Helena Kleinová

* 1948

  • “(Q: Do you have any traumatic experience from your school days in Czechoslovakia?) Yes, I do. I was afraid at the time. [Our school was] in Bílá Street. The school in Bílá Street is beautiful, it’s some kind of former French lyceum. During Socialism they built us two little schools next door, that’s where we went, it was in fifth year. That was in 1959. I went home from school [...] and the children ran after me with stones in their hands, and they threw the stones at me and shouted: ‘Jew! Jew! Jew!’ And they threw the stones at me, and I can remember exactly to this day, in which part of the house I hid myself. There are these pillars there, I still pass them by every day. (Q: It’s on the corner.) Yes. There’s a Vietnamese shop there now, opposite it is the language school Skřivánek. I hid in that house [...] so they wouldn’t find me. It was an impossible, dreadful, horrible experience. I had to cope with by myself again - I didn’t tell Mum about it, I didn’t tell anyone about it. Even now when I think of it... I’m lucky not be in Bohnice [a famous psychiatric clinic - transl.], because I was all alone for these experiences. And the worst was that the son of [Mrs Drnková], who was in the army with Mum and whom I knew was Jewish [...], he threw stones at me too because no one knew he was a Jew. He was so terribly afraid, but his Mum was also awfully frightened because of the Slánský trial. [...] No one knew it about them. They even buried their grandmother with a Christian funeral in Olšany, just so that no one would know they had some kind of relation to Judaism.”

  • “[...] When my son, who’ll be turning forty-four now, was in first year at school, there was one of the first terrorist attacks that I remember - one terrorist attacked a bus. [...] One little girl from my son’s class was in the bus and she was killed. Her name was Lilah, the terrorist [...] shot her. [...] And when the children came to school the next day, they asked where Lilah was, and the teacher told them: ‘You see, children, Lilah will not come to school any more because she was killed in a terrorist attack. But that doesn’t matter. You see, children, it is good to die for your country. Lilah died for her country. And it is good to die for your country.’ My son came home, he was a bit shocked. [...] And he said: ‘Mum, is it a good thing to die for your country?’ And I told him back then that [...] it is not good to die. That life is a very valuable thing and that people should live theirs. And to let yourself be killed for your country at such an age... I think it’s not good to explain it like that.”

  • “[Shortly after coming to Israel] we were still looking for a flat, and at the time my mum sent me to one of her sisters, who had two children. [It was the sister whom Mum] had saved her life, no doubt about it - she contracted tuberculosis after the war, and Mum kept visiting her at Smokovka, caring for her, she lived with us; simply, she did everything for her. I cam to her and suddenly two things happened: I’m a vegetarian now and I don’t touch meat, but back then [I liked eating meat], so she told Mum after about two days that it’s a problem because I eat a terrible amount of meat and they can’t afford it, even though they got an incredible amount of compensation money from the Germans. But I wouldn’t have minded that so much, what I minded the most was that I lived in the family and I didn’t see my cousins at all. They just didn’t let me meet them at all. I have no idea how they managed to do it physically. They just kept us separate. Completely. And I was the odd one out again, I was the bad one, the other one. I was out of the group again, I didn’t fit in as I should have. I didn’t understand it, and [my aunt] later explained why. She could speak Czech, so she said: ‘You know what, Helenka? You’re awfully like from goles. [...] You’re that demeaned type of Jew, with too much polite European upbringing. And I don’t want my children to get to know you. I want my children to grow up as proud sabras born in Israel, who will always be proud they are Jews, who will never bow to anyone; and I don’t want them to catch even the slightest tinge of your mentality.’ And she told me that when I wasn’t even seventeen years old. When I had come into a completely new environment. I needed a bit of love, or someone who would accept me, [for the cousins, who were about my age,] to take me in among them. And that just didn’t happen.”

  • “(Q: How do Israeli functionaries see the help that was provided to their state by Jan Masaryk? He took a part of the responsibility on himself, against the rules even, against the law, and even so he managed to carry it through.) Unfortunately, I think that very few people in Israel realise these things. Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk [...] was a very well-known figure in Israel. He was in Israel and visited a kibbutz, there’s a kibbutz [named after him], Tomáš Masaryk Square, he was a very well-known figure. [But many people have no idea about the existence of his son Jan Masaryk.] [...] When I met with people at the ministry of foreign affairs, we immediately started speaking about it, about his role, about what happened to him, but I don’t think that anyone in Israel knows about that. They simply see Czechoslovakia as [...] a country that helped.”

