As I gaze at my four children on Christmas morning, clambering on to the bed with their stockings, I will think of one particular person to whom, in a roundabout way, they owe their lives. He was a colonel in World War One and, had it not been for his generosity, my children, their mother, her brothers and sisters, their children, their aunts, uncles and cousins — the entire Bondy clan, in fact — would not exist.
The story begins in 1918, as the conflict was nearing its end. Karel Bondy, my wife’s paternal grandfather, was a young Czech officer in the Austro-Hungarian army who had miraculously survived heavy fighting in Albania. He was on his way back to barracks from the front line one evening when he encountered a drunk German colonel, slumped in the saddle of his horse. Karel did the decent thing and asked the officer if he could be of any assistance. Turned out he was lost. Could Karel help him find his quarters? Karel took the horse’s bridle and steered the colonel to his tent.
When they arrived, Karel tried to take his leave but the Oberst wouldn’t hear of it. He sat Karel down and insisted they have a drink together. One drink led to another, and at the end of the night the colonel decided to reward Karel for his act of kindness. He reached for a small wooden box under his bed, pulled out an Iron Cross and pinned it to Karel’s tunic. ‘This is for you, in recognition of your outstanding gallantry,’ he said. Naturally, Karel protested, but to no avail. Not only did the colonel stop him giving it back, he reached into the box again and pulled out a certificate which he completed and handed to him. ‘Now it’s official,’ he said.
Not long afterwards, the war ended and Karel returned to Prague, where he embarked on a career as a lawyer. By the late 1930s, he had prospered. He was happily married to a woman called Frania and they had two children, Sasha and Ivo. In addition to his thriving legal practice, he owned an apartment building, and the income provided him and his family with a good lifestyle. His ‘souvenir’ from World War One sat in an envelope in the desk of his home office, along with the certificate, untouched for 20 years.
Then, on March 15, 1939, the Nazis invaded the Czech provinces of Bohemia and Moravia and the streets of Prague were suddenly full of jackboots. Karel, like the other Jewish residents, quickly realized that he and his family were in mortal danger. He started liquidating his assets and planned to relocate to England along with his wife and two sons. But to leave Czechoslovakia he needed four exit visas, and you couldn’t get these without the blessing of the newly installed German authorities. He submitted his application and awaited an interview.
He was expecting to be summoned to Nazi headquarters, but instead two Gestapo officers turned up at his house one Saturday afternoon. Karel was accused of being a British spy, and he and Frania looked on in horror as the officers ransacked their home looking for secret documents. They broke precious knick-knacks, smashed the children’s toys and started emptying the contents of their drawers on the floor. Karel thought he and his family were done for.
Then, what should spill out of the bottom drawer of his desk but the envelope containing the Iron Cross. One Gestapo officer tore it open and discovered the medal. ‘How did you get this?’ he demanded. ‘I was given it for gallantry during the war,’ Karel replied. The officer didn’t believe him — how could a Jew have been awarded such a high distinction? — but Karel told him to examine the certificate and, sure enough, there was his name in black ink. The officer summoned his colleague over and together they marveled at the medal that they both longed for. ‘How much do you want for it?’ one of them demanded. At this point, Karel had to think on his feet. Should he use the Iron Cross to bribe them to authorize the exit visas?
‘I’m sorry,’ he said, striding over and taking the medal back. ‘I cannot part with it. I was proud to serve my country and I accepted that on behalf of the men in my unit, many of whom were not as fortunate as I. Some things in life just aren’t for sale.’
This speech impressed the Gestapo officers — they were clearly dealing with a bona fide war hero. Their demeanor began to change and they even made a half-hearted effort to clean up the mess they’d made. They explained, almost apologetically, that there were British spies in Prague and they were just doing their job. Rubber stamps and ink pads were quickly produced and the exit documents authorized.
Karel made plans to leave Prague immediately, but Frania wanted to wait for her sister, whose husband had also applied for exit visas for them and their two children. Karel thought that was too dangerous. War could break out at any minute, at which point leaving the country would become harder, if not impossible. So he put his foot down. They left Prague, made their way to England via Rotterdam, and settled down to start a new life. Frania never saw her sister or her niece and nephew again.
It’s almost certain that if Karel and his family had remained in Prague, they would have died in the camps. The Jewish population of Bohemia and Moravia — some 117,551, according to the 1930 census — was virtually annihilated. Most were sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp and from there about 88,000 were deported to Auschwitz and other extermination camps. It’s estimated that 15,000 children were housed in the children’s home within Theresienstadt, of whom 93 survived. It’s doubtful that Ivo Bondy, my father-in-law, would have been among them.
Thank God for that drunk colonel: an unlikely Schindler who cannot have had any idea of the true value of the gift he bestowed upon that young Czech officer. But he was the savior of my wife’s family and I will be raising a glass to him this Christmas.