World War II Oral History interview
Veteran: Felix Kohn
Date: May 26, 2004
Czechoslovakian Army Squadron 311, British Royal Air Force
Interviewer: Carol Fowler and Brian Wick
Summarizers: Walt Borkowski and Josh Gilbert
For young Felix Kohn, World War II began in the early hours of March 13, 1939, when he, along with his younger brother and sister, was abruptly awakened in the family home in Brno, Czechoslovakia, bundled into the family car and taken to Prague, just ahead of an advancing German army.
Kohn was born in 1924 in Vienna, Austria, to a Jewish father and Roman Catholic mother. Although the family home and business was in Brno, Kohn’s mother thought it “more appropriate” that he be born in Vienna, the pre-World War I capital of the vanished Hapsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire, which had once included the territory that became Czechoslovakia. Shortly after his birth, Felix was brought home to Brno.
“We were extremely rich,” said Kohn. “We had a house with a huge garden. My grandfather and father owned a big brick factory with a large production of roof tiles, in a country where every house was built of brick and mortar. Our family also owned a third of a big cement works.” In addition to that, the Kohns owned “hundreds of lots, and property all over and around the town.” Brno was “a highly industrial town; there were textile mills and a machine gun factory - a lot of industry,” he told the interviewer.
Kohn noted that his maternal grandfather was an artist who painted portraits of just about every royal figure in Europe, including the German Kaiser and Hapsburg emperor Franz Josef in the years prior to World War I. He had been to America, where he painted “… many millionaires… [and] the American President “F.D.R.,” [Franklin Delano Roosevelt]. “My mother learned many languages,” Kohn said; “Hungarian, German, English and French, but the Viennese tended to look down on the Czechs, so she never learned a word of Czech. At home, before the war, we spoke German. Probably fifty percent of the townspeople in Brno were able to speak both German and Czech, but mainly they spoke Czech. The townspeople were mostly Protestant. I was brought up Roman Catholic, but we were not very religious.”
Kohn said that “at thirteen years old I knew trouble was heading our way, but didn’t know how much there would be. On the radio we heard a lot of the German speeches, and then witnessed the agitation those speeches were producing - then came the [German] Anschluss [with Austria] in 1938, and after Chamberlain signed the Munich agreement [in September, 1938], it was obvious they were going to take Czechoslovakia. We expected the Germans to take the border country [Sudetenland, occupied in October, 1938], but not the whole country, as they said they didn’t want it. A remarkable thing was, when the Germans took over, many people who never said a word in German before became violent Germans themselves. Our head gardener became a fanatical German.”
Kohn remembered that his family heard that the Germans were arresting and confining people in the occupied areas, but that in what remained of Czechoslovakia, “it was relatively quiet at the start, but we knew the Germans were establishing concentration camps, and that worried us. We had enough assets to be worried.”
Then, around midnight on March 13, 1939, the Kohns heard “over the radio that the Germans were moving in,” so they took off for Prague, where they met with their attorney. The next day Kohn looked out the window in the lawyer’s office and saw Adolph Hitler pass by in a motorcade. In a matter of days, apparently through bribery of German officials, Kohn had acquired a passport and visa and was placed, alone, on a train to Brussels, Belgium. He remembered that the trip took him through Germany and Holland, and that his brother and sister flew out to join him a few days later. Kohn recalled that his grandfather stayed in Czechoslovakia in an apartment he owned, but was later taken to the Terezin concentration camp near Prague, and that “there are no records on what happened to him at Terezin.”
Kohn told the interviewer that his father and mother remained in Prague for a while and obtained a formal divorce, “to try and save some of their property, which didn’t happen.” His father was arrested and held in the vault of a bank in Prague. He got out very quickly, however, and somehow was smuggled out of Czechoslovakia and made it to London. Kohn’s mother left Czechoslovakia sometime in August of 1939 and arrived by train in Brussels on September 1, “the day Germany invaded Poland.”
In Brussels, Kohn recalled, “we did not live very badly. A salesman from the family brickworks who lived there was Jewish and his wife was Belgian. We had a pretty good arrangement. My mother had brought her jewelry with her. It was cramped. It was a different lifestyle from our previous one. We went to school and picked up French very quickly.” In March, 1940, when the Kohns sensed that the Germans were preparing to invade France, they left Brussels and traveled through Paris to Nice, a city in southern France on the Mediterranean Sea, where “we went to school and occasionally went into the country for black market eggs and other stuff.”
