Travels: Czech Repatriation Train

Holland | Prague

Czech Repatriation Train, Nov. 5-10, 1945
From Mimeograph
One of the high spots of my visit to Europe was the trip from Paris to Prague on a repatriation train. Dr. Edwin Bell was also on the train-in fact it was through his acquaintance with Mme. Bozena (Beatrice) Baraushova, daughter of Mr. Znojemsky, Czech consul in Paris, that we were able to have this experience. So unusual was this opportunity and so anxious am I to share some of the flavor as well as the history of it with those who read this, that I think I should include excerpts from my day-to-day report of that trip.

Monday, Nov. 5, 1945
In the murky dusk of Paris' Gare de l'Est, a long line of decrepit coaches stretched out into the night. Families of people hurried along the platform, carrying oddly shaped bundles, blanket rolls, valises, water pails, packs strapped on their backs, cooking utensils slung over their shoulders. They were dressed for warmth and for hard travel. Experience had taught them what was likely to be needed for five days on a repatriation train.

Through the open windows of one coach came the cheerful sound of a mouth organ and young girls' voices singing a lilting marching song. A song of their Czech homeland.

Four hundred Czechs were going home.

Two hundred are children who are being repatriated from here. Some are orphans, some have parents in Czechoslovakia. Some are children who have been cared for during the war at a home in Bayonne. A number have just returned from a holiday to Switzerland. Others going home are mostly laborers and their families, including about 100 additional children, and an occasional discharged veteran. A number of families from the d.p. camp at Sermaize will join us there.

Those responsible for the children include, besides Mme. Barushova, Dr. Zotan Gregor and Commandant F. Löbl of the Repatriation Mission, Miss Edith Riderova and Joseph Fishera of the Czech Consulate Welfare Department.

The children range, with a few exceptions, from 5 to 14 years. The older ones were leaning out the windows, singing their Czech songs, excited over the prospect of a new adventure, glad to be returning to people and scenes and a way of life they could still remember. The little fellows sat, sleepy and tired, but good as gold, on the wooden benches. Some had cuddled down in a corner and gone sound asleep. Some sat straight and round-eyed with their little traveling packs still strapped to their backs. One group of little girls plucked my sleeve and gravely wished to shake hands all around. The tinies boy proudly displayed a picture of the Eiffel Tower and pointed out the "Toisieme Etage" to which he had been permitted to ascend. The children all speak French; the young ones but little Czech. But like the Dutch children, they are most tolerant of my linguistic shortcomings, and we understand each other very well indeed. There are about thirty adults accompanying the children.

There are piles of grey army blankets and two of these-one under, dexterously folded to simulate a pillow at one end, and one over, --transform each wooden bench into a "bed". Two children sleep on the floor between the facing benches. Packs soes and overcoats ahd to be removed, but it was taken for granted that that was the limit. Sleepy little eyes opened long enough to smile appreciately as shoes were removed and belts and suspenders loosened, and tired little limbs stretched out gratefully or cuddled in compact little balls between the coarse blankets.

Tuesday, Nov. 6, 1945
During the night we progressed as far as the little town of Chalonssur-Marn, and shortly after, we pulled up at Sermaize for breakfast,--black bread, brought from Prague, and ersatz coffee. No milk available for the children. They drink coffee, too. One car is devoted to a kitchen, and when the train stops, the kitchen crew comes out with great cans of coffee and thick slices of breach, which they take from one car to another, ladling it out into the people's own dishes, or cups.

Fortunately, we were near the depot where there was running water, and everybody had a chance to wash up. I was glad to be able to donate a bar of soap for the occasion, and even the little boys seemed appreciative; then they stood very still to have their hair combed. One had a toothbrush. Perhaps there were others in valises, but certainly they are in the luxury class. I have been told they are one of the most difficult things to obtain in Paris, and these children have had no priority for them.

A number of people from the d.p. camp at Sermaize were to join the train. They came, bag and baggage, loaded in army trucks. One old woman of surely seventy, had a pack almost as big as she was and probably containing all her worldly possessions, strapped firmly on her back. One man seemed to be quite alone except for two little girls, perhaps two and three, whom he carried tenderly in either arm. There were some large families with dozens of suitcases and baskets and even wooden packing cases; and a great to-do it was for them to get assembled and organized in one of the cars. It was hard for the latecomers to find places at all. Every available inch is taken. The family cars do not have seats, like the ones where the little children are billeted. They are just box cars with portable benches along each side and down the middle. There is barely room for the people to sit on the benches. How they can possibly sleep under those conditions is a mystery. But the weather is such that meals can be served and eaten on station platforms, or beside the tracks. And it takes no extra space to sing, which is the favorite form of amusement.

