Last train out of Prague – 1939
Escaping in the last minute.
March 15th 1939 was another nail in the coffin for pre-war Europe. This was another event, warning bells ringing, indicating that the clouds of war were imminent.
Nazi Germany has been walking down a path that could only mean one thing. That war was close and the relatively safety that Europe was enjoying for the past 20 years after the end of the First World War were coming to an end. People could feel this deep down in their bones.
One such individual was Jewish businessman Viktor Pick from Czechoslovakia that served during the 1914-1918 war in the K.u.K army, as a telephone-man. He was living around the area of Brandýs nad Labem, and his passport was issued to him at Prague on March 26th 1934. Two days later he got his first visa to British Palestine, issued at the PCO in Prague. His next trip would be on February of 1937. Looking at his passport pages, we can now assume that he was preparing for the possible immigration to the Mandate. Conditions in Europe were not improving for the Jews, and already by 1938 the ‘die has been cast’: leaving was the only way out. Thus his next and last visa to Palestine was applied for on December 23rd of 1938. By then, the Czech Republic was dying. Shortly before that date, parts of the country where torn away and handed over to Germany and Hungary, this followed the ill-fated Munich Agreement and the First Vienna Award. By then, the Republic was left alone, to fend for herself, with no aid in sight.
With his British immigrant visa in his hands, valid till March of the coming year, he was now looking for a way out. He approached the Polish embassy in the capital, and managed to get a short-term transit visa. What is remarkable was the issuing date of the visa: March 10th, only five days before the Germans would march into the country, from the west. The visa was issued by Polish diplomat Alfons Rzeszotarski, who by then had a rich career: Already in 1931 was stationed in Berlin, also here in Prague in 1939 and later on in Budapest, after war broke out, in 1940. Attached images are of sample visas, different periods of time, with his affixed signature. Continuing with this visa, it was valid ONLY for five more days from the date of issue.
Looking closely at the expiry date of this visa and the entry stamp into Poland we realize what an astonishing feat it was to leave the country, and at the last minute! The date was March 15th 1939! The date the German army marched into the dying Republic is the date he left, fled. I spoke to his daughter, back in 1989, my former old neighbor, who gave me her father’s passport back then; she told me that her father left very early in the morning on the last train out of Prague to reach the Polish border. He entered Poland at the border crossing point of Bogumin. The visa clearly states that it is valid ONLY for 24 hours and with a red applied warning rubber –stamp at the top which roughly reads “This visa entitles the holder travel only if escorted by a police convoy from Bogumin”.
In all my years of collecting World War Two or Holocaust related passports, I have never come across such an example of a “life-saving” visa. Clearly as we can see now, he managed to flee Czechoslovakia hours before it was overrun by Germany, and a specially limited police-escort visa was given to him in order to enter the nearest country. The visa is good for transiting to Rumania. From the black sea port of Constanta, he boarded a boat to Palestine, the next day, on the 16th.
Thank you for reading “Our Passports”.