A rumor circulated that Mussolini was about to invade France’s southern coast, Kohn recalled, and so “we went to a village south of the Rhone River called Aigues Vives; it was very primitive. There were 1,500 hundred villagers and over 3,000 refugees, both military and civilian, there. The village had two toilets, one in the priest’s house and another in the hotel. There was no running water, no sewer and a little electricity. It was unsafe to drink the water so we drank Rose wine. In few weeks things settled down, so we went back to Nice.”
Following the fall of France, the Kohns found themselves living in the unoccupied part of the country controlled by the French government in Vichy, which collaborated with the Germans. He described living in “the so-called free France, which was free only to the extent that the Germans weren’t there openly. You couldn’t talk openly. The food rations were very tight, only two or three slices of bread with butter each week. In that situation you cling to each other hoping that things would work out.” Kohn said that he, with his mother, brother, and sister, stayed in Nice until June 1942, when the Czech Consulate in Marseilles “managed to get us passports and visas.” The family then travelled by train through France and over the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain. “In Madrid we overate. After starving for so long; we all got sick.”
Kohn recalled how hot it was on the subsequent train ride from Madrid to Lisbon, Portugal, and how the smoke and dirt from the train’s wood burning steam engine flew into the open windows. “We were all black when we arrived in Lisbon.” The family stayed in Lisbon for only a few days, just long enough to get a flight to England. He recalled that “all the [plane] windows were blacked out as we flew over the Bay of Biscay.” The plane landed in Bristol, England, and a few days later, the family was reunited with Kohn’s father in London. Kohn said they were all happy to be in England. “It was very civilized and more stable, except at night when the [air raid] sirens started to go off.” He said his father never discussed his life in England.
Kohn recuperated from his ordeal throughout the summer of 1942, and in September he went to work in a war production factory manufacturing Bofors anti-aircraft guns. Since he had turned 18, however, he decided to help in the war effort more directly, and he enlisted in the Czech military in exile in Britain. Kohn entered active service in January 1943, and following basic training and a stint guarding beaches at Harwich, was assigned to the 311 Squadron, one of four Czech squadrons in the Royal Air Force. Upon completion of further training in Wales and Birmingham, he was stationed at an airfield in southern Cornwall, near the village of Mullion, from where Marconi had transmitted his first transatlantic message to North America. Kohn worked as a ground crewman, specializing in refueling aircraft, and liked the area where he was stationed. He said “we couldn’t get much time off, but when we did the people were very accommodating.”
Kohn mentioned that the British Royal Air Force consisted of three separate commands: Fighter Command, Bomber Command and Coastal Command, and that his Squadron was under the latter. He recalled how the squadron’s planes, American-made B-24 Liberator bombers, were in the air nonstop on anti-submarine patrol during the Normandy Invasion on June 6, 1944.
After the initial stages of the D-Day invasion were successfully completed, Kohn’s Czech squadron was ordered to the small town of Tain, Scotland, where it operated out of an air base near the most northern mainland point in Great Britain, John-O-Groats. The B-24s flew anti-submarine cover for American convoys going to and from the northern Russian city of Murmansk. Kohn mentioned that it took two full tanker trucks of gas to fill each plane, which had one fuel tank in each wing, plus auxiliary tanks in the bomb bays. He said he and his fellow airmen never got to town much, but that he did recall going on leave twice to visit his family in London.
In the summer of 1945, following the end of the war in Europe, 311 Squadron was transferred yet again, to a base near Canterbury, where he remembered that the unit celebrated the end of the war in the Pacific. The squadron then flew to Prague. He recalled that on the way, “they flew us over Cologne, Germany. It was some sight. The cathedral was standing, but all around it was nothing. They had really destroyed that town. I cheered. We had no sympathy for the Germans... I’m sorry to say.”
On arrival in Prague, Kohn noted that the barracks in the city were mostly taken over by Russians; he was amazed when he saw Russian men and women showering naked together. He said “the Russian army was totally uncivilized.” They had occupied his home in Brno, so he never went inside. “I wasn’t going to mix with them, but we had no trouble with the Russian army. They left in the fall of 1945.”
Kohn was discharged in September 1945, and took a job spinning wool at a mill in Bohemia. He left there for another job in Moravia, but was severely injured while riding a motorcycle. He then spent a considerable amount of time in Prague, where he was treated by a doctor he knew from the air force. By 1948 “the Communists were becoming very aggressive and very anti to whoever had served in the West during the war. Just like before with the Germans - the people who didn’t declare themselves German but did the agitating - the people who turned Communist worked very hard at it. You did not know what was going to happen day to day. The underhandedness going on was very confusing. The people we had known before the war were mostly Jewish. After 1945, there were none of them left. I didn’t know anyone in the areas that I went to, so, in February 1948, with great difficulty, but with help from some friends, I managed to cross into the Russian occupied zone of Austria.”
