The Girls of Room 28: Friendship, Hope, and Survival in Theresienstadt [NOOK Book]

Overview

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 childrenmothers and grandmothers today in their seventiestell 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 ...
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The Girls of Room 28: Friendship, Hope, and Survival in Theresienstadt

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Overview

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 childrenmothers and grandmothers today in their seventiestell 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.


From the Hardcover edition.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Brenner, a Berlin-based journalist, focuses on 10 former child survivors, women in their late 70s, who went through the Theresienstadt concentration camp during the Holocaust. She notes that 12,000 children entered the camp from 1942 to 1944, but only a few hundred survived to war's end, and a handful of women of Room 28 in the camp's Girls' Home, now scattered around the world, reunited for the first time in 1991. The insights of the survivors and stories of the camp's victims are unforgettable and full of poignant humanity, conveyed through letters, photos, diaries and remembrances. Forced into exile and almost certain death under the Nazi regime, the children confronted hunger, cold, terror and the soul's endurance as many of the girls of Room 28 were slowly eliminated; the small band of survivors is committed to keeping their memory alive. Well-detailed and inspiring, Brenner's book, especially her heartfelt epilogue, pays glowing tribute to these heroic survivors. B&w photos. (Sept.)
Library Journal
For nearly 15 years, a group of elderly women have gathered at a resort in the Czech Republic. This annual reunion represents a solidarity few can comprehend; although these women now hail from across the globe, they share the unbreakable bond of occupying the same room in Theresienstadt internment camp near Prague as adolescents during the Holocaust. As a waypoint to the death camps, Theresienstadt's prisoners included an array of intellectuals, artists, writers, and musicians (most of whom did not survive the war) who were dedicated to educating the resident children. Many of the girls performed in the renowned children's play Brundibar, presented during their internment. Through interviews, firsthand accounts, and illustrations, Berlin-based journalist Brenner effectively captures their stories, beginning with prior carefree lives and recounting the joys and despair of daily life in the camp and the eventual deportation of many of the girls and their loved ones to death camps. VERDICT These moving memoirs should appeal to anyone with an interest in Theresienstadt or Nazi Germany. Strongly recommended for Holocaust-related studies.—Judy Brink-Drescher, Dowling Coll., Oakdale, NY
Kirkus Reviews
A deeply sympathetic account of a group of concentration-camp dorm mates who stayed in touch years after their release. Of the 50 or so girls who met in Room 28, only 15 survived, and ten tell their affecting stories here. Located just north of Prague, Theresienstadt (Terezin) was used by the invading Nazi forces primarily as a transit station for prisoners headed for extermination farther east, as well as a so-called model camp with a self-governing Council of Elders that the Nazis could show the outside world as evidence of their fair treatment of the Jews. In fact, the SS ran it, easily duping the outsiders. The Jewish girls, ages 11 to 14, were wrenched from their family from various parts of what the Wehrmacht had set up as the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Often sickly and traumatized, they were grouped in Room 28, and soon began a difficult work routine and endured an unappetizing diet, bedbugs and epidemics such as typhoid and encephalitis. However, the youthful spirit of hope could not be extinguished even in the cruelest conditions. Through the diaries and notebooks the girls kept, as well as later personal accounts, Berlin-based journalist Brenner reveals the extraordinary means the girls and their caretakers took to share food and comfort and help each other. The author also chronicles the remarkable artistic experiments undertaken by the girls, especially their enthusiastic production of the children's opera Brundibar. An inspiring story of courage rendered through impressive personal and historical detail.
From the Publisher
"This beautiful evocation of heartwarming friendship in the darkest of times is unforgettable."
—Elie Wiesel

"The insights of the survivors and stories of the camp's victims are unforgettable and full of poignant humanity, conveyed through letters, photos, diaries, and remembrances. . . . Well detailed and inspiring, Brenner's book, especially her heartfelt epilogue, pays glowing tribute to these heroic survivors."
Publishers Weekly

“Brenner chronicles the remarkable artistic experiments undertaken by the girls, especially their enthusiastic production of the children’s opera Brundibár. An inspiring story of courage rendered through impressive personal and historical detail.”
Kirkus Reviews

"The story of this children's home in Theresienstadt takes us to the limit of the bearable, to the place where compassion, fear, and the temptation to simply turn away all lie in wait. To resist that temptation--isn't that what the historical record must achieve?
DIE ZEIT

"This handful of girls wanted their memories of their dead friends and their time in Theresienstadt not to be forgotten. They wanted to make the story of their survival, and the love and friendship that their caretakers showerd them, unforgettable. Together with the author, they have succeeded. In Hannelore Brenner, these women have found someone who listened to them, who read their albums of poetry, their diaries, and their chronicles, and who has written a wonderful book."
PRAGER ZEITUNG

"Brenner has gathered together these stories with great sensitivity. She makes the past spring to life and gracefully places the personal memories of these girls into a historical context, while at the same time offering solid research and background information regarding life in Theresienstadt and the political situation of the time."
SÄCHSISCHE ZEITUNG

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805242706
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/1/2009
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 340,659
  • File size: 7 MB

Meet the Author

HANNELORE BRENNER is a print and broadcast journalist based in Berlin.


