There is no night so dark that it is not followed by the dawning of a new day. (Šimon Wels, U Bernatů)
The Black Elephant
"We instinctively knew that he was covering up a lot of pain." (Colin Wels)
In 1984 Tomáš Wels was admitted to hospital for a heart operation. He was 64 and living in Oxford. During a visit from his son Colin he said that he wanted to tell his children about his life before the Second World War, something that he had never spoken of before. Three days later he had a massive stroke that left him unable to speak, and he never did tell his story.
Colin knew nothing about his father's life before he came to England in 1939. He remembered a box that his father had always kept at the back of a bulky cupboard nicknamed the “Black Elephant”. He decided to open it. Thanks to the contents of the box, he was able to unravel the family’s story.
Collage of Photographs from the family archive by Post BellumMemory of Nations
Colin Wels talks about "The Black Elephant"
U Bernatů – Life at the Bernards
When Colin Wels opened the box, the first thing he found was a handwritten book. It had just under 300 pages, the title U Bernatů – Life at the Bernards – and on the cover was a coloured drawing of a village. The author’s name: Šimon Wels. Although he did not realise it at the time, this turned out to be the memoir of his great grandfather, Šimon, who, completed the book in Rokycany in 1919.
How I came to tell this story: At the request of my children: Rudolf, Aninka and Otto, I sat down one calm evening and started sorting through the memories of my own life and the lives of my parents. (Šimon Wels, U Bernatů)
Šimon had great literary talent. His memoir is full of humour and wisdom, and he draws us right into the day-to-day life of a West Bohemian village in the 19th century. He lived in Osek, about five kilometres north of the town of Rokycany, and had a small shop on the village green.
The story of how Šimon’s mother Josefína had to overcome the anti-Semitic bureaucracy of the Austrian Empire to marry his father Bernard is told in a way that sounds like a fairy tale, but the discrimination was real. The Familiant Law, which defined who could marry whom, was applied until the middle of the 19th century.
"My Rudolf enjoyed every minute of it!" (Šimon Wels, U Bernatů)
Šimon must have been an unusual figure in the village. He followed closely what was happening in Prague and the world beyond. He subscribed to the periodical Čas (Time), which was close to the humanist and democratic ideals of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, later to become Czechoslovakia’s first president. Šimon was deeply troubled by intolerance and anti-Semitism.
Šimon managed to get Rudolf admitted to the Roman Catholic grammar school in Plzeň, which was unusual for a Jewish family at that time. But Rudolf was deeply unhappy and later his father sent him to the technical school instead.
From his earliest childhood, Rudolf was fascinated by anything connected with building. After completing school and his compulsory military service Rudolf found work with the successful Prague builder Alois Richter, much to the delight of his father. It is likely that one of the buildings he worked on was Prague’s Jerusalem Synagogue.
Rudolf in Vienna
"A bricklayer who has studied Latin." (Adolf Loos)
Rudolf won a place the Vienna Academy of Arts in 1907, where he studied under Friedrich Ohmann, the architect of the Kramář Villa in Prague, today the official residence of the Czech prime minister. He often felt homesick.
Collage of Photographs from Vienna by Post BellumMemory of Nations
A letter from Rudolf to his parents during his time in Vienna
Rudolf won scholarships to Rome and to Great Britain, where he was inspired by the “garden city” movement. In 1912 Rudolf began attending classes being given by Adolf Loos at his “Bauschule”, an informal architecture school, set up by Loos as an alternative to the more conservative Academy. Rudolf also worked as chief architect in Loos’s building office.
At the beginning of the First World War, Rudolf volunteered for the 6th Infantry Regiment in the West Bohemian town of Cheb. He met there his future wife Ida Krafft, who was from a wealthy local Jewish family and at the time was volunteering as a nurse.
The newlyweds Rudolf and Ida spent the last two years of the war in Vienna. In 1917 Rudolf designed a utopian garden city for children in Lainzer Garten on the edge of the city. It was never built.
A garden city for children should be built. It should set an example for the care of young people in general. All children who are abandoned or in need of protection should find asylum here, regardless of nationality, religion or status.
