Marie Schmolka was a Jewish aid worker from Prague who organized the first Kindertransport, saving hundreds of Jewish children from Nazi death camps. Sadly, Marie was forgotten by history until recent efforts to promote her extraordinary heroism.
She was born Marie Eisner in Prague in 1893 to a nonobservant Jewish family who spoke German at home. Like many assimilated Jews at the time, they identified with German culture rather than Jewish or Czech. Marie also spoke English and French.
Extremely bright, Marie thrived in high school and wanted to continue studies in college but her family didn’t have the funds for higher eduction. Instead, Marie got a job as a bank teller and worked her way up to regional manager. She had a sweet and humble personality, and excellent organizational and management skills.
Unlike her three older sisters, Marie wasn’t interested in traditionally “feminine” styles and pursuits and throughout her life she was told that she was “like a man.”
At age 30, she married Leopold Schmolka, a noted lawyer who was also a distant relative. Much older than Marie, Leopold was a widower with three grown children who adored their young stepmother. It was a happy marriage but ended after five years when Leopold died.
Marie was now on her own and, thanks to her late husband, financially independent. She decided to travel, and visited Syria, Egypt, and Palestine, then under British rule. Her trip to the Holy Land was life-changing. As a thoroughly assimilated Jew, her Jewish identity had previously seemed irrelevant. But visiting the Jewish homeland sparked her Jewish pride and she became a passionate Zionist. She joined WIZO, the Women’s International Zionist Organization, and contributed her exceptional managerial skills to organizing social workers serving new immigrants to Palestine.
She returned to Europe at the time Nazis were taking over Germany, and vicious persecution of Jews led many to flee to Czechoslovakia, which offered asylum to many political refugees. Marie immediately got involved, reaching out to individual refugees, arranging for their visas, negotiating with police about where they could stay, and finding them housing, financial assistance and jobs.
She became president of the National Coordinating Committee for Refugees in Czechoslovakia. Hard-working and personable, Marie quickly formed friendships with politicians and law enforcement officers. She became the representative of multiple Jewish relief organizations and was the only Czech on the League of Nations Commission for Refugees at the Evian conference in July 1938.
After the Anschluss, the German annexation of Austria, the Jews of that area were expelled. Seventy Jews were stranded in the no-man’s-land between Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Austria. They were stuck on a boat in the Danube with nowhere to go. Marie joined these stateless Jews on their floating temporary home and created a plan for them to find refuge in safe areas. Soon after, 17,000 Jews with Polish citizenship were expelled from Germany and Marie stepped in, representing Jewish organizations, to find them places to stay.
Max Brod, the friend and executor of famous Czech Jewish writer Franz Kafka, said that until 1938, every Jewish refugee who passed through Prague met Marie Schmolka at some point.
In Sept 1938, Britain and France signed the Munich Agreement with Germany, essentially selling their ally Czechoslovakia down the river. Czechoslovakia was forced to surrender the Sudentenland along the border, leading to an influx of over 100,000 refugees – Czech Jews and political opponents of the Nazi regime. Marie visited refugee camps, helped publicize the desperate situation, and appealed to foreign diplomats in Prague as well as Jewish agencies in the UK and abroad.
Tragically, no country was willing to accept Jewish refugees. Tireless efforts by Marie and others led Great Britain to allow unaccompanied Jewish children to enter the country. But this loophole came with a caveat – funds needed to be raised to support each child, to ensure there were volunteers to take them in and they wouldn’t become wards of the state.
Marie built alliances, found funding, created a team of volunteers and delegated tasks. She was a coalition builder who united communists, socialists, anarchists, labor leaders, women’s rights activists, religious organizations, Jews, and Christians to save Jewish children and ensure they would be raised to know they were Jewish.
With Doreen Warriner, a British economist and humanitarian, Marie came up with a plan: the Kindertransports. They made lists of endangered children, raised money for the scheme, and most difficult of all, persuaded terrified parents to hand over their children to her. It was a race against time as they knew that soon Germany would occupy all of Czechoslovakia. Hundreds of Czech Jewish children were rescued this way.
In March 1939, German troops marched into Czechoslovakia. Marie was one of the first people arrested by the Nazis. She was imprisoned for two months, during which she was subjected to 6-8 hour daily interrogations. Marie was diabetic and the interrogation destroyed her health. She was saved by Protectorate ministers working for the puppet government set up by the Nazis, relationships she’d nurtured over the past several years. She was released from prison in 1939 and went to England, where she struggled to get settled. She wrote to her nephew in San Francisco that she was living like a “funambulist” (tightrope walker). Frustratingly, some of the refugees she’d helped felt too unstable in their own position to assist her in any significant way. She managed to set up a small office in her home in Bloomsbury, which became a hub for social workers, Zionists and Czech refugees. When the money ran out she moved in with an old friend, pacifist Mary Sheepshanks. Because of their work helping refugees, the women would often find nasty, antisemitic messages scrawled on their door. By this point, Marie’s health had deteriorated. She’d never recovered from the brutal effects of prolonged interrogation by the Nazis. Working night and day to help refugees, Marie did not seek medical care. She died from a heart attack in 1940, at age 46. Her funeral at Golders’ Green was attended by representatives of many Zionist and Czech organizations.
A nonpracticing Jew, Marie was cremated and the location of her ashes is unknown. There was a hydrangea memorial shrub in her name planted at Golders Green, but due to unpaid fees, the plant was not maintained and is long gone. The Marie Schmolka Society was formed in recent years to publicize the heroic deeds of this remarkable woman. They are trying to get a plaque placed outside the house in London where she lived at the time of her death. In November 2019, Marie was honored by a ceremony in Prague’s Archa Theatre.
For saving Jewish refugees, including hundreds of children on the first Kindertransport, we honor Marie Schmolka as this week’s Thursday Hero.
Get the best of Accidental Talmudist in your inbox: sign up for our monthly newsletter.