On boarding a packed train out of Nazi-occupied Prague in June 1939, nine-year-old John Karlik and his younger sister Vera didn’t realise they were waving goodbye to their father for the final time.
The Czechoslovakian children were among 10,000 predominantly Jewish youngsters taken from Germany and other occupied territories under the Kindertransport scheme to escape persecution as the outbreak of the Second World War loomed.
The pair escaped after Moravian clergyman Bishop Shaw, who was on a visit to Prague, arranged for them to catch what turned out to be the last train out of the city and offered them refuge at his home in Fulneck, Pudsey.
Mr Karlik travelled to West Yorkshire with Vera and nine other Kindertransport children who sheltered at Fulneck School.
More than 70 years on, he has returned to the place he says he owes his life to.
The 83-year-old revisited the school grounds including the church hall and his old dormitory during a specially arranged tour yesterday.
Mr Karlik, who flew from his home in Sydney, Australia, for the visit, said: “I wouldn’t be around if it wasn’t for Fulneck, our family’s got Jewish heritage, our parents weren’t particularly religious and we were christened into the Moravian church but that wouldn’t have worried the Germans – I wouldn’t be here.”
The children arrived in Fulneck during the summer holidays following an exhausting journey that took them through Holland. They stayed with science teacher Jack Shaw and his wife before boarding at the historic independent school, which dates back to 1753.
But at such a young age, the realities of war and the implications for their family were hard to comprehend.
Mr Karlik, who retired in 1991, said: “I remember in March 1939, before I left, the tanks rolling in on to the cobbled streets of Prague when I was going to school.
“I remember saying, ‘those are tinny things, they’re never going to last’.”
Of his whirlwind evacuation from Czechoslovakia, the father-of-two added: “I didn’t realise what was happening, I didn’t even realise I was saying goodbye to my parents, they just took us to the station and loaded me on to the Kindertransport and I accepted it.”
Though they had no English, John and Vera were quick learners and flourished at school, before going on to study biochemistry and nursing respectively during their time in the country.
But they were eventually given the devastating news their father had been killed at the notorious Belsen concentration camp in 1943, though their mother had survived.
After a bittersweet reunion, all three of the Karliks emigrated to Australia during the 1950s, where Mr Karlik worked as an industrial chemist at an ice cream manufacturer that was taken over by Unilever in 1960.
“It’s wonderful to try and remember things and see how things are and how things have changed, it’s been a very rewarding experience,” he added. “I’ve inquired about my old friends but I’m the only one left, it must be the Australian air.”
John’s mother lived to the age of 98 but his sister died around a decade ago and never revisited Fulneck.
Principal Deborah Newman guided John and old friend Tony Sykes, from Guiseley, around the school, which is an independent facility for three to 18-year-olds.
She said: “It’s a great honour for us, and he has such a love for the school. More than anything the pupils have been absolutely amazed by the facts of it all.
“They were absolutely captivated by it when we explained that he was coming to visit during assembly and lots of pupils have been asking to take him around the school.”
Mr Karlik has spent three weeks in Europe tracing back his history, visiting relatives and friends in Prague and Dusseldorf before his return to West Yorkshire where he also plans to meet up with some of Vera’s old schoolmates.
Mrs Newman added: “Though the reasons for John and his sister coming to Fulneck are harrowing, they shared many wonderful memories during their time in Yorkshire.”