“Pure Mazl”. Příběh Norberta (Bertieho) GoldbergaKatalog sbírek
Childhood in Moravská Ostrava
I was born on July 27, 1919 in the center of Ostrava near the Imperial Hotel, on Haydenova street 985/3, or Hayden Gasse in German. The building where we lived belonged to Mr. Schreiber, a Jewish furniture entrepreneur. I was named Norbert after my mother’s father Nechemia Bronner, who was a prominent “balabuest” [a financially sound, well-respected member of the community; literally, a householder] in Poland, and nicknamed “Bubik” by family and friends. All the houses on one side of the street are gone now, they became very dilapidated and were pulled down. I remember that right next door to our house was an ice-cream parlor where they sold Italian ice-cream. And I was not allowed to have it, because it was not kosher.
My family originally came from Poland, from the town of Oświęcim. Unfortunately, this also the place where the lives of many of my relatives were finished. My father David Goldberg (born 1886) married my mother Rosa, born Bronner (born 1887 in Oświęcim) in 1909 and they had six children: Oskar (born 1911 in Oświęcim), Rachel Tereza (born 1913 in Oświęcim), Moses, known as Max (born 1914 in Moravská Ostrava), Eleonora (born 1917 in Moravská Ostrava). Then I arrived and I had one younger sister, Matylda (born 1921 in Moravská Ostrava). In 1914, shortly after the outbreak of the First World War, my parents with my two eldest siblings escaped to Moravská Ostrava. There was a rumor circulating then that the Cossacks [ie. Russian army] were advancing into Poland and in anticipation of pogroms and out of concern for his wife and children, my father picked up whatever he had and moved to Ostrava.
Like my father, four of my mother’s brothers, Jakob, Mendel, Heinrich and Leopold Bronner, also left Oświęcim during WWI. I knew Uncle Mendel Bronner who lived in Berlin and later moved back to Auschwitz for business reasons. He was in the wine business and was exporting kosher wine to Germany from Poland. Living in Auschwitz in a “frum” [Jewish religiously observant] environment, I remember him with a beard. The other brother Heinrich lived in Strasburg and we visited his son soon after the war. My mother was very proud of her brothers and talked about them often. The whole Bronner family was well educated in German and Polish and all of them had a very nice handwriting, which in those times with no typewriters or computers was very important. I am not sure but I think my mother was the youngest in the family. Another brother, Jakob, lived in Oderberg (Bohumín in Czech) which in 1918 became part of Czechoslovakia. He had a general grocery shop there and was well off. He and his family visited ours often and we went to them. My father was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army in 1915 and served until 1918, so my mother had to look after the children during the war, by the end of which there were four. My elder siblings were still born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but I and my sister Matylda were already born in Czechoslovakia, a state that was established in 1918. While we lived in Ostrava and were very loyal to the new democratic country, we never acquired Czechoslovak citizenship and remained stateless.
Through hard work and diligence, in a few years my father built a successful wholesale and retail textile and shirt manufacturing business. We had a shop close to the main square, on Mostní ulice, later renamed Třída 28. října. It is the street that leads towards Slezská Ostrava, near the Baťa department store. The building belonged to the Melcer family. It was sensational when they built it! It was beautiful, with balconies and all. I also remember that further down the street was a nice toy shop, Deutsch, that was our neighbor. Czechoslovakia was famous for making toys. But as I said, my family dealt in textiles.
My father used to spend his days in a café on the square and when he was needed in the business or somebody wanted to talk to him, I was always sent by my mother to fetch him. I had to run up to the café and call him. The café was on the first floor and all the Jewish businessmen used to meet there. Their social life really took place in café houses. And every night, my father went to the Palace Hotel, across the road from Textilia [a large department store in the centre of Ostrava], where there was a very smart café. My parents’ friends were all Jewish. When you went to the Palace café, more or less all the patrons were Jews and the café itself also belonged to Jews, the Groner brothers. The waiters were Jewish too, some even spoke Yiddish. You could read a wide selection of newspapers there. My father used to read Morgenzeitung, a newspaper published in German, which cost exactly one Czechoslovak Crown. The majority of Jews in Ostrava spoke German and did not know that much Czech, at least the older generation. People also played cards in the coffee houses, my father was an ardent card player. The only arguments I remember from home was when my mother complained about my father playing cards too much. She claimed that he should spend more time at home and dedicate some of it to his children.
