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