The girls from Room 28

Now 80 years old, the "girls" from Theresienstadt marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Tel Aviv.

czech holocaust event 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
czech holocaust event 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
International Holocaust Remembrance Day is quite clearly not “our” Holocaust Remembrance Day. The Czech Embassy-sponsored January 27 event at the Enav Center in Tel Aviv, dedicated to the memories of those who perished at the Theresienstadt transit/death camp in Czechoslovakia or were later sent on to their death in Auschwitz-Birkenau, and to those who survived, was not the stuff of our state ceremonies with all the requisite pomp and circumstance. This was a far more intimate affair with most of the proceedings based on a book written by Hannelore Brenner, who emceed the evening, about the occupants of one of the rooms at Theresienstadt – Room 28.
“The rooms at Theresienstadt were divided up into age groups,” explains Hannah Weingarten (nee Wertheimer), a survivor of Room 28 who made aliya in 1949 and now lives in Tel Aviv. “We were all around 12-13 years old at the time so we are all – those of us who survived – around 80. I turned 80 on December 12 – the 12th of the 12th.”
There were six other women at the Enav Center event who survived life at Theresienstadt, and some, like Weingarten, also came out of Auschwitz alive.
The program included readings of excerpts from Brenner’s book, the self-explanatory entitled The Girls of Room 28 – Friendship, Hope, and Survival in Theresienstadt, which she wrote in German in the mid-1990s and which came out in English last year. A Hebrew translation, through Yad Vashem, is currently in the works. Passages from the book were read by members of the Gewandhaus Kinderchor, a children’s choir from Leipzig, Germany, and by some of the survivors, and the choir and two adult singers from Germany performed songs written and sung at the camp.
From 1942 to 1945, 12,000 children passed through the Theresienstadt internment camp, near Prague. All the children, some of whom had parents and grandparents interned in other parts of the camp, knew that their stay at Theresienstadt was planned as only a transient stage and that they would probably all be shipped out further east, to Auschwitz. The adults who were sent there from all over Europe were well aware of their probable fate and decided to do everything they could to keep their teenaged children alive. The youngsters were housed separately, in dormitory-like barracks, where they had a greater chance of staying healthy and had better access to food. The rooms were overseen by carers – young men and women who had been teachers and youth workers – who created a disciplined environment within the maelstrom of the horror around them.
Although the Nazis banned formal studies, ways were found to educate the children. Hebrew was used in everyday life and the children had access to the talents and experience of artists, musicians and playwrights of the very highest quality – European Jews who were also on their way to Auschwitz. Under their instruction, the children engaged in painting, drawing, poetry and music, and they performed in theatrical productions, most notably Brundibar, the legendary “children’s opera” that celebrates the triumph of good over evil.
Initially there were no musical instrument available, but eventually some were found and others were improvised and, over the three years, no fewer than four orchestras, as well as a chamber ensemble and some jazz groups, were put together. The cultural activities at the camp developed over time, and were subsequently used by the Nazis as something of a propaganda campaign to try to show the world that it was taking care of the Jews of Europe in such “humane” facilities as Theresienstadt, which offered the inmates such a rich cultural life.
In 1944, when Red Cross representatives came to inspect life at the camp, they were, indeed, duped by the Germans and left believing the Jews had a good life there. “In fact more than 18,000 Jews were shipped out to Auschwitz before the Red Cross people arrived,” explains Oded Breda, director of Beit Theresienstadt at Kibbutz Givat Haim Ihud. “They were sent on so as to reduce the crowding at the camp and convey a better picture of the conditions to the Red Cross people.”
ALTHOUGH THE octogenarians were the center of attention they were not the oldest attendees at the Enav Center event, by some distance; 96-year-old Vienna-born, Czech-raised Givatayim resident Edith Krauss was also in the audience. Krauss, naturally, was not part of the Room 28 group and has her own story to tell. She arrived in Theresienstadt in 1942, by which time she was already an accomplished classical pianist, having studied with celebrated pianist, composer and teacher Artur Schnabel in Berlin in her youth.
“That was how I survived,” she says, adding that her talents were put to regular use at the camp, after a battered piano had been discovered in an attic and had been rudimentarily repaired and tuned. “I performed more than 300 times during the three years I was there. I played works by Bach and all the great classical composers. I did concerts with singers and all kinds of other instrumentalists. I was elated to be able to play the piano there, despite the circumstances. When I played the piano there I forgot everything around me.”
That might sound like a pleasant enough way to spend one’s time, especially in an extermination camp, but there were also daytime duties to be tended to. “I worked with some kind of substance that looks like glass, but it’s a mineral,” Krauss says. “They used it for building roads.”
In the intervening years, however, music has also served as a painful reminder of Krauss’s time at the camp. “I can’t play the piano anymore, since I had a stroke,” she says, “but Theresienstadt was always with me when I played, and it’s always with me when I don’t play.”
