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The Real Story of the Terezin (Theresienstadt): I am a Star by Inge Auerbacher

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Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

In some respects, Terezin (Theresienstadt), a concentration camp set up by the Nazis in November 1941 in Prague, was presented to the world as a “model community” of Jews. Hitler used Terezin in a propaganda campaign, to show the international community that the deported Jews were treated well, and sent to their own city, supposedly in order to protect them from aggression and from the dangers of war. The Terezin Jewish Ghetto was known as the “old people’s” camp. It was also a place where the relatively privileged were sent: Jewish artists, writers and community leaders. Inge Auerbacher’s Holocaust memoir, I am a Star: Child of the Holocaust, (New York: Puffin Books, 1986) reveals that this “model Jewish city”, though perhaps not as lethal as the death camps, was a far cry from the idyllic community depicted by Nazi propaganda.

Nearly one hundred fifty thousand men, women and children were sent to this fortress town in Czechoslovakia. The Jewish Virtual Library documents that nearly a hundred thousand of them died there, out of which 15,000 were children. Only about 240 children younger than the age of 15 survived. Inge Auerbacher was one of those fortunate few young adults, who lived to reveal the truth about a walled-in prison where inmates suffered from hunger, disease and the constant, rational, fear that they’d be deported to Auschwitz or Treblinka in the next wave of deportations.

Inge’s memoir consists of a unique combination of her childhood memories of the camp, her poetry, and drawings of day-to-day life, sketched from a child’s perspective. The poetry is particularly evocative, as well as informative. It describes daily life in this prison camp as well as her—and her family’s—state of mind. For Terezin was unique among the Jewish camps in keeping families together—at least for a period of time, before its members were deported to a death or concentration camp—and in not killing Jewish children right away. To offer just one example among many of the heart wrenching poems in the book, “Deportation” describes the family’s fear and sense of rootlessness once the deportations began: “It was a morning like no other, The deadly letter was opened by Mother. She screamed out with a loud cry: “It is true, we can no more deny, We are no longer citizens with a name, Now a transport number replaces the same” (30).

The town of Terezin was once a fortress built in 1780 by Joseph II to ward off invasions. He named the city after his mother, Maria Teresa. Hitler subsequently transformed it into a prison for Jews, which he would use as a false cover for his murderous campaign against Europe’s Jewish communities. The author describes the distance between the Nazi propaganda campaign and reality. One of the drawings in the book features a group of rail thin, starving children sleeping head to toe, sometimes four to a narrow bed with soiled sheets. She recalls, “People died like flies in Terezin” from starvation, overwork and disease. “Papa became a scavenger, rummaging every day in the garbage dump in search of potato peelings and rotten turnips” (51). Nonetheless, because conditions in Terezin were not as severe as in the death camps, when the international Red Cross requested permission to visit a concentration camp following rumors of deportations of Jews to the East towards the end of 1943, the Nazis chose this fortress as their model example. Inge recounts how part of the camp underwent a rapid makeover, in preparation for the Red Cross visit, which took place on June 23, 1944:

“Certain parts of the camp were cleaned up. Some people were given new clothing and good food to eat. A few children received chocolates and sardine sandwiches just as the commission walked past them…. The areas filled with the things that had been stolen from us were carefully locked up. Blind, crippled, and sick people were warned to stay out of sight. Even the most brutal SS officer, Rudolf Haindl, acted friendly on that day” (56-57).

The ruse worked. The Red Cross officials left believing Terezin was a model city for Jews. Little by little, however, all of the inmates were boarded up in cattle trains and sent to instant death in Treblinka or to Auschwitz. As Inge puts it, “Terezin was the antechamber to Auschwitz” (58). Eichmann took charge personally of planning these deportations. In Auschwitz, the inmates lived for a while in another so-called “model” camp, established on September 8, 1943, known as the “Family Camp”.

Men and boys occupied even-numbered barracks, women and children odd ones. Unlike in most of Auschwitz (excluding the Gypsy Camp), the inmates could keep their regular clothes and didn’t have their heads shaven. They could therefore also preserve the semblance of normal life: “normal” only by comparison to the worse conditions that pervaded Auschwitz. But even they weren’t spared mass murder. Between July 10-12, 1944, 7000 members of the Family Camp were savagely beaten by the SS and pushed into the gas chambers. Only a few protected Jews, mostly German WWI veterans and their families—which included Inge’s family–were spared this horrible fate. But Ruth, the author’s best friend, perished along with almost everyone else. Inge Auerbacher’s memoir tells the real story of Terezin, the Jewish Ghetto created to serve Nazi propaganda, and pays a moving homage to Ruth and “so many other children as they marched with their mothers to the gas chambers in Auschwitz and the other extermination camps” (64).

