Frank Bright

Frank Bright/Brichta described himself as ‘vaguely Jewish’, indicating both his attitude towards religion, and his societal background. Nevertheless, he is strongly aware of being a survivor, and has endeavoured to trace those he knew in different circumstances, establishing their death or survival. He was born in 1928 in Berlin (Wilmersdorf), where his father joined Sigmund Pinkas and was ultimately the manager of a private Jewish bank. Whilst Hermann Brichta was originally from Vikos u Kyjova in Moravia, Czech Republic (formerly Czechoslovakia), his wife, Toni Brichta (nee Wasservogel), was a Berlin-born (Kreutzberg) steno-typist and linguist (German, English and French).

Although only four years old when the Nazis took power, Frank Bright could recall the mocking anti-Semitic cartoons on street corners, depicting Jews as either Bolsheviks or Capitalists, the signs banning Jews from entering e.g. cafes, and the low tones in which his mother and her friends spoke on a particular occasion. The ashes of a woman’s husband had been sent to her by post, for which she had had to pay. A Czechoslovak flag worn in Frank’s lapel acted as a talisman against these developments – temporarily at least. He was blond and ‘not Jewish-looking.’

In 1935, aged six, the interviewee joined a Jewish Reform School near the famous Ka de We store in Berlin, but for their own safety, Bright’s family had moved in June 1938 to Karlin, in Prague. ‘Prague was getting full of German and Austrian refugees’ and ‘Jews and Czechs knew what the Germans were capable of’, he observed. The September 1938 Munich crisis, however, whereby Czechoslovakia ceded the Sudetenland region to Germany, brought fresh dangers – ‘very depressing.’ 

As Czech schools were closed, Bright learnt Czech privately, and attended a Jewish school with German and Austrian refugee children – who ‘gradually disappeared’; most pupils were dead two weeks after a 1942 class photograph was taken. His father had time and some money, so wanted to help other people, while Toni stayed at home. Most of the six Jewish families in the block of flats perished. Frank ‘was the last link.’ He remembered clearly the terrifying knocks on the door during home-to-home Gestapo searches, following the May 1942 assassination of Deputy Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich, and later the reprisals. 

Most synagogues in the former Czechoslovakia still stood, Bright commented, but held ‘Nazi loot’; his Bar Mitzvah was therefore held in a prayer room. ‘The atmosphere in Czechoslovakia was one of fear, prohibition and rules’, with long lists of items that Jews had to surrender, resulting in deprivation and health problems. When Jewish schools were also closed in July/August 1943, Bright worked in a cemetery. For Jews/Aryans to mix was dangerous, and ‘Jewish youths felt depressed and demoralized – acutely miserable – their youth had gone’: some ‘joined the Zionist organization – only too conscious that no country wanted them.’ 

Denied access to newspapers or the radio, it was difficult to know what was happening; ‘we lived on rumours’ such as the 1943 Allied landings in Sicily [true]. Although the war continued for twenty-two more months, the news raised people’s hopes. Nonetheless, on 12 July 1943 Transport Di took Bright’s family to Terezin (Theresienstadt) ghetto in a locked train compartment, ‘at night to hide what was happening.’ The spur line direct to the ghetto’s centre had already been constructed.

Aged 14, Bright moved into the boys’ youth room, and worked in the vegetable garden outside the ghetto, taken but ‘not maltreated by Czech gendarmes.’ Later, he worked in the metal workshop making hinges for doors/windows. Occasionally he salvaged food-scraps for his mother, who found a job mending sheets – essential as workers had a second ‘meal’ each day; the sick or elderly like a Berlin aunt had only one, and died within weeks. Bright’s father worked in the timber-yard, but when ghetto police were sent to reinforce security at Auschwitz at the start of the Warsaw Uprising in August 1944, his father became one of the ghetto’s new, older policemen.

