In 1939, the chairman of the German Social Democratic Workers Party in the Czechoslovak Republic, Wenzel Jaksch, saw himself forced to escape his native land after it was invaded by Germany – staying would have put him, who opposed the growing influence of the Nazis in Sudeten-German politics, in grave danger. Wenzel Jaksch successfully escaped to London, via the Beskydy Mountains and Poland. He later shared his amazing story – and based on his written account, his children, George and Mary Jaksch, have set out for a pilgrimage in their father’s footsteps, over 70 years later.
The life story of Wenzel Jaksch, a Sudeten German Social Democrat politician who later became the President of the Federation of Expellees in Germany, mirrors some of the biggest upheavals of the 20th century – and among the most unusual episodes in his eventful life was his escape from Czechoslovakia after the 1939 invasion by the Nazis.
Now his two children, Mary and George Jaksch, have set out to follow their father’s escape route, which started in the Czech capital. I asked George Jaksch to describe their plan to me when I met him and Mary in Prague last Friday.
“What we are going to do is we are going to follow his tracks, if you like, using an article which he published about this trip, in order to travel first from Prague to the Beskydy mountains, to walk across the mountains, approaching the Polish border, and then to repeat again the part of the journey where he entered Poland, at the place where the border existed then.”
Both George and Mary have dual citizenship – they have German and English passports – but neither of them lives in Germany anymore. George Jaksch works in Belgium for a big international company. Mary Jaksch, who lives in New Zealand, is an author, psychotherapist and runs a blog named GoodLife Zen. She explains the motivation for the journey.
“We are looking at our roots, to find where we actually come from, because once the roots are cut, and that’s really what happened through my father’s escape to Poland, that moment was a cutting of his roots. And with that, what happens to a family, in the next generations, is that we also become rootless.
“And so this is a way to reclaim the roots that my family has, and so it is a wonderful opportunity to get a felt sense of where he lived, what his experience was, and also who he was as a person. Because when he died, I was only just 18, so we didn’t have very long with him. But I remember his passion and his courage.”
The story of Wenzel Jaksch starts in a small village in Bohemia, which then was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. George Jaksch describes the early years of his father’s life.
“Our father Wenzel Jaksch was born in 1896, in a very small village called Langstrobnitz, that is the German name, in Southern Bohemia, close to what today is the Austrian border. And he grew up there as a son of a very poor family. They went to school barefoot in the summer and with wooden shoes in the winter.
“Like his father, he then went to work in Vienna, during the winter months, as a teenager, working on building sites. But he was somebody who needed to learn and to expand, and he became a member of the trade union movement, as a young fellow, in Vienna, later returned, and after the end of the First World War, he became a member of the Social Democratic Party, of the Sudeten-German Social Democratic Party.”
Mr. Jaksch was elected a member of the Parliament of Czechoslovakia in Prague in 1929. In 1938, he became the chairman of the Sudeten-German Social Democratic Party, and only a year later, he would be forced to leave his native land. With the help of the British Embassy, he was able to escape from Czechoslovakia, unnoticed by the Gestapo, the German secret police, disguised as a plumber.
His journey lead him through the Beskydy mountains, on skis, in severe weather conditions, to Poland, and after the German invasion of Poland, Wenzel Jaksch escaped to Great Britain, where he represented the Sudeten Germans in the Czechoslovak government-in-exile, created by Czechoslovak president Edvard Beneš.
However, Wenzel Jaksch found himself more and more sidelined from the government-in-exile. He fell out with Edvard Beneš over the issue of what should happen to the German population of Czechoslovakia after the war. While Mr. Jaksch opposed the idea of the expulsion of ethnic Germans, the Beneš decrees would later lay the ground for the deportation of about 3 million ethnic Germans and Hungarians from post-war Czechoslovakia.
It was not until 1949 that Mr. Jaksch was able to leave his exile in Britain. George Jaksch describes the situation that Western Germany was in when his father arrived there in the late forties.
“When our father arrived in Germany in 1949, that was of course a time of great poverty, of tremendous unemployment, and a time when millions of people, who had been expelled or had fled from Eastern European countries such as Poland and Czechoslovakia, found themselves without a home, without anything. And he saw it as a very important task to help these people to integrate into life in Western Germany. And that really became for him one of his principal activities.”
Wenzel Jaksch served as the director of the Hessian State Office for Expellees, Refugees and Evacuees from 1950 to 1953. During that time he also founded the Seliger-Gemeinde, an Association of Sudeten German Social Democrats, and throughout his life, the Sudeten German issue continued to be an important one for him, says his son.
“In fact, one of his very first tasks was to develop a plan in the state of Hessen, for the integration of this population of emigrants, refugees, and expellees. But the second chapter of his career was then to represent these people, especially those who were close to the Social Democratic Party in West Germany, to enable them to not only integrate but also to become a voice in politics, and his personal voice was always that of reconciliation, of opposition to extremist tendencies, which could have become very dangerous in Germany at that time. And of, over time, overcoming the divisions in Europe, the Iron Curtain. His dream was a united Europe, which happened a few years after his death.”
Wenzel Jaksch was elected a member of the German lower chamber of parliament, the Bundestag, in 1957, and remained an MP until his death in 1966. He also became Vice-President of the Sudeten German Federal Assembly and in 1964 was appointed President of the German Federation of Expellees. Yet throughout his life, he continued feeling homesick for his native Bohemia, which by then had come under communist rule and which he was unable to visit, George Jaksch says.
“We know from our very own experience in our family how very deeply he loved this country and how much he suffered from that loss, not just for a short time, but right up to his death. It was something that he never forgot, and I think personally, suffered very deeply from it.
“We as a modern generation, which has lived in many countries and is less attached to any particular place, learned from that, how important it is to have roots and to have those close attachments, not just to the land, but to the people around you.”
For Mary Jaksch, her father was a great example, and she shared with me a story that speaks of his great courage.
“One of the most telling things in the whole story is that he came back to Prague, even though he was already in London, he was in safety. But he came back, to make sure that the last of his friends and colleagues could escape safely, when he could have easily stayed overseas and not have been in danger. He came back and faced the most severe circumstances, when his life was really in acute danger, and for me, that’s really a wonderful role model.”
So how would Wenzel Jaksch, whose central concern was a united Europe, see the state of Czech-German relations today? I put the question to George Jaksch.
“I think his great hope was that the Czechs and the Germans would again become good neighbors, with a lot of respect, but also with affection and an exchange of ideas and harmony, which is important among neighbors. And to see the Czech Republic today as a member of the European community would have been for him a wonderful dream, which he often mentioned, even in his speeches from the 1930s.”
Mary and George Jaksch are currently travelling in their father’s footsteps, through the united Europe that he had always hoped for.
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