Born to an assimilated Jewish family in Prague in 1893, Maria Schmolka went on to be one of the key organisers of Jewish emigration in the 1930s and her appeals brought Nicholas Winton to Prague and played a key role in the Kindertransport.
Prior to her role in the Kindertransport, she became quite successful working in a bank, eventually being appointed Deputy Manager. She is said to have ‘married late and was widowed early’, and her mother described her ‘as active as a man’, a characteristic that remained with her all her life.
After the death of her husband she took a trip to Egypt, Syria and Palestine, organised by an old teacher who asked Irma Polak of WIZO to set up Maria’s itinerary. Following her trip, she joined WIZO and became active in Social Work for Refugees. A lifelong Social Democrat, she was involved in social work and top-level politics, and with Hitler’s takeover in neighbouring Germany, she took on coordinating the assistance to refugees from the Nazi regime who sought asylum in Czechoslovakia.
The WIZO founder Rebecca Sieff remembered: “She refused to be intimidated, either by the threats of hostile governments, or by the barriers of pomp and circumstance which surround even friendly governments and their chancelleries.”
In 1933, the refugee relief effort in Czechoslovakia changed drastically, they took in thousands of political refugees and Maria organised visas, negotiated with the police for the right of domicile, set up housing and financial support, and negotiated with employers to supply refugees with jobs. She eventually became the president of the National Coordinating Committee for Refugees in Czechoslovakia and went on solely to represent her country at the Evian Conference in 1938. Maria saw that the originally welcoming attitude to Jews in Czechoslovakia was changing and after the Munich Agreement and annexation of Czechoslovak borderlands, it was clear this could not be a final destination for Jewish families.
In Prague, the relief organisations were overwhelmed with the influx of over 100,000 refugees from the occupied Sudetenland, both Jews and political opponents of Nazism, in addition to those refugees who had arrived in the country prior to September 1938. Schmolka visited the areas where refugees were concentrated, collecting evidence to mobilize public opinion, and writing appeals to foreign ambassadors in Prague and to Jewish agencies abroad.
Her appeals were met by Doreen Warriner, a UCL lecturer in economics and representative of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, who then tasked Nicholas Winton and his friend Martin Blake with the Kindertransport in Czechoslovakia.
Maria was determined to return to her home country to assist the efforts, and when Germany occupied Czechoslovakia, in March 1939 Maria Schmolka and her colleagues from the Committee of Refugees were arrested. She was imprisoned for 2 months in Pankrac prison, where the Gestapo subjected her, a diabetic, to 6-to-8 hour interrogations. She was released in May and was then sent, by the Central Office for Jewish Emigration (a Nazi-Institution), to Paris to demand more efficient emigration. She ended up getting stranded in Paris because of the war and moved to London.
Her life in London wasn’t easy, and some refugees whom she had helped emigrate to Britain didn’t wasn’t to make room for her in the refugee organisations. She eventually succeeded and continued her work, and the ”Bloomsbury House” at the corner of Gower Street and Bedford Avenue became the meeting place for Czechoslovak disporia, Zionist and Quaker social workers.
A large number of the British social workers organising the refugee help were women: “It is usually a she,” remarked Sybil Oldfield. The pattern, in which it is men who are celebrated as historical heroes while their female colleagues swept into oblivion, applies beyond boundaries. Oldfield is also the author of a biography of Mary Sheepshanks, eminent suffragist and pacifist. Apparently, Sheepshanks became Schmolka’s landlady in her last six months: they moved together into an apartment vacated by an evacuee in Parliament Hill Mansions, in Gospel Oak. On 27 March 1940, Marie Schmolka drew her last breath: she died at the age of 46, having literally worked herself to death with a heart attack.
The Czechoslovak exile WIZO group changed their name to “The Marie Schmolka Society” and in 1944, published a memorial booklet. This slim volume is all that remains of Schmolka, who does not even have a grave: the records state that her ashes were “taken away by the funeral director.” For a number of years, there was a memorial a hydrangea with plaque with the name of Marie Schmolka in the Eastern Bed of the Remembrance Gardens of the Golders Green crematorium, but the memorial shrub, no longer paid for, has been gone for decades.
These important women from history must not be forgotten, and it is undoubtedly true that thousands of Jews were rescued by the efforts of her and many others.
Anna Hájková (2017) History Forgets Heroines: Marie Schmolka, the woman who saved thousands from the Holocaust, an article for the Jewish Voice for Labour.
The Schmolka Society is pressing for commemoration of the forgotten women social workers who made the 1930s emigration possible, here is their website https://marieschmolka.org/about-us/ where they are also taking donations to make this possible.
And they were on Australian radio! – https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/saturdayextra/anna-hajkova/10919404