Sep 26, 2004
By Daniel Rubin, Inquirer Staff Writer
Zdenka Fantlova remembers Terezin as the best of the Nazi hells: a ghetto with a swing band, a concentration camp with shoe stores and cafes.
Here she wore her own clothes; here her family was still alive.
Called Terezin by the Czechs and Theresienstadt by the Germans, this fortified town held World War II’s most improbable collection of artists, musicians, scientists and scholars.
At a time when Jews were banned from going to school, Terezin became their university: 2,430 lectures took place, on such topics as the Jews of Babylon, the theory of relativity, Alexander the Great, and German humor.
There was a boys’ literary magazine, a library, and a cultural life rich enough to warrant its own critic.
“Compared to all the others,” recalls Lory Cahn, of Philadelphia, “it was gold. “
But Terezin was no retirement villa, as the Nazis had promised old and prominent German Jews, such as Cahn’s father. For most, Terezin was a way station, to Auschwitz and other death camps.
More than 150,000 Jews – first from the Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia, and then from Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Denmark and Hungary – were forced into this 18th-century fortress 37 miles north of Prague.
The Nazis created a Jewish Council of Elders and made them decide who should ride the cattle cars east, to near-certain death, and who could stay.
“They had to play God,” recalls Edgar Krasa, who worked as a cook here.
Even staying in Terezin was no guarantee of survival. Half died of malnutrition, disease or despair – such as Otto Loewe, Sen. John Kerry’s great-uncle.
Terezin’s cultural life – first banned, then tolerated – wound up starring in the Nazis’ efforts to dupe foreign dignitaries and the International Red Cross as suspicions of mass murder grew.
Propaganda movies showing the Jews playing soccer, reading novels, sipping coffee were shot to demonstrate how well they lived. After being filmed joking with the commandant, children were sent to their death.
Since the 1989 collapse of communism, Terezin’s legacy has spread far beyond the city’s walls.
As the survivors’ numbers dwindle – of 37,000, only 2,000 remain – and fewer are left to tell their stories, the ones who remain feel compelled to bear witness while they can. For those who are lost, the plays, music, paintings and literature they created speak for them, enjoying a renaissance that is testimony to the strength and beauty that can arise from the most horrific conditions.
“The Germans knew that we were sentenced to death,” recalls Fantlova, 82, who now lives in London. “And they thought, ‘In the meantime, let them play, let them laugh, let them sing, because soon the smile will be wiped off their faces. ‘
“Well, they were right, but we didn’t know that, and we sort of danced under the gallows.”
Fantlova’s family was eating dinner in the fall of 1941 when the Gestapo came for her father. His crime: listening to BBC Radio.
Since March 15, 1939, when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, the noose had been tightening. Using the Nuremberg racial laws, which restricted everyday freedoms, the Nazis began to isolate, degrade and annihilate the Jews of Europe.
Fantlova recalls her father’s farewell: “He looked at us as though he wanted to imprint us in his memory, and said just these words: ‘Just stay calm. Remember, calmness is strength. ‘ “
A few months later, the family was shipped off to Terezin, a place Fantlova had never heard of. How would her father find them?
He wouldn’t. She never saw him again.
Emperor Joseph II had built the garrison in 1780 to protect the Hapsburgs from Prussian invasion. In October 1941, the SS gave it a new strategic role, the first of several that Terezin would have during the war.
With its 13-yard-thick walls, moat, and nearby Gestapo prison, the fortress could contain Jews without many guards. The Nazis could cram 50,000 to 60,000 prisoners at a time into the place – its several dozen houses, barracks, stores and factories arranged around a market square – where 7,000 soldiers and villagers had lived.
Here they could warehouse Czech Jews – until their deportation to Poland or the Soviet Union, a culling the Nazis wanted to hide from the world.
Krasa, 21, knew that something didn’t square.
If he volunteered for Terezin’s setup detail, a Jewish leader in Prague had said, he might save his parents from being transported farther east.
What was “farther east”?
The workers had six days to prepare the barracks before the first 1,000 Jews arrived.
“And as we entered,” Krasa recalls, “the gate closed. We all knew, ‘Now we are really prisoners.’ “
The figures walk in a line, stooped, eyes cast down. A child’s arm is draped around a mother’s shoulders. Their numbers are scrawled on luggage and hang from their necks. They wear Jewish stars on their coats.