But my father was a good family man, a good father. He put family loyalty before anything else. He was nonetheless a great disciplinarian too and did not stand for any nonsense. We were sometimes punished and smacked, but always told why. Both of my parents went to school in Oświęcim, where they were born. My mother was well educated, fluent in German, had a nice handwriting and very knowledgeable. My father’s education was of a typical “cheder and yeshivah” [Jewish religious schools; cheder is basic level and Yeshivah advanced] standard, where the emphasis was more on Torah [Five books of Moses] and Talmud [Code of Jewish Law and rabbinic teaching]. So his education was quite basic but his business instinct was remarkable. His business principals were extremely high and he made sure to pass these onto his children. His capacity for work, buying and selling and gaining people’s respect was exemplary. He built up a successful, relatively big, company and insisted that all his sons join him in the business. I remember that a lot of emphasis was put on the value of money and we were told that money has to be earned by working for it. “Nothing comes from nothing,” was the motto. Thanks to his ability to delegate responsibility to his sons and allowing my brothers to “do their own thing”, we received a wonderful education and it later greatly helped my career in England, when I came here as a refugee at the age of 19. In my mother’s way of dealing with us, the importance of family loyalty and love was uppermost. We had family meal times and were taught proper table manners. My mother was a good singer and loved to sing Yiddish songs to us and with us. A real “Yiddishe Mama” you could say. Bringing up six children was not an easy task. She did all the cooking and went to the business every afternoon. It was my mother who imbued us with family values and family unity.
When I was growing up, Ostrava was a sizable town, no little shtetl [Yiddish word for a village], the population in those days numbered 120,000 or 125,000. With the surrounding areas, it had a total population of about 250,000. I think the Jewish community by 1939 numbered between 20,000 and 30,000 Jews, with the surrounding areas, though the official number was put at about 10,000. So about ten percent of the population was Jewish. It was a commercial center and that’s why the architecture of the city was fine, there were very nice buildings. Many belonged to Jews and a lot of the industry and commerce was in the hands of the Jews, but there was no friction. I mentioned the retail store but we also had a wholesale business, we had a shirt factory, manufacturing shirts and other things. Ostrava was not far from textile producing areas, so we bought the textiles and then turned them into shirts and other clothing. Most Jews did quite well. I mean, my father started his business in 1918. By the time the war broke out in 1939 when he had to run away, we were considered one of the wealthier families. Wealth is all relative though. But we had a car, and we had a telephone. Our first car was a Tatra and the second car was a Škoda. I learned to drive on the Škoda.
There was poverty in Ostrava, too, of course, the element of unemployment was quite substantial. Ostrava was a mining town and coal mining was a seasonal business. In the summer, when the demand for coal was lower, people were laid off. The coal miners used to have some privileges as regards to the unemployment payments and I remember that my friends, who were children of coal miners, lived in special colonies which were built by the owners of the coal mines. There was for example a coal miners’ colony in Mariánské Hory and the children of the miners later went to high school with me. There were not that many working class Jewish families though. We Jews look after our own, you know. If there was anybody who was not prospering, others looked after them.
As a child, from the age of four to six, I went to a Czech kindergarten. It was practically around the corner, we used to play in the park, had a sand pit there. As far as I remember, it was a non-Jewish kindergarten, we used to learn all Christmas songs there, etc. I did not mind, we were brought up broad-minded. There I spoke Czech, as I did to my siblings, since we were a generation already growing up under the Republic. Most of the generation of the post-WWI generation spoke Czech, or better, both Czech and German. I spoke Czech to my parents too, they answered in German.
After the kindergarten, I went to a Jewish preparatory school until age eleven. I still remember one of the teachers, Lehrer Salter. He did not like me very much because he had taught my elder brothers, he taught all three of us, you see. And boys being boys… The discipline in Czech schools at that time was not what it is in British schools these days. It was quite strict, and we used to get punished, even got smacked over the head from time to time. It was quite normal. Frankly, it did us no harm. In the Jewish school I stayed till the age of eleven and then I went to a non-Jewish school in Mariánské Hory, a suburb of Ostrava. It was about a ten-minute train ride from the center of town. So as you see, most of my education was non-Jewish. Under the democratic system in Czechoslovakia, religion was an individual matter and the government did not interfere. Nonetheless, once a week we had a rabbi come to the school and give religious lessons to the Jewish children. His name was Eibenschütz, he also served as a chazzan [Jewish cantor] in the big . I was the only Jew in my class but I never felt that I was not wanted, nor was I at all self-conscious about my religion. There was certainly no official anti-Semitism. In fact, I recall no anti-Semitism throughout my youth, until I left. Actually, it was appreciated that I went to a Czech school, though a Jew, since the majority of Jews spoke German as their native tongue. Later I went to the Handelsakademie in Mariánské Hory, which – its German name notwithstanding – was a Czech business high-school.
