Emigre stories: Katie Heller

Posted on: March 30, 2015 in: Émigré stories, Programmes>2016-17 Season>ÉMIGRÉ

In the weeks around our ÉMIGRÉ concert series, we’ve been collecting stories on the theme, being a subject very close to the hearts of countless families across Britain. While our concerts explore the journeys composers and musicians have made across the world, this blog series, ÉMIGRÉ STORIES, focuses on the journeys made by the individuals that join together to make City of London Sinfonia. 

Our second émigré is our long-term member, viola-player and the generally fantastic Katie Heller, whose Jewish father escaped Czechoslovakia on one of the last trains from Prague as Hitler’s titan rule began to take effect. 

One of my earliest childhood memories is of dancing around our small hall with Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances blaring out of the record player. Many evenings my sister and I would dance, and often my father would improvise on the old upright piano. I love the energy of this lively music, and the uplifting effect it had on me. At this stage, I knew nothing of its origins, or why it made my dad both happy and sad.

I began to play the violin at the age of nine, and still have a book of handwritten Czech pieces, lovingly notated for me. These were so much more fun with their syncopations and accents than many of my dreary English pieces!

As I grew older I began to learn more about my father. Somehow I knew he was ‘different’. He had a strong accent, was quite strict, and, looking back, I realise very cautious. In my late teens part of his story emerged, and finally I understood more about his behaviour and his deep spirituality.

Born of a Jewish mother and a Catholic father in Usti (Czechoslovakia) my father, Rudi, was a much-loved child. Jumping forward to 1938, having studied law, and now living in Prague, my father’s life was changed for ever. It became clear than any Jewish person was now in terrible danger. Rudi was in the crowd when Hitler marched into Prague. The brave people of Prague hissed and booed, with no consideration for their own safety. They sang the Czech national anthem.

Katie Heller and her father, Peter, on her wedding day, 1997.
Katie Heller and her father on her wedding day in 1997.

With much help from some amazing contacts, my father managed to escape from the Nazis on the last train out of Prague. He carried with him a tiny suitcase and the equivalent of £10. He had to leave his parents, knowing what their fate would be, and although they encouraged him to go, he never recovered from the deep guilt he felt at leaving them. Survivors, I later learned, often suffer terribly from this. He never spoke to us of his life before England, nor did he utter a word of Czech.

Once settled in England he chose to be called Peter, which was his second name. Being a brilliant linguist he worked for the Government and the BBC as a translator, but music was his great love, and I am convinced this passion somehow kept him sane. He played the piano very well until the last few years of his life, and went to the Wigmore Hall with my mum as often as possible. I have been a member of CLS for 30 years, and my dad came to many of our concerts, particularly enjoying them when Richard Hickox was conducting.

I know that my dad was delighted I chose to make my life in music, and I managed to thank him before he died for his influence and support. He was incredibly fond of my lovely husband Simon and son Gabriel, who wonderfully shares his grandfather’s gift of improvising.

Peter survived to a very old age. In the last week of his life he spoke only Czech with, sadly, no one able to understand him.


City of London Sinfonia: ÉMIGRÉ 
25 February – 16 June 2015
Village Underground | Cadogan Hall | Shoreditch Church
Tickets available from £5
See our website for more details.