Year 1918 by Post BellumMemory of Nations
Rudolf as Architect – back home
After the First World War Rudolf and Ida returned to Cheb, and to the newly created Czechoslovakia. In 1920 their son Tomáš was born and in the same year they moved to Karlovy Vary, where their second son Martin was born five years later. Rudolf’s father Šimon died in November 1922.
Several of Rudolf’s projects at the time showed the influence of the English garden city. In 1923 he was awarded a commission to build the multifunctional Miners’ House at the heart of the industrial town of Sokolov. It was completed in 1925.
Miners' House, Sokolov, 1923–1925 by Post BellumMemory of Nations
Some of Rudolf’s most interesting buildings were in Karlovy Vary, where one of his clients was the celebrated glassmaker Moser. He designed several buildings for the Moser factory, including the showroom and canteen, and he also designed glass for the firm. Other projects in Karlovy Vary included hotels and sanatoriums, and the Jewish retirement home. One of his most innovative buildings was the District Health Insurance Office of 1930.
Rudolf as Architect – the family in Prague
In 1933 Rudolf Wels and his family moved to Prague. Rudolf opened an office with fellow architect, Guido Lagus, on Wenceslas Square. Their office was in the Stýblo (or Alfa) Palace, where they designed the theatre and arcade at the back.
Collage of Photographs from films Hej rup! and A Woman Who Knows What She Wants by Post BellumMemory of Nations
This was also where Martin Frič’s classic comedy film Hej rup! (Heave Ho!) had its premiere in 1934. The opening titles inform us that the film takes place “on sets by Lagus and Wels.” The two architects worked together on further popular Czech films made at Prague’s Barrandov studios.
In 1935 the family moved to a spacious top-floor flat with a large terrace on Dobrovského Street, in the fashionable district of Letná. The building was designed by Rudolf together with Guido Lagus.
Collage of Photographs - Martin Wels, sketch Four Seasons by Post BellumMemory of Nations
While Rudolf and Ida’s older son Tomáš was technically inclined, Martin showed considerable artistic talent.
From the age of thirteen he took part in courses at the private art school Officina Pragensis. The school had been founded in 1934 by Hugo Steiner-Prag, who is best known for his lithographs illustrating Gustav Meyrink’s famous novel of Jewish Prague, The Golem.
Year 1938 by Post BellumMemory of Nations
On the night from 29 to 30 September 1938 the Munich Agreement was signed. Great Britain and France gave Hitler the go-ahead to annex a huge area of the Czechoslovak borderlands, including three towns closely associated with the Wels family – Cheb, Sokolov and Karlovy Vary. The family succeeded in getting Ida’s mother from Cheb to Prague. In October 1938 the whole family applied for a visa to the United States.
Cover of the book Sancta Familia by Post BellumMemory of Nations
For Christmas 1938 Tomáš and Martin gave their parents and grandmother a book, which they called Sancta Familia. It was made up of scenes from the family’s everyday life, richly illustrated by Martin. The dialogues are lively, slipping playfully between Czech and German, the two languages spoken by the family.
The names in Sancta Familia are changed: Martin is Capot, Tomáš is Fridolín, Rudolf is Karolus and Ida Margarita, but they are instantly recognisable. The scenes are set in the near future, in spring 1939. The family is planning to emigrate to America, and Tomáš is already on his way. At the time, none of them could know that on 15 March 1939 Prague would be occupied by Nazi Germany. Sancta Familia ends with a paragraph written by Martin in French. Perhaps the foreign language offered him a way of stepping back from his own fears.
The family has nothing to fear for the future but let us hope that before long it will find a new place to live, to carry on this play in peace and quiet. THE FAMILY. (Sancta Familia)
On 15 March 1939 German troops marched into Prague. A week after the occupation, on 22 March 1939, the American Embassy sent the Wels family a letter informing them that their visa application had been postponed indefinitely.
The family was trapped in the so-called “Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia”. Only Tomáš managed to escape to Great Britain via Poland. He became a refugee…
Collage of Rudolf's sketches by Post BellumMemory of Nations
In the Protectorate Rudolf was no longer allowed to work as an architect. He earned a little money by making sketches of Prague, from which prints were made.
