As a teenager in Czechoslovakia, I survived the Holocaust; it was my great fortune that I was never sent to Auschwitz.
When the Nazis came to Prague, slowly but surely, all Jewish people had to surrender all their property. My father was tortured and subsequently killed by the Gestapo and, a year later, my mother, my sister, and I were sent to the Terezin concentration camp, which was a transit camp near Prague where we stayed for two-and-a-half years. The Germans made Terezin look like a model camp to pretend to the world that the nasty rumors that the Nazis were killing all the European Jews were simply not true.
Before the war, Terezin was inhabited by some 5,000 people, but then it was turned into this transit camp — at one point some 60,000 people were living there. Of the 145,000 people who were sent, close to 90,000 people were deported from there to Auschwitz, some 35,000 died there, and the remainder were liberated by the Russian Red Army on May 8, 1945.
In the fall of 1944, the Germans realized that they were going to lose the war. But they still had one mission to complete for the Fuehrer — the annihilation of all European Jews. There was no longer any need for pretense. They sent 18,000 people in 11 trains from Terezin to the “East” — nobody knew that it was to a place named Auschwitz. My mother had an agreement with her sister-in-law that if one of them were deported, she would try to send a postcard or a letter indicating whether the new place seemed better or worse than Terezin by slanting the handwriting up or down. My aunt was deported and sent a benign postcard back to my mother through the censors saying that all was well, that she was already working as a seamstress (she had never worked as a seamstress before), and the handwriting was slanted down. As soon as she finished writing the postcard, she was sent into the gas chambers. So my mother knew that she had to do everything in her power to keep herself and her two children in Terezin.
We received a summons to come to the assembly area to board one of the trains. Fortunately, we had a high number — 1,385 out of 1,500, and that gave my mother enough time to run over to the arts department where she worked and tell her boss, Jo Spier, the famous Dutch artist, that she was being deported. She told him that therefore the order the German officer supervising the arts department gave them to make teddy bears for his children for Christmas would not get filled. Mr. Spier went to the officer and explained the situation to him and the officer told Mr. Spier to pull her out of the transport. Mr. Spier then told him that she had two children and if they went, she would go with them. So the officer said: “Pull them out too, but no one else.” And thus, due to my mother’s persistence and a lot of luck, I am here today to tell this incredible story.
In total, 6 million Jewish people perished during the Holocaust, 1.5 million of whom were children.
It starts with a simple drawing of a swastika on a wall, then the overturning of Jewish gravestones, the bullying of Jewish students, culminating in the killing of innocent worshippers in a Pittsburgh synagogue and diners in a deli in Jersey City, and the stabbing of five people in a rabbi’s home during a Hanukkah celebration. Before you know it, we have a repeat of Kristallnacht, the destruction of Jewish property, burning of synagogues, and beatings and killings of Jews in the streets, a la 1930s in Germany. It behooves all of us to be very much on the alert and make sure that the smallest of such incidents is immediately thwarted and stopped in its tracks.
Michael Gruenbaum is the author of “Somewhere There Is Still a Sun.” His late wife, Thelma Gruenbaum, was the author of “Nesarim: Child Survivors of Terezin,” which documents Gruenbaum’s and others’ experiences in the Nazi concentration camp.