After 1938, when Germany swallowed Czechoslovakia in the wake of the shameful Munich agreement, elements of the Czech army were able to escape, some to the west, to France and England, some to the Middle East and others, to the east, to the Soviet Union. The government-in-exile set itself up in England, under former President Viktor Beneš, and Beneš, in turn, appointed a high ranking officer, Heliodor Pika, to be his head of the Czechoslovak Military Mission in Moscow.
As long as the even more shameful Molotov-Ribbentrop pact held and the Soviets avoided conflict with the Axis powers at all costs, Czech refugees inside the Soviet Union were considered suspect, and in most cases, shipped east to internment camps so that they would not foment trouble inside the Soviet Union. However, when the Axis forces attacked Soviet lines at the opening of Operation Barbarossa , the Soviets, desperate for all help they could muster, allowed the formation of military units among the refugees. The Poles formed what was commonly known as Anders Army and the Czechs and Slovaks formed the First Czechoslovak Independent Field Battalion, later to become the First Czechoslovak Independent Army. At the command of the forces stood General Ludvik Svoboda while General Pika remained as the liaison in Moscow for the government–in-exile in London; these forces became commonly known as “Svoboda’s Army”.
( Svoboda, whose last name means “ Liberty”, remained loyal to the Communists after the war and later became President of Czechoslovakia at the time of the Prague Spring and worked together for liberalization with the same Dubcek whose father had founded the same factory in Frunze where my father had found work. General Pika, loyal to the Beneš leadership in London, served as deputy chief of staff for Czechoslovakia after the war. He was the first victim of the Stalinist takeover of Czechoslovakia, executed on trumped –up charges of spying for the British in 1949; soon afterwards, those same Communist leaders who turned on him were purged. ( Czechoslovakia , under encouragement of the Soviets, had shipped arms to the new State of Israel; shortly thereafter, that same leadership, in particular, those of Jewish origin, was purged during the notorious Slansky trials).
In 1942, while still in their first stop inside the Soviet Union, near Stalingrad, my father and uncle had offered to join the Czechoslovakian forces under General Svoboda. A call had gone out to Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, and Rusyns ( the main ethnic groups that had comprised Czechoslovakia) to join the forces, now regrouping and organizing at Buzuluk, some 500 miles to the northeast, at the Ural mountains. A great number of them, by one source, 70 %, were Jews.
They knew two other doctors from Prague who were working at the time as waiters and now served as the medical commissioners to vet the volunteers. They gave the two brothers a physical and declared them fit for combat, but local officials overrode their recommendation, and insisted on the brothers staying in the factory. Two academicians in the mid-forties were far more valuable to the war effort as engineers than as cannon fodder.
By 1944, however, it was clear that Axis forces were on the run and facing losing battles on both eastern and western fronts. It also became clear that time was against the brothers’ hopes of escape, as their co-workers told them,” It’s too late. Not even a bird could get out”. Stalin would return to his policy of absolute control of all that breathed inside his Soviet Union and therefore no stone could be left unturned in their plan to escape while it was still possible.
The only avenue would prove itself to be the Czechoslovakian forces that by now were with the rest of the Soviet forces and were engaged in heavy combat at the Dukla pass leading from Poland into Slovakia.
By Christmas, Budapest had been completely encircled by the Soviet forces and , as my uncle wrote me”. We were desperate to get out of the paradise. “They sent letters and telegrams to General Pika, the head of the Czech Military Mission in Moscow, and this time, a few weeks later, they received orders to get a checkup from the medical commission and then proceed to Moscow. The factory officials could no longer hold them back as orders had now come from the top and the two brothers were, after all, Czech, not Soviet , citizens. The journey was much simpler this time and direct, a journey of eight days.
Map shows current train routes from Bishkek to Moscow
Once vetted and given their marching orders, they made their way west till they reached Czech forces, by now near Prague. The German forces were making a determined last-minute stand, as they were now caught in a pincer between General Patton’s Third Army to the west and Marshal Konev’s 1st Ukrainian front to the east. By May 7, German Chief of Staff, General Jodl officially surrendered to the Allies, but the German forces in Prague held out. By May 9, the Soviet forces, with the 1st Czechoslovakian Army, aided by a massive uprising of the citizens of Prague, finally defeated the German forces and liberated Prague.
Czechoslovakian Tanks in liberated Pargue, May,1945.
