Born in Prague in 1931, Helga Ederer spoke both Czech and German, as did her lawyer father, Dr. Rudolf Fantl, from Jindrichuv Hradec (south Bohemia), who had studied law in Vienna. Although the family was not very religious, relatives were prominent “conscientious good Jews” in their community. Her mother, Zdenka, from Pribram (central Bohemia), worked first in millinery then in fashion, designing and cutting.
The interviewee initially attended a French school in Prague, but her happy early childhood, and effectively her elementary education, ended following Nazi Germany’s seizure of rump Czechoslovakia on 14‒16 March 1939. For a time she attended a Jewish school; however, fears for her safety there increased. Her home had already been requisitioned by German officers, forcing the Fantl’s move to one room sub-divided for two families. In 1942 they were transported to Terezin.* Everything they had taken was confiscated, including (to Helga’s delight!), a gold brace for her teeth. Boys/girls lived in separate rooms; the interviewee was “seriously ill all the time” and marvels that she survived.
In 1943 the family was transferred to the ‘Familienlager’ (‘family camp’) in Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. Their transport and two others (before/after), each three months apart, were marked “Sonderbehandlung” ("Special treatment").** The Fantl’s did not have their head shaved, but men/women lived apart. Dr. Fantl worked in a coalmine, his wife and daughter dug trenches, while the younger son, Tomas, worked as a messenger in the camps before being sent to Buchenwald. Interviewee Helga Ederer twice evaded fatal selections; she ascribed her survival to resilience and advice from her older half-brother, Jan (Honza), who falsified documents to make her older than she really was. He, though, was gassed on 7 March 1944 in front of his mother; she “aged immediately.” 3,000 young Czechoslovak Jews were killed that day, Helga stated. It was also the birthday of Czechoslovakia’s first President, Tomas G. Masaryk; the irony did not escape her. Her father was ordered to join the notorious 1945 death marches, but his eyes had suffered from the coal dust, and he asked to remain behind. The German officer shot him. It was one day before US forces took the area.
Mother and daughter had hidden in a barn while others marched on, and were suspicious of the Soviet soldiers who liberated Poland. Forced to work on a farm, they eventually made their own way back to Prague, often on foot, in 1945. Still wearing camp uniforms, they finally reached their home in Revolucni Street, in the Old Town, and by chance met relatives; other people were less welcoming. Despite the gap in her schooling, the interviewee was placed with children her own age, then belittled e.g. for not knowing her times tables.
Zdenka Fantl retrieved some hidden gold and raised a loan enabling her to start her own fashion business, specializing in ladies’ model raincoats which she exported to key London stores like Harrods, and Debenham & Freebody. In 1947 she married Englishman Julius (‘Aussi’) Aussenberg, gaining British citizenship, but they remained in Czechoslovakia until the Communist coup of 25 February 1948. The interviewee joined them in London, flying into Northolt in June/July 1948. Following a six-month English for Foreigners course in Cambridge, she trained to be a designer and cutter, but disliked the work and took a one-year Pitman secretarial course.
Helga and Willy Ederer married in Marylebone Registry Office on 11 July 1950. He had come to Britain in 1939 to study English, and did not return to Czechoslovakia. In wartime he became a diamond polisher in Soho’s Greek Street; post war he dealt in diamond jewellery but hated it,*** and felt that he had missed out in life; times were hard. When Helga’s step-father died, her mother “was hysterical, her nerves finally gave way”, but “who could help her after what she had seen and been through?”
Like her mother, Helga Ederer did not harbour hatred against Germans, nor did she oppose travel to Germany or the purchase of German goods; that she asserted, was the hard-line attitude of Anglo-Jewry, not the Continental Jewry that had suffered and was generally forgiving. In post war Germany, Zdenka Fantl/Aussenberg employed a young former SS officer, and met Oskar Schindler, the ethnic German Czechoslovak industrialist. Schindler gave her a book comprising accounts of “good Germans” including him, in which he wrote her a personal dedication. The book was passed to the interviewee, then to her son John,**** who was so impressed by Czechoslovak-born Rabbi Hugo Gryn, that he became religious.
In contrast, Helga Ederer is not religious, but her message was “do personal good.” She does not suffer from ‘survivor’s syndrome’, and has visited what in 1993 became the Czech Republic. She does not feel that she belongs there, though she regained some family properties through post-Communist restitution. Despite her long residence in Britain, she has never felt truly ‘settled’ anywhere; she was “British, but not English.”
(*) The Czech book to which the interviewee referred in the film, was Terezinska Pametni Kniha (Terezin Commemorative Book), published in 2 volumes by Institut Terezínské iniciativy in 1955; it lists those who were there. For details see:
(**) "Special treatment" (“Sonderbehandlung”) abbr. S.B.; according to Wikipedia is “known primarily as a euphemism used by Nazi functionaries and the SS for murder”, and “and was one of a number of nonspecific words the Nazis used to document mass murder and genocide.” <>, Google, downloaded 8 September 2015
(***) The Jewish element, the situation regarding Belgian refugee diamond polishers in wartime Britain, and the difficulties of dealing post-war in diamond jewellery as recounted by the interviewee, are affirmed in the comprehensive semi-biographical work by Lichtenstein, Rachel, Diamond Street. The Hidden World of Hatton Garden, London/New York/Dublin: Penguin Books, 2013.
(****) The book is now in Switzerland; Helga Ederer did not recall its title, but after the interview mentioned that her brother Tomas had suggested a film be based on it. Their step-father ‘Aussi’, who had been General Manager of Fox Film in Europe before Hitler’s rise to power, took it up, but in the early 1950s found no-one was interested in war films. The film Schindler’s List was released in 1993.