chapter one Spindlermühle, Czech Republic, Autumn 2000
Every fall since the mid-1990s a group of extraordinary women gathers at Spindlermühle, a little Czech resort just below the headwaters of the Elbe, in the Giant Mountains. For a few days, the atmosphere in this small town is filled with the sounds of their joyous reunion, with songs and laughter, but also with the sad memories of their childhood, more than half a century ago.
The women are in their seventies, and they come from all parts of the globe. The shared vacation, which arose spontaneously out of their pleasure at having found one another again after so many years, quickly developed a momentum of its own, attracting more participants with each passing year. Soon the reunions became a cherished tradition. And while the women enjoy their time together, their hearts are both saddened by the approaching farewells and hopeful as they contemplate future reunions.
This annual meeting has come to represent the high point of their year. With bracing breezes blowing through its forests and the sparkling Elbe River rushing by, Spindlermühle radiates enchantment. The women feel rejuvenated as they hike up the mountains or stroll along the rushing stream. They bask in the happiness of being together. Their happiness is palpable to outsiders, who might well wonder what invisible tie binds them. The women themselves would offer a simple answer: “We feel like sisters, like a family. We’re happy when we are together.”
Indeed, the women are like sisters, bound by a special fate: Between 1942 and 1944, when they were twelve to fourteen years old, they lived in Room 28, Girls’ Home, L 410, Theresienstadt, a fortress town near Prague. They were prisoners of the ghetto, a small group of the 75,666 Jews from the so-called Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia who, with the incursion of German troops into their country, lost their homes, their property, and their freedom.
In Room 28, their paths crossed with those of about fifty other girls. They spent their lives, day and night, together in the closest of quarters—thirty girls at any given time confined to approximately 325 square feet. They slept on narrow two- and three-bed wooden bunks, ate their meager rations together, and listened as their counselors read to them when evening fell. Once the lights were out, they would talk about their experiences and share their thoughts and dreams, their worries and their fears.
Time and again, some of the girls would suddenly be torn from their midst and forced to join one of the dreaded transports to the East. New girls would arrive in Room 28 and grow accustomed to this community that had been created by force. New friendships formed, only to be torn asunder again by the next transports—the word itself a metaphor for the constant fear that dominated their daily lives. Under the increasing pressure of these threatening events, the girls would cling together all the more tightly. And then, in the fall of 1944, a devastating wave of transports carried off almost all the girls and boys, putting an end to the children’s homes and to Room 28.
It was at that time that Eva Fischl wrote in the album of her friend Flaska, as Anna Flach was lovingly nicknamed by her friends: “When the day comes that you are back in Brno and you are eating a fish, remember that in Theresienstadt there was also a little fish. Your Eva Fischlová. Fisku.” And with a few pencil strokes she added a picture of a fish. Little Ruth Schächter, whom everyone called Zajícek (“Rabbit”), dedicated these words to her: “Don’t forget the girl who wrote this, and lovingly stuck by you. Your—”; and here she drew a mother rabbit with seven bunnies, followed by: “Dear Flaska: Will you always remember who lay beside you? And was your good friend????????”
At first glance, Anna Flach’s little album isn’t much different from the kind that many girls keep at that age. Here, too, one finds aphorisms like this one from Goethe: “Relish your good moods, for they are rare.” And dedications from friends and relatives: “All the best for your future. Your Aunt Ella in Vienna. July 23, 1940.” And a steady stream of pictures and sketches: colorful flowers, a squirrel, a girl peeking through a keyhole, a puppy, an idyllic village street. Only gradually does it dawn on us that this little book, with its crumbling yellowed pages, tells a totally different story from that of most other albums that survive solely for nostalgia’s sake, like my own. It is obvious that other powers kept this book alive. In it are the living memoirs of the murdered girls from Room 28 and the sorrow of their unfulfilled hopes and dreams. In Flaska’s imagination these youngsters live on as they were then—lovable, talented, full of fantasy, some calm and thoughtful, others athletic and vivacious. Flaska and her friends keep asking themselves: What would have become of them? Of Lenka, who wrote such wonderful poems? Of Fiska, who came up with witty sketches and loved the stage? Of Helena, with her talent for drawing and painting? Of Maria, with her beautiful voice? Of Muska, Olile, Zdenka, Pavla, Hana, Poppinka, and sweet little Zajícek, who was so helpless and in need of protection?