One of our little girls is ill. So she has one bench all to herself and her doll. I don't know where she got that little American doll, but I do wish the sender could know what a comfort it is to that child. She couldn't eat her soup tonight which was apparently the noon stew thinned down a bit in consistency. She thought she would like some cocoa-malt (I had some from America) but when I brought it she said no even to that. But she kept hold of my hand and wanted me to sit beside her. I do wish my French were up to a story.

Francine has practically adopted me. He is one of the littlest boys and the one with a perpetually dirty face. I tried to teach him to play "bean porridge hot" today and we got along very nicely. But later I wanted him to show Dr. Bell, and right in the middle of our routine he suddenly looked up into my face with the most beaming smile and leaning forward, pat-pat-patted my cheeks with his dear grimy little paws. I was very touched.

Last night I slept on one of the benches in our headquarters compartment but tonight it seems there is a bunk for me in our one "wagon-lit".

Bunks have two blankets and a pillow, but no sheets. They are made up all the time, so no attendant is necessary or available. We take turns at sleeping in them, but the Czechs hospitably insist on my having one at night.

Wednesday, Nov. 7, 1945
Everyone is anxious to do something for the Czech children. The Red Cross brought bisuicts and jam and besides this a package apiece for everyone on the train. Dr. Bell and I passed up the packages, but when we saw what was in the we nearly reneged-powdered milk, margarine, powdered coffee, tuna, luncheon meat-just to mention a few of the things that will be most welcome additions to the diet on the train or which may be saved for a homecoming celebration in Czechoslovakia. Then UNRRA came with mill ends of nice woolen materials from England. Armload after armload of them. There will be a piece for each child-enough to make a suit or dress. It will be a most practical gift.

We made a long stop at Latrouville, where we wasted a lot of sympathy on a lone red-headed American soldier, only to find he was marrying one of the local French girls next week. But he was happy to see and talk to Americans, as the boys always are. The children got out and played games-circle games very similar to the ones our children in America play-crack the whip, and something similar to our "London Bridges", only with a great man bridges instead of one.

Towards evening we got up into the industrial district of Lorraine and saw the ruined plants of Nancy surrounding the great Cathedral of Nancy, which from a distance, at least, seemed to have been miraculously spared. Then, through devastation that had once been Sarrebourg. It is quite impossible to describe what has happened in such industrial centers as this. There is simply nothing left-no place to start rebuilding. You suspect that the answer will probably be a great degree of decentralization. And the threat of the atom bomb will abet this tendency, too.

Yet there are people among the ruins. Where a wall stands, there seems to be an irresistible impulse to try to rebuild. And in the suburbs, where the damage is less, you see the whole family working like beavers trying to restore some semblance of livability to their shattered but still beloved home.

We rode through the Vosges Mountains. It was midnight when we reached the border at Strasbourg, and the hulking ruins of what had been a great city looked grim and terrible in the moonless night. We crossed the Rhine over the provisional (military-built) bridge and saw beside us the great concrete structure that had been a delight of engineering-crumpled in a sorry heap across the river.

No one who has even casually observed the situation here can doubt for a moment that the problems of transport-from shoes to railway bridges-are at the heart of Europe's reconstruction problem. Across the river from Strasbourg, we entered Kehl-or what was left of it-and were in the American zone of occupied Germany.

Thursday, Nov. 8, 1945
Our train passed Karlsruhe, Stuttgart, Goppingen, Ulm, Augeberg, and tonight we go through Nurnberg.

The agricultural part of the country restores one's faith both in the possibility of recovery of the country as a whole and in the hope that the church of America will be able to do something for the people which will have significance. It reminds one that Germany's recovery is not only one huge reconstruction problem which is almost beyond human comprehension in its scope, but it is likewise millions of individual problems; and that the total picture must be tackled from this perspective as well as from the perspective of rebuilding bridges and supplying locomotives. The rebuilding of human lives is Germany's-and Europe's-number one problem, and involves a responsibility which the Church cannot ignore.

One of the most desolate sights I saw was the crowds of Germans at the railroad stations. They had packs and baggage. The American soldiers said they come and go continually. No place in particular. Just the civilian population getting itself sorted out, and back to a normal existence. They stand there, stolid and solemn, and neither glance at the passerby nor talk among themselves. If I ever saw people who need all that Christianity at its best has to offer, it is these.

The farms are all well kept, and apparently there is yet a supply of vegetables. The people do not look too badly fed. Fields and vineyards form irregular patches of green and yellow on the sloping hillsides. In some places a whole hill has been carefully terrace with supporting brick or stone walls. Flaxen-haired children, too young to share their parents' sense of vanquished ambition, wave gaily from gingerbread porches. And our little Czech repatriates wave gaily back to them.

