Renate Collins (b. Renate Kress) was born in 1933 in Prague. The only child of Otto (a banker) and Hilda (a nurse), Renate was brought up in a Jewish (although not Orthodox) household. Otto was originally from Germany, so Renate spoke both Czech and German at home. Renate’s aunt, Selma, was a sculptor who studied for three years in Paris at the studios of Auguste Rodin. Another relative was an important figure in the founding of the Republic of Czechoslovakia in 1918.
When the Germans marched into Prague in March 1939, Renate’s parents made the decision to send her to Wales. She escaped on the last Kindertransport train to leave Czechoslovakia before the Second World War broke out. She remembers that “The German soldiers were on the platform and when the train was due to go out, they caught hands to make a line so that the parents couldn’t jump on the train.”
She was only five years old when she left Prague. Boarding the train was the last time she saw her parents. Her mother and grandmother were both shot after their train broke down en route to Treblinka extermination camp in Poland, while her father and Uncle Felix were murdered at Auschwitz. In total, she lost 64 members of her family during the Holocaust.
In this clip, recorded for the project in May 2021, Renate describes her journey to London:
Renate was fostered by a Welsh family in Porth, South Wales. When she arrived, she only knew two words of English: “yes” and “no”. She recalls that “Most of us thought that when the war was over, we’d be going back – although I don’t think our parents did.”
Her last communication with her parents was in 1942, a telegram wishing her a happy birthday:
Many happy birthday wishes, we think continually of you. Are well, hope you too. Much love, kind regards and thanks to your foster parents.
Although her foster father attempted to reply, he was unable to make contact. Renate only found out exactly when her parents died in 1996, on a visit to Prague.
In Wales, Renate quickly learned English and settled into life in her local school and community (although she was bottom of her German class despite being a native speaker!). She was a keen hockey player, and also enjoyed gardening. Her foster parents, Sidney and Arianwen Coplestone, adopted her after she became naturalised in 1947. At her local church, she describes herself as the “seven-day wonder” – three grandchildren of congregation members were named Renate after her, since they thought it was “a lovely name”. Nevertheless, her foster father, despite being a Baptist minister, never wanted her “to feel I was anything else but a Jew”.
After leaving school, she studied accountancy, typing and shorthand at college, and worked for BOAC, the forerunner of British Airways. She later married her husband, David, and moved to Cornwall, and has two children and five grandchildren. She returned to Wales in 2001, and in 2021 moved back to Cornwall.
“I’m only sad that the rest of my family weren’t here to have enjoyed life as well,” she says.