Helga Weissova Hoskova, 12, drew the scene from memory. Her first picture had been of children making a snowman, but her father said, “Draw what you see. ” So she drew the grim lines for food, the filthy latrine, the empty washroom that was their first bedroom.
The Nazis forbade photographs, but they didn’t consider that they could be indicted by the doodlings of a child.
To German Jews, the Nazis sold Terezin as a spa.
At a conference on Wannsee Lake outside Berlin, they had announced that the stronghold would also house elderly, war-decorated and prominent German and Austrian Jews.
In exchange for signing over their property, they were promised lifelong care. Some packed dinner jackets and silver for the holiday town in the hills.
They began arriving in the summer of 1942, and their disillusion was immediate.
“Where were the clean houses where everyone would have his own well-furnished room?” asked Gerty Spies, a Munich woman, in a 1984 memoir. “Through open doors, we saw people clad in rags lying on the floor or on wooden frames. “
Kurt Moses, who now lives in Harrisburg, went to Terezin, even though he was Dutch, because his German father had earned an Iron Cross during World War I. “The story was told at Terezin that a family checked in and a man who had asthma wanted a first-floor apartment,” Moses recalls.
“The SS man said: ‘Yes. Go show this man his apartment. See if it is to his liking. ‘ No one ever saw him again. “
To make room for the new arrivals, the Czech Gentiles who lived in the town were moved out. But the overcrowding was suffocating. By year’s end, three out of every 10 German Jews who had arrived that summer were dead.
Inmate Egon Redlich, a Moravian, wrote in his diary: “Terezin is a privileged ghetto where more than 100 people die daily.”
They grew used to the funeral wagons, piled high with wooden boxes. Every morning, the elders posted lists of the dead by the gates. The able worked – farming, splitting mica, sewing uniforms, and running the camp. Others waited – for news, for loved ones, for thin soup and stale bread. They waited for death. Time was marked by the lines that formed at the kitchen.
In this purgatory, miraculously, Terezin’s cultural life flowered.
In December 1941, a Czech conductor, composer and pianist named Rafael Schaecter cobbled together a small chorus.
That month, a 22-year-old Czech pianist named Gideon Klein started composing folk songs for the singers.
So many readings and plays followed that the Jewish elders established Freizeitgestaltung, a department of leisure-time planning. Soon, the Nazis insisted on approving each activity.
Terezin’s first opera premiered in November 1942: Smetana’s The Bartered Bride. Karel Berman, a star of Prague’s National Theater, sang the lead. Schaecter provided the accompaniment, on a legless piano that prisoners smuggled into the barracks.
“There’s a paradox,” recalls Krasa, who sang in the chorus. “It starts out . . . ‘Why shouldn’t we rejoice? ‘ And to sing it, you know, in the ghetto. But it did bring the house down. “
Dagmar Lieblova was 13, a radiant, dark-haired girl from central Bohemia: “It was something special, quite special, which one wouldn’t forget. You could hear things which you have known from the normal life before. “
The audiences grew so quickly that the elders printed weekly programs and issued tickets for admission. That December, prisoners staged 10 theatrical programs and two concerts and produced their first costumed play.
The Nazis permitted the prisoners to open a coffeehouse and gave out musical instruments that earlier had been confiscated. Musicians with cafe and nightclub experience performed, such as Egon Ledec, of the Czech Philharmonic. Ledec formed the camp’s first string quartet.
At Terezin, there was time, opportunity, and talent for the arts. The Nazis saw the advantage: If the Jews pacified themselves with performance, they’d be less likely to rebel.
Terezin produced the richest cultural life of the Holocaust – for those fortunate enough to enjoy it.
“You could have prepared a concert or prepared an opera and tomorrow half the people were gone,” says Hana Greenfield.
“That was the big lie. “
In 1943, the residents staged 410 theatrical performances in Czech. There were also puppetry, poetry, cabarets and children’s plays, including Hans Krasa’s chamber opera Brundibar, the story of children triumphing over an evil organ-grinder.
No one had to be told who the organ-grinder really was.
The postcard came from Auschwitz, in a code that the censors missed.
To Edith Salamon Listman, her cousin’s message, scrawled in Hebrew script, was too awful to contemplate:
Cain & Abel and naked.
