Update: Originally published April 2013, with larger photos included.
A Tale of Terezin is a tale of my mother’s most tragic and challenging time of her life, a story recited to me many times throughout my early years and frequently embellished by the detailed accounts of her parents’ memories. These beloved relatives are all gone now, but this is my legacy. I feel I possess more character traits of my mother and grandmother than do my siblings and have always felt that the story of my Czech side of the family was part of my soul, my waking life, my subconscious.
My mother, Miryam Sapsovic Levy once mentioned the children’s opera “Brundibar” as written by someone who perished at Auschwitz, and this later was part of a Nazi propaganda film. She never mentioned if her sister was part of the cast, only that she lived in a girls’ barrack (group home L410 or elsewhere?) and toiled in the German vegetable gardens.
I viewed a bit of “Brundibar” in the videotape “The Journey of Butterfly” and sitting in the theater at Terezin, and on my first of two tours (so far) I watched the propaganda film, “The Fuhrer Gives the Jews a Town.” My aunt Zora, who perished at Terezin at age 14, was supposed to have starred in a propaganda film but when she was asked to undress (to swim in the officers’ pool?), she protested bitterly and a Nazi officer said that it was okay, she didn’t have to.
Yet my mother always insisted that she acted in a propaganda film. But perhaps her childhood memories aren’t entirely accurate. I keep searching for Zora’s face in documentaries and the film, but then I remember that Zorinka died of typhus on February 11, 1943.
I was on a bus tour of the Small Fortress several years ago and on a later trip I was very fortunate to have a private tour of the Ghetto with the remarkable Pavel Stransky—who just turned 90—a survivor of Terezin, Auschwitz (where he, along with Fredy Hirsch, taught the children in the Czech Family Camp B2B before they were sent to the gas chambers) and Schwarzeheide labor camp—where he survived the death march back to Theresienstadt. I have read his biography, “As Messengers For the Victims.” I hope to return to Prague and to the Terezin Ghetto. Terezin seems like a ghost town, there are only 1000 residents left, all Christians.
I have read all the Terezin journals and biographies I could find, including “The Cat with the Yellow Star,” “The Girls of Room 28,” “Fortress of My Youth,” “The Terezin Diary of Gonda Redlich,” “Nesarim,” etc. I am infused with the desire to claim this part of the Bohemian land as my own. I hope to one day visit “Beit Theresienstadt” in Jerusalem.
I deeply mourn the untimely loss of my mother on May 22, 2006 at age 74. She is in my soul, I think of her every day, I still wear her hats, scarves, dresses and jewelry. I very much regret not acquiring my grandmother’s poignant tales in writing or on tape before it would have risked her fragile health. These vivid accounts would have become the cornerstone of my book manuscript, “Memoirs of a Second Generation Holocaust Survivor.” Emotional, passionate and animated, my grandmother Fanny Sapsovic, who died at 81, was the family historian—and so I feel the need to take over. Grandfather Ludvik passed away in April 2005, just 3 weeks shy of his hundredth birthday, also could have embellished upon what I already knew of his tale of Terezin.
After my mother passed away I found treasures of hers in a plastic Ziploc bag in storage, items she never shared with me, like German documents, deportation papers, visa papers, her yellow star of David patch, so many things. She was a sunny optimist till her later years, didn’t want to talk about the past and wanted to leave it behind, like a typical child.
I was disappointed there was very little on Theresienstadt at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington,D.C., where I recently visited.
With laughter and tears, I leave to my daughters and the public at large this tale, which I acquired by holding my poor mother captive with my tape recorder as she drove to a doctor’s appointment in New York City.
April 28, 2011
Postscript May 2, 2011
I have miraculously made the acquaintance of two Terezin survivors yesterday, Marta Fried and Ela Stein Weissberger (Ela played the Cat in the “Brundibar” children’s opera for 55 performances in Theresienstadt). Bless them, I think they will become my two honorary aunties. I have learned that Zorinka was the first to die from her barrack, in Room 27 at building L410, where Marta was also residing. Ela was next door in Room 28. I now understand that my grandmother was incorrect in telling me that Zorinka’s whole barrack was poisoned (contaminated water) and all the girls also died of typhus. This was probably what my grandparents were told, in an attempt to soften their grief perhaps (which didn’t help, obviously).