Petr Arton

* 1922  

  • “I don’t know, there was no anti-Semitism at home in Teplice. Nor in Czech school. There was one case when a boy came up to me and made a remark and my friends beat him up for it. And the professor told him: “Once more and you’ll be kicked out of this school.” We had heard of anti-Semitism, especially from the Germans. But I was as good as anyone and I didn’t feel oppressed in any way.”

  • Reicin was a good Jew. In 1947 an Israeli delegation arrived in Prague and wanted an airport in Czechoslovakia. The Air Force Commander sent for me and I told him we should let them have the aerodrome in Žatec, that it was a good one. The problem was, I needed someone who could get this approved by the government. I talked to Reicin about it and he did it. And then, Czechoslovakia was the only country supporting Israel. We weren’t simply providing weapons, we sent out an entire brigade. His deputy was Max Weber with whom I had been in Russia. He too had returned with the Russian army and was also at headquarters, that’s where I meet him. He went to Israel in 1948 and when he returned he asked the same question: “Who’s going to get Gottwald’s approval?” It was supposed to have been done officially. Again, we went to Reicin. He said: “Do it boys. I don’t know anything about it.” It was on that occasion that the Palestinian Jews arrived in Prague. They wanted to meet me and came to my office. I couldn’t remember who they were but when I couldn’t get permission to enter Israel they said it was only on their insisting that I was finally given the permit.

  • “After November 1944 we used to fly to the Baltic Sea where we attacked even civilian ships carrying Germans fleeing from the Baltic States. The Germans were already surrounded in Lithuania and Latvia so they were fleeing, civilians as well as soldiers. From November 1944 on we used rockets to attack with. We carried eight and when we fired four of them the aircraft went backward. Once, a submarine got stranded far away in Norway and it was our task to destroy it. Three aircraft took part in the operation but one crashed somewhere above the Orkney Islands. The wind speed was over 100 mph. Our two remaining aircraft reached the destination and destroyed the submarine. The English instructor told us that it would be good practice for us if the crew jumped out and that we should use machine guns. It wasn’t going to be pleasant but we were at war...”

  • “Why didn’t the Japanese do something similar? Because one had to be a special expert to be able to tell that the “end destination” visas were fake. Though, he Japanese did have a very good reason to be good to the Jews. Because when they needed funding for the war against the Russians in 1905, nobody believed they could win. There was one Jewish banker, however, his name was Lieberman or something like that, and he said: “I’ll give you all the money you need.” And when the Japanese won they invited him to Tokyo and he was the first European to receive an award from the Land of Rising Sun. They also told him that if ever he needed any help they would give it to him. And already in 1938 the Japanese suggested that any Jew who wanted to could move to Manchuria. This was organised by a certain rabbi Bajs in America. People laughed at him but laughter was out of place. Who could have known that a cultivated nation such as the Germans were would incinerate people? Nobody believed it, nobody wanted to believe it could happen. But you can’t blame people for not taking up the offer, it’s cold in Manchuria.”

  • “There was a great festival in Prague in 1947. I took part in organising it as a translator. About 17 000 students came to Bohemia that year and the festival was supposed to be led by students. The then minister Kopecky suggested I lead the translators’ section. Then there was a short episode in which they stated that things were to be apolitical. However, there was a certain American lady here who wanted to distribute Zionist pamphlets. They phoned me and told me not to let her into the streets. Five minutes later I received a call from the American Ambassador Stanhard; he was Jewish, too. He said we were holding an American citzen and I promised him I’d look into it. I phoned the person guarding her and told him to let her go but to prevent her from giving out the pamphlets. Then I called the ambassador back and told him that he didn’t know me but that I would like to meet him in order to tell him how bad the American policy toward Czechoslovakia was. The same as the English and French was before the War. In fact, he was afraid of meeting me. I, although I was a communist, was willing to meet him, but he wasn’t very enthusiastic. So I told him that their politics were bad because if they don’t want to help us the only ones who will help will be the Russians and we’ll be at their mercy. The fact is that Czechoslovakia accepted Marshall’s Plan. But the agreement had to be annulled under the pressure of the Russians. But we had no support from the West because the West was pro-Nazi.”

  • “The submarine I remember most is the one in the Bay of Biscay. The person watching the radar saw it on the radar. He navigated the pilot. I lay in the place where the bombs were dropped from and at the last minute, when I could see the object with my own eyes, It was me who would tell the pilot which route to take. Then we’d dropped it. I think we didn’t yet have torpedoes, which meant that we had to fly very low down. It was always at night and we used to fly about 200 feet above sea level. Flying low down was actually very convenient, in the Bay of Biscay for example, where we used to get Junkers 88 coming against us. They couldn’t harm us though, because we would fly immediately above the sea. They couldn’t attack from below and when they attacked from above they flew straight into the sea. Only once did it happen that a Junkers 88 aircraft flew directly towards our plane. The question came down to who had stronger nerves, who was going to run away higher up into the sky. Whoever was going to fly higher was going to get shot down. It ended up that our pilot had stronger nerves and the Junkers went down.”

  • “In 1955, when Czechoslovakia started supplying Egypt with weapons, they offered me a place with the Israeli Intelligence and sent me to Paris. Then I remembered something that Reicin had once said. That he didn’t understand how the Israeli Secret Service was in fact cooperating with the Americans since it had to know that the American secret service was helping Nazis emmigrate to South America and finding jobs for them in America and Canada. Well, I suddenly remembered that. I didn’t want to say that I knew what was happening or that I thought that that was how it was because to say something against the secret service meant putting your head under the guillotine. So I turned the offer down.”

