u3a - Kindertransport Memories - Russell Cleaver

Russell Cleaver

Member of Watford & District u3a


‘Your teeth were always chattering’ Ruth informed me, many years later. Our family had been huddled together in a damp, cold dark concrete shelter during the air-raiding of nearby Coventry in 1941. I was a 4-year old, Ruth a young teenager, one of nearly 700 Jewish children - the kinders - brought out of Czechoslovakia in 1939 by train through the efforts of Nicholas Winton and colleagues, as Nazi Germany tightened its grip on the Czech nation.

Through the Quaker network, my parents had responded to the urgent call for families to host Czech children. Ruth’s train left Prague on 1 July, only a few weeks before the border was sealed.

Whilst my war-time memories of Ruth are very hazy, our lives criss-crossed many times in much later years. Returning to Czechoslovakia in 1945 she re-settled, became a bacteriologist, married and had a family. Our family had lost touch but I met up with her in Prague in 1958, the start of a relationship that developed and matured, lasting until her death in 2020.


Ruth speaking at a commemorative event, in her later life

The following 30 years, until the Iron Curtain was lifted in 1989, were indeed turbulent for Ruth and her family. Whilst travelling to the West was well-nigh impossible for ‘ordinary’ Czech citizens, I managed to visit her at Usti, north of Prague on 3 or 4 occasions and catch up with her life experiences. Caught up in the aftermath of Dubcek’s ‘Prague Spring’ in 1968, she had suffered financially and emotionally when refusing to sign a document at her hospital (called political vetting) agreeing to the Warsaw Pact invasion of her country, as being contrary to her conscience. These were not happy times.

Ruth’s later years were much more relaxed and fulfilling, particularly as she found her spiritual path – her ‘great adventure’ – when she learnt of the swami Sai Baba,  then regularly visited his ashram at Puttaparthi, southern India, well into her 80’s.

Meanwhile, nearer home, a rejuvenated Czechoslovakia (later the Czech Republic), was starting to recognise the significance of the ‘kindertransport’ project, prompted by the belated revelation that its instigator was a certain Nicholas Winton. With my close relationship with Ruth, I became drawn into 3 commemorative events. Firstly, to mark the 70th Anniversary of the transports (2009), a special ‘Winton Train’ (Prague, Hook of Holland, Harwich, Liverpool St) was laid on, with kinders, their relatives and journalists on board, to be received by Sir Nicholas, then all bussed to the Czech Embassy for a grand reception. Then more recently (2016) Ruth again came here, this time for the memorial service for ‘her saviour, Nicky’ at London’s Guildhall, meeting up with many other kinders from around the world who had also come to pay their tribute. Finally, in a surprising and most generous gesture, the Czech Foreign Affairs Ministry organised a commemorative gathering in the Czernin Palace, Prague, to mark the 80th Anniversary (2019), focussing on the ‘Invisible Heroes’ – the host families – who without question took in these unknown children from a faraway country. For me, this was a truly moving occasion, as I accepted from the Foreign Minister a ’Certificate of Recognition' on which my parents’ names – PHYLLIS and ERIC – were inscribed, ‘in recognition of the key role in saving the lives of Czech children in 1939’.

 The Cleavers Certificate of Recognition

Certificate commemorating the 'invisible heroes' - Phyllis & Eric Cleaver, Russell's parents

Ruth and I were exchanging emails, discussing a visit, when the pandemic outbreak and then her sudden health deterioration, put paid to our plans. She died peacefully aged 94 after a long and eventful life and – as she often reminded me - I was always ‘her little English brother’.

 Ruth Russell Laughing

Ruth & Russell, laughing, 2016

Russell Cleaver

23 November 2021

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