The Irish Free State avoided most of the depredations of World War II. There were casualties from a few bombing raid and Belfast suffered grievously but the Emergency is mostly remembered for insufficient white bread and Eamon de Valera’s visit to the German embassy with a letter of condolence on the death of Adolf Hitler.
Moreover, in an era before mass aviation refugees found it difficult to travel to Ireland and the authorities issued few visas either before or after the war. There were notable exceptions such as the Viennese couple Edward and Lisl Strunz who ran The Unicorn Restaurant for many years.
Another refugee from the period was Denis Scrivener (née Zdenek Skrivenek) who first escaped to London from his native Czechoslovakia in 1939 on the eve of the World War II. He returned home in 1945 but felt compelled to leave permanently in 1949, this time moving to Ireland accompanied by an Irish wife Nan Keating and their young daughter Maria. After overcoming significant adversity in his adopted country he became a successful businessman, setting up Farmhand that employed up to fifty people.
Scrivener’s story is recorded in a self-published book from 1991: The Skrivaneks and the Scriveners (A Czech in Ireland). Written with clarity and honesty, it offers a touching insight into the human toll of seismic political events: first the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939 only months after Neville Chamberlain’s notorious Munich Agreement with Hitler that promised ‘peace in our time’, and handed the country over to the Nazis without a bullet being fired; then a Communist dictatorship that followed World War II and lasted until 1989.
Denis’s father was a furrier and during the inter war years ran a successful shop in the centre of Prague. He led a privileged existence with summer trips to the French Riviera and displayed an abiding interest in the opposite sex to the understandable irritation of Denis’s mother. She had lost her first husband in the First World War although she had a child, Lilly, by him, six years older than Denis the only child from the second marriage. From his account it seems Denis enjoyed a rather idyllic childhood animated by winter sports and cultural visits to surrounding countries.
Denis’s parents met in his mother’s native Vienna but settled in his father’s homeland: the new state of Czechoslovakia, born after World War I, which prospered under the liberal guidance of Thomas Masaryk who was president from 1919 until his death in 1935.
Denis escaped to London in 1939 before the German invasion but his remaining family harboured a secret that would prove fatal to some of them. Although officially Roman Catholic Denis’s mother was Jewish by ancestry. In liberal inter-war Czechoslovakia that did not appear to be of any consequence. Denis recalls that: ‘One of the pleasant aspect of living in Czechoslovakia at the time was that you never really knew what religion the other person had, child or adult, and more importantly didn’t care.’
That changed abruptly when the Germans invaded. If the Nazis discovered that Denis’s father was married to a Jew he too would have been considered one under their race laws. Denis asserts that: ‘if my father’s character had been less strong than it was then his infatuation with another woman could have caused a premature and tragic end to my mother’s life. Not an exaggeration to say this, merely a reflection on the realities of the time.’
His father did not succumb to that temptation despite his wife discovering at least one of his infidelities and being in Denis’s estimation ‘a rather difficult wife to live with’: albeit her husband’s conduct might have explained any irascibility.
Alas Denis’s sister Lilly was not so fortunate. She and her two children Inuska and Tomicek were sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1941. Here, remarkably, she re-married and the family survived for two years in no small part down to the influence of Mr Skrivenek who from outside procured extra rations for his step-daughter’s family. But alas Lily, her two children and husband Kuba were all transported to Auschwitz and murdered in 1943, a fate that befell most of Denis’s Jewish relations.
During the occupation Denis’s parents were also incarcerated by the Nazi authorities, and even subjected to solitary confinement, for a period of ten months. Miraculously his mother’s Jewish background was not exposed. This came about because they were denounced to the Gestapo for currency fraud by Denis’s mother’s own sister, who had moved to New York before the war. She informed on them because some of her property had not been sent to her. It reveals his mother’s attachment to her family that she could overlook this treachery to the extent that for a time in the late 1960s they would even live together in Dublin.
In 1939 Denis had escaped on one of the last trains out of the country. At the British border controls in the Netherlands what helped him through without a visa was a good knowledge of English learnt at the English Grammar School in Prague. But for that he might have suffered the fate of the failed applicants who he observed being beaten up by the Dutch police and bundled on a train back into the jaws of Nazi Germany.
Denis worked various jobs on arrival in wartime Britain. He found employment in a munitions factory in what he considered the dowdy town of Warrington where willingness to work long hours for extra pay brought friction with the union that felt this showed his fellow workers in a bad light. But he mainly lived in London where he became a waiter in The Dorchester serving, among others, Winston Churchill and the exiled King Peter of Yugoslavia. It was then that he met and fell in love with a Tipperary nurse Nan Keating. They married in 1943 in London.
But their honeymoon was a hurried weekend in Southend-on-Sea as Denis had by then volunteered for the Free Czech Army. He joined a tank regiment and was soon acting as an instructor. He paints a bleak picture of army life that recalls episodes from the great anti-war Czech novel The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek. He admits that life ‘for many months was difficult to endure’, as he encountered bullying officers and dreadful food. Denis’s regiment arrived in France two weeks after the D-Day landings in 1944.
As the Americans and British armies swept through Western Europe Denis’s regiment stayed put containing German forces in Dunkirk. They sustained considerable casualties from artillery bombardment but Denis emerge unscathed. Through his eyes we see the misery and filth of war and how simply surviving from one day to the next becomes an overriding objective. At least with a keen eye for a profit margin, that would serve him well in later years, he enhanced his paltry allowance by selling his cigarette rations at a substantial mark-up to the liberated French.
