Friends, welcome to the 15th issue of our Newsletter.
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(born Leo Pavel Wildmann) 14 December 1912 – 24 April 1977
Father, Otakar Wildmann’s parents: Adolf Wildmann and Berta roz. Segerova
Mother, Rozalie roz. Taussigova’s parents: Leopold Taussig and Anna roz. Spitzova
Leo was born in Prague, only son to Rozalie and Otakar Wildmann. His mother was from Taus, and her father had been a rabbi there.
From his infancy, young Leo received a bilingual education; in parallel with the Czech primary school, he took private German lessons in order to pass all the examinations in that language. During his teens, an aunt sent him to Switzerland to improve his French. From 1923 to 1931 he attended a secondary school favouring language studies and along with his bachelor degree, he passed a State French exam. He next undertook legal studies, with philosophy and sociology as secondary subjects, at Charles University in Prague where he obtained the title of Doctor of Law in 1936. During this period, a stay of six months at the University of Neuchatel in Switzerland formed part of his academic career. In 1937, he registered at the Graduate Institute of International Studies (HEI) in Geneva and worked under the guidance of Professor Hans Kelsen on a thesis entitled “Legal Relations between the League of Nations and the International Labour Office” (ILO). This study was to remain uncompleted however as he was obliged to return to Prague following the crisis provoked in Czechoslovakia by the Munich agreement of 1938.
Leo’s father, Otakar was the director of a Sickness Insurance Fund in the private sector, and concurrently, a trade union leader in Prague which earned him much renown and respect. His name figures amongst the Czech delegates to one of the first assemblies on the International Conference on Health Insurance.
The period of construction of the new Czechoslovakia after the First World War saw Leo develop an intense political activity. As of 1928 he was active in the Social Democratic Party. Already during his university studies, he became co-founder and Vice-President of the Youth Parliament, an organisation of students of all political tendencies under the auspices of Mr. Edvard Benes and Mr. Tomàs G. Masaryk, respectively Minister of Foreign Affairs and President of the Republic of Czechoslovakia. In another field, he was to be found giving lectures on the history of the country to the Italian Circle of Prague, amongst which a conference on the life of Masaryk. Very early, he followed his father in his involvement in the trade union movement and this naturally led him to be interested in the activities of the ILO. Starting in 1933, he collaborated with the ILO correspondent in Czechoslovakia in the preparation of reports for that organisation. During this same year, he undertook an internship of several weeks within the Social Insurances Section of the ILO in Geneva where he made the acquaintance of Osvald Stein, at that time, Secretary of the International Conference on Health Insurance.1 He found himself there again in 1937 and this time, the internship came close to becoming a work position. There is a letter in the ILO archives dated April 1938 from the Minister of Social Affairs of Czechoslovakia, Mr. Necas, strongly recommending Leo Wildmann for a permanent job. But as seen above, circumstances obliged him to return to Prague. Once he got back, he represented trade unions in different national committees acting in favour of German refugees.
After the occupation of the Czech lands by Nazi Germany in 1938, he was arrested twice by the Gestapo because of his role and activity in the Youth Parliament. His parents were driven from their home by Nazi forces and forced into an apartment with other Jewish families. It was from this address that they were to be taken to be included in the transport to Lodz in 1941. The house was taken over by the Gestapo. Leo had been warned by their maid, Mrs. Vanac, the wife of his father’s driver (they were not Jewish) not to come home the day the Nazis arrived at the house and he went into hiding. After the war, Leo learned that Mrs. Vanac had hidden half of the family’s silver cutlery and Rozalie’s jewels from the Nazis by burying them in the garden and had given the other half to the Nazis under the pretence that that was everything the household had. She gave these to Leo when he returned to Prague after the war. He later offered support to the couple through Tuzex coupons until their death.
At the end of April 1939, Leo succeeded in getting a pass to leave the country and headed for Italy where he could enter without a visa. From there, with the help of his friends in the (French) CGT’s trade union centre, he was able to reach France. A bitter memory is associated with this hasty departure; his father previously arrested and released on the very day of his son’s departure arrived at the central station just as the train was pulling out. He fell into the arms of Anka Kauderova, Leo’s then girlfriend who had not wanted to leave her family behind and accompany him. She had come down to the station to wave goodbye and could only comfort Leo’s father once the train was out of sight.
Upon his arrival in France, Leo volunteered to join the Czechoslovak Army and served in the 1st and 3rd infantry regiments. He was the holder of volunteer combatant’s card No. 40024. In 1940, he participated in the campaign near Gien and Coulonniers. After the armistice, he participated in the evacuation to Great Britain of what remained of the Czechoslovak army in France (and was awarded a Franco-British – France libérée – medal). There he again volunteered to serve with the Czechoslovak Brigade which landed in France in 1944 attached to the First Canadian Division and participated in the campaign, alongside British troops (he was awarded four British and two Czech medals). For a time, he was stationed in Leamington Spa and was friendly (played cards) with the five Czech parachutists who later attempted to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the “Butcher” in Prague.
