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Stage 2 – Northampton, Aston Abbotts - 22 January 2020

From the notes of Ambassador Libor Sečka:

English differentiates linguistically between cities (large population centres) and towns (small and medium-sized communities). There is likely no clear definition distinguishing the difference between the two terms. It is somehow intuited rather than codified in some way, just like many other things in the United Kingdom. Generally, it is considered that a town is an area where people live within defined boundaries and have their own local government. A city tends to be larger and is often the seat of a bishop. Few Czech people know that in the category of small and medium-sized British towns Northampton is the third largest. This town about 90 km north of London has more than 220,000 inhabitants today. But just as interesting for Czechs and Slovaks may be that six Czechoslovak soldiers found their final resting place here during World War II. That is the reason my colleague Martin and I set out to visit Northampton.

On a rainy, sleepy morning we criss-crossed the vast area of the ​​Kingsthorpe Cemetery looking for the familiar silhouette of Czechoslovak war graves. The silence of the green space was disturbed only by the noise of an aircraft engine lazily passing through the grey cotton clouds. The sound, which struck us not as unnerving, but rather it added the finishing touch to the atmosphere. Water vapor was rising from the paths, graves, and grassy tracts. We headed slowly upward. A group of military graves simply could not be overlooked. In the rows of tombstones, carefully aligned as if from professional duty, they occupied the highest point of the cemetery. The Czechoslovak graves took centre position. In the second row is the plaque of Gejza Pokšiva, a soldier of Slovak nationality who was born in Šarišské Lúky. Historical sources indicate that he was a great searcher, driver and shooter. Unfortunately, it was his fate that he didn’t live even to the age of twenty. Behind his gravestone, like twins, rise the stelae of Matěj Fišer and Josef Pospíšil. Both lived through the turmoil of World War I, and in the Second World War, by way of the Middle East, they gradually arrived in Britain. Technical Sergeant Josef Pospíšil, a participant in the Battle of Tobruk, died in service in November 1943. Matěj Fišer died in the same month of the same year in a local hospital. We found their graves to be in perfect condition.

The Towcester Road Cemetery takes pride in its designation “Commonwealth War Graves”, and at its centre rises a memorial to the victims of World War I. Our task was to find the graves of three other Czechoslovak soldiers of the Jewish faith who are buried here. I’ll admit that it took us a while to find the Jewish part of the cemetery. It is hidden in one corner, separated by a wide, open area and a dense hedge. The graves are situated more closely together than in the other sections of the cemetery. The tombstones of the Czechoslovak soldiers are a bit of an exception: on the one hand, the shade of stone is noticeably lighter than the others, and on the other hand, there is much more space around them. All three soldiers, Leopold Gertsmann, Jiří Ehrmann and Bedřich Karel Stein, at different times joined various contingents of the Czechoslovak Army in the Middle East. In England they were assigned to the Independent Armoured Brigade. They all died in hospitals in or around Northampton. Bedřich Karel Stein died as the result of a gunshot wound that he caused with suicidal intent. It was here that I realized how little we really know about those who decided to fight for the freedom of their homeland. After the passage of more than 75 years, we can only guess at what inner dramas played out in them, what personal challenges they must have faced, and how they dealt with external conditions. The fact that they did not remain passive was an expression of their will and determination to do the thing that they believed had to be done. They deserve our unequivocal respect. All of them.

Let us remain in the Jewish Cemetery for a while. The graves of our soldiers are decorated with colourful stones. Four are perched at the lower edge of the tombstone and one on the upper edge. I understood from internet sources that this is an ancient Jewish custom. The stone is meant to symbolize the union of father and son, the continuity of generations. Therefore, we can interpret the stones on the graves of Czechoslovak soldiers as a connection with our generation. They are with us; they are not forgotten. The motto of our mission is being fulfilled.

However, in addition to cemeteries there are other important memorial sites that recall the Czechoslovak wartime presence in Great Britain. Without question, one of them is the village of Aston Abbotts in the country of Buckinghamshire, where President Edvard Beneš lived and worked during the air raids on London. Waiting for us at the local Royal Oak pub was an 84-year-old witness to those times: Colin Higgs, a bell ringer, the official “winder” of the church clock, and the heart and soul of all social life in the village. For his important long-time work and concern for the local community he was awarded the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in December 2019, with the award ceremony set for March of this year. From the neighbouring village of Wingrave, where the staff of the office of the President lived, came the local historian and chronicler, the wonderful Prudence Goodwin. The gathering was completed by the journalist and writer Neil Rees, who has long devoted himself to the history of Czechoslovak–British wartime relations. We ordered beef stew, a bit like our own goulash of individuals, with dumplings even, and also with mashed potatoes. Accompanied by beer and lively discussion, it turned out to be an ideal combination.

Our conversation covered more than just the past, and Mrs. Goodwin brought us a number of unique souvenirs from her collection, but above all she contributed her own presence. Both villages have the wish to properly celebrate together the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. Together, but each village separately, which fully corresponds to their ancient local rivalry. When we see the enthusiasm, joy and pride of the people who are the protectors and bearers of the Czechoslovak–British wartime heritage in the county of Buckinghamshire, we’ll do our best not to disappoint. The names Masaryk, Beneš and others speak as strongly to them as they do to us. And our past remains for them very much the present. Including a bus stop at a crossroads that President Beneš dedicated to the residents of both villages.


London, 23 January 2020, Libor Sečka

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Gallery Northampton, Aston Abbotts