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Berta Smetana's postcard sent on the day war started

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posted on 2024-06-05, 18:11 authored by Their Finest Hour Project Team

My mother, Lucy Fowler née Smetana (1919-2003), was a Viennese Jew who fled to England in 1938 to escape Nazi persecution. I was born shortly after the Second World War, but knew little of my background, as my mother rarely spoke of it. I was, however, aware that some members of my family, including my grandmother, had died in the Holocaust. In January 1995, I started to research my family history, and discovered that my mother had surviving family around the world. In a very short time, I traced her five living first cousins, three in Australia and two in America. A sixth cousin, an aunt and two uncles had died only fairly recently.

I asked my mother if she had any photos from her childhood and she said yes, there was an old brown album somewhere in her house. I searched high and low for hours, but could not find it. Eventually I discovered the photos in a new red album. She had forgotten that she had transferred them. The album was lying on a small table just beside the chair in which she spent most of her time. Among the photos were several of my grandmother, and I found myself looking into a mirror. This woman in the photos looked just like me, or rather, I looked just like her. My mother was reluctant to accept this, as she had not always had a good relationship with her mother. But at least I now knew that her name was Berta Smetana, and her image continued to haunt me. What kind of person was this woman, whom I resembled so strongly? I desperately wanted to find something out about her and to know what had happened to her. Strangely, I had a feeling I would find out...

After my mother died in 2003, I had to clear out her house. The very last thing I found was a box of postcards, dating from 1903 to 1938, which she had collected as a child. There were several written by my grandparents and even one from my great-grandfather Josef Smetana. Of particular interest was a postcard sent from France by my grandmother on 3 September 1939, the day war was declared. It was addressed to my mother, by then in Nottingham, England, and studying to become a nurse. Berta had fled from Vienna in early 1939 with her mother, brother and daughter, my aunt Sonja, and somehow, the family had become separated.

The card, translated, reads in English:
"3 IX 39"
"My dear, precious little Lucie,
"I am desperate as I have had no mail from you for two weeks now. I have been travelling for 24 hours and have just ended up here. If I don't find little Sonja (Sonjali) soon, I may not find her perhaps for months, because the evaluation is kept secret. I don't know where Omi (granny) is either.
"Lucie, for your birthday I wish you every good thing, and above all health, health, and once again health. I shall send you a present from Paris.
"Write straight away Paris, 24 Bld. Malesherbes
"It may take another day or two until I arrive there.
"Warm and loving kisses from your Mummy."
Berta was clearly desperate to find her own mother, Cäcilie, and daughter, Sonja, but equally anxious about the safety of her other daughter in England. It would seem that Cäcilie (who later died whilst on the run), and Sonja, eleven at the time, had been taken in for interrogation and that Berta did not know their whereabouts. Her state of anxiety is palpable and for good reason. Berta and Sonja were murdered in Auschwitz. But, generations later, they were not forgotten.

In 2014, American artist and academic Karen Frostig organised a year-long event in Vienna called the Vienna Project, to commemorate all Viennese lives lost in the Holocaust. The Closing Ceremony, broadcast around the world, was held on 18 October 2014 at the Hofburg Palace in central Vienna. Here four of the descendants of different victim groups read letters from their ancestors. Amongst them, my 10-year old granddaughter Faith (who happens to be black), read the postcard sent from France by Berta, her great great grandmother, to Lucy, her great grandmother, on 3 September 1939. A truly memorable event.


Item list and details

1. Postcard (back) from Berta Smetana to her daughter, Lucy, written from Paris on 3 September 1939 2. Postcard (front) from Berta Smetana to her daughter, Lucy, written from Paris on 3 September 1939 3. Translation by Margret Vince of postcard into English and in original German 4. Photo of Faith Bayode, aged 10, reading her great-great-grandmother's postcard at Hofburg Palace on 18 October 2014 5. Photo of Faith Bayode, aged 10, on the stage at the Hofburg Palace, with Roma descendent on 18 October 2014 6. Photo of Berta Smetana taken in Vienna c.1930s 7. Photo of Sonja and Lucy Smetana taken in Vienna early 1930s 8. Photo of Lucy, Berta and Sonja Smetana taken in Vienna mid 1930s

Person the story/items relate to

Berta Smetana, Lucy Fowler née Smetana and Faith Eliora Bayode

Person who shared the story/items

Susan Soyinka

Relationship between the subject of the story and its contributor

My grandmother, my mother and my granddaughter

Type of submission

Shared online via the Their Finest Hour project website.

Record ID