One of the girls who takes care of our little folks is on her way to Prague to try to find her uncle-the only relative she knows of, and she hasn't his address. She is 17 and has lost both parents. Another girl is going back for a final visit before she goes to America. She and her sister are both going to marry American army officers. She knows a lot of folk games and songs and is very popular with the children; she used to be a teacher. But she thinks she should enrich their experience with a bit of the American lore she has acquired from her sweetheart. So today I came upon her teaching them "one of our folksongs"-Pistol Peckin' Mama!

Friday, Nov. 9, 1945
Today when I emerged from our wagon-lit in search of my breakfast of coffee and black bread which was being served from the station platform, I found the occupants of many of the cars busily engaged in decorating their voitures with greens from the nearby trees, Czech flags, chalk drawings and slogans. For by noon we pass the frontier, and some for the first time in their lives, and most for the first time in many years, will see their homeland.

This is a beautiful country of rolling hills and green pastures, with a good growth of pine. Like a well-kept city park.

As we stopped for lunch, another train pulled into the same station-a train decorated in gay fashion like our own with greens and bits of bunting. Aboard this were 800 Poles being repatriated. There were a number of American boys on the train as guards. They told us the Poles came from a camp near Kassel. All day, after that, first we would pass the Polish train and then they would pass us, with good-natured shouting and bickering. Each time we stopped at the same place, the American boys from the Polish train would come and look up Dr. Bell and me. They surely liked to visit. Tonight, just after we pulled in to Pilsen, and had been invited to come to the Red Cross headquarters for dinner, they showed up again, and we did hate to leave them, but we just couldn't say no to a real hot meal, let alone to meeting the Red Cross people.

The latter are in a quandary about getting some simple medical supplies for the center here. A great number of repatriate trains are going through here now, and not all the repatriates have had three months in Switzerland to condition them for the ordeal, as many of our children have. The boys on the Polish train told of having to take off a lot of old folks, who simply couldn't take the rigors of the trip. They are very willing to buy and pay for the medical and sanitary supplies which they need but they just don't know where to get them. Dr. Bell promised to explore for possible sources. We had a terrible time getting some disinfectant along the way for use in the toilets on the train. Eventually the U.S. Army in one town though which we passed came to the rescue.

One of the mechanics on the train is an engineer who came along because he is interested in the repatriation project. He brought some of the first of the new Czech currency. Like Holland, they called in all the old money and issued a limited amount of new to each person-the same amount to everyone. The old is held in trust, and if you can prove that you had it before the war, O.K., you can arrange to spend it for articles such as furniture, equipment, tools, etc. But if it represents war profits, that is just too bad-you didn't have ti coming and now you haven't got it.

Saturday, Nov. 10, 1945
The day dawned with a drizzly rain, but I woke up to the sound of singing. We were already in Prague, and a line of trucks were drawn up waiting to transport groups of children to more distant points. The radio which broadcasts news events through the city streets had announced that the repatriation train was arriving and people were already swarming in to greet family and friends. Mme. Holzback, a famous Czech dancer and ardent Community, who has spent most of the last decade in America and had been my Bunkie in the wagon-lit, arrayed herself in her best, and none too soon, for along came a press photographer looking for her. And at that moment also along came Mr. Zweigenthal (who for the benefit of his many English and American friends has changed his name to Zeman) of the Czech Red Cross, with a car to take Dr. Bell and me to our hotel. It is the Esplanade, and has the most beautiful glass chandeliers and the most spectacular plumbing (really super-colossal) and hear and hot water. My room is 12 by 18, has a bed 7 feet wide, telephone, two huge twin wash bowls, immense mirrors and private bath. It's a time of contrasts.

Czech repatriate child
Older children took good care of the younger ones on the trip. Looking after sister kept this little boy busy on the Czech repatriation train from Paris to Prague.

displaced persons
D.P's with all their worldly possessions join the Czech repatriation train at Sermaine, France. Some have lived in the D.P. camp several years.

displaced persons
How people keep track of the various members of the family, let alone their baggage, while traveling about Europe is a deep mystery. Just arrived by auto truck from the D.P. camp at Sermaine, France.

Czech repatriate child

Czech repatriate (from displaced persons camp) If the person who sent this American doll could know how much it means to this little girl.

Czech repatriate children
Hanging out the window during a stop of the repatriation train.

Czech repatriate children
There was no water on the train, but we occasionally stopped at a station where children could wash up and we could fill water bottles.

Czech repatriate child
Francine Beczdek, Czech repatriation train. Sometimes identified as 'the boy whose face is always dirty.' He didn't in the least mind having it washed however, and here posed to show me how nice he looked with it clean and his hair combed.

Czech repatriate children ring games
Francine is it, As littlest boys from Czechoslovakia repatriation train play ring games, similar to ones American children play.

Czech repatriate train
Decorating the train. Today we arrive at the Czech border. Repatriates sang all day long. Vive Benes was the sign most in evidence as repatriates decorated the cars in honor of arrival in Czechoslovakia.

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