Since my family was Orthodox and most of my education was non-Jewish, my parents had teachers come to the house to give us some religious instruction. It was my mother, rather than my father, who insisted on it. My teacher of Judaism spoke Yiddish, since he came from Slovakia. My sisters had a lady teacher who was much better than my instructor, who was not really a teacher but a yeschiva bocher [student] trying to make a living. I lived in Mariánské Hory until the age of fifteen, then we moved to Gymnasiumgasse to a house near the German high school and the new Town Hall. While living in Mariánské Hory, on Shabbat we walked to Ostrava to the Orthodox Zerotingasse schul [synagogue] on Žerotínská street, which was about a half an hour walk. It was a much more modest schul than the Hoch schul [the main synagogue]. Zerotingasse was mainly for the Polish Jews. There was a chazzan, or as we said, schulsinger, I think his name was Forscher. Then he retired and another chazzan came. He later became a chazzan in France, in Strasbourg. I don’t remember his name but I do remember he had ginger hair.
There were two schuls in Ostrava. The schul in Zerotingasse which we attended, had traditional orthodox services in the Polish and Ukrainian Chassidic tradition, the so-called nusach Tzfat. Most of the congregation came originally from Poland or Slovakia. The main schul in the centre of town, the Hoch Tempel or, as we called it, the Neologisch schul, followed the nusach Ashkenaz or the more modern German tradition. They had an organ and a mixed choir to accompany the service, neither of which were acceptable in our schul. I remember my father telling me that some of the girls in the choir were not even Jewish, as they needed more singers to make up the numbers. There was an organ, played by Dr. Anton Aich, who was not a Jew and so could play on Shabbat. Our chief teacher Ferdinand Kraus conducted the chorus.
Something that I remember about the Hoch schul is that there was a beautiful Aron Kodesh [Holy Ark], and they had a curtain going up as they opened it. And in order for the curtain to go up, they rang a bell which, on Shabbat, was absolutely outrageous for us. Chazzan Eibenschütz originated from a very famous Jewish family in Poland. Rabbi Eibenschütz wrote a lot of Jewish books and treatises on the Talmud and so on. My Bar Mitzvah [confirmation, held when a boy is 13 years old] was held in Zerotingasse schul. But it was not like Bar Mitzvahs are today. I did not read from the Torah, I just read the haftarah [selections from the books of Prophets]. And that’s all. Nowadays, my sons had to do the whole sederah But it was not customary in those times.
We kept a kosher household, of course, since we belonged among the more Orthodox families in Ostrava, but most Jews were not so observant. We went to a kosher butcher called Hornung. We had a kosher baker called Mandel (Mandel Bäckerei) and we had another kosher butcher which was frummer than Hornung, called Rose. He came from Kežmarok in Slovakia. There were many kosher butchers in Moravská Ostrava: David Hornung on Stodolní street, Bedřich Huppert in Přívoz, Samuel Ambor in Vítkovice, Salomon Efreim Schulsinger in Moravská Ostrava, Abraham Forscher in Ostrava–Zábřeh and others.
My parents never took holidays because of their business commitments, only sometimes went to a spa at other times. But we children did and I remember going to the Jewish children’s holiday home, or convalescent home (Židovská zotavovna) in Ostravice. It was in operation only during July and August, for two terms and boys and girls alternated there – one month there were fifty boys, next month fifty girls. The less well off did not pay for the stay but my father could afford it, so he paid. It set him back 150 Crowns, an equivalent of one Pound. The holiday home was directed by the head teacher (Oberlehrer) Ferdinand Kraus. There were two huge sleeping dormitories and we had to keep to a military discipline, we had to make our beds and Oberlehrer Kraus used to come to inspect them. If something was not right, he used to turn the bed upside down and we had to start again. I was aware that there was a home for old people too, but I don’t know much about that because I was too young. But I know my parents supported it financially.
We also went to Ostravice during the winter, as it was the stop where you got off to go to Lysá Hora. We used to ski from Lysá hora to Bílý Kříž, another mountain, and from there back to Ostravice. In those days skiing was not as it is today, with manicured slopes, we had to ski through the woods. If you did not look out you could easily injure yourself by hitting a tree. Sport in Czechoslovakia was a very popular pastime and the Czechs were very sports orientated. They probably still are. My social and sports life mostly consisted of associating with my non-Jewish friends. I did have Jewish friends who lived in our area, but they did not go to my school. I was an active member of the Sokol sports club, although it was a mostly non-Jewish organization, but I felt accepted and it was very very friendly. I also swam for the youth section of the Jewish Hagibor swimming club.I trained in 50 m Ostrava swimming pool, Olympic size. I was quite a good swimmer. I also played tennis, I learned to play in the Schießtätte park, called Komenského sady nowadays. It was a huge, beautiful park with wide alleyways, and the approach to it was lined with gorgeous villas. It is close to the bridge which led across the badly polluted Ostravice river and connected Ostrava with Slezská Ostrava. So there was Hagibor, there was Maccabi, there was the Jewish Community, the Jüdische Kultusgemeinde, where children also got together. But it wasn’t a Jewish life as it exists today. If I had been a young man today, I would have had a different youth, because I would have to do what my sons did. I sent them to Israel to yeshiva…
There was much Zionist activity in Ostrava before the war. I used to walk to the center of town every Shabbes (Saturday) for the meetings of the Blauweiss (Blue-White) group. And in Mariánské Hory was a Halutz Center, a house built by the Zionist organization for people who came from Slovakia and Subcarpathian Russia, now in Ukraine. They stayed there to be retrained to go to Palestine. They had a minyan (a group of ten men, necessary for orthodox Jewish prayers) there as well but in fact the movement was not very religious. My parents viewed this enterprise with a bit of suspicion because men and women lived together in one building. There was also the Bnai Brith, but my parents did not take part in it.
