Josef Cermák: Two episodes from a monstrous age

Rubrika: Publicistika – Zajímavosti


The Power of Good....Petr Benes 
The first episode: an evenig of reminiscing  in connection with the 100  birthday of Nicholas Winton, prepared by the Consulate General of the Czech Republic in Toronto in cooperation with the British Consulate-General in Toronto and Czech Tourism Canada, at the occasion of the Czech Presidency of the EuroNicholas Winton pean Union.
The second episode: The yelow David star of Peter Benes The two episodes are both joined and divided by time. Joined, because the departure of the "Winton children" (one of them was Joe Schlesinger) and the leaving of the then already occupied Prague, by Peter C. Newman and Hana Gartner for the free world, and Peter Benes's deportation (for the life of me I cannot recall the first name of my best friend at the latin school, so I christened him "Peter") came about roughly the same time. And divided because, while the remarkable evening on March 26, 2009 at Innes College in Toronto celebrating Niholas Winton's birthday, was attended by Joe Schlesinger, Peter C. Newman and Hana Gartner - Peter Benes, with millions of others perished in the orgy of the Nazi madness in the first years of the fourth decade of the last century. And somehow I hear in my head Robert Frost's famous verses about two roads (our two episodes also speak about two roads, one leading west and the other to Auschwitz) and of course none of our today's heroes was free to choose the road he or she would wish to travel...

How we escaped Hitler

The evening of reminiscences began with remarks by the Consul General of the Czech Republic in Toronto, Richard Krpac, the initiator of the project. The project, in which also participated other members of the Consulate General,Richard Krpač the Consul Jirí Slais, Radka Metelková and probably most extensively, Michaela Václavíková, who - as I learned from Mr. Krpac - came up with the idea of
inviting other 'Winton's children' living in Ontario, as well as his remarks, showed Krpac's rare ability to choose a moment and cloth it with a garb of  permanency. The title of the evening alone commands attention: How we escaped from Hitler. Another Krpac's talent is to force a microphone to produce  a respectable (and sometimes extraordinary) level of audibility which is not as easy as it might at
the first glance seem. In the interview which followed - reminiscences of Joe Schlesinger and Peter C. Newman on war, childhood and escape - only Hana Gartner, who acted as host, succeeded.

An excellent cast: Joe Schlesinger, for many years the CBC chief political correspondent in Ottawa, executive producer of the National and creator of special documentaries, including the Power of Good, recipient of four Geminies and holder of the highest Canadian civilian award, Companion of the Order of Canada; Peter C. Newman, one of Canada's most distinguished journalists, the chronicler of Canadian business dynasties such as the Hudson's Bay Company, Conrad Black and the Titans, editor of the Star and MacLean's, recipient of many honours, including  Companion of the Order of Canada; Hana Gartner, one of Canada's most successful TV personalities - she has won three Gemini Awards and in 1995 (the year she debuted as as host of CBC-TV's The Magazine) the Best Host
Award. Presently, she is best known as contributor of stories to The Fifth Estate. The toughest question Gartner asked - not only her guests but in fact all and no one was: what must have felt the mothers of the children they broght to Winton for a trip, the destination of which they could not know but had to expect the worst? What horror forced them to make a decision for mothers so desperate?

The documentary orf Matej Minac (written and narrated by Joe Schlesinger) is a celebration of the life of Nicholas Winton, one of those Englishmen who unexpectedly appear from nowhere and noiselessly and as a matter of course do something no one else has even thought about and if someone has, wouldn't have the courage to do it. Those of us who remember March 1939, the arrogance of the Nazi armies, occupying the pitiful wreck of Czechoslovakia, and who knew nothing  about Winton's action even today can't comprehend how this unassuming British stockbroker managed to "transfer" from the Nazi occupied Prague 669 Jewish children to Liverpool. For deades none of the children knew who saved their lives. Not even Winton's wife knew it - Winton did not think the matter serious enough to tell her. Fortunately, the world learned about it in time to thank him. Václav Havel honoured him with the Order of T.G. Masaryk and Queen Elizabeth II knighted him (it doesn't appear that these honours derailed him). A pleasantly sentimental ending of the first episode.

The second episode - The yelow David

star of Petr Benes Petr Benes
was my class mate at the latin school in Slaný. While I was diminutive and thin, Petr was plump. Really plump. His parents were well-to-do merchants (iron) and owned a block of houses close to the railway station. They viewed their son's friendship with me rather favourably: I appeared to them as on the  whole harmless, reasonably well  brought-up creature who might inspire their son to a greater effort at school. Because I lived in a village and in winter could not commute on bicycle, Peter's parents invited me to wait for my bus studying at their home with Petr. I admit that before my first visit from somewhere deep in my subconscience emerged an ancient superstition that Jews crave Christian blood and I entered the Benes home with mixed feelings of fear and curiosity. I was almost disappointed when intead of having my neck cut, I was invited to a first-class meal.

Our friendship grew and blossomed. Then Chamberlain signed the Munich Agreement and a few months later the Nazi armies occupied our country. I saw them marching along the Slaný city hall. It was an ugly, rainy March day. I cried with with powerless rage. For a while it seemed that the worst might not happen. But as days and weeks passed, the last glimmers of hope faded away. Every day Petr was quieter and more subdued. Once, when he did not come to school for several days, I went to see him. I found him in front of his home. On his jacket glared a yellow David star. We talked for a few minutes and then Peter said:"You better go. You mustn't be seen with Jews." I never saw him again. After the war the only member of the Benes family (there were five of them) who returned from Ausshwitz was Petr's mother. She had mad eyes and on her face sat an unreadable grimace. So ended the second episode from the monstrous age.


John FreundHello Mr Cermak,

I did some research to find a Benes who may fit your desription (you say that you were not sure of his first name).
In the Terezinska Pametni Kniha, there is a Vladimir Benes, born 5.4. 1924. 
He was deported from Prague ( Slana is not far ) in October 1942 and was in Terezin till December 1943 and then was sent ( I was on the same transport) to Auschwitz. There he was in the so called "Familienlager". 
There is no furher news about him other than he perished. From the same transport to Terezin, Marta Benesova (also sent to Auschwitz in December 1943) survived. She was probably Vladimir's mother.
Thanks for your very thoughtful artcile in the Satelite.

John Freund

Tento článek byl v Pozitivních novinách poprvé publikován 18. 04. 2009.