The first land to be conquered by the Germans was the last land to be liberated; Czechoslovakia would find that liberation short-lived though, as it fell one of the first casualties of the Cold War. Russian and American forces were now facing each other as victorious allies now cleaning up the debris of war, while the political leaders determined the fate of the liberated peoples.
At some point, where the 1st Czechoslovakian Army met the American allied forces, my father and uncle made a quick move to the American side. They made their way to their old home of Vienna, now occupied jointly by the Americans, British, French and Soviets.
The Passover Hagadah uses the phrase” mesheibud legeula, meafela leor gadol”-From slavery to freedom, from darkness to the great light.
They had finally gone from slavery to freedom. My father had endured over 12 years, of oppression, imprisonment, and tyranny from the day in January, 1933, that Nazism came to power to the day in May, 1945, that Nazism was shattered . The darkness had finally given way to light.
In the immediate days following their return to Vienna, the two brothers began to pick up the pieces of their former lives.
My uncle managed to return to business, had some success, married a survivor of the camps, Celia Bartfeld. Eventually, they moved to Canada, where he raised his two children, Fred and Benita, and became a successful real estate developer and active member of the Jewish community in Toronto.
In Vienna, someone had heard of my father’s work as a chemist and suggested they go into business together. My father, having committed his life to the Jewish people, declined; he needed to serve the She’rit Hapleitah, the Surviving Remnants.
He began some piecemeal work and started writing in local Jewish publications.
My uncle had a practice of frequenting the Rothschild Hospital, the gathering point for Jewish refugees now flooding in from territories under Soviet occupation, in hopes of finding lost relatives and friends. One day, he came back to the apartment he shared with my father,” I have a surprise for you!”. He had found Irene, the daughter of their cousin, Norbert Gottdenker, from Lwow, Poland (by now, Lviv, Ukraine)! The surprise would eventually become my father’s wife and my mother.
By 1947, my father went to the Displaced Person Camp at Hallein( near Mozart’s Salzburg), Austria, where he was charged with establishing a “People’s University” where the survivors, denied of education while in the Concentration Camps could now learn real life skills for their new life in freedom.
Rabbi Weinberg at rededication of the synagogue in Salzburg, Austria. The Hebrew quote is from the Bible-“Remember what Amalek ( the code word for Jew- hatred in Jewish lore) did to you”. The German text is more direct:”Jude, Vergiss nicht das K. Z”-Jew-Do not forget the Concentration Camp!”
Then, in 1948, he was called to serve as the first Landesrabbiner ( State Rabbi) of Hesse, the region of Germany surrounding Frankfurt Am Main and it was there that I was born. In that capacity he worked to bring together the surviving remnants of old Frankfurt Jewry with the new arrivals from East Europe. He represented the Jewish community to the American government now occupying the region, the Frankfurt and Hesse government officials, and the newly forming democratic government of West Germany. He officiated at the rededication of the main synagogue of Frankfurt in 1951. He had to struggle with active anti-Semitism and unrepentant Nazis who still hoped to finish off Hitler’s work and saw my father as their enemy.
News Release on the dedication:
Frankfurt 6 September 1950
The first post-war permanent synagogue to be dedicated in Hesse was dedicated in Frankfurt today. The reconstructed building, seating 1,000 worshippers, was destroyed during the Nazi pogrom in 1938.
Dr. Wilhelm Weinberg, Chief rabbi of Hesse, is seen here during his address.Please credit: PRD-HICOG tel: 8981 photo JACOBY 1583
( HICOG- Allied High Commission for Occupied Germany).
In 1951,we moved to the United States of America , the land my father admired and loved for its free and stable democracy. My father served the Jewish people to his last day, March 16,1976, the day of “ Shushan Purim”, the day Jews of ancient Susa and modern Jerusalem celebrate the triumph of the Jewish people over threatened genocide.
This completes the first part of the account of Rabbi Dr. Wilhelm ( William in America) Weinberg. This work will continue with the account of Irene Weinberg, her youth in the new Republic of Poland, her survival in Aryan disguise during the Holocaust and her escape to freedom. The final volume of this project will focus on the reconstruction of Jewish lives in Austria and Germany in the aftermath of the Holocaust. This trilogy will represent the triumph of survival of the Jewish people in the years that followed the nightmare of Genocide, a triumph of Geist ( Spirit), the realm of heart, soul and mind and the sanctity of the human being in the Divine Image over the “ Triumph of the Will”, of the Will of a fictional Übermensch or Master Race or a Dictatorship of the Proletariat.