As we drove into Terezin where 33,000 Jews died and from which 88,000 were deported to Auschwitz, the place appeared as a charming medieval walled-town graced with a central square beneath gentle-leaved trees.
Terezin, a medieval town constructed by Joseph II for Maria Teresa, was established by the Nazis in 1940 to be a model camp used to persuade the International Red Cross that Jews were there for their protection and led a normal life.
The camp would receive 150,000 Jews including 15,000 children from Czechoslovakia, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and Denmark. Most Jews stayed 6 months before being transported to Auschwitz. The camp crammed 80,000 souls together. Today, 1000 people live there.
Pavel Stransky was one of only 17,247 survivors. At 93, this warm-hearted, articulate and loving grandfather guided us through the camp and shared his story.
He was born in Prague and met the love of his life, Vera, as a young Jewish girl in 1938. They became engaged but before the marriage could occur he was taken to Terezin in 1941. By chance, Vera and her parents were on the next transport.
Vera and Pavel married in Terezin on December 16, 1943 in a non-Jewish ceremony one day before he would be transported to Auschwitz. Not knowing what would meet them there, Vera and her mother (her father had already died) voluntarily joined him. Upon arrival, Vera’s mother was gassed. Pavel and Vera were selected for work and separated.
Pavel lost half his weight by the time he was liberated. At 70 pounds and starving, he was forced on a 150-mile death march from Auschwitz and back to Terezin before Soviet troops liberated him.
Of Auschwitz, Pavel wrote:
“Had Dante Alighieri seen the ramp in Auschwitz-Birkenau at the end of the night of December 20, 1943, he probably would have been ashamed of his sober description of Hell.” (Pavel Stransky – “As Messengers for the Victims”, publ. 2000, p. 14).
Before being deported from Prague at the beginning of the war, Pavel had fortuitously taken a teacher training seminar, a role he credits with saving his life.
“The Children’s Block [at Auschwitz] was conceived by Fredy Hirsch, a handsome man who … could have been a model in ancient Greece… Fredy loved children and they …worshipped him.”
In October 1943, Fredy asked Dr. Mengele to make a children’s block out of one of the barracks, and Pavel became one of the coordinators.
The Czech Israeli writer, Otto B. Kraus, tells the story of the 500 Jewish children who lived in the Czech Family Camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau in which Fredy and Pavel worked. The children’s instructors organized clandestine lessons, sing-alongs and staged plays and charades (all described in Kraus’ novel “The Painted Wall”).
Mengele sustained The Children’s Block to provide the Nazis with an alibi to refute the rumors of the Final Solution. It became a shelter and haven for the children, who would all eventually perish in the gas chambers. 83% of the 50 Children’s Block coordinators, however, were still alive in May 1945 because they had spent days inside and out of the bad weather. The coordinators’ mission to create a make-believe world for the children, humanize and bring happiness into the last days of life for the most innocent victims also helped sustain them. (Ibid., Stransky, pps. 44-45)
Upon liberation, Pavel returned to Prague and advertised in local papers with the hope that Vera survived. One day she knocked on his door. Ecstatic, they married a second time under a chupah with real wine and a glass for breaking, and they bore and raised four children and six grandchildren. Vera died fifteen years ago.
As we toured Terezin, Pavel told us that the Nazis’ intention wasn’t just to murder Jews, but
“…to systematically humiliate people’s human dignity …, until the person had been transformed into a starving skeleton that for days and nights without end longs only for a piece of bread… in order [for the Nazis] to hate and despise the product of their own perversion …No one who has not gone through it … can imagine how hours, days, weeks, and months of an empty stomach can hurt; how it can dominate all the thoughts of someone who is eternally hungry, and how it focuses those thoughts on only one thing: just once to eat one’s fill!” (ibid. p. 37)
Pavel showed us a most remarkable synagogue in the camp, one that was hidden from the Nazis and that he (Pavel) did not know existed when he lived there, a windowless 20 X 20 feet room at the end of a drive. Its interior was painted in beautiful Hebrew calligraphy with passages inscribed from Tanakh and Tahanun prayers. Here is but one inscription from the Shacharit service:
“Concerning our brethren from the house of Israel, who in sorrow and in bondage, who between the sea and dry land – May God be merciful to them and deliver them from hardship to ease, from darkness to light, from slavery to redemption, and let it happen speedily.”