“They are killing each other,” realized Listman, now 86 and living in Cherry Hill. “We are not going to a ghetto. “
Another warning sounded from the east. A former Terezin inmate named Vitezslav Lederer escaped from Auschwitz in April 1944. According to Czech historian Miroslav Karny, Lederer sneaked back into Terezin to reveal what really went on at the death camp.
But that can’t be true, protested the elders, who decided not to pass on Lederer’s news.
After the war, Rabbi Leo Baeck, head of the German Jewish community, explained: “Living in the expectation of death by gassing would only be harder.”
For a while, Coco Schumann’s blue eyes, blond hair, and strong Berlin accent kept him safe. His Star of David stashed in his back pocket, and guitar in hand, he moved at will through the German capital.
He was 18, and Jewish on his mother’s side, a secret kept even from friends. His taste for jazz was just one of his several offenses against the Reich.
“If you were Jewish and slept with a German girl, it was verboten,” he recalls. He concedes that he broke the rule a few times. When the Nazis arrested Schumann in March 1943, Jews of mixed parentage and Jews married to Gentiles were no longer spared from persecution. The Nazis wanted Berlin Judenfrei – free of Jews – by April 20, for Hitler’s birthday.
They tried to send Schumann to Auschwitz, but his father begged the SS to let the teenager go to Terezin instead.
By the time Schumann arrived in spring 1943, the place was surreal – “one big world of make-believe for internal and external propaganda,” he calls it. The Nazis organized their deception “so unbelievably perfectly” that it never occurred to the inmates not to “join the game. “
When Schumann saw the camp’s coffeehouse, he started talking with the musicians, the Ghetto Swingers. Their drummer had just been sent to Auschwitz. “I said, ‘I can play drums,’ ” Schumann recalls. They invited him to return the next morning.
Martin Roman, a renowned jazz pianist who would play with saxophonist Coleman Hawkins after the war, led the Swingers. Friedrich Weiss, a Czech Benny Goodman, played clarinet.
“Every style was there,” Schumann recalls.
Karel Ancerl, later a famous conductor, led an orchestra at Terezin. There were also a string orchestra, chamber groups, a jazz quintet, piano duos, a liturgical choir, and exquisite soloists.
“They were really the next generation of leading figures in classical music,” says Mark Ludwig, who runs the Terezin Chamber Music Foundation in Boston, which ensures that works from the camp are still performed. “. . . And they disappear off the face of the Earth.”
Art gave voice to the inmates’ defiance. Karel Svenk produced a cabaret called The Last Cyclist, mocking the Final Solution by depicting a world in which all bicyclists must be eliminated.
The Council of Elders banned its performance, for fear of Nazi reprisal.
In an opera by Viktor Ullmann and Petr Kien, The Emperor of Atlantis, an evil leader so overworks Death that Death goes on strike. Death agrees to return to work, but only if the emperor will be his first victim.
There had been no transports for several months when Rafael Schaecter decided to stage Verdi’s Requiem. There was much debate about the appropriateness of Jews singing a Catholic Mass for the dead.
But Schaecter wanted to make a point. “He wanted to sing a requiem for the Third Reich,” says Edgar Krasa, a distant cousin of Hans Krasa’s. The text was in Latin, and Schaecter had only one score for 150 singers. Six weeks into rehearsal, the transports resumed: 5,000 people were sent east. The choir lost half its members.
Over the next months, amid so much grief, Schaecter had to recruit new singers and start again.
“We could sing to the Germans in Latin,” recalls Edgar Krasa, a baritone in that production, “what we couldn’t tell them to their faces: ‘This is the day of wrath. You will not escape the punishment.’ “
Streets were cleaned, houses painted, and store windows filled. Terezin would be having visitors.
The Allies had been pressing for Red Cross inspections since December 1942, when 12 nations protested the Nazis’ treatment of Jews.
In December 1943, the Nazis decided that Terezin could help deceive the world. After a cleanup, they would allow representatives of the International Red Cross Committee to walk through.
“They created a kind of Potemkin-like village to fool the press, the International Red Cross,” says David Marwell, director of New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage.
The Nazis planned the exact route the visitors would take in June 1944. For two days before the performance, the actors in this fiction were served proper meals so they wouldn’t become sick in front of the guests.
Shortly before the Red Cross visit, thousands of inmates who “looked bad or were ill were sent directly to the gas chambers of Auschwitz,” says Vojtech Blodig, historian at the Terezin Ghetto Museum.