From the Hardcover edition.
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Read an Excerpt

chapter one
 
Spindlermühle, Czech Republic, Autumn 2000  
 
Every fall since the mid-1990s a group of extraordinary women gathers at Spindlermühle, a little Czech resort just below the headwaters of the Elbe, in the Giant Mountains. For a few days, the atmosphere in this small town is filled with the sounds of their joyous reunion, with songs and laughter, but also with the sad memories of their childhood, more than half a century ago.
 
The women are in their seventies, and they come from all parts of the globe. The shared vacation, which arose spontaneously out of their pleasure at having found one another again after so many years, quickly developed a momentum of its own, attracting more participants with each passing year. Soon the reunions became a cherished tradition. And while the women enjoy their time together, their hearts are both saddened by the approaching farewells and hopeful as they contemplate future reunions.
 
This annual meeting has come to represent the high point of their year. With bracing breezes blowing through its forests and the sparkling Elbe River rushing by, Spindlermühle radiates enchantment. The women feel rejuvenated as they hike up the mountains or stroll along the rushing stream. They bask in the happiness of being together. Their happiness is palpable to outsiders, who might well wonder what invisible tie binds them. The women themselves would offer a simple answer: “We feel like sisters, like a family. We’re happy when we are together.”
 
Indeed, the women are like sisters, bound by a special fate: Between 1942 and 1944, when they were twelve to fourteen years old, they lived in Room 28, Girls’ Home, L 410, Theresienstadt, a fortress town near Prague. They were prisoners of the ghetto, a small group of the 75,666 Jews from the so-called Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia who, with the incursion of German troops into their country, lost their homes, their property, and their freedom.
 
In Room 28, their paths crossed with those of about fifty other girls. They spent their lives, day and night, together in the closest of quarters—thirty girls at any given time confined to approximately 325 square feet. They slept on narrow two- and three-bed wooden bunks, ate their meager rations together, and listened as their counselors read to them when evening fell. Once the lights were out, they would talk about their experiences and share their thoughts and dreams, their worries and their fears.  
 
Time and again, some of the girls would suddenly be torn from their midst and forced to join one of the dreaded transports to the East. New girls would arrive in Room 28 and grow accustomed to this community that had been created by force. New friendships formed, only to be torn asunder again by the next transports—the word itself a metaphor for the constant fear that dominated their daily lives. Under the increasing pressure of these threatening events, the girls would cling together all the more tightly. And then, in the fall of 1944, a devastating wave of transports carried off almost all the girls and boys, putting an end to the children’s homes and to Room 28.  
 
It was at that time that Eva Fischl wrote in the album of her friend Flaska, as Anna Flach was lovingly nicknamed by her friends: “When the day comes that you are back in Brno and you are eating a fish, remember that in Theresienstadt there was also a little fish. Your Eva Fischlová. Fisku.” And with a few pencil strokes she added a picture of a fish. Little Ruth Schächter, whom everyone called Zajícek (“Rabbit”), dedicated these words to her: “Don’t forget the girl who wrote this, and lovingly stuck by you. Your—”; and here she drew a mother rabbit with seven bunnies, followed by: “Dear Flaska: Will you always remember who lay beside you? And was your good friend????????”
 
At first glance, Anna Flach’s little album isn’t much different from the kind that many girls keep at that age. Here, too, one finds aphorisms like this one from Goethe: “Relish your good moods, for they are rare.” And dedications from friends and relatives: “All the best for your future. Your Aunt Ella in Vienna. July 23, 1940.” And a steady stream of pictures and sketches: colorful flowers, a squirrel, a girl peeking through a keyhole, a puppy, an idyllic village street. Only gradually does it dawn on us that this little book, with its crumbling yellowed pages, tells a totally different story from that of most other albums that survive solely for nostalgia’s sake, like my own. It is obvious that other powers kept this book alive. In it are the living memoirs of the murdered girls from Room 28 and the sorrow of their unfulfilled hopes and dreams. In Flaska’s imagination these youngsters live on as they were then—lovable, talented, full of fantasy, some calm and thoughtful, others athletic and vivacious. Flaska and her friends keep asking themselves: What would have become of them? Of Lenka, who wrote such wonderful poems? Of Fiska, who came up with witty sketches and loved the stage? Of Helena, with her talent for drawing and painting? Of Maria, with her beautiful voice? Of Muska, Olile, Zdenka, Pavla, Hana, Poppinka, and sweet little Zajícek, who was so helpless and in need of protection?  
 