  • “(Q: How did your mum cope with the Slánský trial [...]?) It was very, very hard for Mum to cope with it. Many of her friends were executed. She took it so hard that she had the child [she was expecting] taken from her in its fourth month. The abortion was performed in awful conditions by Doctor Bass, a dentist. They even left a piece of the fetus in her body, and she was very ill for many years afterwards because it rotted inside her. She simply decided that if people [weren’t able to learn anything even from the Holocaust and the terrors of the war], then she doesn’t want to bring another child into such a world. So she went for that horrible abortion. (Q: And then she couldn’t have children any more...) And then she couldn’t have children any more. And that’s why I remained an only child.”

  • “[Until the 1970s] there was a tendency in Israel to view the Jews who died in concentration camps in a very critical way. And that criticism was astounding, incredible, insensitive. [...] Back then they taught that the European Jews didn’t fight, [...] that they went like sheep to the slaughter to concentration camp, where they let themselves be gassed. And apparently that was never to be repeated in the future. [...] And so, when [in 1992] the Israeli president [Chaim Herzog] came to Prague, he brought with him several plaques. One of them was placed in Pinkas Synagogue [...]. On it there was written that it is in honour to all those who fought. [...] [The wording was something like this:] We revere all Jews who fought during World War II in the [Allied] armies and together with partisans. [...] Simply, they highlighted the fighters. And whenever I come there, it makes me angry.”

  • “We came here in ’92. We only took our youngest son with us. I was here only to visit Mary, the daughter of my Mum’s friend, she was like a cousin, and then I came here a second time and I liked it here so much. I liked it as though I’d come home again, it was amazing. Well, and I returned to Israel and I went to visit a friend of my husband, he was a big businessman, and I started to tell him about it and he was thrilled and said he would invest in something here. And that was the first job my husband got at the time. Anyway, we came here with our youngest son, and so I gave him a traumatic experience - the poor boy had some tough times ahead already, later when he was doing his military service. Well, we came here and my husband started working and I went to the embassy. And there, I must admit, I found my fit.” (Q: “The two worlds joined together.”) “Both worlds were joined and I could finally show, at least slightly, what I was capable of. I was tremendously pleased in all aspects of the matter, it was wonderful! And when I had come here, I had still been a bit fat, but when I returned, I had got back to my old weight within the one year... It’s amazing the way my organism works! Psychology is such a powerful force in humans! Well, and I was there a long long time, I was very happy with that, and I’ll say one other thing: If it had depended on my husband, we would’ve been gone long ago.” (Q: “He would have returned...?”) “He’s very closely connected to Israel. The country stuck to him strong.”

  • “But I can’t watch them, those (war) films. Don’t want to. I had awful dreams in the night, how do you say it, nightmares, such scary dreams. Because they took us - you’re younger, but when I was growing up, they took us to see war films. Horrible.” (Q: “They took us too.”) “And now me, because I knew where I was from and what I am, I knew about the Jewish genocide, I knew, I knew about it, I was terrified that it might come back. That’s why I wanted blonde hair, for instance. And my dream was to look like Claudia Schiffer. I wanted to be tall - simply the Nordic type, because I was afraid it would come back. I wanted blue eyes, a nose like this, blonde hair, I just wanted to look like the others did. My whole childhood I was awfully afraid. I never was like the others. Because to top it all I was pudgy, fat. My mum used to send me to weight loss camps, and there was one ‘nice’ lady doctor there, I’ll never forget her either, Doctor Vamberová from the paediatric ward of the Vinohrady Hospital - the camps where in beautiful spots, they were - and she brought her own daughter with her so she could enjoy herself too. Well, and the daughter - such a lovely, thin girl, just like what I had always wanted to look like - she stood her on the table - another traumatic experience, I remember it to this day. She stood her on the table and said: ‘You see, this is what you’re supposed to look like!’ ”

  • “The Israelites who were born there, the Sabri - and this is strange I’d say, part of this story - these Sabri were unbelievably contemptuous of the six million (Jews who died during the Holocaust). Unbelievably contemptuous: how come they went meekly like lambs to the slaughter? How dare they do that? Why didn’t they fight? And I said to those presidents, I was working at the embassy, so I knew them all: ‘You know what? Who gave them the right to judge anyone? We don’t have that right. And do you know,’ I asked Weizmann, ‘do you know how you’d behave? In that situation, if you were standing there, naked in the snow like my father? What would you have done? Would you have given Mengele a kick, or would you have stood there as humble as he was? Do I have the right to judge him? Do you have that right?’ Does anyone in Israel actually have the right to judge any one of those six millions? They were there in peace and quiet, no one has the right to judge them. That’s not allowed. This memorial plaque (dedicated ‘To those, who fought’) is all right. Because there were fighters among them. But those who didn’t fight - no one has the right to judge them, no way. Only to pay them their respects, and to be sad for all they had to suffer, that so many were lost. Why?”