The visitors snapped photographs but asked the inmates nothing. Afterward, the head of the group, Maurice Rossel, marveled at this “remarkable” Jewish town in war-torn Europe.
He concluded that Terezin was a final destination – not a way station to worse. He reported that inmates were fed well – 2,400 calories a day. In reality, they didn’t get half that.
“Oh, Uncle Rahm , sardines again? “
The children were well-rehearsed, joking with commandant Karl Rahm as the cameras rolled. Nurses at the children’s hospital delivered buttered bread.
Moses of Harrisburg remembers playing soccer, splashing in a swimming pool. That was the only bath he took in an entire year at Terezin.
Two films were made. The better-known picture was so obviously a sham that during Rahm ‘s war-crimes trial in 1947, it was called Hitler’s Gift to the Jews, according to Dutch historian Karel Margry. The real name is no less cynical: Theresienstadt: A Documentary Film From the Jewish Settlement Area.
Needing a director, the SS chose inmate Kurt Gerron, a German film star, who had acted with Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel. Gerron thought his cooperation would save him.
But he never saw the final cut. He was sent to Auschwitz in 1944 and was gassed.
The film, completed by a Czech company in 1945, was shown to a few visitors to Terezin and to the SS in Prague, Margry says. It got little distribution.
By then, the extermination of European Jewry could not be denied.
The show over, the Nazis shipped out the players.
In one month in the fall of 1944, transports carried 18,402 prisoners east and sent some of Europe’s most talented artists to the death camps, where nearly all were killed. There were Hans Krasa, Rafael Schaecter, Viktor Ullmann, Egon Ledec and Gideon Klein, the Ghetto Swingers, and Ancerl’s string orchestra.
As they boarded the cattle cars for Auschwitz, they were told one last lie: They’d be establishing a new labor camp.
Zdenka Fantlova found herself sitting across from Schaecter, who for three years had struggled to give his fellow prisoners music, comfort and hope. He had saved some sardines and bread. Before the train reached the death camp, he told Fantlova: “Put it all together. Here is my spoon. Mix it all up, and that will be my Last Supper. ”
“And so,” she recalls, “I gave it to him, mixed it, he ate it with great relish. And then we got to Auschwitz. He was selected and went to the gas chamber.”
Near death, Esther Dobrowolska Haneman wasn’t sure how many days she’d been traveling. The train crawled through Germany, traveling by night because the Allies were bombing by day.
This was a coach of the barely breathing, collected from the camps by the retreating Nazis and guarded by an old German soldier.
They were headed for Terezin.
Haneman, 23, had grown up in comfort, in Belchatow, Poland, three maids tending to a family of 10. Now, only she and four sisters remained, clinging together in the train. “Everybody was looking like skeletons, without hair, shaved down. Just big eyes,” says Haneman, now a Philadelphia grandmother.
Sick with tuberculosis, she stayed in Terezin 12 weeks, according to records she keeps in her apartment.
But Haneman had no sense of time: day, night, weeks, months.
That changed the morning of May 8, 1945, when the girls opened the barracks doors to see a strange parade: Russians marching, their rifles trained on Nazis.
Some of the Russians wore armfuls of wristwatches, prizes captured along the way. Haneman noticed that one soldier had an alarm clock slung around his neck. Time had returned.
Haneman remembers this from the confusion: The Russians were shouting, “You are free. ” Suddenly liberated inmates attacked the Germans, banging their heads against walls. One of Haneman’s younger sisters ran up and yanked a German woman’s long hair.
Soldiers let the Jews have their way with their former captors. They offered them guns. One prisoner, a woman, picked up a rifle and started shooting.
Haneman couldn’t even stand. She sat down on the grass and cried. There had been enough killing.
Contact staff writer Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5958 or email@example.com.
How this story was reported
Reporter Daniel Rubin visited seven countries and interviewed 14 survivors of Terezin as well as a dozen Holocaust historians, museum curators and art experts. The accounts of life in Terezin also come from more than four dozen diaries, memoirs, histories and academic articles. In particular, Rubin relied on records of the Ghetto Museum in Terezin, historian Raul Hilberg’s three-volume The Destruction of the European Jews, and survivor Ruth Bondy’s Elder of the Jews, a biography of the first leader of Terezin’s Jewish administration, Jakob Edelstein.