  • “Warsaw was surrounded by the Germans and we couldn’t escape until the Germans came. And when they did come it was very difficult to cross the river Visla to the east. There were no newspapers, no radio, but we knew that the Russians were not far away on the other side. We knew that the demarcation line was along the river Bug so we wanted to get there. It was impossible to cross the river, but we spoke our dialect of German because we were Germans. So off we went on foot. On the fourth day, forty kilometres before the river Bug, it was forbidden to walk along roads as they were considered to be military zones. But it’s all luck. A German officer came driving down the road. He didn’t ask us, but of course he knew we were Jews. We crossed the river Bug on 11th October. There was snow on the ground already so the Russians caught us and took us to their headquarters where the officer started shouting at us but when we showed him our Czech passports he was as sweet as honey. They hated Poles. They put us in a room to warm up in and then took us to Bialystok by train.”

  • “We returned to Czechoslovakia and I, together with Láďa Novák, became the leader of the Communist party in our squadron. It was, in fact, a political department. My boss was Kohout, a Russian. He insisted he was Czech, but he was Russian. He was always in Moscow. I once stood in for him at a meeting of some sort. The Chairman at the meeting asked where Kohout was and I told him he was in Moscow. I also told him I thought that he wasn’t there on our orders but on the orders of someone else. After that there was absolute silence in the room. Everyone thought so, but no one was prepared to say it out loud. It was very unexpected coming from me, a young Communist. We, the young Communists, were against importing the Russian system. The slogan of the first election campaign after the War in Czechoslovakia in 1946 was “Toward Socialism Our Way”. That was what we were fighting for. We wanted people to understand that we didn’t want to go the way Russia had. I supported the Communists even after 1948 until I found out about the process that was being prepared with Slánský. I found out about it because I was very well acquainted with Evžen Löbl. I knew many of the people that were executed, I was even good friends with some of them. Bedřich Reicin, the head of the intelligence service, was a good man. Reicin, Imrich, Roth, he was the head of the political department. Gemeinder was slightly older, so was André Simon. I knew them all very well and I knew that it was unimaginable for every one of them to go the way Russia had.”

  • “My father was a Zionist and he was one of the leaders of the Zionist movement in Czechoslovakia. The movement had a different president each year and one year my father held the position. He was also the representative of the Jewish Community at Masaryk’s funeral. And one of the team that founded kibbutz Masaryk. Through publicity and funding, mainly funding, because the most important part of founding a kibbutz is buying land, buying a plot of land.”

  • “My first operational flight was on the thirteenth of May nineteen forty four. I had an older navigator with me during this first flight. We flew to the Bay of Biscay which is the place from where submarines enter the Atlantic Ocean. I read a book recently by a German submarine commander. He describes the big problems they had when we began flying with Liberator. They couldn’t make a single move. So they bagan setting out with two submarines a day because we couldn’t attack those. We attacked from 50 feet which meant that we would hit one of them but the other one would hit us. So when two submarines set out together we would stay close by and call out a twin-engine bomber, an excellent plane. They defeated the submarines.”

  • “We travelled to Japan because the Japanese consul gave us transit visas to Sugeara in Japan. He wanted to help the Jews leave Russia and Europe. Apparently, he gave out some six thousand visas without the consent of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However, they were transit visas and we needed end destination visas. We were still young but there were Czechs there that made stamps out of potatoes. So we received visas to the Dutch Antilles and they gave us visas to Japan, so that’s how we got there. For all I know, only about two thousand Jews got to Japan. Taking the Trans-Siberian Railway was very expensive.”

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    Praha, 24.07.2008

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    duration: 01:32:08
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There were so many of our planes in the air that instead of looking for submarines we had to make sure we didn’t collide with one another

Petr Arton (Solomon Apfelbaum) was born on 1st January 1922 in Warsaw where his name was registered as „Sláma”. He was brought up in a Jewish family in Teplice. His father owned a small cloth recycling factory. In 1938 he and his family moved to Prague, where Petr became a student in an English school. However, a year later the family had to flee to Poland, where the onset of war caught up with them. Petr left Poland on a small boat for Russia and from there to Vilnius in Lithuania. There, with the help of the Japanese consul, he obtained a Japanese visa and arrived in Shanghai in the beginning of January 1941. He joined the Czechoslovak Army and via Singapore and South Africa moved to England for basic training. In 1942 he became a member of the Royal Air Force (RAF). From the beginning of April 1944 he took part in 49 battles against German submarines. After the War his parents moved to Canada and Petr went home with the Czechoslovak bomber squadron. Within three weeks he became Deputy Commander of the garrison at Liberec and later deputy to the Chief of Education at the General Staff of the Air Force. It was his idea to make the airport in Žatec available to the Israeli Hagana. Due to the political changes in 1948 Petr left Czechoslovakia and immigrated to England. In April 1954 Petr became an Israeli citizen and lives in Israel to this day. Jan Svěrák was inspired by Petr Arton and the role of Frantisek Slama, played by Ondrej Vetchy, in his film Tmavomodrý Svět (Dark Blue World) is based on him.