Kohn remembered how very poor the conditions were in Austria at that time. He recalled being stopped somewhere in Austria and ordered to return to Czechoslovakia, but the conductor put him on the wrong train, and he got off it very close to Vienna and took a trolley into the city, where he reported to a British army post. He presented the RAF military documents that he had carried with him since the war to the British authorities and “they took care of me.”
Kohn went to work in the British motor pool in Vienna. He recalled how British, French, American and Russian soldiers would patrol Vienna in the same jeep together, but couldn’t talk to each other. He said that the British hired many refugees to work for them, and that “they stole the British blind.” Kohn told the British what was going on, and afterward became afraid for his life. When the Russians found out he was a Czech working for the British he “had to cross into the American zone, illegally.” He then went to the British consul in Salzburg, “where I got travel papers and a visa, then took a train to Hamburg and got on a ship going to England, and got back to London.”
Unable to go back to work in the British munitions factory because of injuries he sustained in the motorcycle accident, Kohn took a number of sales jobs, which were “not very high paying, but I survived.” He remarked that the English lifestyle was very formal. “When the Americans arrived in England, one of the problems was they didn’t have British polish. My mother, who had lived in America, England and France, was very enamored with British style, the courtesy and all that, and we were brought up in that way, so it wasn’t strange for us.” Kohn lived by himself in a rented room paid for by the week, “which was very common in those days.” Kohn remained in England until the early 1960s, when the Russians got very aggressive over Berlin. “I got very concerned, because it looked like there would be big trouble again” in Europe, he said. At that time Kohn was working for a company that made coin operated car washing equipment; so, when the company decided to expand to North America, he went to the United States as a company representative. Kohn remarked that “the coin boxes were made of plastic, and as soon as we put them out on the grounds, someone would come along and steal the coins. It didn’t work out. We didn’t expect that. It did not happen in England.”
Kohn was married at that time; and, as soon as he was settled in the United States, his family came over. “We have been here ever since September 1963,” he told the interviewer. He said his first shock in America was “everyone calling me by my first name. In England you had to know someone a very long time before being addressed by your first name. Here everyone called me Felix. My second shock was when someone pointed at a lady and said, ‘look at that broad.’ I couldn’t believe it. I had never heard that expression before. There was a lot of getting used to.”
Kohn said “with the Russians getting so agitated, I was very concerned about another war. I felt safer here.” He mentioned that there has never been peace throughout the history of Europe. “There was nothing very strange with what had been going on, but it wasn’t very pleasant.” He noted that, at the present time, European countries are not as religious as Arab countries, and mentioned reading a story about “2,000 young men between the ages of 14 and 24 who were repatriated from a refugee camp in Pakistan and taken back to Afghanistan. Not one could add one and one or had the slightest idea of geography, but they all could quote the entire version of the Al Qaeda Koran from the first to the last word.”
Kohn believed that young people should read more; and, he was concerned about our troops going into Iraq and Afghanistan “without the slightest idea of what is going on.” He mentioned that reading a book by an American born and educated Arab woman, Queen Noor [of Jordan], gave him insight into Arab-Israeli relations. He said that he spoke four languages, and was amazed how they had all changed by adapting to new computer technology terms. He mentioned that he was asked to speak on his life experiences at Brookdale College, but that although the event planners "had been expecting 50 people, but less than a half dozen showed up.”
During his interview, Kohn displayed several travel documents, including a visa and passport used when he travelled through Europe during the war. He also displayed his Czech and British military pay records, with his mother’s maiden name, Ferris, that Kohn used as his surname at that time. He also showed his military induction notice by the British and Czech authorities instructing him in English to bring certain documents, and limiting the amount of clothes he would need upon entering the service. He was awarded the Czech Good Conduct Medal and other decorations for his service in World War II
Kohn said his mother remained in England after the war and died there in 1986. His sister, who worked as a nurse in Kenya for some time, still lives in England, as does his brother. Kohn mentioned that, since coming to the United States, he had been to 47 of the 50 states. He didn’t know if he would want to go back to live in England. At the time of the interview, three of Felix Kohn’s children were living in the United States, and another abroad.