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Stage 7 – East London, Essex - 28 February 2020

From the notes of Ambassador Libor Sečka:

Shabbat is the observation of rest on the seventh day of the week, which in Judaism is Saturday. Already on its eve, however, activity within the Jewish community slows down. Opening hours are limited on Friday, and this applies also to Jewish cemeteries. Our meeting at the East Ham Jewish Cemetery with Baron Daniel Finkelstein, a leading journalist with The Times of London and a member of the British Parliament’s House of Lords, had to be moved from the originally planned afternoon term to before noon. Daniel and I have known each other since before the referendum on Great Britain’s exit from the EU. Together with Matthew Parris and Philip Collins, he is one of my favourite Times columnists as well as a regular visitor to the ambassadorial residence. The Never Forgotten project so intrigued him that he accepted my invitation to honour the memory of four Czechoslovak soldiers of the Jewish faith who are buried in East London. Another motivation for him, however, was that this area is also the final resting place of his grandfather Adolf, whom he never knew and whose grave he had never visited for a variety of reasons.  

The Jewish cemetery on Marlow Road in East Ham is vast. A huge number of graves are crowded together here in an elaborate stone forest. The military section, where the remains of Vilém Bribram, Evžen Bedřich Pick and Jiří Evžen Mirovský Muller are buried, is clearly separated and lies in close proximity to the central United Synagogue. In the steadily intensifying icy rain, we paid tribute to them. To our surprise. however, we did not find in this section the grave of the fourth soldier on our prepared list, Viktor Schwarz. In fact, we did not find it at all – the first time this has happened in the course of our memorial travels. To the delight of our friend, we did, however, discover the grave of his grandfather. Daniel, with a yarmulke on his head beneath an umbrella, recited a prayer. He laid a flower and was glad to finally meet his ancestor, who before the war was the owner of a machine factory in Lwów. Frozen to the bone and under pressure of time, we left, knowing that we would have to return once more. The rose for Viktor Schwarz remained in the car.          

At the Eastbrookend Cemetery in Dagenham, I and my colleague, Aleš Opatrný, decided to ask for help in finding the grave of Spitfire pilot František Marek. The willing administrator led us unerringly to the final resting place of the young aviator. The cause of his death was probably a failure of the oxygen apparatus. Under the influence of persistent rain, the concrete grave has gradually taken on a grey-green patina, against which the Czech national colours still stand out on the fading flag fixed to the lower edge of the plaque. We had the feeling that we could have cut ice cubes straight from the heavy rain, so we hurried back to our car to warm up a bit. The gravestones of four more pilots – Prokop Brázda, Josef Valenta, František Bomisch and Blažej Konvalina – shone like little suns in the more widely spread out group of war graves at the cemetery in Hornchurch. Perhaps also for this reason, the surrounding decorative trees were already covered with blossoms during our visit at the end of February. The fates of the four Czechoslovaks were various. The best-known story is probably that of Prokop Brázda, who in April 1942 was operating over the Belgian city of Ostend when he was attacked by a group of German aircraft. Severely wounded and being pursued by the enemy, he returned to the British coast, but just before he could make an emergency landing his plane crashed. The life forces of Prokop Brázda apparently left him. I was very interested in another name: Blažej Konvalina. The main reason is that his birthplace was Blížkovice, a village just a few kilometres from Mramotice, where I grew up a few decades later. I was duly proud of my fellow countryman, who met an unfortunate death while on a training flight.

On the way to our final destination – Southend-on-Sea – we stopped at another Jewish cemetery, this time in Rainham. The grave of Maxmilian Schwarz, a soldier of Slovak nationality and Jewish religion who was one of the participants in the rebellion in the Czechoslovak Army at Cholmondeley, is hunched in the mud in the middle of the memorial grounds, surrounded by impressive stele. As if it was waiting for us. In addition to a rose, on the small ledge we left a traditional stone symbolizing the union of generations. We arrived on time in Leigh-on-Sea (part of the Southend Autonomous District) at the headquarters of the Conservative Association. A meeting of the representatives of this special self-governing unit had just concluded, during which they decided to elevate their status from a traditional “town” to a “city”. (Coincidentally, I wrote about the meaning and differences between the two terms in a report from Stage 2 of our travels). Their request will first be dealt with by Parliament, then the Government, after which the Queen will have the final say. I could see enthusiasm in the eyes of participants of this historic meeting. Everyone important to the local community was here: the head of the football club, an organizer of cultural life, business representatives, Mayor John Lamb, and especially the Member of Parliament for this district, Sir David Amess.

Sir David and I were meeting each other for the first time. However, our encounter was preceded by a curious story. This British politician, who consistently and vigorously advocated for the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union, turned to me in an unusual way: with a complaint about the visiting hours of the Plzeň Prison. The tone and content of his message surprised me so much that I could not leave the matter unanswered. I decided to offer the Honourable Member of Parliament more relevant information regarding Czech–British relations and at the same time invite him to honour the memory of those who fought for our common freedom and common democracy. Sir David accepted my invitation. In the presence of Mayor John Lamb and our good friend, City of London Councillor Karina Dostalová, we laid flowers at the graves of two Czechoslovak soldiers – František Hradil and Bedřich Šimáček. Sir David, a Member of Parliament for 37 years, had not known until then about the presence of Czechoslovaks at this cemetery in his constituency and was moved by the small ceremony. He was eager to learn about their stories and the surrounding circumstances. And perhaps one more detail, illustrating the professionalism of British politicians: Sir David wore a tie in bold British national colours to negotiate with local officials, while for the journey to the Commonwealth War Graves he exchanged it unobtrusively for a fashion accessory in green-red-yellow tones, better reflecting symbols of the Commonwealth. Britain stands and falls with tradition.

The Never Forgotten project has won the auspices of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic, Tomáš Petříček, and the Minister of Defence of the Czech Republic, Lubomír Metnar. Also beginning to participate are members of the British Parliament, mayors, representatives of various institutions, and many other interested parties. This is a testament to its open character. We’re on the right track.


London, 1 March 2020                                                                                          Libor Sečka             





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