We went to theatre quite a bit. The cultural life in Ostrava was of a high standard. We had a German theater, das Deutsche Haus, next to Textilia, we had the Czech Národní divadlo, National Theater. Národní divadlo was our opera house. We were brought up on opera. I can sing Rigoletto, lots of operas… we went there on student tickets which were very cheap. And cinemas of course. And we had a library where you could borrow both Czech and German books. Being educated in Czech I preferred Czech books.
Escape to England
As time passes, memories become rosier. Things were however getting less pleasant with the rise of the Nazis in Germany. Then on March 15th, 1939, the Germans invaded. There was no resistance. Believe me when I say there were no heroes. We were all frightened to death. All we wanted is to survive. Some of us did alas most of us did not. I prefer to forget how the Germans burned the synagogues. I tend to forget how virtually every house had swastika flags hanging from the windows. I do not recall one Czech who dared to openly protest the occupation. The Czechs had a strong army, yet not a shot was fired. The majority of the Ostrava population got used to the Germans much and certainly did not mind helping the Germans take over all the Jewish enterprises and property. I prefer to forget how the Germans accompanied by Czechs came to our business and just told us to lock the doors and took the keys.
I will now tell you the story of our escape to England. My father was a substantial businessman and when the Germans came, he was advised not to stay at home, as the Germans might be looking for him. My father had Czech friends and so he did not stay at home from the moment Hitler’s army marched in. By the way, the Nazis marched into Ostrava several hours before they entered Prague, on March 14th, because Hitler was afraid the Poles would take Ostrava – it was a strategic place due to its industry, the coal mines and everything else. It is located in the Silesian coal basin, very rich, and because there was coal there, the iron works were there too. These also belonged to Jews, the Guttmans together with the Rothchilds.
Then my father was told it was best for him to get out of Czechoslovakia altogether. So he decided to leave immediately. The Germans marched in on Wednesday and he, I and my brother left on Friday. Because of Friday,(that is, the eve of the Sabbath when Jews are not allowed to travel) we had to walk, we were Orthodox. The only things my father took with him were the talit and teffilin. From a wealthy, prosperous and respected businessman, that was all he was left with. We decided to go to Bohumín, very near Ostrava where my mother’s brother, Jakob Bronner lived. He had a grocery shop there.
Bohumín was in Czechoslovakia, but when the Germans took Sudetenland, the Poles marched into the border Silesian region of Czechoslovakia and occupied it, including Bohumín. So we walked across the new German-Polish border, with a guide. The Germans were not watching the border too closely yet and our Czech guide knew exactly where the German guards were stationed. It was not done for free though. Nothing was done for Jews out of love for them. We had to pay a large sum of money and were not guaranteed success. We believed that had the Germans caught us - they would have shot us and let the man go. This is why I always say that getting out was only a matter of luck and G-d’s will.
From Bohumín we proceeded to my parents’ birthplace, Oświęcim. Though it is not far from Ostrava, I had never been there before. It was for the first time that I got to know my numerous cousins, uncles and aunties from both sides. We became good friends and they took a lot of trouble to make my stay very pleasant. Although we were different in every way I learned a lot about their way of life and they about mine. The difference was in many ways striking. My father was considered the rich son of the family, and I was his son… When the Germans marched into Czechoslovakia, my brother Oskar, who was ten years older than I, was in Poland on business. He was working for our textile company, traveling around the country to sell our products. Poland was a very good market then because prices there were much higher than in Czechoslovakia and we could more than compete with the Polish manufacturers. So the moment German soldiers stepped into Ostrava, we telephoned him immediately and told him not to come back.