Victim of an accident which occurred during his service as motorcyclist, he spent six months at the military hospital in Epsom. It was during a period of convalescence in Edinburgh that he met his future wife, Lena, whom he married in the same city on 1st of May 1945, the day after Hitler’s death and a few days before the end of the war in Europe. He was then seconded to the Ministry of Social Affairs of the Czechoslovak Government in exile in London, and three months later, in August 1945, he was demobilized. He was approached by the US army to assist in repatriating those coming out of concentration camps. Had he done so, he would have been given US nationality and the rank of Captain. He was already a fine linguist and his reputation preceded him, but he wished to hang up his uniform and return to civil life. In retrospect being granted a nationality was not a thing to be taken lightly as we will see. A detail which charmed us as children were the stories about his pet rat, Mitzi, whom he kept in his breast pocket during much of the war.
In the meantime, Otakar and Rozalie Wildmann, his parents, were included in one of the first transfers of members of the Jewish Community of Prague towards Lodz in Poland on 31 October 1941 on Transport D. Of those who left on this transport, 937 eventually perished and 63 were liberated. Such was not the case of Leo’s parents who perished in that city, quite certainly in the ghetto. The date of death for those on the transport is recorded as the date of departure from Prague to Lodz.2 The rest of the family was decimated at Terezin and Auschwitz. The names of holocaust victims that are mentioned under WILDMANN in the Prague section on the wall of the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague are all members of Leo’s father’s family, including Otakar’s sister. Unfortunately, under Taus it has been not been possible to trace Leo’s mother’s TAUSSIG family, as the names on the wall are many.
After Otakar and Rozalie were taken to Lodz, the transport of the other Wildmann family members to Terezin occurred on the 21st of November 1941. From there they were eventually taken to Auschwitz, except Berta, Leo’s grandmother, who died in Terezin.
The inscriptions on the wall of the Pinkas Synagogue are as follow. I have inserted the place of death. I am not sure of the exact relationship of all members.
Wildmann Otakar 25.11.1884 -? (although he is on the transport list for Lodz, there is no written date for his death at Pinkas Synagogue and we don’t know why)
Wildmann Rozalie 25.05.1879 – 31.10.1941 (date of departure of transport from Prague to Lodz)
Wildmann Berta 08.06.1860 -17.08.1942 (Otakar’s mother died in Terezin)
Ruzena 31.10.1881 – 20.08. 1942 (Otakar’s sister died in Auschwitz)
It was only much later that he learned what had happened to his family through friends. He was eventually able to sell the family house in Prague in the early 60s but was not allowed to take the money out of Czechoslovakia. A letter written to a dear family friend in May 1962, following a two-week trip to Prague, gives a thumb nail sketch of what he had learned about the inscriptions of names of family members lost and what had happened to his brilliant student friends under the Communist regime:
I have just returned from a two weeks’ visit to Prague…. It is very sad but Prague is more beautiful than ever. The Pinkas Synagogue has been converted into a memorial for the 65,000 Jews from Bohemia and Moravia who died in concentration camps. Their names are written on the walls and I have found there the names of my parents, my grandmother and aunt Ruza.
After such a visit I always appreciate more and more what I have. To know that former friends who were brilliant students work on roads or clean windows, or act as drivers to foreign ambassadors makes you certainly satisfied with everything.
After the war, he again joined the re-organised social democratic party of Czechoslovakia but in February 1948, he refused to ask to join the communist party. He also refused offers to become the Czech Social Attaché to London or Washington. For his intransigent attitude and the assistance he provided to Czech refugees and his refusal to return to Czechoslovakia under the current regime, his name was placed on the “black list”. He was holder of a Czech passport (No.3626-53-48) issued in Montreal on 25.2.48, valid until 24.2.50, but the Ministry of the Interior refused the prolongation of this passport. Upon return from Canada, in the service of the ILO, with the expiration of his Czech passport he was issued with a United Nations “Laissez Passer” document with which he continued to travel all over the world. However, his quest for a nationality had begun. Leo’s first daughter, Roseanne was born in Edinburgh in 1949, ensuring her British citizenship (Lena was British). In the meantime, Leo had applied for French citizenship as well as British and Canadian, based on war service and distinctions and the fact that Lena was British. All three were refused. The Austrian Government came to his rescue in 1951, granting him Austrian citizenship on the basis that he had been born in 1912 in Prague which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It is said that some 40 other Czech citizens in exile were granted Austrian citizenship around this time for the same reason.
He returned several times to Prague throughout his lifetime whether as a private visitor or on official travel. When travelling to Prague under the communist regime with his laissez passer passport or later his Austrian passport, he was always followed and ended up meeting his life-long friend, Karel Vinzig, and others in churches.