  • “Well, and one time I wanted to buy the sausages [a young Helena wanted to buy her peers friendship with sausages - editor], and I didn’t have any money, and he was at home, so I told him: ‘Daddy, please, can you give me some money?’ And he was quite a relaxed man, so he said: ‘Of course, take it from purse.’ He didn’t even ask what I wanted it for. So I opened the purse, I think that was the first time in my life - I was ten years old I think, I’m not sure. I opened the purse and out dropped a photo. It was kind of yellow and there was a girl on it. Kind of dark, because as you saw, my father was also a bit dark skinned. And on the reverse, I turned it round, my dad had very pretty handwriting, and he had written: Dita, and some year. 1937 or something like that. It’s also interesting how he came about the photo... I said: ‘Dad, who is it?’ And that was the last time in my life that he sat down with me, just for a short moment, it didn’t take long, and he talked to me, though briefly. He said: ‘Look, this could have been your sister, her name was Dita; I was already married, I had a wife and a daughter, and when my daughter was thirteen years old, we came to Auschwitz and there I lost her, my daughter and my wife, both.’ And he told me about it - I can still remember how much I could feel, I’m a terribly sensitive person, too sensitive really, and I could feel from his voice the overwhelming bitterness, the overwhelming sorrow and the dreadful hatred towards himself, the inability to forgive himself for surviving, as if it had been him who had sent them to their deaths. It wasn’t him who had done that, but he never forgave himself anyway.”

  • “And then the Six-Day War came, which was the first war in my life. An unbelievably traumatic experience. The first day - that first day was horrible, the siren screaming at five in the morning. I remember I was shaking all over, and I started to solve crosswords. That was my way of dealing with it. Because for us, for you, for me, war meant World War II - with all the hardships that came with it. And I was terrified of wars. And suddenly the war was over in six days. I hadn’t been so involved yet at the time. Even though my cousin’s husband, that is the daughter of my father’s cousin lost her husband. I didn’t see things then as I do now. Simply said, I’d be happier if there were no more wars anywhere and no more men dying, no people dying full stop. The Six-Day War, that wasn’t a war at all, that was a one big wave of euphoria. It ended quite suddenly after six days. My mum was the best. We were supposed to move from our first flat to some other place in Haifa, because it was too high up for my dad, me couldn’t do the four flights of steps. So they managed to swap it for a different one, and (Mum) was sitting and packing her things - she loved crystal glassware, those are all hers, the red one here, and the pictures, those are all hers originally. And she was packing and a lady came up and said: ‘ Mrs Nagel, what are you doing, can’t you hear the siren? We have to get into the shelter.’ The shelter there, that was a joke, it was one house which stood as if on some kind of legs, and it had one room under the legs - well that would all collapse of course, it was ridiculous. And my mum said: ‘Don’t be crazy, madam, I’m not going anywhere.’ Those were Jews from České Budějovice, I’m still in touch with that person. ‘I’m not going anywhere, we’re supposed to swap flats, and if (a bomb)’s going to drop here, let it. I’m not going anywhere. I was at Dukla, and when we marched through the mountain pass, there were shells falling to the left of us, to the right of us, mines exploding, and I survived. I’m a fatalist: it drops - it drops; it doesn’t - it doesn’t. We’re supposed to be moving, I have to pack myself and that’s it.’ And after the Six-Day War, we were full of such euphoria. Jerusalem - those were things that hadn’t meant much to me before, and do not mean much to me now. But back then, it was such a heroic feeling... I don’t know how to say it: to defeat so many countries, so many armies in six days. They were routed barefoot they were, the Egyptians.”

  • Full recordings
  • 1

    Točník, 06.05.2011

    duration: 01:32:54
    media recorded in project Stories of 20th Century
  • 2

    Praha - Zbraslav, 10.11.2014

    duration: 01:46:08
  • 3

    Praha - Zbraslav, 27.11.2014

    duration: 02:14:57
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“I longed to look like everyone else.”

nevesta.jpg (historic)
Helena Kleinová
photo: archiv pamětnice

Helena Kleinová was born on the 13th of October 1948 in Prague into a Jewish family, the Nagels. Both her parents had been widowed during World War II, her father was a victim of the Holocaust, her mother a member of Svoboda’s Army. In 1965, the family moved to Israel, where Helena finished grammar school and where she attended military service. She married at twenty years of age, she has three sons. She studied political science, history and English; she also taught the latter two subjects. In 1992, she returned with her husband to the Czech Republic, she worked at the Israeli embassy. She now lives in Nebušice.