The Girls of Room 28: Friendship, Hope, and Survival in Theresienstadt
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From 1942 to 1944, twelve thousand children passed through the Theresienstadt internment camp, near Prague, on their way to Auschwitz. Only a few hundred of them survived the war. In The Girls of Room 28, ten of these children—mothers and grandmothers today in their seventies—tell us how they did it.
The Jews deported to Theresienstadt from countries all over Europe were aware of the fate that awaited them, and they decided that it was the young people who had the best chance to survive. Keeping these adolescents alive, keeping them whole in body, mind, and spirit, became the priority. They were housed separately, in dormitory-like barracks, where they had a greater chance of staying healthy and better access to food, and where counselors (young men and women who had been teachers and youth workers) created a disciplined environment despite the surrounding horrors. The counselors also made available to the young people the talents of an amazing array of world-class artists, musicians, and playwrights–European Jews who were also on their way to Auschwitz. Under their instruction, the children produced art, 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.
In the mid-1990s, German journalist Hannelore Brenner met ten of these child survivors—women in their late-seventies today, who reunite every year at a resort in the Czech Republic. Weaving her interviews with the women together with excerpts from diaries that were kept secretly during the war and samples of the art, music, and poetry created at Theresienstadt, Brenner gives us an unprecedented picture of daily life there, and of the extraordinary strength, sacrifice, and indomitable will that combined—in the girls and in their caretakers—to make survival possible.
Hannelore Wonschick. EDITION ABSEITS, 1999. Double CD with the opera and a radio documentary on the history of the opera with recorded recollections by survivors of Theresienstadt. www.room28projects.com. ILLUSTRATION PERMISSIONS ACKNOWLEDGMENTS The author and the publisher wish to thank the Girls of Room 28 for supplying many photographs and documents from their personal collections for publication in this book: Anna Hanusová-Flachová Helga Kinsky Eva Stern Handa Drori Eva Gross
younger than she, and others who would help out as needed. On the other side of Market Square, in what had been the Theresienstadt school, was the Boys’ Home L 417. It had been founded before the Girls’ Home, on July 8, 1942. Other homes had also been established on the same pattern: the Toddlers’ Home L 318, several homes for apprentices, as well as Home L 414, which lodged children primarily from Germany and Austria. Homes L 410 and L 417 were reserved mainly for the children of the
the one from the Hannover to the Aussig Barracks with an L. Papa lives at L 231 and I live at L 410. There’s a health authority here, whose head is a young physician, Dr. Munk. There is supposed to be an infirmary in every building with over four hundred people, but only a very few have one. We have two infirmaries and an outpatient clinic. Children are well looked after here. We go once a month to be measured and weighed. For fresh air we go to the ramparts, which is not open to adults. It’s
dreadful day when heaven and earth shall be moved.’) For me, that work—and music in general in Theresienstadt—was an extraordinary experience. It was as if angels were singing in hell.” Flaška also occasionally tiptoed down to the cellar to be closer to these musical events. Music was—and still is—the elixir of her life. Once she even had the chance to audition for the role of Bastienne, alongside Piňt’a Mühlstein, who was to play Bastien, and his sister Maria, who had the role of Kolas the
all wrinkled, and my best skirt has a big spot on it.” “So what?” one of the girls said. “Why are you always going on about your blouse!” “Lenka, calm down. It’s not important.” Lenka: “But I’ve got to look good because my boyfriend will see me there.” Another girl: “You’re so silly. Gelbec isn’t even your boyfriend anymore. So don’t try that on us, and stop worrying about your outfit all the time.” The next day the stillness of Home 9 was broken by a deep sigh. “Who would like to exchange 2