Leo Kohn

* 1924  

  • „My name is Leo Kohn, I was born in 1924. In May 1939, after the occupation, I once went home and my mother was waiting for me on the stairs, holding a card in her hand: “You’re going to Britain.” I left on the 31st of May with a transport organized by Mr. Nicolas Winton, whom I’d like to thank once more in this way. Mr. Winton took us to England. We went via Germany and the Netherlands by train. We got off in Utrecht where ladies of the Red Cross were already waiting for us. Everybody got half a liter of milk and a bar of chocolate. The journey continued over Channel from Hoek Van Holland to Harwiche. I slept that part of the journey because I hadn’t had too much sleep the previous night. From there they took us to London and in a basement the families picked their children, it was like an auction. Someone came for each of us, it was agreed beforehand. Every child went to some family. I got into an English family that lived near London in Hampton Court. I spent three months there. Before I left for Britain I went to a preparatory school where I learned to count to ten. In my new family I learned a bit English. From there I went to school, which was in St. Leonards-On-Sea, near Hastings. It was a private grammar school. I was preparing for graduation there.”

  • „After the war I worked in the Tatra works as a planner of the construction of railway cars. I Then I worked for 31 years in the documentation department. After 1948 I made a friend through stamp collecting, he worked at Strojexportu. This guy offered me to work for Strojexport, he said: “With your excellent German and English, you could be a delegate at Strojexport.” I replied: “You know, I was in the army in Britain during the war.” And he was like: ”Oh, that’s too bad, but you could still work at the correspondence department.” I told him: ”But I’ve got relatives in the United States.” And he said: “That’s really bad, I’m sorry.” Those who had relatives in America were automatically spies here. So in my cadre files stood: “not suited for promotion”. I couldn’t be the boss of five people.”

  • “How did the British behave?” “In the beginning, in 1939, the English were quite cold, they didn’t know what this was all about, there was a lot of foreigners in Britain and they were looking down on foreigners. When the battle for Britain began in 1940 then everyone who was with them was mostly welcomed and regarded as a friend. When they saw the huge successes of the Czechoslovak pilots, even compared to the other allied pilots in Britain, then they started to hold us in high esteem, we weren’t foreigners for them any longer. They always treated us right. Being in the army in Britain was good, you had the right to a week of vacation every three months plus two free weekends. It was possible to combine it. You could get anywhere by train but a lot of people also hitch-hiked. They would stand on the side of the road and the next moment they already were in Scotland, not even knowing how it happened. This happened to me for example… I got on a double-decker bus and lit a cigarette. The ticket collector, a lady, came to me, looked at me and went away again because the bus stopped at a bus stop. Then she came to me a second time, I told here where I was going and was handing her the money but she wouldn’t take it. She said: “I’m not taking money from soldiers.” When I went back I waited at the bus stop for about a minute and a car came. They asked me where I was going and I said to Manchester. They said: “Get on then”. Even before the bus was scheduled to arrive in Manchester, I was already there.” They gave me a cigarette and before I could say thank you, they were gone. That’s they way the English behaved. It sufficed to stand on the side of the road and immediately someone would stop”.

  • „I spoke German even before the war, our parents sent us to courses. It was “in” these times like it’s “in” today to speak English. We had private German classes with one student from the Sudetenland, who had been recommended to my parents by our aunt. Our parents were sending us to the Sudetenland in the holidays, we spent that time in Doksy. It was a kind of a camp, in German it was called “Kinderheim”. There we had German. In 1937 our parents sent me, my brother and a friend of us on a trip to Austria with a school from Liberec. They were 17 and we were 3. We came to Hinterglem where we slept in such big rooms. They were usually Nazis so they beat us up right on the first evening. That was my first impression of Austria, we got a rough beating. Then we made trips with them, there was one teacher who wasn’t a Nazi, so we separated from the others. That’s my experiences…”

  • „We went to different shooting ranges, once to a beach, the next time to a range in Scotland. In Scotland you didn’t see the target. So when we stopped shooting, butchers came to collect the poor dead sheep that were grazing freely everywhere around the place. At other times, our chief, Major Raymond, taught the English to shoot. They were practicing shooting and allegedly shot a running horse. The next time we would practice fast shooting. We would fire 25 rounds as fast as we could. I don’t understand why they did this but they were measuring our time. The English way to do this was to charge, step aside a few steps and knee. We could do it much quicker. The English wouldn’t believe we had done it so quickly and sent two lieutenants to keep an eye on us and make sure we weren’t cheating. When they saw it they said: “That’s not according to the rules…”

  • „In 1942 my brother died in Theresienstadt, he was twenty-two years old. My parents went in 1944 to Auschwitz and that’s were the trace ends, as usually. Since then there were certain initiatives. I claimed compensation three times. Recently there was an initiative but it was only for the forced-laborers or those who were in a concentration camp. It didn’t concern their relatives. They only sent us a letter saying it’s none of our concern, they even didn’t say they’re sorry. We didn’t get that from the Germans I’d like to point that out. “Did you hate the Germans?” „If I hated the Germans?” “Well, I didn’t like them after the war. […] Then I saw that not all of them were like this. In the beginning, when I saw a German, I immediately thought if he hadn’t been a Nazi. That went away with time. Today it’s not there anymore. I think that it’s another generation today.”

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    Praha 4, 17.05.2003

    (audio)
    duration: 54:29
    media recorded in project Stories of 20th Century
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The biggest horror I saw during the whole war was six weeks after the invasion when we were landing on the invasion beach

Leo Kohn in 1945
Leo Kohn in 1945
photo: archiv pamětníka

Leo Kohn was born in a Jewish middle-class family in Prague. It was his mother that made the decision for Leo to go to Britain. Mr. Kohn was the oldest of the children saved by Nicolas Winton. In May 1939 he boarded the train to Britain. He returned to Prague exactly six years later, on May 31, 1945. In Britain he went to school. By the age of 18 he enlisted in the army. He was trained as artillery crew member. In 1944-45 he fought at Dunkerque. His brother perished in Theresienstadt, his parents were murdered in Auschwitz. Except for his aunt who saw the end of war alive in Theresienstadt, none of his closest relatives survived the war. After the war, Mr. Kohn worked 31 years as a technical employee of Prague’s Tatra works, without the possibility of a career lift for political reasons.