My cousin Frantisek: A wounded hero

We wondered whether our mother had any idea what a Nazi witch her wonderful governess had turned out to be.

THE BATHHOUSES of the Luhacovice Spa at the turn ofthe 20th century (photo credit: BENJAMIN TICHO)
THE BATHHOUSES of the Luhacovice Spa at the turn ofthe 20th century
(photo credit: BENJAMIN TICHO)
The skyline of Brno, the second largest city in the Czech Republic, is dominated by two hills. One is topped by the city’s cathedral, an imposing red brick building with two very tall spires. The other hill is called the Spielberg, which in German, rather ironically, means amusement hill. This hill is covered by a very pretty park with lots of walks, paths and benches, and is topped by the Spielberg Fortress.
One of my grammar school’s trips in the 1930s, which each class took, was a visit to this old fortress built in the Middle Ages. There were some very scary things to see during this visit that frightened us and gave us nightmares for days thereafter.
In one part of the fortress we climbed down into a dungeon with many little cells where prisoners used to be locked up. There also was an adjoining torture chamber. Here a guide would describe, in greater detail than we wished, how prisoners used to be tortured.
We learned about the rack where people were stretched till all their joints broke; the “Iron Lady,” into which prisoners were forced while spikes pierced their body; the Iron Mask that would destroy a man’s eyes; the “water torture,” where a prisoner had drops of water fall on his head till he went insane, and many others. The lecture was topped off with a visit to the chopping block where prisoner’s heads were cut off. I still remember how frightened we all were and how glad we were when we reached daylight once again.
It was to this fortress in April 1939 to which our father and Uncle Paul, his younger brother and business partner, were sent after they were arrested by the Gestapo, the German secret police. Remembering the torture chamber, we were very concerned what fate awaited a prisoner in the Spielberg Fortress, and we imagined all kinds of horrors that our father might be subjected to. Nothing that we imagined was as bad as what actually awaited Jews later under the Nazi regime.
We heard very little from our father. Every once in a while a prisoner who had been released would let us know that father and Uncle Paul were alive, surviving, and getting along as best as they could. One prisoner even smuggled a pencil drawing of our father out the jail when he was released.
Our family kept going to the Gestapo offices to see what could be done to get father and Uncle Paul released. It was suggested that if they would sign away their business, perhaps a release might be arranged. The Ticho Brothers business was signed over to the German authorities, and a former salesman, who was a member of the Nazi Party, was now made boss of the business. Unfortunately, this did not result in father’s release. We continued to wait and hope but heard the very bad news that they both were sent to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany.
Some of our family members managed to get out. Aunt Irma (Rivka), father’s youngest sister, left with her two sons, Kurt and Fritz, (Itzchak and Aaron) for the land that became Israel. The Rooz family left for the United States. My cousin Olga Schick (a daughter of Sara and Isidor Reiniger) and her husband, Max, departed for the United States with their children. Lisa Weiss (the daughter of Uncle David) and her husband and daughter left for Australia. Suzy (Heinrich’s daughter) and husband also departed, as did cousin Otto and his family. Cousin Anna departed for Uruguay, cousin Trude for India.
OUR FAMILY, all of whom once lived all in one small circle, was now scattered all over the world.
Sadly, many could not leave and were stuck in Brno: Uncle David and his wife, Uncle Jacob and his wife, the wife and children of Uncle Paul, Lilly Ticho, Uncle and Aunt Reiniger, and of course, my brother and I were all trapped in Brno. Of all those left in the grip of Nazis at the end of 1940, only cousin Lilly survived. All the rest were killed in the Holocaust.
The summer of 1939 came and there still was no news regarding father’s or Uncle Paul’s possible release. Our mother would write to us regularly from Switzerland asking us to be good boys, and expressing the hope to see us soon. Her letters were full of praise for our governess – calling her loyal, dependable, honest, responsible, caring, etc. We hated to hear all this praise, and wondered whether our mother had any idea what a Nazi witch her wonderful governess had turned out to be.
What we did not realize at that time was that mother’s praise was, most likely, her desperate way of trying to ensure our well-being and to assure that Miss Gusti Miksch would not cause us any harm. Mother’s letters would also contain news of what was being done to obtain father’s release. Most of the time, these efforts ended in failure.
It was decided that my little brother, Steven, and I would spend the 1939 summer in the well-known Luhacovice health spa with my cousins Frantisek and Renatka (Uncle Paul’s children). Frantisek was a couple of years younger than I was, but he was in many ways much tougher and self-assured. One did not mess with Frantisek. He was always ready to defend his honor.
He also was very good in sports and did not seem frightened of anything. He was always the first to climb over a fence, to climb a tree, or to lead when leadership was needed. Even though he was younger and smaller than I was, I always had a lot of respect for him and a little fear.
I don’t remember too much about this 1939 summer in Luhacovice, except for one incident in which Frantisek and I got into a rock-throwing battle with a group of Czech kids who called us dirty and antisemitic names. Frantisek, true to his style, would not take this without a fight even though there were four of them and just two of us.
Fortunately, the fight took place on a slope with us holding the high ground. That gave us a distinct tactical advantage. The rock throwing went on for a while until, suddenly, one of Frantisek’s rocks found the head of one of the boys at the bottom of the hill. His head promptly started bleeding rather profusely. The injured boy started to cry and ran off. The rest of the boys also retreated.
“We won!” I rejoiced at the victory but, to my great shock, Frantisek burst into tears and ran for home. For the first time I realized that under his tough exterior, there still was a small boy.
When summer ended, we left Luhacovice and I never saw Frantisek ever again. My cousin Lilly told me that Frantisek was in a slave labor camp up to 1945 and the end of the war. As the Russian Army approached the camp, word spread in the camp that the guards plan to kill all the Jews before retreating. Ever the leader, Frantisek organized an escape and was shot and killed during the attempt. The Nazi guards fled when the Russians arrived.
All of the other prisoners survived.