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On The Threshold of Life

By Dagmar P. Cermak

My dreams as a teenager were abruptly shattered when, in March l939, Czechoslovakia,a small country of 15 million, was occupied by mammoth Germany. To play out “David and Goliath” was out of the question. A month later, Hitler delivered a victory speech from the Prague Castle to a huge welcoming crowd of people shouting “Heil Hitler” and “Sieg Heil”. His admirers were the German-speaking former Czechoslovak citizens who lived in the borderland, referred to as “Sudetenland”, which had been annexed to Germany six months earlier.

This was the advent of six long,trying years that culminated in a lunatic global war. For a teenager, romanticism had to be replaced by realism because the German screws were tightening quickly and more painfully with the onset of the War.

And I was on the threshold of embracing life, full of discoveries and excitement.

Food became rationed, Czechs receiving smaller portions than the Germans. Abruptly the Czech universities were closed, leaving the students a difficult decision to study either at a German university or be drafted for manual labor in ammunition factories in,which were the target of Allied bombing. My brother, a sophomore, found an “essential” job in a textile factory. Movies shown were mostly German, preceded by a newsreel of a victorious German Wehrmacht, and restaurants, bars and all entertainment in public places had to be closed by eleven in the evening.

And I wanted to dance to jazz.

The occupiers placed stickers on all radios warning of death as punishment for listening to foreign broadcasts. Jews wore a Star of David, and were allowed to use the streetcar only between 11 AM and 3 PM, while Christians were warned not to talk to them in the street. One by one, they disappeared in Nazi transports, and I mourned my best friend who came to say good bye to me a day before she and her family were shipped away. A Christian classmate and her family were taken to Terezin concentration camp, as punishment for her brother’s escape to England. He later served in the RAF. I never saw either of my friends again.

And, instead of dancing and being gay I mourned my friends. The days grew darker and fear gathered in my mind.

High school ended for me and I was barred from continuing academic study. Instead, I entered a residential agricultural school where I learned how to take care of a garden, how to sew (I hated it), cook for sixty people, kill chickens (I couldn’t do it), milk cows (I failed) and make cheese, among other things.

I felt that my anticipated life had been derailed and I was being deprived of much in life.

The German “Protector” of Czechoslovakia, Heidrich, was assassinated by paratroopers, who were dropped from England. A ruthless hunt for the killers ensued and a period of cruel reprisals followed. Two villages near Prague, where the paratroopers found brief refuge, were leveled to the ground and their entire male population exterminated. Subsequently 10,000, randomly selected innocent people from the whole country were shot, one by one, and their names were systematically broadcast at for a month. Two of my parents’ friends were among them.

In this harrowing period, afraid who might be killed next, I felt angry and, perhaps unjustly, started disliking everything German, even the great and famous like Wagner, Goethe and Schiller.

My parents were denounced to the Gestapo for listening to foreign broadcasts (true), talking against the Germans (true), and hoarding food (not true). The Gestapo thoroughly searched the house but our loyal live-in maid saved us by denying everything.

I was no longer eager to enjoy myself; I only wanted my parents to live. I only wanted all this madness to end.

After the Normandy invasion, Allied planes regularly flew over my city, but their aim was another target. Every day, exactly at sirens blared and we rushed into an air raid shelter, while my mother, a volunteer nurse, reported elsewhere. We were jubilant until the first time the Allied planes bombed our city railroad system. Then, panic settled in.

I still clung to hope but feared I was trapped in a prison from which there was no escape.

Today, lost in memories about my teenage dreams, I feel lucky that my family and I survived, bruised, but still alive.

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