The past lives on. “You can’t forget it,” says Judith Schwarzbart. “You live with it every day without talking about it, or even giving it a conscious thought. But then all at once something happens. It can come unexpectedly, out of the blue. A remark, a bit of food, a day of remembrance, anything—and suddenly it’s all there again. But only just parts of it, never everything at once.”
The past comes especially alive when these friends gather, and even more so when they celebrate together. As their annual reunion usually takes place around Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and coincides with several of their birthdays as well, there’s plenty of reason to celebrate. Flowers and candles adorn the festively set table, there are little speeches and toasts, and gifts are exchanged. Later in the evening the lively conversation is increasingly drowned out by song. And finally all of them sing the songs of their childhood in the Theresienstadt ghetto—Czech folk songs, Zionist anthems, songs from the children’s opera Brundibár
A unique atmosphere fills the room at such moments—a blend of gaiety and gravity, of love and friendship, and of gratitude as well. We are thankful, they seem to be saying, that we have our families, that we are mothers and grandmothers, that after all we have gone through, many of our wishes have come true. Their joy is enhanced by the fact that with the end of the Communist era, they are finally able to come together with their relatives and friends in their beloved Czech homeland.
Yet it is at just such moments that the women are aware of how many of their childhood friends cannot share their good fortune. For in their hearts and thoughts these friends are still present. They belong to them just as their own childhood belongs to them.
Anna Flach’s album is no mere memento; it is a mission. She sees it as her personal responsibility to keep alive the memory of the murdered girls of Room 28. Whenever she leafs through the pages—and apparently she does so quite often—she sees these girls in her mind’s eye, hears their voices, gazes into their sad eyes. Don’t forget me
, they seem to call to her from the past. Do you remember how we swore to be faithful to one another forever?
“On one of the first Sundays after the war we shall wait for each other under the Bell Tower in the Old Town Square in Prague.” This is what Flaska and her comrades had promised one another when they had to say goodbye in Theresienstadt. They reinforced their promise with words that resonated like an incantation and a secret password. You believe me, I believe you. You know what I know. Whatever may happen, you won’t betray me, I won’t betray you.
They were a community sworn to loyalty and friendship, with its own motto, emblem, hymn, and flag. The flag displays two clasped hands set in a circle. The emblem, which they called the ma’agal
(the Hebrew word for “circle”), was a symbol of perfection and of the ideals they strove to live by. But what united them above all was their desire for Germany’s defeat and their hope that the war would finally end.
Today, more than half a century later, the girls of Room 28are among the very few who still remember the girls who did not survive.
“We always bring them to mind,” Ela Weissberger (née Stein) says on one of our walks in Spindlermühle. “Every time I speak to an audience in America I ask them to join me for a moment in remembering these girls, and all the children of Theresienstadt. Because no one knows these children apart from us, the few who survived. We have them in our thoughts and our hearts, and we see them before us: their faces, their eyes, their personalities, and everything that we experienced with them. That’s why we are eager for this book to be published. And we hope that someday we will come together and dedicate the book to younger generations and to future generations, and send them on their way with our wishes for a better life. We hope that they may see that we did our best to pass on our memories and the love that comes with these memories: the love that the adults—our counselors and teachers, the artists, and so many others—gave us in those black days. I believe that a great many children today could use the kind of love we knew back then.”
I got to know Ela Weissberger in America in 1996. She was the first eyewitness I sought out in my attempt to learn more about Brundibár
, the children’s opera that was performed in Theresienstadt fifty-five times between 1943 and 1944. An old friend, Frank Harders-Wuthenow, had piqued my interest. A member of the artistic staff of the Bielefeld Opera in Germany, he had discovered Brundibár
in Prague and brought it to the stage in 1992.1 From the moment he told me about the opera, questions about its history and the fate of the children who had performed in it never left my mind. And one day, as I held a Brundibár
program in my hand, I settled on a plan: I would produce a radio documentary on the history of Brundibár
. Luckily, the special features division of Radio Free Berlin accepted my proposal, and soon afterward I set out to investigate the story.
In the Theresienstadt performances of Brundibár
, Ela had played the cat, one of the lead roles in this lovely children’s opera, originally composed in Prague just before the outbreak of World War II. The creators of Brundibár
, the Czech composer Hans Krása and his friend, the artist and writer Adolf Hoffmeister, could not possibly have imagined that their work would premiere a few years later in a concentration camp, with an ensemble of young Jewish prisoners. Nor could they have imagined what their work would come to mean to these children and to all ghetto inmates: a symbol of hope and resistance, of faith that good would triumph over evil.