WEINGARTEN DID not get any musical training before being deported to Theresienstadt and says she brought a more edible past with her, which also linked her with this part of the world. “I was born in a small town called Znojmo near the Czech border with Austria. My grandparents were famous for their pickles. They had a company called Pikant, and they even exported to Palestine in the 1930s.”
There was also an ideological bond. “We were very Zionist, and my mother’s brother came to Palestine in 1935. He was a lawyer. My sister later made it to Ben-Shemen, as part of Youth Aliya.”
Weingarten says her mother used protekzia to get her assigned to Room 28. “One of the carers of the room was a cousin of my mother’s, called Rita Bohm. My mother came with me to Theresienstadt, in March 1943, and she wouldn’t have just let me go without doing her best to make sure I was being well cared for.”
The cousin was evidently a chip off the old block. “Rita was very Zionistic, and she gave all the girls musical training, that is except for me, I had absolutely no musical talent at all.”
Bohm was also a strict disciplinarian. “At the time I didn’t always appreciate what she did for us. But, today, as a mother and grandmother, I realize she had a lot on her plate. There were 26 or 28 of us girls in one room, in very difficult conditions. Some were weak, some were sick, some had no parents and some had only one.”
At the time she was unaware that she belonged to the latter category. “My father was taken away to Dachau before my mother, grandmother and I were sent to Theresienstadt. My mother had already been informed that he was dead, but she didn’t let me know until much later.”
Given the circumstances, the girls in the room often got close very quickly, but this also had its downside. “Theresienstadt was a transit camp, so our room was a transit stage too. I worked out that around 60 girls passed through the room altogether. The room could take 28 girls, so you can see how many were sent on.”
The girls slept on three-tier bunks and there was a table, two benches and two makeshift cupboards in the room. Things were clearly tough but, with hindsight, Weingarten appreciates what her mother must have gone through. “She had me and her own mother to worry about. She saw her mother lying on the floor in awful conditions. Today, as a mother, I would go crazy if I knew my child didn’t have warm clothing, or a cooked meal or access to doctor if he got sick.”
Weingarten says there were advantages to being young, even in Theresienstadt. “It was our parents who suffered the most, I understand that now. They knew what a normal life was. We were just starting our lives and, anyway, children are very resilient. So we were hungry all the time, but we always thought it was all going to end very soon.”
Even so, her mother was also very optimistic, almost to the point of denial. “She had a friend who said he had been in a concentration camp and managed to bribe his way out. This was at the end of 1941, and we still didn’t know about concentration camps at that stage. When this friend told her about the camps, she thought he had been through some trauma and had lost his mind. She didn’t believe it.”
Incredibly, her mother even maintained her sunny outlook when she arrived at Auschwitz with her daughter in May 1944. “She saw the electrified fences and the watchtowers,” Weingarten recalls, “but she said this place isn’t for us. There’s another place on the other side of the camp, that’s where we’re going.”
Weingarten also drew inspiration from a grander source. “[Tomas] Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia, said that the truth always wins out and we grew up with that. We knew we weren’t to blame for being in the camp. So if we weren’t to blame, as far as we were concerned it was definitely going to end sometime soon.”
While Weingarten’s mother did not survive, she herself spent just six weeks at Auschwitz before being sent to Hamburg to work.
THE INTERNATIONAL Holocaust Remembrance Day gathering in Tel Aviv was just one such event taking place around the world. Another survivor of Room 28 was in Poland to enlighten an audience there of the experiences at Theresienstadt, while yet another, Hannah Drori, recently met with some fellow survivors in Berlin “to provide live testimony of what happened in Theresienstadt, and in the Holocaust in general,” she says. “It’s always difficult for me to go to Germany, particularly to Berlin, because of what it symbolized during the Nazi era.”
Drori says that the survivors have remained close over the years, and not only because of their shared experiences at the camp. “Yes, we have those memories, but we also take a great interest in each other’s lives today.”
While in Berlin, Drori and her friends enjoyed a program of Germancabaret songs at the local city hall, as well as an evening at theCzech Embassy during which they attended a screening of a documentaryabout the five Israeli survivors of Room 28, called Drops of Memory,and a film about another survivor of Theresienstadt, pianist AliceZomer-Hertz. The film was shot to mark Zomer-Hertz’s 100th birthday.“She’s now 106, and still plays the piano,” says Weingarten.
Weingarten says she was glad to have the opportunity to talk about someof her time at Theresienstadt at the Enav Center, but that the yearshave not softened the stark experiences she had in Room 28 and later atAuschwitz. “Actually the six weeks I spent at Auschwitz almostcompletely erased everything I went through in my 14 months atTheresienstadt. The truth is that none of it ever leaves me. Every dayis Holocaust Remembrance Day for me.”