Oskar was not short on money, so he spoke to a few friends and they organized for an airoplane to fly them from Warsaw to London. Alas, there they were refused entry. In the pre-war days, you did not need a visa to travel to England on a Czechoslovak passport. But by the time they arrived the British said, “thank you very much but you need a visa now because you come from an occupied territory”. My brother and his friends therefore decided to claim refugee status, but the British would not hear about it and decided to send them all back to Poland. So there you had ten Czech Jewish refugees, ten young men from Czechoslovakia. My brother was young but very resourceful and he was the one who was instrumental in making all ten stay. At the airport, when they were about to board the plane for the return journey, my brother suddenly created a huge havoc. He started shouting and screaming and lied on the floor, refusing to get up, kicking around. He later told us the story. There were a few reporters there so they photographed him. I have a photo of my brother being carried back onto the plane. It was a Danish, not a Polish plane, and the Danish pilot luckily refused to fly. Seeing all the confusion, he refused to take these desperate people on board. It was the only plane that travelled from London to Poland, to Warsaw. Again, mazl [Hebrew, luck]. So the ten men were imprisoned to await their fate while the British were deciding what to do with them. Then an article about the incident came out on the front page of the Daily Mail, with a picture of my brother being carried back onto the plane on the order of the British. It caused an outcry. While they were in prison, the holiday of Pesach [Passover, a Jewish festival about Easter time] came. A professor whose name I unfortunately forgot looked after them. The airport where they were arrested was in Croydon then, as was the prison. And since the professor lived in Croydon, he decided to visit and learn more about these refugees, and brought them kosher food for Pesach. Because of this photograph in the paper questions were asked in the Parliament. Finally the ten were released from prison and after a few days received the permission to stay in England. So Oskar was in England, staying in the “Jewish Temporary Shelter” in the East End of London. Being the shrewd young man he was, he soon found out that you can travel from England to Shanghai and Shanghai is an open port and they will have anybody and everybody. The money was there so he bought tickets on a boat for his two brothers to go to Shanghai. Since we were already in Poland, he sent the tickets to us there. We took the tickets to the British consulate in Katowice and they gave us transit visas to come to England. And that’s how we got to England. So my oldest brother in his wisdom and with luck saved our lives. It was all mazl. Max and I arrived in England in June 1939.
When we landed in Britain, the immigration authorities somehow found out about this new trick and wanted to know when we were leaving. We said, we want to wait for our sisters in Czechoslovakia, we all want to go together. And they said, sorry, you must go back, you are not genuine travelers on the way to Shanghai. So we were to be sent back but once again we were helped by good luck. The professor who looked after Oskar in prison said he was coming with Oskar to the airport to wait for us in case there was some trouble, since Oskar could not speak English. Oskar and the professor waited for us in Croydon, where Oskar landed, but we actually arrived to Heston, on another airport. So while they were about to send us back from Heston, we started complaining that there must be somebody there who can speak on our behalf. In the meantime they realized they are waiting for us at the wrong airport. It was all mazl. The professor came onto the telephone and there we saw the weight of a word of an English gentleman. He said my name is professor So and So, and I expect two young men from Czechoslovakia, will you please let them in, I will vouch for them. All this took place on the phone, they just accepted his word. It would not happen anymore. You would have to fill in a hundred forms. We were allowed to stay.
Family in occupied Europe
While we three brothers were in England, my father was in Oświęcim in Poland. My father was quite happy staying in Oświęcim, he felt at home where he grew up. He was living there quite well. Since we had a textile business, we had cloth and if he sold a piece of it, he could live a month on it. In their false sense of security, the Poles were confident the Germans would not attack them. My mother escaped from Ostrava in 1939 to Oświęcim to be with my father but then returned to Ostrava the same year to be with her three daughters and two grandchildren – my widowed sister Rachel (known as Resi, her husband Simon Rose died in a car crash) and her two daughters, Matylda (born 1936 in Moravská Ostrava) and Judita (born 1937 in Moravská Ostrava). They were joined there by Resi’s boyfriend Emil Drenger, whom she met after the death of her spouse and who was trying to help the whole family.
After our arrival to England, our most pressing task was to get my sisters Lilly and Matuša (Matylda) to England. The only way this could be done was to obtain a domestic service visa for them. To get this, we had to find them a job in a household where the people were prepared to apply to the Home Office for a visa and to accept full responsibility for them during their stay. There were thousands of people trying to do the same thing. We succeeded with Lily first and with Matuša a little later. The British Consulate in Prague did not make it easy either. The bureaucratic system involved a medical examination, proof that they worked in a household before and that they possessed proper travel documents, which my sisters did not have. To obtain these from the Czech authorities, they had to have official evidence from the British Consulate that a visa will be issued. All this involved many trips to Prague, queuing outside the various offices over many days. In their letters my sisters never complained but we could sense the tremendous stress they were under. In the meantime, my mother, sisters and Resi’s two small children moved to Solopisky near Prague. Just as we finally succeeded and it seemed that we could finally get my sisters to join us in England, Hitler’s Germany invaded Poland and World War II broke out on September 1, 1939 . All immigration stopped. My three sisters and my mother were stuck. I believe had the outbreak of the war come just a little bit later, they would be living with us in England. Unfortunately, this was not to be. Their letters showed how much they looked forward to being with us again. We kept corresponding with them for another two years. When Britain and Germany went to war, we could no longer correspond directly and all letters came to us in London via Tangier, which was in a neutral country, through a contact of ours.