No one living in Prague in 1938 could have fathomed what Hans Krása, a prisoner in the ghetto from 1942 to 1944, was forced to witness with his own eyes: how his opera, along with other art and culture in Theresienstadt, was exploited by the Nazis in their pernicious propaganda operations. Who could ever have imagined that such a thing was possible? That one day the history of a children’s opera would also be the story of an infamous deception and of the cruel murder of Jewish children?
My conversation with Ela revealed something surprising. When I raised the topic of Brundibár
, her eyes sparkled. The very word seemed to prompt a veritable stream of consciousness—a phenomenon I would encounter over and over in my research. Quite evidently, Brundibár
is a magic word that enlivens heart and soul, and conjures images of bygone times. They were nightmarish, yet Brundibár
imbued them with visions of a more humane, cultured, and hopeful world.
The hours with Ela passed too quickly, and I left with a strong sense that I had heard only the beginning of a gripping and important story. But how was I to proceed? How could I find out more? As if she had read my mind, Ela said: “I’ll be going to Prague again in September. I’ll be seeing my old friends there. If you like, you can join us.”
Before long, I was able to meet Ela’s friends from Room 28 in Prague—an encounter that led to many others in their homes in Brno, Vienna, Israel, and England. I learned about their childhoods, their experiences in Theresienstadt, and the period after they were transported to the East, to Auschwitz, where so many vanished from their midst. The abyss of horror into which these young people gazed on their journey through hell, the cataclysm that tore at their souls—never before had I experienced the tragedy of the Holocaust so directly and starkly as during those meetings. My sense of time seemed to have been suspended, the lines that normally separate today from yesterday suddenly appeared random and irrelevant, and I was all too painfully aware of the truth that we never leave the past behind. “If we had stayed in Room 28 until the end of the war, I think many things would have turned out differently.” I clearly remember Judith Schwarzbart’s words. “We would be happier people today. But most of us had to leave on the transports. And what happened then was so terrible that you just want to forget it.”
It was during these interviews that I realized that I had to do everything in my power to pass on the torch of memory. This book draws primarily on the experiences of ten of the fifteen surviving girls from Room28, who took part in our annual September meetings: Anna Flach, Helga Pollak, Ela Stein, Judith Schwarzbart, Eva Landa, Marta Fröhlich, Hanka Wertheimer, Handa Pollak, Eva Winkler, and Vera Nath. Two former counselors, Eva Weiss, from England, and Eva Eckstein, from Sweden, happily joined these gatherings with “their girls” when their health permitted. Three of the girls—Eva Stern, Marianne Deutsch, and Eva Kohn—opted not to participate in the annual reunion in Spindlermühle. But Eva Stern and Marianne Deutsch welcomed me into their homes. Eva Heller and Marianne Rosenzweig, both of whom live in America, would have liked to come to Spindlermühle, but were unable to do so.
I consider myself extremely fortunate to have become part of this circle of friends and to have witnessed their happiness at being together. It has taught me a remarkable lesson: In recalling periods marked by the deepest of horrors, memory can be merciful, and happy recollections can be extracted and sheltered within our hearts, providing strength during times of adversity. Moreover, it is even possible to share and pass on this healing energy, provided that, like the girls of Room 28, we base our lives, against all odds, on the principle of love.
“When I think of those truly evil years of the war and the Holocaust, one bright, shining point of light always emerges in my memory—our Children’s Home in the ghetto, our Room 28,” recalls Eva Landa. “I was in Theresienstadt for eighteen months. That isn’t long in the life of an adult, but in the life of a twelve-year-old, it is practically an eternity.
“I came to Theresienstadt in 1942, when I was eleven. By the time I left the ghetto on a transport to Auschwitz in December 1943, I felt almost grown up. Parting from Theresienstadt was very hard for me. I left behind my friends and the community we had fashioned with so much care. However, I took with me the memories of our striving for a better and more just world. I did my best to be brave and not to betray our ideals.
“Our little community helped me to overcome many hardships. Sadly, only fifteen girls from Room 28 were fortunate enough to survive. In the ‘Theresienstadt Hymn,’ we all sang: ‘If you wish, you will succeed, hand in hand we’ll be as one, on the ghetto ruins we’ll all laugh one day.’ These prophecies never came true. No one could laugh on those ruins. But we who survived remember our childhood in Room 28 of the children’s home at Theresienstadt with a gentle smile.”
Excerpted from The Girls of Room 28 by Hannelore Brenner. Copyright © 2009 by Hannelore Brenner. Excerpted by permission of Schocken, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.