Guest blog by Peter Curtis
After retiring from medical work, I decided to write an account of my family’s escape from Nazi-occupied Prague in 1939. I researched refugee life in France and Britain and read a host of WWII accounts: military events, famous or infamous people, insurmountable obstacles overcome, and Holocaust survivals. I always had the same unanswered questions. Why and how did the characters make their decisions, how did they change over time, and what happened to their relationships?
So, I wrote my family’s dramatic and tortuous escape story as fiction, built around changing personal relationships driven by inner needs and crushing external events. I had another reason. I wanted the reader to experience authenticity, to be “there”. As if the characters were talking, thinking, speaking and acting in real time.
In Britain, my refugee parents went their own ways, leaving me, a three-year-old to live with grandparents. My father and mother never talked much about why they chose to do what they did—and I, like so many offspring, did not ask until too late. I had to “imagine” what went on between my parents in those difficult times.
My novels, covering the period 1939 to 1945, follow the Kohut family’s escape across Hungary, Germany and France to Britain:
The Dragontail Buttonhole is heavy on drama: imprisonment by the Gestapo, the confiscation of the family’s assets, the flight through Hungary and Germany on counterfeit passports. There are tangles with German soldiers. They pay a Dutch smuggler to drive them through Germany. He steals their luggage and dumps them. Family bonds begin to fray.
In Café Budapest, the now penniless family arrives in Paris just before the Allies declare war on Germany. The father signs on to fight, the child catches TB, the mother works for a baker. France surrenders to the Germans. Adventures and crises follow as the Kohut family heads south and joins a massive refugee and troop evacuation from the south of France. Conditions on the ships headed for Britain are horrendous. Winner: Pacific Northwest Writer’s 2018 Historical Fiction Award.
In Pavel’s War, the family, still separated, arrive in London just before the Blitz. The grandparents’ apartment is destroyed by incendiaries. The father joins the British Army. The mother opens a successful café in Cambridge and has an affair with a British officer. The boy is sent to live on a farm, then a boarding school.
During the 18-month escape, replete with obstacles, danger, ingenious and fortuitous decisions, the family’s European traditions and relationships slowly disintegrate. The mother becomes independent, the father is driven by revenge against the Germans, and little boy dangles between them. Good people help on the way: a Parisian baker and his wife, a Czech sergeant on the evacuation ship, the father’s English business partner, and an aristocratic British family.
Born in Slovakia in 1937, Peter Curtis grew up in the UK after escaping with his family from Nazi-occupied Prague. He practiced as a country doctor in England, wrote and published short stories. In 1976, he moved to the United States and taught medical students and residents for 35 years at the University of North Carolina. He lives with his wife Carolyn in Seattle.