After the war broke out, all the Jews in Oświęcim were rounded up and sent to a town called Sosnowiec, where the Germans created a ghetto in which they concentrated all the Jews from that area. As I learned from the correspondence I had with my sisters and my mother, my father worked there on the railways, among other things. As we found out after the war, he was murdered sometime in 1942.
Until their deportation to the ghetto in Theresienstadt (Terezín), my mother, three sisters and Resi’s two young daughters lived in Solopisky 171, a village near Prague. There was a lady who lived with them, who got in touch with us after the war. She survived, they did not. When I went to Prague the first time I met up with her and she took us to Solopisky. In the letters, my mother and sisters sent some photographs. You can see they looked quite happy, because the Czechs there were very good to them, you can see the house where they lived. You see, here they were shoveling snow. And they were skiing, they were quite happy.
All I have left of them are their letters, written at first in Czech and German, but later only in German. They total over 150. Unfortunately, they did not date the letters, I don’t know why. I sorted them according to what they wrote. 1939. This is 1940. 1941. 1942. And then the letters finished… In the end, they wrote to us that they were told to go to Prague, that the officials of the Prague Kultusgemeinde, the Jewish Community told them they would be better off there. The next thing that happened was that they were rounded up and sent to Theresienstadt on September 12, 1942. Shortly afterwards, they were sent to the gas chambers. Only Resi stayed in Theresienstadt for a year, she allegedly worked as a nurse in the hospital. They did not have the mazl. And they had the visas! But they could not use them. Nobody knew what the Germans were doing to the Jews. It was the brilliant German propaganda. The Jews were always thinking, tomorrow will be better, tomorrow things will change to the better. They knew it was bad but they did not know it was so bad that they would end up in the gas chambers. All these letters… All clearly indicate their hope that G-d will protect them and that their prayers for us to be united as a family will be heard. My only consolation was that they were together and could support each other and for a while were able to help our father by sending food parcels to him in Poland. I have a letter from 1946 from that lady who lived together with them in Solopisky and in Theresienstadt and who survived. This is how we found out after the war how Rachel with her daughters Matylda and Judita died. Later we learned that our sisters Eleonora and Matylda with our dear mother perished already much earlier. On October 8, 1942 they were sent to the Treblinka extermination camp in Poland and gassed upon arrival.
Beginnings in England
While we corresponded and the hope that we could get our family to us in England was fast fading, we had to get on with our lives. As refugees, we were not particularly welcome. We looked different, we had different clothes, we did not wear the English fashion, we were told not to speak German in the streets, not to do this and not to do that... Not only the British, the British Jews were just as bad. They were ashamed of us, they did not want refugees. They wanted their quiet life as Jews in London and we were a disturbing element. So we first settled in the East End where many Orthodox refugees lived already and where we felt at home. This reminds me of a joke that used to be told among the refugees then: A tiny little dog meets a huge dog in a London street and the big dog asks the little dog: ”Where are you from?” The little dog answers: ”I come from Prague but there I was a bigger dog than you are...” Oskar first lived in the Jewish Temporary Shelter for refugees but when we arrived, we moved in together. We lived in the East End’s Pattison Street, E1. All three of us were sleeping in a room with one bed, there was just an outside toilet, no bathroom. From Pattison Street we moved into a refugee hostel located on Commercial Road, E1. We lived there from 1939 till we moved into our own flat in 1941, on 222 Whitechapel Road, E1, on the top floor. From the very beginning of our stay in England, we tried to find work – and we literally worked our way up from the bottom. First we also concentrated on learning English and lived on a budget of one pound a day (which was 20 Shillings = 240 pennies at that time).
