Ján Lenský (1928)

Photo: Ján Lenský

Biography

“It was such a process and today I think about that human ethic, morality and justice. These are questions I’m unable to answer because it’s not possible at all.”

Ján Lenský was born on January 27, 1928 in Prague. He comes from a Jewish family, but his parents were never active as for their religion, they didn’t abide by the traditions, they preferred the way of assimilation. Ján used to be shy as a child and he often felt lonely; moreover, tense pre-war atmosphere left scars on him, too. Later, he managed to gain his lost self-confidence thanks to the violin playing, which he has excelled in since his early childhood. He attended municipal school and later grammar school in Prague. Beginning of the Second World War meant the stop-out of his grammar school studies. Aryanization affected also his father. They deprived him of his shop. In 1939 the whole family got themselves christened, what initially saved them before being sent to concentration camps. In winter 1941, when the situation in Czech Republic sharpened, the whole family decided to flee to Slovakia, where the atmosphere was relatively calm at that time. They arrived in Levoča, where they lived for some time. After the outbreak of the Slovak National Uprising they were forced to flee from Germans, so they joined a partisan group as civilians. Ján’s parents weren’t able to walk in the mountains, so they returned back to the town. They were immediately deported to concentration camps. Ján kept going with partisans, but at last he gave it up as well. Then he managed to stay in hiding in Levoča and in the village of Kolačkov. After the end of war and many long years of separation, the family finally reunited in Prague. Ján pursued his grammar school studies and passed the school leaving exam. In 1947 he left for London, where he managed to get a scholarship at the prestigious Royal College of Music. In the year 1958 he started working as a violin player and conductor for an English opera ensemble, where he also met his second wife. They married in 1961. In this period of time he also met a lot of highly regarded musicians and conductors. He decided to immigrate to the USA along with his wife, an opera singer. They stayed in New York. Since 1970 they have lived and worked in Germany, where was Ján Lenský fully devoted to music.

Jewish Identity

Ján Lenský - Jewish Identity (data format Flash Video)

“There were various Jewish orientations. We preferred the way of assimilation before preserving our identity. Actually, as for that identity, we knew that when father disowned his son only because he married a non-Jewish girl, it preserved not only Jewish identity, but it preserved also anti-Semitism among people and we didn’t want to come into it.”

Coming to Slovakia

Ján Lenský - Coming to Slovakia (data format Flash Video)

“Later, transports began, in the year 1940 they started to transport Jews to concentration camps, at first to Theresienstadt and then to other ‘endlager’ [camps], where they never came back from. However, they didn’t take us because we were, or rather my father was born in Slovakia what meant that he was a foreigner. But it was a bit transparent excuse. A year later we heard that it wouldn’t continue and Germans would take everyone to the transports, foreigners included. And when we came to know it, my father decided to flee to Slovakia. It was such an expedition organised by some communists. It was during the skiing trip to Jeseníky Mountains because it was in winter. But Czechs weren’t allowed to own skis; they had to deliver them to our victorious army in Russia, so no one could go skiing. I remember that at the Wilson station there were people with various things. Everybody had a lamp or some other huge object, what were disguised skis indeed. It was very funny situation. And we came somewhere to Jeseníky, my mother and father were sitting in a sledge, a lot of snow was around us, and as we were going up some customs officer appeared in front of us. I didn’t know whether the communists knew him or not, but we thought not. And he suddenly pointed our direction. My father thought that he pointed at him, but actually he didn’t. My father thought: ‘It is the end, they have already caught us.’ You know, my father thought that the customs officer told to our leader, that communist organiser: ‘This man looks Jewish, doesn’t he?’ However, it wasn’t the truth; he said something different and pointed somewhere else. So nothing happened then. Later, they took us for a walk and we went to the border and crossed it. Yes, we walked down then. At that time we realised that our leader had disappeared. We were alone there and, of course, customs officers or rather policemen caught us. It was somewhere near the town of Púchov, so they took us to customs there and told us: ‘You have to be committed for trial in Nové Mesto nad Váhom.’ So we went there and we were fortunate because the judge was what we used to call Czechoslovak, it meant he was against Germans and he said: ‘What should I do with you? I cannot send you back, so go to Levoča.’ We wanted nothing else and thus we were really happy.”

