A cargo ship with Czechoslovak soldiers and refugees

What are the odds that two Jewish refugee children evacuated from France would meet 78 years later in Seattle? After Peter Curtis gave a talk at Seattle’s Holocaust Center for Humanity, Robert Stern contacted him. Stern suspected their experiences had a common background. They met over lunch at Nickerson Street Saloon, not realizing how intertwined their stories were. 

Peter’s family ran a store in Old Town, Prague, selling British fabrics for suits, dresses, and coats. When the Nazis occupied the city, Peter’s father was arrested as a British spy but was released six weeks later. Using counterfeit Hungarian passports, the family paid a smuggler to drive them across Germany to Holland. After being robbed and enduring terrifying moments, wrong turns, and endless train rides, they made it to Paris. By then, the Germans were about to invade Holland and Belgium, and there was no way to get out of France. War was declared. The family was penniless. At the Czech Legion in Paris, Peter’s father was offered a deal to join the Czechoslovak army-in-exile and fight with the French. Peter’s father traveled south to join 10,000 Czechoslovak regulars and volunteers at a military camp at Agde on the Mediterranean coast. Three-year-old Peter and his mother stayed in a small village near the military camp.

Czechoslovak soldiers, guests at the Sterns’ Passover seder in Agde, France, in 1940

 Meanwhile, in May 1939, two months after the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, 6-year-old Robert, his mother, and sister left the town of Trnava, Czechoslovakia, to meet his father, who had been on a business trip to the United States selling embroidered peasant blouses. He had brought gifts for them: US visas! But their emigration plan was stymied: no ferries, frontiers closed, U-boats patrolling the Channel, and no steamship crossings. The family moved from Trieste to Genoa, Amiens, Libourne, and Bordeaux, until Robert’s father was arrested on the Spanish frontier as an enemy alien. He was offered two options: Stay in prison or volunteer for the Czech army-in-exile in France. Like Peter’s father, he agreed to join up and fight with the French. Robert’s family relocated to Agde.

Here the two stories begin to merge. After Dunkirk and the fall of France on June 22, the Czech army-in-exile, a few Czech soldiers’ families (including Peter, Robert, and their parents), and thousands of refugees rushed to the port of Sète in sweltering heat and boarded British cargo ships headed for Gibraltar. Peter and Robert and their mothers sailed on the same coal freighter — the SS Northmoor — where they shared a four-berth cabin with other women and children. Thirteen hundred other passengers slept on the coal in the hold. Five days later, they were transferred to the SS Neuralia, an ocean liner headed for Liverpool. The journey lasted three weeks, sailing more than halfway to New York and doubling back to the UK to avoid Nazi submarines.

In England, both fathers ended up at the same Czech army camp in Cheshire. Peter’s father transferred into the British Army and was part of the invasion force that liberated Brussels from the Germans. Robert’s father joined the army, too; after the war he brought his family to America.

Robert Stern’s first day at a French school in Agde in 1940

 

As they sat talking in the pub, the coincidences grew more striking: two German-speaking Jewish families from Czechoslovakia, two fathers in the clothing business, two families in France when WWII started, two fathers who volunteered for the Czechoslovak army in the same French camp. Two mothers and their sons evacuated together on the floor of the same freighter cabin. Two boys who were given the same English lessons on the ocean liner, and then the ultimate coincidence: two old Jewish fellers meeting in Seattle, only now realizing how they had shared the same path 78 years earlier.

Peter Curtis, a retired doctor, is the author of The Dragontail Buttonhole and Café Budapest. Robert Stern, a retired Boeing computer analyst, is a screenwriter with a script in production.

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