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Marking the life of a forgotten heroine

Marie Schmolka inspired the Kindertransport and saved thousands of lives. Why isn’t she revered?

    On March 31, 1940, prominent Zionists and luminaries of the Czechoslovakian government in exile gathered at Golders Green Crematorium. 

    They came to say farewell to Marie Schmolka, one of the key European organisers of Jewish emigration in the 1930s. The JC published an obituary with a photo. Today, few know her name. 

    It was Marie Schmolka’s appeal for help in December 1938 that brought the young Nicholas Winton to Prague. 

    For the next three weeks, Winton helped organise the emigration of Jewish children to Britain, where he returned in January 1939 to continue with refugee work. 

    We rightly celebrate Winton, but we need to place him into the context of more senior and usually female volunteers who saved thousands of Jewish and political refugees from the Nazis. Marie Schmolka features eminently among these forgotten heroines. 

    Born to an assimilated Prague Jewish family, Schmolka married late and was widowed early. Quiet, warm, and with immense organisational talent, she became an avid Zionist following a trip to Palestine. 

    A lifelong Social Democrat involved in social work and high-level politics, she coordinated assistance to refugees from the Nazi regime. Schmolka was the sole Czech representative on the League of Nations Commission for Refugees. 

    Originally, Jewish refugees from Germany were welcomed in Czechoslovakia, but were gradually viewed as Nazi agents. Other countries refused to offer asylum: Schmolka knew this first hand as the Czech delegate at the 1938 Evian conference.

    After the 1938 Munich agreement and the following annexation of Czech borderlands, the relief organisations were unable to cope with the influx of over 100,000 refugees, both Jews and political opponents of Nazism. 

    Schmolka visited the areas where refugees were concentrated, collected evidence to mobilise public opinion,  and wrote appeals to foreign ambassadors in Prague and to Jewish agencies abroad.

    But no free country was willing to help the Jewish refugees: Britain would take only unaccompanied children.

    Schmolka’s appeals were met by humanitarian volunteers from Britain, foremost Doreen Warriner, a UCL lecturer and representative of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia. Warriner tasked Winton with a scheme she developed: the Kindertransport. 

    Repeatedly warned by her friends and offered asylum while abroad, Schmolka insisted she must return home to do the work at hand. 

    When Germany occupied the remainder of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Marie Schmolka and her co-workers from the Committee for Refugees were among the first arrested. Warriner, who came to check on her, only found broken glass in Schmolka’s house.

    Schmolka was imprisoned for two months in Pankrác prison, while the Gestapo subjected her, a diabetic, to eight-hour interrogations. In August, Adolf Eichmann sent her to Paris to demand more efficient Jewish emigration; stranded by the outbreak of war, Schmolka moved to London. Six months later she was dead at age 46, having worked herself to a heart attack.

    The Czech exile Wizo group changed its name to “The Marie Schmolka Society” and in 1944 published a memorial booklet. This slim volume is all that remains of Schmolka, who does not even have a grave: the records state that her ashes were “taken away by the funeral director”. A memorial hydrangea and plaque in the remembrance gardens is long gone.

    Schmolka and her fellow women feature prominently in the contemporaneous records, only to disappear from public memory. 
    Her tragedy was that she was a woman and that she died in a free country. As the Jewish refugees became British, the woman who made their new lives possible was forgotten. 

    We want to change that. The preparatory committee for the Marie Schmolka Memorial is collecting information and will soon start soliciting donations to support the memorial — a plaque at her house in Gospel Oak, a statue in Prague, and a prize for historical work addressing female Jewish social workers in the Holocaust. 

    Anna Hájková is an assistant professor at University of Warwick. Martin Šmok is a representative of the USC Shoah Foundation in Prague

    More details at https://www.facebook.com/marieschmolka