Child survivor pens memoir of escape from Prague

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Every time Miriam Darvas sees a member of the California Highway Patrol, the officer's shiny black boots give her pause. They remind her of the day the Nazis marched into Prague.

Now living in the Gold Country town of Placerville, the 74-year-old Darvas remembers that day vividly. She describes it in "Farewell to Prague," her recently published memoir.

Darvas was born in Cologne, Germany, the daughter of a Hungarian Jewish father and a Belgian Catholic mother who had both come to Germany. Her father was a highly assimilated Jew, and Darvas attended both synagogue and church.

"Chanukah was just a game where I got candy; that was it," she said.

The memoir opens with her family living in Berlin and an event that will remain with her forever: Her 7-year-old classmate and first love, Kurt Blumburg, was beaten to death in front of his parents' eyes by storm troopers, while Darvas was looking out the window from across the street.

She was 6 then, and although Blumberg was singled out because he was a Jew, Darvas had no understanding of what a Jew was or that her father was one. "I just thought bad people were doing things to other people; I didn't understand anything about Jews."

While her father was not religious in any way, he was a staunch foe of the Nazi Party. As a journalist, he wrote many articles against the rise of Nazism and often attended meetings at night. Later, Darvas' mother told her he was distributing anti-Nazi literature.

He decided to move the family from Germany to Prague, but obviously, that wasn't far enough. His anti-Nazi writings got him arrested and he didn't return.

When Darvas' mother heard about a chance to get her daughter to safety in England, she took it. Darvas was 12 when she said goodbye to her mother and sister, thinking they would all meet again in England. She traveled alone by train through Poland, guided along by strangers, trusting that they would help her.

While Darvas received letters from her mother for a while, their tone became increasingly frantic, and it was clear that her mother wouldn't be able to get out of Prague. Darvas later learned that she ended up at Theresienstadt, where she died.

While Darvas' route out of Prague sounds as if it could have been organized by the Kindertransport, Darvas is still unclear about the specifics.

"I didn't know a Kindertransport existed until about five years ago," she said.

Several details made her journey different from that of the Jewish children who made it to England via the Kindertransport. Those children, "no matter where they came from, they went to a harbor and went to a ship. I am the only one who went on a train to the foothills of the mountains where I had to walk," she said.

Also, Darvas said, she was not traveling in a group, but by herself. "I never met anyone who had to do this."

Darvas believes it could have been the Quakers who helped her, because of a reference her mother made to "Friends," which Quakers call themselves.

"The Quakers were funneling children out, and they never advertised what they did," she said. "I can't certify this, but I believe it was a Quaker organization."

After the war ended, Darvas returned to Berlin to work as an interpreter for the U.S. Army. Then, she managed to go back to Prague, which had fallen under communist rule.

Darvas later moved to California, based on the recommendation of an American soldier she met. She never did find out what happened to her father.

"In unstable political conditions, people change their names, and he went by many different names."

Her sister Nora, who also made it to England, returned to Prague. "We had totally lost our connection in England," Darvas said, adding that it is difficult for children to maintain long-distance relationships. "Our letters were barely informative."

After Nora returned to Prague, Darvas said, "She lived under communism and I lived in a Western culture. We basically had nothing in common — only this point of a few years we spent together. Our interests were totally different."

Darvas went on to do many things in the United States, becoming a community activist.

"What this German experience did was politicize me," she said. She became active in the women's movement and the pro-choice movement. She ran for assembly and served on various boards and commissions. She gave speeches.

But the book was a first for the mother and grandmother.

"I've been writing this thing for 50 years," she said, but while she was raising her daughters, her writing fell by the wayside. "It's rattled around in my head for years."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."