We brought enough clothing with us to last for years. That was fortunate, we did not need to buy any. I myself first worked in a tailoring sweat shop, earning one pound a week, but then I found a better job and Max also found a job which brought our total earnings up to 6 pounds or so, so we could afford better eating places but had to cover travelling costs to work. Oscar, at first trying hard to do business, took a menial job in a clothing manufacturing company Ellis & Goldstein, the largest in London. This increased our total income to 18 pounds a week and we felt like “millionaires”. We established a Goldberg brothers home at 222 Whitechapel Road. Soon Oscar was promoted to a cutter and brought Max and myself to work with him. Max also as a cutter and I worked as a sewing machinist making army uniforms. I should note that we had difficulties finding a job with a Shabbat day off as all factories worked a “five and a half day week” which meant working a half day on Saturdays. On the other hand, the first job given to me without any problems was by a non-Jew.
During the German “blitz” on London, one night a bomb hit our factory and we thought we lost our jobs. But it turned out we got lucky. Having become “key workers” in a factory of national importance, we were asked to evacuate to a sister factory in Luton, a town approximately 40 miles from London. After being assured that there was a Jewish community and a schul with a resident Rabbi, we moved, bringing with us a housekeeper, a Jewish lady who was glad to escape London with its nightly air raids for a safer place, where she did not have to go to sleep in a public shelter every night. Luton became a place of refuge for many London Jews during the war. They soon established homes and businesses and many commuted to London on a daily basis. The Jewish community grew and the schul became too small. The locals befriended their Jewish neighbors, though many of them had not seen a Jew before the war. One day, Oskar met an old school friend from Ostrava. When Oskar told him that we were working in the clothing industry, the chap introduced us to two brothers, Raphael and Sam Mandel. They had a small manufacturing unit above a shop on George Street, the main shopping street in Luton. They manufactured men’s sports jackets and had spare capacity which they did not know what to do with. We went to see it and bought a fifty percent partnership in their business for 300 pounds. That was in the year 1943.
This gave us the opportunity to use our newly acquired skills and mass manufacturing experience to start a business. I chose skirt making as it did not require any investment into special machinery. Some time earlier I had made a skirt for a girl friend. I borrowed it from her to take to London as a sample to show skirt wholesalers the quality standard we planned to produce. But it was not easy. Competition was severe and nobody was looking for another skirt maker. There was also a shortage of cloth and the government introduced strict rationing of clothing.
I did not know anybody in the business, so I just walked from one firm to another in the London West End’s “rag trade area” and persevered showing my one sample and offering to make skirts for them. But Hashem (the Almighty; in Jewish tradition, the name of God is never used; Hashem is Hebrew for “The Name”) was good to me. One man, whom I will never forget, by the name of Jack Saville, from the Saville Sportswear Ltd., took the trouble to say more to me than “I have enough skirt makers”. He actually asked me some personal questions: “Where do you come from and why do you want to go into this cutthroat business?” He was indeed G-d sent, the first one to offer me a chair to sit down. We talked and he took an interest in me. He seemed to be fascinated with my story… At the end of our conversation, he said: “I will give you some cloth length and you design for me skirts that will look new, and of the standard of quality as this sample and we will see…”
I worked as I never had done before, virtually day and night. The following week I went to show him four styles. He liked them and said he would show them to his main buyers and would let me know… So I waited… And prayed. All week, nothing happened. On Friday, just as we were about to go home for Shabbat, the phone rang. It was Mr. Saville. My heart stopped for a moment. “Bertie, about the style no. 123… How many pieces could you produce a week? That was it, we were in business, in a tough market. We became skirt manufacturers against all odds. This was our lucky day and the beginning of Mangold Ltd. and later SKIRTEX Ltd.
And so in 1943/44 we established our skirt factory Mangold Ltd. Half Mandel and half Goldberg. During the war, clothing was rationed in England. Coupons were issued by the government. Every item of clothing had a different coupon value and these had to be handed over upon purchasing any article in a shop. Saville Sportswear was selling our skirts well and Mangold Ltd. thrived and prospered. We moved to a bigger factory on Midland Road and began producing skirts from our own cloth as well as began supplying stores and mail order companies.
My brother Max did not join the business from the beginning. He wisely wanted to see how we got on before giving up his job. But he joined later and thus made the Goldberg brothers team complete. Our partnership with the Mandel brothers served two purposes. We had a ready production unit to start our business. And as aliens we could not be directors of a business without English directors as partners.
The mayor of Luton, Councillor Hedley Laurence, and his wife played a big role during our residence in Luton. He was a Quaker by religion and the Quakers rented their Prayer Hall to the Jewish community for their “High Holidays”. He took a particular liking to three young men from Czechoslovakia and late sponsored us to become British citizens. Thanks to his standing the whole process was made much easier. We became British subjects in 1948 with all the advantages the citizenship brought. He also helped us when we wanted to invest money into property by introducing us to the right people, agents and lawyers. In fact, he brought many deals to us and became a partner in some of the deals we did. We became great friends and it was a pleasure to do business with him.