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

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Filed under Claudia Moscovici, contemporary fiction, Family Camp in Auschwitz, Holocaust Memoir, Holocaust Memory, I am a Star by Inge Auerbacher, Terezin Jewish Ghetto, Theresienstadt

The Lodz Ghetto: Review of The Cage by Ruth Minsky

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Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

In her Holocaust memoir, The Cage (Simon & Schuster, 1997), Ruth Minsky Sender compares the Lodz Ghetto not to imprisonment of human beings, but to a cage that animals are trapped in. The metaphor is powerful and apt. A medium sized city in Poland, Lodz had a relatively large Jewish population. Out of the city’s nearly 700,000 occupants, about a quarter of million were Jews. The Germans established the Lodz Ghetto in February, 1940. They forced the Jews who lived in other areas to abandon their homes and squeeze into the tiny, 4 square kilometer area, of the Jewish Quarter. The cage grew smaller and smaller as outside contact became more and more difficult. German Police units patrolled the perimeter of the ghetto, to eliminate contact between Jews and Poles. The ghetto walls trapped inside 162,681 human beings, left with meager means of survival. Many of them, particularly those who had moved from other parts of town, were also left homeless, at the mercy of the ghetto’s dissipating community resources. To ensure that the ghetto didn’t receive outside help, the Germans passed punitive laws towards anyone that sold food or goods to its inhabitants. While in the Warsaw Ghetto the underground food smuggling and black market trade flourished for a while, in the Lodz Ghetto it was practically impossible. As contact with the Poles was strictly punished, the Jewish inhabitants were at the mercy of the Germans for all the resources they needed to survive.

The ghetto was governed by a Jewish Council whose “Elder”, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, ruled with an iron fist. One of the most colorful and controversial figures of the Holocaust, Rumkowski became so used to the power he exercised within the ghetto walls that he came to be known as “King Rumkowski”. The historian Raul Hilberg describes him as a megalomaniac autocrat hungry for power. He notes, however, that Rumkowski had some benevolent tendencies, which he exercised on behalf of the ghetto inhabitants and particularly on behalf of children:

 

“A Zionist, he involved himself in community affairs and managed several orphanages with devotion. Widowed and childless, he became a dedicated autocrat in the ghetto. He was able to act alone, because the fear-stricken men who had replaced the murdered councilmen were merely his advisory board… When bank notes were printed in the ghetto, they bore his likeness. Frequently he made speeches with phrases like ‘I do not like to waste words,’ ‘My plan is based on sound logic’, ‘I have decided,’ ‘I forbid,’ and ‘My Jews.’ Rumkowski presided over his community through periods of starvation and deportations for almost five years” (Perpetrators, Victims and Bystanders, New York: HarperPerennial, 109).

 

To appease Hans Biebow, the ruling Nazi official in the area, and to keep the inhabitants alive, Rumkowski established a ghetto manufacturing economy for the Germans. Even so, most of the ghetto inhabitants, particularly the poorer ones and those unable to work, barely had enough food to survive. Most subsisted on a meager diet of about 900 calories a day. Starvation and disease thinned out the ghetto population even before the Nazis began deporting people to the death camps.

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Ruth (Riva) Minsky was only 16 years old when her mother was taken away by the Nazis, never to be seen again. Her father had already passed away earlier from an illness. So Riva, only a child herself, was left to take care of herself and her three younger brothers, including the youngest, Laibele, who suffered from tuberculosis. They barely have enough food to survive; in the harsh Polish winter they shiver from cold. Eventually Riva manages to find a job as a seamstress making German army uniforms. Despite being orphans, Riva and her brothers resist with all their might moving to the ghetto orphanage or being adopted by different families. In fact, the way their nuclear family clings together—with such tenacity that even the director of the orphanage decides to give Riva custody of her brothers—is one of the most moving aspects of the memoir.

Even so, during the winter, the living conditions become so harsh that the Jewish Council decides to burn all the old homes in order to have firewood for the ghetto inhabitants. Riva and her brothers, who live in an old house, are obliged to move into a room of an old grocery store with an underground cellar. This new place, though much smaller and bereft of their family memories, serves them well. Later they hide in the cellar, during the repeated raids by the Jewish Police looking for Jews to meet the Nazi quota for deportation to death camps. Riva and her brothers are particularly at risk since “Operation Reinhard”, or the Final Solution, initially targets children, the ill and the elderly. All those in the Lodz Ghetto deemed by the Nazis “unfit” for work are sent to the Chelmno death camp. Riva escapes several of the selections by hiding and depending on a network of teenage friends. But she cannot escape for long.