With a Partisan Group

Ján Lenský - With a Partisan Group (data format Flash Video)

“We decided to join a partisan group. They took us as civilians, my mother, my father and me. However, we weren’t prepared for that kind of life at all. They didn’t have… It was very exhausting for absolutely untrained civilians. You know, we didn’t walk the paths; we went right through the forest, up and down. We were soaked. My mother wore such a felt boots which soaked up the water, so she couldn’t walk at all. They were behind. They couldn’t stand it any longer, but they convinced me to keep going with partisans. They wanted to return back to Levoča and hide there. I didn’t want it, I was exhausted. Sometimes we didn’t have anything to eat for many days. I used to cry the whole day, but I kept walking. Then I had no idea what had happened to my parents. I stayed with the partisans, but once I saw that they were heading to Poland, where I didn’t understand the language, I became really fearful. Later, when we came to Stará Ľubovňa, there was a river and a bridge over it. The bridge was watched by Germans and as partisans came there, shooting started, bullets flew around us, I had fear, of course, and then Germans took some men as captives. I can recall that there was absolute silence, nobody moved. Suddenly I heard a voice speaking German. It was one of the captives begging for mercy. He said: ‘My wife and children are waiting for me at home.’ Then, it was silence again. But I heard such a strange rattling then. They cut his throat. I didn’t want to go with the partisans any more. I decided to go back to Levoča.”

Beginning of Emigrant’s Life

Ján Lenský - Beginning of Emigrant’s Life (data format Flash Video)

“Finally I decided to stay [in England]. It had something to do with my studies. I wanted to study music there. You know, before the war Czechs had their golden treasure in a bank in London. And when the Nazis came, they froze it all. The money was later used for scholarships for Czech students. And I managed to get one, so I could stay there. I studied at the Royal College of Music for several years and my emigrant life began there, too. My parents, my father, who was a shopkeeper and a trader and who had lost everything because of the Czech coup d'état, the first one, came as well. He immigrated to London along with my mother and thus we met again.”

Nazism from German Point of View

Ján Lenský - Nazism from German Point of View (data format Flash Video)

“[In Germany] we founded out together that Nazism was a taboo topic, which people didn’t want to talk about at all. Once we were walking in a forest somewhere near the sea and there was a woodman, who was working with ‘Säge’, electric saw. The most probably he heard me speaking English with my wife, you know, in case you immigrate somewhere you have to learn a new language. I could speak German, but my wife couldn’t. Anyway, we have always spoken English in our household. Well, this man realised we were speaking English and came to us. I didn’t know how it occurred to him; he simply told us that during the war Jews used to work on this field. They lived in a camp in Kiel and everyday they were transported in ‘Anhänger’, you know when tractor has a kind of trailer, which was enwound with barbed wire. They had to stand and there were so many people that they couldn’t dodge. As they were on that field the trailer tilted from side to side and they were always screaming with pain when they fell on that barbed wire and all the other ended up lying on them. And he said: ‘When I was a boy I found it very funny.’ And he suddenly added: ‘Nowadays I feel ashamed about it.’ The German said these words then. It ‘beeindruckt’ me, it left very good impression on me.”

Concentration Hell – Part 1

Ján Lenský - Concentration Hell – Part 1 (data format Flash Video)

“Yet I haven’t told you what my parents were doing in concentration camps. Unlike my father, my mother used to talk about it. She told me what he was doing there because he said only a few words about it. He had something like an office work there. Actually, it was very different from it. When the burnt corpses got out of the gas chamber, he had to extract their gold teeth. And as we know these days, Germans used to send that gold to Switzerland.”

Concentration Hell – Part 2

Ján Lenský - Concentration Hell – Part 2 (data format Flash Video)

“They were lying there just like some sardines. There were no extra places, so when they had to go to the toilet at night, after coming back their place was gone. What could they do? They lay somewhere else and it went this way all night. My mother managed to get there somehow. And she used to complain about Russian women who were such pigs that they usually didn’t go to the toilet, but did it right there on the bunk bed, so the urine dripped down for the whole night.”

The story and videoclips of this witness were put together and published thanks to the financial support of EU within the programme Europe for Citizens – Active European Remembrance.

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