Germany surrendered unconditionally on May 8th 1945 and at last he returned to Czechoslovakia in the wake of American forces in 1945 who halted in Pilsen to allow Soviet forces liberate Prague. Now within 100km of his native city Denis resolved to make his way there before he had leave to do so.
Travelling by motorbike terrible thoughts ran through his mind. He had had no contact with his family for six years and the Jewish Holocaust was being revealed. At his parents pre-war apartment he found no sign of their names on the residents’ list outside. His heart sank but at last he found out from a neighbour that their plush pre-war residence had been commandeered by the invaders. They had moved to an inferior flat, but it seemed they were alive.
When his mother opened the door to him she promptly fainted, but soon recovered and was delighted to hear of his marriage. His father, typically, asked whether his wife had good legs. Only later did Dennis learn of his sister’s fate, her family’s, and many others. He managed to re-join his regiment without repercussions and soon returned to Prague to resume his pre-war employment in his father’s firm.
Nan Keating arrived in Prague after some months on a British aeroplane. The couple found a stylish apartment on Wencelas Square in the heart of Prague’s Old Town and the joviality of the inter-war years seemed to be returning. For some time the young couple were able to soak up Prague’s alluring night life. Soon a first child, Maria, was born and Nan, who had already acquired some Czech in London, was learning about Czech cuisine under the critical gaze of her not always helpful mother-in-law. But that pleasant interlude would not last long as Nazi tyranny was quickly followed by Communist dictatorship.
The Communist party was well supported in pre-war Czechoslovakia and had been to the fore in opposition to the Nazis. In 1947 elections the party won over 30% of the vote and led a coalition government. But the country was effectively left to the Soviet Union by the Western Powers as it had been to the Nazis in the Munich Agreement of 1938.
This became apparent when often unruly Russian soldiers began to flood the city. Denis recalls how they became: ‘more evident around Prague and their chief leisure occupation became the stealing of motorbikes, robbing people of watches and molesting our women who didn’t have to be young or pretty to attract their unwelcome attraction.’
His anxiety grew as the Communists gradually asserted total power expelling other parties from the government. His tipping point was the apparent suicide in 1948 of the one non-Communist member of the government, foreign minister Jan Masaryk, the son of the Tomas Masaryk. A police investigation in the 1990s concluded that he was thrown from his balcony in the foreign ministry.
Denis resolved to emigrate to his wife’s country which he had never visited, though he did consider returning to London which Nan would have preferred. He regarded Ireland as: ‘a more romantic kind of choice with something of an adventure attached’. Unfortunately adventurous and romantic choices do not necessarily make for an easy life.
Their mind was made up when a visa arrived from the Irish Department of Justice and they were on their way to Ireland just after Eamon de Valera left office after sixteen years in power. The thrusting, cosmopolitan Czech was in for a testing period when he arrived in the economically-stagnant and inward-looking Ireland of the 1950s.
The first port of call was the family farm in Powerstown, County Tipperary which at the time had no electricity or running water. Denis arrived first with his daughter, the three year old Maria, who stubbornly refused to speak English despite being brought up bi-lingually. Nan soon followed.
The problem for Dennis was that for all his business acumen he arrived without a regular trade or profession and the furrier business wasn’t booming in post-war Ireland. He hatched a number of schemes from importing biros to manufacturing toys but for much of the 1950s he was forced into long hours of unrewarding and often menial labour.
Along the way he was treated abysmally by a number of employers as he struggled to support a growing family that would soon include a son John and another daughter Cathy. He endured a particularly unpleasant episode under the employment of one Cork businessman who forced him into hard labour with the promise that he would be given a motor car sales franchise in Dublin. He bitterly recalls that this was ‘my first Irish experience of being let down in a major way, to be followed, over the years, by many others.’ He reckons that ‘there was no question that as a foreigner I was severely discriminated against. But at least Denis exacted a measure of revenge against that businessman in the courts.
Through hard work and persistence Denis slowly made his way by becoming a skilled salesman of tractors in the era of the Massey Ferguson. He says that: ‘working in my father’s business taught me quite a bit about how to create the desire in a prospective customer, how to present my product in a way that would meet his expectations and how to close the sale.’
Dennis’s methods included keeping a file on all prospective clients that would allow him to ask about the wellbeing of a son in America or how the farm’s side line in potatoes was doing. Within a few years these skills brought rewards and he eventually launched his own company which he called Farmhand, an enterprise that survives today.
He concludes: ‘Ireland had been kind to me but dreadfully slow in allowing me to establish myself. Not only that it also gave me a number of hefty “kicks in the teeth” in that tedious and long process.’ But he retained an affection for the country and even after he had handed over Farmhand to his son John and spent a few years in the UK and Canada he decided to return to live out his final years in his adopted country.
It is revealing that Denis should recall one particular episode from this childhood. An older boy, unknown to him or his friends, noticed the commotion and asked Denis if he would like to be shown how to perform a figure of eight. Denis was delighted at the prospect and handed over the bike. The boy performed the stunt and promptly cycled off on his new bike. Denis’s life was punctuated by loss, material and otherwise, and he encountered a few con-men along the way but he would work hard to restore his fortunes.
His account shows what life was like for an ordinary person living through terrible times and finding a sanctuary of sorts in a remote country where he struggled to make his way. On an epic journey he encountered all sides of the human character and confronted sustained adversity making him a remarkably resourceful individual but perhaps the constant striving left him a troubled man too. The drive that brought him such success left little time for family life and it might come as no surprise that Nan and he separated after he became successful.
His survival instincts are an inspiration to anyone who finds themselves in a new country. It is also a tale for our time as we see millions of refugees passing through Europe once again. His example suggests that those wishing to enter Europe will also offer a dynamism and hard work ethic to their host societies.