The girl from Prague

"You were the girl from Prague who got out of Soviet occupied Czechoslovakia in the 1960s. We all admired you for your tremendous courage.”

Jana and her sister Eva with their parents, at her father’s newspaper office in Prague, in 1958, reflected in the glass of his desk (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jana and her sister Eva with their parents, at her father’s newspaper office in Prague, in 1958, reflected in the glass of his desk
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Jerusalem is a city full of serendipitous encounters. Within a few short years of living here, I have reconnected with people whose paths have crossed mine over the decades in different countries. One such encounter occurred two years ago when my wife and I were invited to neighbors for Friday night dinner. We arrived a little earlier and were introduced to a couple who got there even earlier than we did. They were introduced to us as Marcel and Jana Marcus. Almost immediately I noticed their distinctive European accents. Suddenly as the woman was talking, I had a flashback to 1971, when I was a newly arrived foreign student in London.
“I remember you,” I blurted out. “You’re from Prague. I met you in Golders Green, in the early ’70s.”
Jana was a little taken aback but then confirmed that she was indeed from Prague. A few decades had passed since we last met. She still had the same elegant appearance with her dark hair and olive skinned complexion.
She reminded me that her family name was Natanova and the memories came flooding back.
“How on earth did you remember me?” she asked.
“Because,” I said, “you made an indelible impression on all of us. You were the girl from Prague who got out of Soviet occupied Czechoslovakia in the 1960s. We all admired you for your tremendous courage.” Later on that evening after we’d all got to know each other a little better, I added, “You were also a very good-looking young woman.” I tried not to embarrass her too much. She laughed and her husband smiled. “But it wasn’t just your appearance, it was also your bearing, your sense of confidence and dignity despite everything you’d been through.”
Ironically, Jana and Marcel live in a Jerusalem neighborhood that is quite close by to me. They are also the owners of a well-known bookstore on Shlomzion Hamalka St. in downtown Jerusalem. This was Israel’s first quality bookstore founded in 1908 by Ludwig Mayer, who hailed from Berlin.
I was fascinated to know more about Jana’s story. Our acquaintance in London was very fleeting and I was always curious to know more about her life, her family and her history. Recently I watched a documentary about the events that took place in Prague in August 1968. It dawned on me that it is 50 years since the Warsaw Pact armies invaded Czechoslovakia. I thought of Jana and decided to contact her for an interview. She graciously agreed to meet and to share her memories of those momentous events over a coffee.
Jana was born in Prague on February 2, 1948, three weeks before an unarmed revolution when the Communists took over Czechoslovakia.
“I assure you, I had nothing to do with that revolution,” she joked, as she sipped her drink. I asked her to tell me a little about her family. Rather shockingly, she explained that her parents had met in the Terezin concentration camp north of Prague. Her father, ing.František Natan, was born in Prague to Jewish parents and raised in a very assimilated family. Her mother, Leopoldine Storper, grew up in Vienna in a traditional Jewish family. She was deported in October 1942 and sent to Terezin, where she was assigned to the same work detail in the camp as Jana’s father, ing.František. He had been deported one year previously in December 1941 with the second transport of Czech Jews. There they fell in love. After they were liberated, they both returned to their home cities. Leopoldine eventually decided to join ing.František in Prague. Despite the 18-year age difference they decided to get married.
“My mother was looking for a father figure who would look after her and protect her, and my father was looking for a young woman who could have children because that was very important after the Shoah. He wanted to show the world that they had survived.”
She went on to explain that she had a sister, Eva, who was two years younger than her.
“There were no more children after that because of the purges against Jews in Czechoslavkia. My father decided that it was too dangerous to have more children. The future for Jews was uncertain because of the prevailing antisemitic stance adopted by the Communist government.”
At the time, Jana’s father worked for a Communist newspaper and actually lost his job because of his Jewish origins. Later, one of his fellow inmates from Terezin, who had ascended the Communist hierarchy, spoke in his favor and he became the director of the main Trade Union newspaper. Jana’s mother had been completely deprived of an education in Vienna. At the age of 12 she was thrown out of school because she was Jewish. When she got back to Vienna she was 18 years old with no qualifications or education. For the first few years of her marriage she took care of her husband and daughters, and when Jana was 12 she got a job with the Czech Radio service in a department that prepared propaganda broadcasts in German, which was also her mother tongue.
Jana then began to talk about her earliest memories. She explained that her childhood was quite a happy one.
“I had friends, I had my family and we had enough to eat, even though meat was always in short supply, but this did not bother me,” she said.
The family lived in Prague 7 where many Jews lived. The suburb had been a popular Jewish neighborhood before the war. Thousands of Jews were deported from Prague and sent to their deaths. When the war ended some of those lucky enough to have survived came back and moved into the vacant apartments. Jana attended an elementary school and many of her classmates were Jewish; however, she did not know this at the time. Jews kept a low profile and did not reveal their origins for fear of discrimination. I asked Jana about her memories of growing up in Prague.