By autumn 1944, Bright had ‘seen off’ his mathematics teacher (lessons were paid in bread by four ‘Ghetto Wacha’ (young boys). ‘Every 2-3 days, transports took 1500-2000 people to Auschwitz, leaving the ghetto half empty.’ Bright’s last birthday treat there was a tiny Oetker jelly (kindling childhood memories of Ka de We), hidden by his father - who subsequently ‘disappeared.’ Bright had no chance to say farewell, but at the time ‘took everything in one’s stride.’ Transport EQ, 12 October 1944, carried Bright and his mother to Auschwitz in the 3rd class compartment of a passenger train. ‘Czechoslovaks did not know where they were going, therefore were not suicidal’, he explained, ‘the Germans knew more.’ 
He saw SS women supervisors for the first time, ‘amazingly polite – no dogs or whips’ to avoid panic, and people in striped pyjamas asking for bread. His mother was sent to the left. (She died in the gas chamber on 14 October 1944. Bright wondered ‘which of the flames was his mother’). He went right, and was soon in transit in a cattle truck to a factory in a village near Friedland (Frydland in Czech) in the Sudetenland border region, as a slave labourer, hence was not branded with a number. He was handed Jewish prayer shawls turned into clothes, and wooden clogs. The civilian manager who already had 300 workers from Olomouc (Czech Republic) and Poland, was promised 165 workers to make propellers for aeroplanes, and wanted a mathematician to make vital calculations. Bright earned 20 pfennig (merely pennies) for a 12-hour shift working on various components and tasks. The mathematics teacher had saved Frank’s life, though not his own. 

The Czechs were sent home in October 1944, Bright recalled. Remaining labourers dug tank trenches and cut down trees to block roads, and the German Communist foreman who sometimes gave him bread crusts, knew the Russian army was approaching. The situation was turning. German refugees fled westward past the factory camp gate; Russians headed to Berlin. People from camps in the east on the notorious ‘death marches’ west, passed by too. The Protestant Church did not want dead Jews in consecrated ground, and farmers did not want them in their fields, so Bright helped to dig trenches in the frozen ground, lower the bodies head-to-toe, and cover them with lime. Asked how he felt, he spoke in a ‘matter of fact’ way about being used to things. 

Eventually abandoned, Frank Bright and others were rescued in early 1945 by French labourers who unlocked the camp gate and switched off the electric current of the barbed wire fence. When the Russians arrived, ‘they ignored the Jews.’ When asked where he wanted to go, he did not know. Feeling that he had wasted six years of his life, Bright wanted to move on, but had minimum education, no trade, craft, or means of earning a living; moreover, ‘no-one to talk to or to advise regarding training opportunities.’ 

A Slovak relative in Zizkov, Prague, claimed not to realize the situation, yet ‘Prague was full of forced labourers and ex-prisoners’, and Bright registered as a returnee. The government requisitioned schools, provided ‘feeding stations’, some pocket money and free entry to cinemas but, ‘too many of your lot [Jews] have come back’ a pharmacy assistant told him. ‘It was a shattering sentiment.’ In contrast, ‘genuine Communists’ and the Labour Office helped him. Viewed as a ‘yekke’ (a Jewish person of German-speaking origin known for attention to detail), Bright obtained an apprenticeship with Carl Zeiss Co. (manufacturer of precision optical lenses) in Teplice (Czech Republic).

However, Rudolf Freund, a distant Viennese relative living in London offered to pay the £500 guarantee and plane ticket for Bright, who arrived in 1946 carrying his mother’s typewriter (still in his possession). His first impressions were of the drabness, bomb sites and rationing. After attending a Gregg School for typing, shorthand and English, Bright began work in a Kentish Town heavy machinery workshop as an ‘improver’, earning 1/9d per hour, while a ‘char lady’ earned 2/6d. Determined to educate and ‘better himself’, Frank Bright studied in evening classes for nine years, ultimately becoming a Civil and Municipal Engineer.
Bright married an English woman in church in 1956. He has never returned to Germany or the Czech Republic, and feels ‘partly alien/partly British.’ His ‘Jewishness’ has stayed with him as a burden he ‘cannot get rid of’, and thinks that ‘British Jews live in their own world.’ He does not attend synagogue, the Association of Jewish Refugees is his main Jewish link.

Whilst acknowledging some luck, Bright is bitter about the injustices he experienced. ‘When I needed material support there was nothing.’ To obtain compensation for loss of education, Bright had to claim as a German citizen, not as a Jew, and only received it in 1967. Furthermore, since there was no contractual relationship between Bright and the wartime forced labour factory, he was not eligible for restitution according to the United Restitution Organisation. ‘I pulled myself up by my boot-strings’ he stated, proud of his achievements.  


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@ Refugee Voices 2019