Marie Schmolka, who inspired the Kindertransport

Marie Schmolka passport image. Photo credit: Czech National Archives

History Forgets Heroines: Marie Schmolka, the woman who saved thousands from the Holocaust

Anna Hájková
30 October 2017

This article has been specially written for Jewish Voice for Labour

On 31 March 1940, prominent Zionists and luminaries of Czechoslovak government in exile alike gathered in Golders Green Crematorium, where Jan Masaryk, the Czechoslovak foreign minister, held the eulogy. They came to say farewell to Marie Schmolka, one of the key European organisers of Jewish emigration in the 1930s. Today, only few know her name.

It was Marie Schmolka’s appeal for help that brought the young Nicholas Winton to Prague in December 1938. For the next three weeks, Winton helped organise the emigration of Jewish children to Great Britain. He returned to Britain in January 1939, two months before the occupation, and continued with refugee work. We rightly celebrate Winton, but as recently suggested by Laura Brade and Rose Holmes, we need to place him into context of other, 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. It does nothing to diminish Winton’s achievement to recognise that he was, in effect, Schmolka’s intern.

Schmolka was the representative of JOINT and HICEM, two important Jewish refugee organisations, and the sole Czechoslovak representative on the League of Nations Commission for Refugees. The WIZO founder Rebecca Sieff remembered: “She refused to be intimidated, either by the threats of hostile governments, or by the barriers of pomp and circumstance which surround even friendly governments and their chancelleries.”

Born to an assimilated Prague Jewish family, Schmolka married late and was widowed early; the marriage remained childless. “I can still hear my mother who used to say: the youngest Eisner child is as active as a man.” And the characteristic “like a man” remained with her all her life”, wrote lifelong friend and neighbour Felix Weltsch. Schmolka, quiet, warm, and with immense organisational talent, became an avid Zionist following a trip to Palestine. A lifelong Social Democrat, she was involved in social work and top-level politics, and with Hitler’s takeover in neighbouring Germany, she took on coordinating the assistance to refugees from the Nazi regime who sought asylum in Czechoslovakia. Her bourgeois background and milieu and social democratic connections aided her connections with the leading politicians and police alike.

Schmolka eventually became the president of the National Coordinating Committee for Refugees in Czechoslovakia, where her colleagues included Milena Jesenská and Max Brod. Originally, Jewish refugees from Germany were welcomed in Czechoslovakia, but gradually they became viewed as agents of Nazism rather then antifascists. Other countries refused to offer any asylum at all: Schmolka knew this first hand, for she was the Czechoslovak delegate at the Evian conference in the summer of 1938.

After the Munich agreement and the subsequent annexation of Czechoslovak borderlands, it was clear that Czechoslovakia was no longer a final destination for the refugees. In Prague, the relief organizations were overwhelmed with the influx of over 100,000 refugees from the occupied Sudetenland, both Jews and political opponents of Nazism, in addition to those refugees who had arrived in the country prior to September 1938. Schmolka visited the areas where refugees were concentrated, collecting evidence to mobilize public opinion, and writing appeals to foreign ambassadors in Prague and to Jewish agencies abroad.

But no free country was willing to help the Jewish refugees: Great Britain would take children, as long as these would come unaccompanied. Schmolka’s endeavours were met by humanitarian volunteers from Britain, foremost Doreen Warriner, a UCL lecturer in economics who had well known left-leaning sympathies (and, who was monitored by the MI5 between 1938 and 1952). Warriner was the representative of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia and, overwhelmed with work helping hundreds of families of political refugees, tasked Winton and his friend Martin Blake with a scheme she developed: the Kindertransporte.

Repeatedly warned by her friends and offered asylum while abroad, Schmolka insisted she return home to do the work at hand. When Germany occupied the remainder of Czechoslovakia on 15 March, 1939, Marie Schmolka and her co-workers from the Committee for Refugees were among the first persons arrested. Warriner, who came to check on her, only found broken glass in her home in Kamzíkova street in the Old Town.

Schmolka was kept for two months in the Pankrác prison, while the Gestapo subjected her, a diabetic, to 6-to-8 hour interrogations. The US embassy protested, but Schmolka was released only in May 1939, thanks to ongoing protests of the ministers of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, and her old friend Františka Plamínková, later executed by the Nazis. In August, Adolf Eichmann, the head of the Central Office for Jewish Emigration, sent Schmolka to Paris to demand a more efficient Jewish emigration. Overtaken here by the outbreak of the WWII, Schmolka moved to London.

Her brief sojourn in London was not easy. “We live here like tightrope-walkers,” Schmolka wrote to her nephew. Some of those refugees whom she had helped to emigrate to Britain didn’t want to make room for her in the refugee organisations. Schmolka eventually succeeded and continued in her work. Her little office in the “Bloomsbury House”, the former Palace Hotel purchased by the Quakers at the corner of Gower Street and Bedford Avenue, became the meeting place for the Czechoslovak diaspora, Zionist and Quaker social workers. The Sussex historian Rose Holmes examined the key role of the British Quakers in organising the help for first the victims of the Spanish Civil War and later the refugees.

Anna Hajkova, on the steps of Parliament Hill Mansions where Marie lived. Photo credit: Albane Duvillier

A large number of the British social workers organizing the refugee help were women: “It is usually a she,” remarked Sybil Oldfield. The pattern, in which it is men who are celebrated as historical heroes while their female colleagues swept into oblivion, applies beyond boundaries. Oldfield is also the author of a biography of Mary Sheepshanks, eminent suffragist and pacifist. Apparently, Sheepshanks became Schmolka’s landlady in her last six months: they moved together into an apartment vacated by an evacuee in Parliament Hill Mansions in Gospel Oak. On 27 March 1940, Marie Schmolka drew here her last breath: she died at the age of 46, having literally worked herself to death with a heart attack.

The Czechoslovak exile WIZO group changed their 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.” For a number of years, there was a memorial a hydrangea with plaque with the name of Marie Schmolka in the Eastern Bed of the Remembrance Gardens of the Golders Green crematorium, but the memorial shrub, no longer paid for, has been gone for decades.

Schmolka and her fellow women organisers feature prominently in the contemporaneous records, only to disappear from public memory later on. There are monographs of Felix Weltsch and Max Brod, but Schmolka, their fellow Zionist and friend, who saved thousands of lives, merely gets a mention in a brief entry in Encyclopedia Judaica with a wrong birth year. Schmolka’s tragedy is that she was a woman and that she died in a free country. As the Czechoslovak Jewish refugees became British, the woman who made their new lives possible became forgotten.

We want to change that. We have established the Marie Schmolka Society which will start soliciting donations, collecting information and gather support for the memorial: a plaque for her and Mary Sheepshanks in Gospel Oak, a statue in Prague, and a Marie Schmolka prize for historical work addressing female Jewish social workers in the Holocaust.


The Marie Schmolka Society can be reached via Facebook.

You can also email Anna Hajkova and Martin Smok








Comments (2)

Comments are now closed.