Ida had an idea to stop Rudolf from sinking into depression. The manuscript of his father Šimon’s memoir, U Bernatů, had been preserved as a pile of scarcely legible “rags”, as Šimon himself called them. Ida persuaded Rudolf to make a neat copy and to have it bound. Martin designed the cover.
For the first two years of the occupation Tomáš and his family could still communicate by letter – through friends and relatives in the United States and Switzerland.
If things don’t get any worse than now, we should all come out of this alive and well. You can’t imagine with what enthusiasm we’ll pick up our lives again!! Once truth prevails! But for now, we just have to take each day as it comes. (From a letter from Rudolf to Tomáš, 1939)
"We are calm and composed." (Ida Wels, November 1941)
In 1941 Rudolf, Ida and Martin were forced to leave their apartment in Dobrovského Street and move into one small room in Mánesova Street. Before they were deported the Welses left a box containing their most treasured family items with the family of Josef Štifter, a pastor in the Union of Czech Brethren, one of the Czech Protestant churches. The two families had become close.
Collage of cards from Terezín and Auschwitz, and "Yearbook" from Terezín by Post Bellum and Židovské muzeum v PrazeMemory of Nations
They received a letter summoning them to join transport “V”, which left Bubny Station for the Terezín ghetto on 30 January 1942. The transport was made up of 1,000 people.
From Terezín they were occasionally allowed to write to friends in Prague.
The “yearbook” from 17 January 1943 of the barracks in Terezín where Ida and Martin were held has also been preserved. Prisoners were made to run the ghetto themselves, and Ida shared the responsibility for finding space in the barracks for new arrivals.
Ida, Rudolf and Martin were deported from Terezín to Auschwitz on 6 September 1943, on transport No. 2766. There they were placed in the so-called family camp. The transport included 2,451 people, 11 of whom survived the war.
On the night from 8 to 9 March 1944, 3,792 prisoners in the family camp were murdered in the gas chambers, six months after they had arrived. This was the largest mass murder of Czechoslovak citizens during the Second World War. Ida, Rudolf and Martin were among those who were killed.
The Story of the Box and its Legacy
Early in the war Tomáš fell in love with an Englishwoman, Joy, and they were married in 1941. A year later he interrupted his studies in Wales and joined the Royal Air Force, serving in Coastal Command. He survived.
After the war, he came back to Prague at the first opportunity and realised that no one in his family had survived. He visited the Štifter family, who gave him as many of the family papers as he could take back to England. He preserved them carefully but never told his children in England about his life before the war. The only thing that betrayed something of his former life was a hint of a Central European accent.
Colin speaks no Czech, but his friend Gerald Turner translated U Bernatů into English for him. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, Colin and his brother Ivan visited Czechoslovakia. They became good friends with the descendants of Josef Štifter. They also got to know Michael Rund, who later wrote a book about Rudolf Wels and his work as an architect. A part of their memory returned, after being all but wiped out by war, the Holocaust, the Cold War and the language barrier.
Exhibition No Night so Dark - Short accompanying film to the exhibition. The exhibition has been presented since 2020 in Prague, Berlin and Munich. It reveals the life story of several generations of the Wels family.
Author — David Vaughan
Editor — Markéta Bernatt-Reszczyńská
International coordinator — Marie Janoušková
Grafic design — Tereza Tomášová
Thanks to — Colin and Tilly Wels, Ivan Wels, Katrin Bock, Tom Schrecker, Simon Rawlence, Marta and Pavel Holeka,
Gerald Turner, Michael Rund, Alena Zemančíková, Julius Müller,
Tomáš Kraus, Anna Bischof, Barbara Day, Lenka Kerdová,
Petra Vladařová, Zdeněk Lukeš, Zuzana Schwarzová, Bettina Kaibach,
Sabine Diemer, Pavel and Kateřina Štingl, Alena Bártová,
State Fund for Culture, Czech Republic; Foundation for Holocaust Victims;
Ministry of Culture, Czech Republic, Czech Radio.
„Sancta Familia“, written in 1938 by Tomáš and Martin Wels, is available in a trilingual edition (Czech, German, English), published by Triáda in 2020.