.
Kriesche, for his part, continued to prosper in West Germany. Dad corresponded with him, sometimes sending him postage stamps from the USA after our escape (Kriesche was an avid collector). But he, too, died, and today I have no idea where he lived, when he died or whether he has any descendants. As much as I would like to honor him and his memory, I cannot, and that rankles. Surely this poor and sketchy narrative does not do him justice.