ARNOLD Scott-Schlessinger, born a Slovak Jew who, was handed an opportunity to fight fascism. All but 10 of his 60-member Slovak family failed to survive World War II, but Scott-Schlessinger escaped to Britain and joined the Czechoslovak battalion of the British air force.
The story of Scott-Schlessinger's war begins in 1939 in a wealthy burgher family in the Slovak town of Bytča, near Žilina.
"I tried to persuade my father to sell all our possessions and emigrate from Slovakia. I felt that fascism would wash us away as if in a flood," he remembers.
"My father was stubborn and just kept saying that our family had lived in Bytča for over 150 years and that no harm would come to us there. Our family friend, Father Jozef Tiso, who later became president of the Nazi Slovak Republic, attended my grandfather's Jewish funeral two years prior to the war. Our farming family had had tight connections to Tiso's butcher family for decades. My father simply believed that the hailstorm of anti-Semitism would miss our family."
But Scott-Schlessinger, a university student with his whole future before him, saw things differently. He was learning languages and was interested in the political events engulfing Europe. This gave him the advantage of foresight.
Posing as an agricultural student Scott-Schlessinger escaped to England. His Viennese cousin supplied him with forged identity papers. During the course of the war this cousin organized the emigration of Jewish children from Austria and Germany.
When Scott-Schlessinger arrived in England he contacted a Jewish organization that helped Jewish refugees settle in Israel.
"Groups of young Jewish children were waiting in the county of Kent to be resettled in Israel. While they were waiting, I taught them Hebrew."
He volunteered to join the British army in 1942.
"After about three months of basic training, me and 19 other young men were sent to join the air force," Scott-Schlessinger recalled.
At that time it was highly unusual for a Czechoslovakian Jewish boy to be part of the air force. He was one of the first Jews to join. Of the 20 young men who joined with Arnold, only he and one other survived.
Because Scott-Schlessinger suffered from poor eyesight, he was barred from flying and assigned to work as an on-ground technician. He served in the 311 Czechoslovak air force bombing battalion. Over the course of the war the battalion flew 1,011 missions and dropped 1.3 million kilogrammes of bombs.
The battalion sank six German U-Boots, most famously sinking the Alsterufer on December 23, 1943. All together, 3,569 Slovak and Czech pilots served the British Air Force and more than 500 died. More than 14,000 Slovak and Czech soldiers fought for Britain, of which around 1,500 died in the fight against fascism.
Haunted by memories
On his return to Bytča after the war, only his aunt and uncle were there to greet him. His sister had fled to Israel during Nazi rule. "I had to leave as I was continually haunted by memories of my loved ones, and I felt that things were not developing in the right way in post-war Czechoslovakia," Scott-Schlessinger said.
He returned to Britain, the country he had so honourably served, in 1946. He adopted the British name Scott and got a job in a factory making PVC ashtrays, earning just three pounds per week. But after a couple of years, this enterprising and resourceful young man was earning several thousand pounds per week.
"I had a good sense for business and I started to sell nylon tights, which were at the time very fashionable," he explained.
"In addition to this business venture, I built a clothing factory in Pakistan. My pullovers were even worn in Africa. I also traded gold. I played like this my whole life," he said, shrugging his shoulders as if to say "So what?"
Scott-Schlessinger's life changed and he put the war, which had been so brutal for his family, in the past. He was never tempted to attend any of the veteran meetings in London.
For the last two decades of his life Scott-Schlessinger conducted his business and resided in the southern coastal town of Bournemouth. There in his house he would listen to classical music, read world literature and take trips up to London to visit art galleries at weekends. He had no contact with other ex-servicemen.
In the 1990s, however, following a chance meeting at the Slovak Embassy in London, he accepted an invitation from the Slovak Defence Ministry to visit Trenčianske Teplice spa. He had treatment along with other World War II veterans. In an act of humility he also attended a memorial ceremony served by a Catholic priest and a Jewish rabbi at the Military Church office. So what made him change his mind?
"I had to sort something out at the Slovak Embassy in London. That's were I met Colonel Sabo. He was very friendly and open. Later on I built up a very good relationship with his successor, Colonel Svetlík. In spite of their uniforms, one could see glints of humanity in them," Scott-Schlessinger explained.
In 1998, he invited a young student journalist to come and stay with him during her studies for several months. They spent long evenings talking about politics, war, violence and the art of philosophy. He also invited her to come and say prayers in a Jewish synagogue. She returned his invitation by inviting him to a Catholic mass.
At first he hesitated. Accepting such an invitation was not easy for him. But, in the end and despite the memory of his lost family still with him, he relented. He attended a Catholic mass for the first time in his life.
Does this mean that Arnold Scott-Schlessinger finally became reconciled with the past and forgave those responsible for persecuting and killing his family? We will never know, for in the summer of 2002, the Jewish, Slovak-born retired major, who fought fascism and built up a successful business in his adopted homeland, died.
9. May 2005 at 0:00 | Pavol Vitko