Jan Munk

18.02.2016 | 19:58
Jan Munk

Surviving Was a Miracle

These are the memories of Jan Munk, doctor of philosophy, PhD and the current director of the Monument of Terezín, about his mother Věra and others he likes to think of. Jan’s grandfather from his mother’s side Bedřich Polák came from Jičín and had a small business in Proseč near Skuteč which commissioned seamstresses, and later, he built a small factory for himself. The grandmother – Věra’s mother – Markéta Poláková (Lengsfeldová), was born in Prague and helped the grandfather with his trade.

Although Jan’s mother was born in Prague 14th April 1920, she grew up in the picturesque town of Proseč near Litomyšl. She had a younger sister Hana who died along with their mother during the evacuation of the concentration camp Stutthof in present-day Poland at the end of the war. Mother’s memories of her childhood and time spent with her parents would often go back to their relatives’ visits, especially on important holidays, always linked to going to the synagogue. Fourteen kilometres away was a town of Luže, which was the destination of these frequent visits, and where Jan’s grandfather’s brother Emil Polák and his family were living.
Věra went to primary school in Proseč and grammar school in Vysoké Mýto. However, she did not graduate from the grammar school since, because of the occupation of Czechoslovakia and the rise of Nazism, anti-Jewish regulations came into eff ect, which among other things banned Jews from going to school. My mother therefore left Prague to join the family of her aunt Božena Sternschussová where she helped in their household. She met her fi rst husband Otto Scharpner in Prague and she got married not long before the start of the war. They lived in the fl at of her husband’s parents at Malé náměstí 1. First, she travelled to see her parents in Proseč, but later, as a result of another anti- Jewish measure – a ban on travelling, she only kept in touch with them in writing. One of her very intense memories of the beginning of the war was another anti-Jewish measure – the ban on keeping dogs which aff ected their fox terrier. Although they had found a family that was willing to look after it, the dog completely ignored the Nazi rule to live with someone else and kept coming back home to the Poláks, but only until the moment when it was unlucky to end up under the wheels of a passing car.
In 1942 Věra’s relatives from Proseč, Luže and its surroundings received an order to come to Pardubice to be transported to Terezín. The Poláks had to leave their house in Proseč and move into one of the rooms at Mayor Herinek’s. What is interesting about this is the fact that the new residents in the Poláks’ house was a Reich’s German killed at the end of the war on the Eastern front and his wife – a Czech woman who after the war married a communist hoping to keep the house subsequently. However, Věra won the house back after a court trial and now, Jan’s daughter lives in it.
Otta, Věra’s husband, left in one of the fi rst transports to Terezín – coded AK – whose task was to set up a Jewish ghetto. Soon after, Věra volunteered to follow him but before that, she got pregnant and decided to have an abortion. She left Prague in transport M on 14th December 1941. From today’s point of view, Věra’s remark about the ghetto in Terezín: “Everybody there was still alive” seems to be incredible. There, it had long been believed that all those in AK transports were spared other transports, however, in the end the overwhelming majority of them ended up in Auschwitz. Věra got on transport M which was dispatched from Terezín to Auschwitz on 1st October 1944. After that, she was transported to German Freiberg near Dresden. From there, she was sent to the concentration camp in Mauthausen as part of the evacuation transports and there she was liberated by the Americans in May 1945. Věra’s husband Otta was transported from Auschwitz to the camp in Buchenwald where he was liberated on 11th April by Americans but he later died of infection in hospital.
Věra fi rst returned to Prague but she found the fl at in Malé náměstí empty. The house in Proseč was still occupied by the “collaborator” woman. She spent some time travelling to and fro between Prague, Luž and Proseč hoping for and expecting the return of the remaining family members. Regrettably, her waiting was vain as nobody had survived.
Finally, Věra came back to Prague and moved into the empty Scharpners’ fl at where at the beginning, she lived with other survivors – her distant relatives. She never found out what had happened to her loved ones. Some time later, Jan Munk discovered that their grandmother and mother’s sister Hanka had gone from Auschwitz to work in Germany where in May 1945 they had boarded a transport ship in Stutthof which sailed to the North Sea. However, as the ship was not fl ying a fl ag the allied airplanes attacked and sank it.
The widowed Věra had met Hynek Munk, later her second husband, who had been a trainer in the Roxy gym, where she had been exercising before the war. He was from Boskovice and both his parents died before the war. His brother Julo emigrated to Palestine at the beginning of the occupation and there he joined the British Army as a member of the Palestine units. Another brother Ota was married to a Christian woman therefore he got to Terezín at the end of the war where he stayed for about three months. His older sister Helena and her daughter Zuzka were also in the Terezín ghetto, where both of them saw the end of the war. Hynek was sent from Terezín to the family camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau. After a selection process his wife and little son were sent to the gas chamber. Hynek was not allowed to die with them by the SS-men; he was sent to work in Schwarzheide. During the evacuation, he was assigned to go on the death march however he survived and eventually returned to Terezín.
The wedding of Věra and Hynek, Jan’s parents, took place at the beginning of 1946. They took over the tie-making business from the Scharpners and ran it until the 1950s. Afterwards, the mother worked at Koospol export company and the father in ČKD factory but he did not stay there long. His war memories caught up with him badly and that is why he had to take early retirement on grounds of disability. Věra worked at Koospol until her retirement in 1969. After a short break, she became active for the Council of Jewish Religious Congregations until her death in 2002. Hynek died in 1986. Jan was born in September 1946 and has two younger siblings – his sister Hana is two years younger and his younger brother Petr is six years younger. After primary school, Jan continued into secondary school and later he wanted to go to The Theatre Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (DAMU) but was not successful. And as he puts it, he was lucky because in 1970 he graduated from the Faculty of Philosophy of Charles University in Prague – Sociology Course. He was awarded a scholarship at the Faculty of Pedagogy and two years later, he went to the newly formed Research and Studies Centre of Charles University. He held a student’s research post and passed his doctorate. In 1989 however, he decided to end what he today calls an absurd job, in which the outcome of his research was useless because the educational and learning process was controlled by ideological postulates and not by real facts. In 1966, his daughter Kateřina was born and in 1976 he married Gabriela Nekolná with whom he had two more daughters Markéta and Michaela. Five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren followed. Today, Kateřina and her children live in the villa in Proseč. In 1989 he went to work for the Czechoslovak Academy of Science, the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology; there the Velvet Revolution found him. In 1990 he learned from the Jewish community about a selection process for the position of director of Terezín Memorial. He applied for it, succeeded and has held this position since November 1990 until today.

Luděk Sládek, Recorded in March 2013  



Jan Munk Tanks of 11th US Armoured Division entering to Mauthausen camp (May 6, 1945) Jan’s mother Jan Munk is the director of the Terezín Memorial since 1990 Jan Munk is the director of the Terezín Memorial since 1990 Jan Munk

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