In the summer of 1944, the Nazis begin to liquidate the entire ghetto as the Soviet forces approach. They transport the remaining population, including the Elder himself, to Auschwitz. Although he had been promised safety and protection for his cooperation with the local Nazis, Rumkowski himself perished in the concentration camp. Out of the nearly 200,000 inhabitants of the Lodz ghetto, less than 1000 survived to be liberated by Soviet troops on January 19, 1945. Only 12 of them were children. Riva is one of the relatively lucky ones. She survived the unspeakably harsh conditions in Auschwitz due to her youth and resilience; her network of friends that helped each other; luck, and a kind prisoner doctor that took her to a local hospital. Her moving memoir, written in a simple and didactic prose intended for the young adult audience, offers a unique and informative look into the horrendous human cage that was once the Lodz Ghetto.

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

 

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Filed under Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memoir, Holocaust Memory, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, Nazi Germany, Nazi occupation of Poland, Ruth Minsky Sender, The Cage, the Holocaust

An incredible tale of survival: Alicia, my story

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Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

Raul Hilberg estimates that over a million Jews living under German occupation survived the Holocaust and were still alive at the end of WWII. (Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, 186). Each of their stories constitutes a minor miracle: a combination of fortitude and luck, which was relatively rare. Most of the million Jewish survivors were those living in Romania (in the Old Kingdom regions) and Bulgaria. In both of these countries, the leaders of the government, for various complex reasons, changed their minds about sending all Jews to concentration camps.

A second group of survivors made it against all odds, despite the dehumanizing conditions of the concentration camps. They were either liberated by the Allies from Auschwitz and other concentration camps or escaped the grueling death marches, once the Germans evacuated the concentration camps.

A third group of survivors attempted the near impossible: they hid, resisted or fled the Nazis. Many had to adopt more than one disguise or alias. They ran the risk of being shot or sent to concentration camps as soon as the Nazis and their collaborators discovered their real identities. These survivors, Hilberg observes, tended to be young, in good physical condition, and usually had a particular psychological profile that set them apart from most victims: “The contrast may be glimpsed in three important traits: realism, rapid decision making, and tenacious holding to life” (Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders 188). Because they tended to be not only incredibly lucky but also exceptionally resourceful and resilient, their stories sound the most “fictional” and even implausible, particularly to readers today, which are far removed from the hardships of the Holocaust.

If any survivor story shows that truth can be stranger than fiction, it’s Alicia Appleman-Jurman’s Alicia: My Story (New York: Bantam, 1988). In a glowing review, The Pittsburgh Press called the book “As exciting as it is inspirational. In fact, a good bit of Alicia: My Story reads as if it were written by one of our better writers of fiction”. This book reads like fiction, indeed. In an autobiographical narrative the author describes her survival against all odds in Nazi-occupied Poland. While Alicia lost one of her brothers under the Soviet occupation of Poland (when he disappeared without a trace after having been recruited for training by the Red Army), once Germany invaded Poland the situation for Jewish families became far worse. The Gestapo systematically went from house to house hunting for Jews, often aided by the Ukrainian police and the Ukrainian Nationalist guerillas (Banderovcy). The Nazis and their collaborators searched every nook and cranny of Jewish homes, even in basements and attics. Often crying babies would inadvertedly betray entire families trying to escape capture and an almost certain death. Jews were rounded up to be placed in ghettos, or shot on the spot, or sent to concentration camps. Alicia was not yet a teenager when she was compelled to leave her home and go into hiding with her mother, after the Gestapo murdered her father and brothers. Over the course of the next few years, she adopted various disguises and provided not only for herself and her mother, but also helped others. She disguised herself as a peasant, worked hard labor on several farms, and even aided some of the Soviet partisans who took refuge in nearby forests.

Once the war ended, Alicia’s incredible story did not stop. She began working as a guide for the Brecha, the Zionist Underground Railroad that smuggled Jews into Palestine. She made it her life mission to share her survival story in order to inform and inspire generations to come. Talking about her painful past became a therapeutic, not only educational, experience: “As I continued talking I realized that if I were to survive at all and escape from the swamp of anguish and despair, I would have to reach out to people, to those who survived like myself, and perhaps sometime in the future, to all people. I would not be able to continue to hate, because I knew in my young heart that hate could eventually destroy me. But I would always remember what had happened to my family and to my people and would never be able to forgive those who committed the crimes” (Alicia: My Story, 272). To this day she describes her experiences during the Holocaust in schools, at conferences and on her website, http://aliciamystory.com/.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

 

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Filed under Alicia Appleman-Jurman, Alicia My story, Claudia Moscovici, contemporary fiction, history, Holocaust Memoir, Holocaust Memory, memoir, my story, Poland during WWII