Mangold Ltd was doing well and we became more ambitious than our partners to expand the business, so we decided to acquire complete control of the company and made the Mandels an offer for their share of the business. The terms were that if they didn’t want to sell to us, we were prepared to sell to them under the same conditions as was our offer. They bought our shares for an agreed sum of 15,000 pounds. This turned our 300 pound investment in 1943 into 15,000 pounds in five years. We were then offered and bought another clothing factory for 5,000 pounds. We named our new business SKIRTEX. Our slogan: “Don’t say skirt – say SKIRTEX” became well known all over the country. Ten years later we received an offer for Skirtex from Selincourt Ltd., a quoted public company, amounting to over one million pounds. This is how hard work and dedication turned 300 Pounds into over one million in about 15 years.
In 1945 we learned the tragic fate of our family in the by Nazis occupied territories. But life goes on, it has to. We were busy building up our business but nonetheless found some time for personal happiness. My brother Oskar married Sylvia and lived in Finchley London N3. Then I found a partner too.. My engagement in May 1947 to the daughter of Mrs. Hofmann, the owner of the Sandringham Hotel in Torquay, did not come about easily. The Hofmann-Weil family was well known. Josef Weil, Mrs. Hofrmann’s brother, was one of the leading members, as were his sons, in the Orthodox German (Yekische) community in Stamford Hill, London. He was the President of the Adath Yisroel Synagogue, a highly regarded position.
I, on the other hand, was in England just with my brothers, a former refugee without parents to represent my background. Furthermore, I was from Ostrava, a town in Czechoslovakia only a few people had heard about. It was not Frankfurt… My parents were of Polish origin which did not help my standing in the strictly Yekisch closely-knit community at that time. The only assets I possessed was that I already had a thriving business, we were in love and Hannah wanted to marry me. As the Hofmann-Weil family gradually got to know me, their attitude slowly changed and I became a fully accepted member not only of the family, but also of their Yekisch clan.
Hannah and her younger sister Gertrude spent all their teenage lives helping their widowed mother run her boarding house in Buxton. They were about 12 and 13 years old when they came to England and later, as lovely young ladies, helped to run the Sandringham Hotel in Torquay. The two girls were inseparable and worked really hard. In the season they worked as many as 18 to 20 hours a day and Hannah had to be up at 5:00 am to go the farm to supervise the milking of cows for kosher milk. Hannah was also in charge of the administration, having been to college in Manchester where she took typing and book-keeping courses. This she did in the winter months, taking a train at 7 am to get to Manchester from Buxton.
At the Sandringham Hotel, Gertrude was in charge of the Still Room. Coming to visit her, I soon learned what a Still Room was. It was the noisiest room in the hotel where the food was distributed onto plates to be served in the dining room. The waitresses called out the orders, the cook shouted back that he couldn’t do what the customers wanted and my mother-in-law tried to negotiate: “You have to do it. Mrs. Felsenstein is a good client and she is paying the top rate of 5 Pounds per day.” (The price for full board and lodging that was).
After dinner came washing up time – there were no dishwashers then – all hard labor and only then did Hannah have a bit of time to go out with me. So when visiting her in Torquay, I used to stand in my corner of the “Still Room” observing my future wife and thinking to myself how lucky I was to get a wife so used to hard work… Hannah and Gertrude did not have it easy. Their aim was to make the hotel a success and it was.
Even today, anybody who remembers the Sandringham Hotel will tell you about Mrs. Hofmann the owner, Mr. Leitner the manager, the daughters and what a nice hymishe [comfortable, homely, gemütlich] hotel it was.
Mrs. Hofmann lost her husband under tragic circumstances while still in Buxton two years after arriving in England. I remember her well. She was a “tzedejkes ” [a good, charitable, caring person]. She had whole families of her relations, as they arrived from Germany, staying with her for years. She married off her children and made the weddings in the hotel. She kept her son Erich in Yeshiva for over six years because this is what she wanted to do for her only son.
Hannah and I were also married at the hotel. Our wedding at the Sandringham Hotel Torquay was a special event for the small Torquay Jewish community. The guest list totaled approximately 80 guests and it was a lovely wedding. Mr. Leitner turned all the serviettes into birds. This was his special treat in our honor. Although Hannah was part of the hotel staff, she was not interested in learning to cook. My mother-in-law, in her wisdom, sent a cook to our new home in Luton to teach her the art. She learned well and fast. So much so that my two brothers came every day for their meals. I did not tell her beforehand that if she loved me, she had to love and feed my brothers too. Her yekische specialties are still special, even today.
We did not live in Luton for long. Just over two years after our marriage, I and my brothers moved to London. So there was Hannah, pregnant, packing our home to move to a flat in Willesden. But that’s already another story.