In 1945, he entered into service with the ILO in Canada where the ILO had established itself as of 1939, the only UN organization to survive the Second World War. He was selected amongst other candidates, put forward by the now Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Certainly, his antecedents played in his favour but in this new political climate which made life difficult for him, he was selected “if only to prevent the post being attributed to a less politically acceptable candidate.” He thus occupied the position of Research Assistant in the Social Insurance Section. This Section was later to become the Social Security Division and thanks to the Beveridge Report the institution began to develop exponentially. For this work, Leo’s language skills constituted an invaluable asset. Besides his working languages, English and French, he was fluent in German, Spanish and Italian. Furthermore, his Czech mother tongue greatly facilitated communication in Slavic languages such as Russian and Polish. It was not surprising therefore to see him committed immediately to the ILO’s technical assistance programmes in Latin America, Asia or the Middle East. Another of his general tasks consisted of monitoring social security legislation in Eastern Europe. Out of these beginnings of social security grew the International Social Security Association (ISSA), housed within the ILO. In January 1949, with the return of the ILO and the General Secretariat of the ISSA to Geneva, Leo was appointed Secretary General by the Executive Committee, a position he occupied for the next 25 years. During his tenure, ten permanent commissions were established, as well as eight international technical committees on prevention. The association spread its activities worldwide by creating regional commissions and organising regional conferences in the Americas, Africa and Asia, and working groups in Europe. Under his guidance, ISSA held ten General Assemblies in Rome, Vienna, London, Istanbul, Paris, Mexico, Leningrad, Washington, Cologne, Abidjan, as well as seven world congresses on the prevention of occupational risks. New areas of activity were added, such as technology, rehabilitation, organisation and methods. The association also developed publication activities with journals and books covering research studies, technology, prevention and actuarial methodology. “Leo carried out his mandate for 25 years, from 1949 to 1974 and experienced an extraordinary growth of his organisation which followed step by step the expansion of the political concept of social security in the world.” At the beginning of his mandate, the ISSA numbered 39 members in 21 countries3 and by 1977 (which slightly exceeds the duration of his mandate) there were 246 members in a total of 104 countries… “behind this evolution was to be found a man who managed the organisation with inexhaustible energy.”4
Upon retirement, he was named Advisor to the Association and received several national distinctions for his work in developing Social Security throughout the world. (The ILO did not permit officials to receive personal distinctions while in office). Leo was awarded Commander of the Order of the Eagle of the Aztecs by the President of Mexico, The Great Golden Cross of Merit from the President of the Federal Republic of Austria, The Medal of the National Social Security Institute of Spain (posthumously), The Honour Badge of Labour from the Kingdom of Belgium and The Commander’s Cross of the German Order of Merit, awarded by the Federal Republic of Germany. A noteworthy detail attached to this distinction is the likelihood that the ISSA was one of the first organisations to accept membership from German institutions after the war, thus accepting the German nation into the international fold once again. The Association also honoured him posthumously by establishing a scholarship in his name on studies pertaining to an aspect of social security.
1 Two of Leo’s predecessors who devoted their careers to the international development of social security also had Czech as their mother tongue and their families also suffered the anti-Semitic persecution of the Nazi regime. They were: Osvald Stein and Emil Schönbaum. The two were personal friends who worked together within the ILO in Montreal. Leo, some 20 years younger, had met Stein during an internship at the ILO during the early 30s and Schönbaum in 1945 in Montreal. It was the latter who made him come to Canada.
2 Annex 3
3 According to the ISSA’s Constitution of 1947, affiliate membership to the ISSA could be accorded to governmental services, central institutions or national unions of institutions administering all or some individual branches of social security. This represented an extremely varied range of organisations from huge ministries of the Soviet Union or the United States to the small mutual benefit societies ensuring protection against sickness of certain western countries.
4 Many thanks to Vladimir Rys for his biography: Leo Wildmann (1912-1977) and his oeuvre, The International Social Security Association (ISSA) in the Post-War Years. Mr. Rys was Leo’s successor.
Using Zoom, MST is delighted to offer sessions to provide educational content about the rescue and ongoing commemoration of 1,564 scrolls from Bohemia and Moravia. These scrolls survived the Shoah and have been spread around the world for safe keeping and to pay tribute to so many lost communities. Our story resonates with all kinds of people: scroll holders, non-scroll-holders, people of all faiths and backgrounds but especially seniors and B’nai mitzvoth students. Our virtual content can help educate and entertain during this unusual time of social distancing requirements.
We offer, free of charge, opportunities to share our programming and expertise with your congregations. We have volunteer Experts available to speak about the following topics:
The Czech Scroll Story: From Bohemia and Moravia to the Diaspora
Our Binder (wimpel) collection: Custom-made Textiles representing 200 years of Jewish life in the Czech Republic
Czech Jewish Towns: A photo journey about the towns that held scrolls
During lockdown, we are reminding scroll holders that, if possible, you should "air" your scrolls, to stop the build up of any moisture or fungal spores. Scrolls should be rolled from beginning to end once a year, even if your scroll is a Memorial and not readable. We’ll be doing the same with our scrolls in the Czech scroll museum until we are allowed to re-open.