“My father was a Czech nationalist and a Communist. He was a highly intelligent man who spoke nine languages. I was very close to my father and was also very proud to be Czech. I wore my red scarf and became an active member and youth leader of the communist youth groups at the time. On the weekends we would go for walks through the beautiful parks of the city and my father would tell me all about the famous monuments in Prague, including the legendary Hradčany Castle.”
She went on to explain that Jews were sometimes victims of antisemitic attacks and how one day the family came home to find the front door of the house daubed with dog excrement with the words “Natan is a Jew, Natanova is a Jewess” crudely written across the front. This disturbed Jana greatly and she confronted her father. He explained to her that despite the incident, the Communists still believed in complete equality in society and that it did not make a difference whether you were a Jew, a Christian, a Chinese person or a black person. Jana believed him and accepted his explanation. Throughout her growing up she was hardly aware of her Jewish heritage. Then one day, as she and her father went for one of their walks, he suddenly stopped and turned to her and told her that when she grew up he wanted her to marry someone Jewish. She was somewhat taken aback and confronted him again about the inconsistency of what he was asking, pointing out that their socialist ideals enshrined the idea that all men are equal.
“Yes, you are right.” He said. “But I still want you to marry a Jew.”
The only connections to the family’s Jewish past came up when she and her father paid an annual visit to the Jewish cemetery to visit the graves of her grandparents and great-grandparents. This was followed by a visit to “Uncle Pavel,” who lived nearby. He was not a real uncle but a close friend. He had lost his entire family in Auschwitz, including his beloved young daughter, Jana, after whom Jana was named.
At the age of 15, Jana joined a group of young intellectuals. She began to write poetry. One of the members invited her to a Purim party at the Jewish Community Centre at the Jewish Town Hall. When she got there she was amazed to find a large group of youngsters many of whom were already known to her except she had no idea that they were Jewish. Individuals in the group developed a strong bond and have remained friends until this day.
When Jana turned 18, her mother bought her a specially made gold Star of David. A year later in June, the Six Day War broke out. Jana was in the middle of her final high school exams. Her mother begged her to keep the Magen David hidden while she sat the exams. She was afraid of the rising anti-Israel sentiment in the country and did not want Jana to identify herself as a Jew. Nevertheless, Jana was defiant and determined. She described how she continued to attend Jewish gatherings at the Jewish Center on Saturday afternoons. On one occasion there was a representative of the Secret Police standing outside. He asked her where she was going and she told him she was visiting the Jewish Community Center.
“He asked me to tell him who else was there. And I said to him: if you want to know you had better come up with me! Naturally, he declined.”
After her father’s death in 1965, Jana was invited by one of her father’s friends to be an au pair with a Scottish family in Glasgow. This was not completely unusual as many young Czech women wanted to learn English. She described how the Macintosh family welcomed her into their home to look after their two young boys. She had very little money and relied on the family to provide her with board and lodging. The family were kind to her and took her on outings, but she never really got to experience a true sense of Western freedom. The fact that her family was still in Prague was the State’s guarantee that she would return. After graduating from high school in the spring of 1967, Jana got a job at the Czech Radio and worked as a typist using her newly acquired English language skills.
In September of the same year things began to change in Czechoslovakia. Students began demonstrating throughout the country. They were demanding better conditions and student facilities. By January 1968, Dubcek became the head of the Communist Party and the whole Prague Spring movement took on a new momentum. Jana remembers attending one of the rallies headed by Smrkovsky, a leading politician at that time. One of the students stood up and asked him what would happen if there was a Soviet invasion from the East. He calmly replied that there was far more likelihood of an invasion from the West and that Czechoslovakia was not at all threatened by their Soviet brothers!
By this time people in Czechoslovakia were becoming more aware of the tyranny of the Soviet regime. Young people, including Jana, got hold of books by radical authors, including Alexander Solzhentisyn’s “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” They started to question the moral rectitude of the Soviet regime and their tarnished human rights reputation.
On the morning of August 21, 1968, Leopoldine Natanova was woken at 3:00 a.m. by a phone call from her boss at the radio station. She answered the phone only to be told that the Warsaw Pact armies had invaded Czechoslovakia.
“I heard the commotion,” Jana said. “I came to find out what was happening and my mother and I looked out of the window. We lived only one block away from the main road and we could hear the frightening noise of tanks rolling in and warplanes flying above. It was terrifying and my mother was summoned at once to meet with her boss and colleagues at a hidden location because the radio station was one of the first places to be taken over by the Soviets.”
From then on Jana began to take an active role in the student protest movement.
“I went to a demonstration outside the Central Committee Party headquarters where the Soviet snipers were aiming at us. I remember lying on the ground outside in the street where the snipers were shooting. It was quite terrifying.”
She told me how she met up with some of the student demonstration organizers in an apartment where they secretly prepared posters and banners. “We would then take these out in the middle of the night and put them up in the streets of Prague.”
Not long after the invasion her mother decided that it would be in Jana’s best interests to get out of Czechoslovakia.
“The future was too uncertain and my mother worried that I would not be able to start my studies and even have a future in Czechoslovakia.”
