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Memoir, Holocaust Studies, Nonfiction, Survival, History, Sociology, Biography, Inspirational, Holocaust

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Preface

For fifty-eight years, I've been harboring within me an epic family story, lying dormant beneath the surface and threatening to eat me up alive: My mother and maternal grandparents were Carpathian Mountain People who, for four years, lived in a snake pit, often saw dead people, and worked for murderers. What is even more absurd is that the world believed their community was a cultural center.


No, they weren't criminals, just honorable, valuable, hard-working people, with normal human frailties. Their "crime" was being Jewish in Czechoslovakia in 1941, for which Hitler's Third Reich incarcerated them in the Terezín concentration camp. Only about 75,000 people survived the Nazi camps; of these, about 3,200 adults and 150 children survived Terezín. Miraculously, three of them were my mother and her parents. I am alive because my grandfather made custom boots for the SS, the elite Nazi officers.


I'm now one of about half a million children of Holocaust survivors alive today, who grew up in the shadows of their family's trauma. Many of us second generation (2G) survivors are imbued with “the unbearable lightness of being” (the title of a book by Milan Kundera, set in the Czech Republic), cursed and blessed at the same time, in a perpetual state of mourning for that which we have never known. The truth is, we're all partially meshugener (crazy)! We were raised differently than other children, and like our survivor parents, we carry emotional baggage from the Holocaust.


I have always been a Holocaust junkie, compulsively devouring wartime stories with morbid fascination. As a child, I would relish watching my grandmother cook and bake while telling me her family’s experiences. Her face and emotional expression would become a kaleidoscope of laughter, animation, tears, and despair. Since I was a young artist, I loved how my grandmother figuratively painted for me the picture of her amazing history, in intricate detail. I was absolutely riveted; I couldn’t get enough. I knew this information was precious. It was part of who I was and who I would become.


My story includes the following ingredients: what led to the Holocaust, what life was like in Terezín, how survivors and their offspring were personally affected, and what this means to future generations. Of course, the story wouldn't be complete without some personal family melodrama, expressed in poems, recipes, travel notes, and essays.


Now, eighty years after the rise of Hitler, the world is losing its Holocaust survivors. As the survivors are dying off, we must never forget this shocking chapter in world history. Second generation survivors are the only ones left to bear witness for those who can no longer speak for themselves. I feel it is beshert (meant to be, destined) that I try to document, understand, and memorialize my family’s past. The experience has been life-affirming. So, I give you the story of my mother and her family, my own real life heroes and heroines, of which I am so proud. May their history never be forgotten, and may the world never know another Hitler.

 

Excerpt Chapter 16

Education in Secret

The only activities officially sanctioned by the Nazis included singing, dancing, crafts, painting, games, and sports. In the early years of the ghetto, formal lessons were conducted in secret, veiled as permitted activities. Teaching had to be disguised as playing. In spite of this, there were dedicated adult inmates/educators who went to the children’s homes and taught them in secret after the work day.


An elaborate system of child welfare and education developed. A number of older children were living in the youth homes, and each room had a “house mother” who cared for them and taught them. Many of the children were orphaned, and no doubt grew up far too quickly. After a day’s hard labor, the children in the homes had to wash, change their clothes, and take their lessons for two hours. Oddly, my mother never mentioned to me that she and her sister, Zorinka, received any education.


In the Czech Girls’ Home L410, the girls of Heim 11 produced their own play, BoNaCo. The girls in Heim 28 created their own flag, which had an emblem on it that stood for Ma’agal (Hebrew: “Circle”) and depicted hands clasped in a handshake, a symbol of friendly kinship and a loving sorority. The girls donned blue and white outfits designed for their own parliament. This provided structure, discipline, and organization for this dynamic and idealistic group. Becoming a member of Ma’agal meant that you were special and important.


In the Czech Boys’ Home L417, the older boys of Heim 1 proclaimed their own autonomous democracy with the publication of their underground newspaper, Vedem (Hebrew: "We Lead"), which showcased the work of a gifted young lyrical poet, Hanus Hachenberg. The boys in Heim 10 produced a publication called Noviny, the younger boys produced a newspaper/magazine called Rim, Rim, Rim, and other boys produced a play, Kolja and His Watch. They designated different groups, represented by their own flags: Dror stood for freedom, Nesharim were the eagles.


Using the vehicle of song, the educators taught languages (Czech, German, and Hebrew). They also taught history, the arts, and Jewish culture and tradition. The children would draw, paint, learn, and share. The boys and girls of the Czech-speaking group homes would compose and sing their own anthems. Teachers instituted strict rules and regulations and tried to give the children moral and spiritual guidance, to enrich the children’s devastated lives and give them a semblance of hope for the future. While the children who remained in school in Eastern Europe were taught only Nazi ideology, the children of Terezín had the benefit of the finest professors, scientists, and teachers (many who were Zionist or Communist). There was no fixed curriculum, however, since teachers were always coming in only to be transported to the East. 


Organized classes were held in secret, and there was always a fear of being caught. A student would be appointed to serve as a lookout and alert the rooms with a signal. When the SS were approaching, the classroom would quickly dismantle; the children hid their pencils, test papers, and notebooks under their blankets and would commence singing. Lessons were imparted orally, because whenever anything was written on scraps of paper it had to be thrown away. The patrolling Czech gendarmes would often overlook the group home activities, but if they were caught openly enabling the Jewish students and educators, the punishment was harsh.


In his book, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, author William Shirer claims that the perception of Jews being uneducated prevailed in the minds of the Nazis. The Master Race considered education a future enemy, whereas religion was a harmless diversion for the “inferior race.” Could the Jews have been fed as little as possible so as not to learn too much?


Although education was taboo, intellectual life flourished. Prominent intellects gave lectures and seminars on literature, philosophy, Bible study, Zionism, and languages. Overall, there were over 2,000 lectures given by 520 lecturers in three and a half years in Terezín. The 60,000 books that were smuggled in made up a library. There were children and adults who worked for the leisure activities department who read aloud to the sick and elderly.


The Germans allowed teaching after the Red Cross inspections, where previously it was prohibited.


Music, art and covert teaching were the lifeblood of the Terezín Ghetto. The arts and the humanities made the horror bearable. Children somehow retained their childhoods amidst terrible conditions.