Because of her previous stays in the UK, she had no difficulty in getting a visa to go back to Britain. She managed to secure herself another au pair position, this time in London.
“I remember saying goodbye to my mother at the station. I somehow knew that I would not be coming back and it was quite an emotional parting.”
The consequences of Jana’s leaving Czechoslovakia on an exit visa were not good for her mother and sister. Like the families of the Refuseniks in Soviet Russia, they both lost their jobs.
Meanwhile, she arrived in Vienna and met many other young Czech refugees, including some of her friends, all of whom were trying to escape from their home country.
“People were sharing advice about how to get free handouts, hot food, soup and vouchers for money. I was determined not to get caught up in this kind of refugee life. I wanted to get to London as quickly as possible so that I could start a new life there and complete my education.”
Jana arrived at Victoria Station in London with two suitcases and three British pounds in her pocket. She called the host family from a pay phone and they told her to take a taxi to Hampstead Garden Suburb near Golders Green.
“They were a non-Jewish family from South Africa. He was a journalist and they had two badly behaved very spoiled sons. It was a very different experience from my previous position with the Macintoshes in Glasgow.”
She soon connected with the AJR (Association for Jewish Refugees). Its role was to help newcomers to get started in their new life in England. By now Jana had developed a real thirst for knowledge about Judaism and Jewish life. She had already started learning Hebrew in secret in Prague, but she knew almost nothing about Jewish history, heritage or religion. She was amazed to learn that it was possible to study these subjects at UCL (University College London).
“The AJR encouraged me; however, when I applied they asked me for proof that I had graduated from high school. I was not allowed to bring any of these documents with me and so I could not prove that I had graduated from high school. In the end I had to write down all my subjects and grades on a piece of paper, and on the strength of this, they allowed me to be admitted to my first year.”
Initially Jana had to work and study at the same time.
“My hosts were not happy and resented the fact that I was studying at a university, taking time away from them and their children.”
Eventually the AJR intervened. Jana left the South African family and moved to the nearby suburb of Muswell Hill where the AJR placed her with an ‘empty nester’ couple, Mr. and Mrs. Hertz.
“They were wonderful people. They had both come to England as young refugees from Germany. They immediately took me under their wing. I began to experience for the first time what it was like to live with a real Jewish family. They were not Orthodox, but warm traditional Jewish people who took me to synagogue and provided a wonderful experience of what it was like to live a Jewish life.”
I asked Jana whether she was able to maintain contact with her mother and sister. She described how in December 1968, on her mother’s birthday, she went to the main Post Office in Trafalgar Square to book a call to Prague. She had very little money but had saved up for this special occasion. She waited there for two hours only to be told that the call had been blocked on the Czech side. On one or two occasions her mother and sister where allowed to visit her in London and they were allowed to correspond with each other.
“All letters were censored and I remember noticing where the envelopes had been slit open,” she told me.
Later on in her life, after her marriage to her French-born husband Marcel, she acquired French citizenship and was then able to fly to Berlin. There she was able to obtain a one day visa to enter East Berlin, where her mother would travel to meet her. Her husband was the son of German Jews. Though he was born in Paris he was raised in West Berlin.
“When my first son was born, I would travel to West Berlin with him and walk across the Friedrichstrasse Crossing into East Berlin, where his grandmother met her grandson for the first time and where we were allowed to spend the day together.”
It took 21 years until Jana was allowed to go back to Prague after the fall of Communism. In the meantime, Marcel who studied at the Leo Baeck Institute in London had become a rabbi. He and Jana met at one of the Jewish study groups at the Institute. Marcel was closely involved with Rabbi Louis Jacobs, who later founded the Masorti movement in the UK. At the time he was the rabbi of his own independent synagogue, the New London in St. John’s Wood. They were married in 1972.
Marcel then found a position as rabbi of the Reform community in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in the northeast of England, where two of their sons were born.
“Ever since my first visit to Israel, I wanted to move here,” Jana told me. “Marcel was not that keen. He wanted to go back to Germany to serve the resurrected Jewish community. As the daughter of survivors, I felt very strongly about this and refused to move to Germany, and so we compromised, and in 1979, he became the rabbi of the Einheits Gemeinde in Berne, the capital of Switzerland. This was an old German Jewish tradition where the only synagogue in town accommodated everybody – religious, secular, atheists, communists and the unaffiliated. It also allowed him to make frequent visits to Germany where he kept in touch with his parents and siblings.” Their third son was born in Switzerland.
In 1996, after many years of serving their community, Jana and Marcel decided to make aliyah and moved to Jerusalem.
My interview with Jana lasted for just over one hour. She has most definitely inherited the linguistic and communicative talents of her journalist parents. She uses those talents in her role as a qualified guide at Yad Vashem. Throughout our conversation I was struck by her incredible sense of recall, clarity and articulate delivery in English, a language which is not her mother tongue. Jana is also a very modest person and does not regard herself in anyway as courageous or special. Nevertheless, I was left feeling inspired and motivated to share Jana’s memories of the tumultuous events that took place in Prague 50 years ago.