***
 
The past lives on. “You can’t forget it,” says Judith Schwarzbart. “You live with it every day without talking about it, or even giving it a conscious thought. But then all at once something happens. It can come unexpectedly, out of the blue. A remark, a bit of food, a day of remembrance, anything—and suddenly it’s all there again. But only just parts of it, never everything at once.”  
 
The past comes especially alive when these friends gather, and even more so when they celebrate together. As their annual reunion usually takes place around Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and coincides with several of their birthdays as well, there’s plenty of reason to celebrate. Flowers and candles adorn the festively set table, there are little speeches and toasts, and gifts are exchanged. Later in the evening the lively conversation is increasingly drowned out by song. And finally all of them sing the songs of their childhood in the Theresienstadt ghetto—Czech folk songs, Zionist anthems, songs from the children’s opera Brundibár.  
 
A unique atmosphere fills the room at such moments—a blend of gaiety and gravity, of love and friendship, and of gratitude as well. We are thankful, they seem to be saying, that we have our families, that we are mothers and grandmothers, that after all we have gone through, many of our wishes have come true. Their joy is enhanced by the fact that with the end of the Communist era, they are finally able to come together with their relatives and friends in their beloved Czech homeland.  
 
Yet it is at just such moments that the women are aware of how many of their childhood friends cannot share their good fortune. For in their hearts and thoughts these friends are still present. They belong to them just as their own childhood belongs to them.  
 
***
 
Anna Flach’s album is no mere memento; it is a mission. She sees it as her personal responsibility to keep alive the memory of the murdered girls of Room 28. Whenever she leafs through the pages—and apparently she does so quite often—she sees these girls in her mind’s eye, hears their voices, gazes into their sad eyes. Don’t forget me, they seem to call to her from the past. Do you remember how we swore to be faithful to one another forever?  
 
“On one of the first Sundays after the war we shall wait for each other under the Bell Tower in the Old Town Square in Prague.” This is what Flaska and her comrades had promised one another when they had to say goodbye in Theresienstadt. They reinforced their promise with words that resonated like an incantation and a secret password.  
 
You believe me, I believe you.  
You know what I know.  
Whatever may happen,  
you won’t betray me,  
I won’t betray you.  
 
They were a community sworn to loyalty and friendship, with its own motto, emblem, hymn, and flag. The flag displays two clasped hands set in a circle. The emblem, which they called the ma’agal (the Hebrew word for “circle”), was a symbol of perfection and of the ideals they strove to live by. But what united them above all was their desire for Germany’s defeat and their hope that the war would finally end.  
 
Today, more than half a century later, the girls of Room 28are among the very few who still remember the girls who did not survive.  
 
“We always bring them to mind,” Ela Weissberger (née Stein) says on one of our walks in Spindlermühle. “Every time I speak to an audience in America I ask them to join me for a moment in remembering these girls, and all the children of Theresienstadt. Because no one knows these children apart from us, the few who survived. We have them in our thoughts and our hearts, and we see them before us: their faces, their eyes, their personalities, and everything that we experienced with them. That’s why we are eager for this book to be published. And we hope that someday we will come together and dedicate the book to younger generations and to future generations, and send them on their way with our wishes for a better life. We hope that they may see that we did our best to pass on our memories and the love that comes with these memories: the love that the adults—our counselors and teachers, the artists, and so many others—gave us in those black days. I believe that a great many children today could use the kind of love we knew back then.”
 
***
 
I got to know Ela Weissberger in America in 1996. She was the first eyewitness I sought out in my attempt to learn more about Brundibár, the children’s opera that was performed in Theresienstadt fifty-five times between 1943 and 1944. An old friend, Frank Harders-Wuthenow, had piqued my interest. A member of the artistic staff of the Bielefeld Opera in Germany, he had discovered Brundibár in Prague and brought it to the stage in 1992.1 From the moment he told me about the opera, questions about its history and the fate of the children who had performed in it never left my mind. And one day, as I held a Brundibár program in my hand, I settled on a plan: I would produce a radio documentary on the history of Brundibár. Luckily, the special features division of Radio Free Berlin accepted my proposal, and soon afterward I set out to investigate the story.
 
In the Theresienstadt performances of Brundibár, Ela had played the cat, one of the lead roles in this lovely children’s opera, originally composed in Prague just before the outbreak of World War II. The creators of Brundibár, the Czech composer Hans Krása and his friend, the artist and writer Adolf Hoffmeister, could not possibly have imagined that their work would premiere a few years later in a concentration camp, with an ensemble of young Jewish prisoners. Nor could they have imagined what their work would come to mean to these children and to all ghetto inmates: a symbol of hope and resistance, of faith that good would triumph over evil.  
 
No one living in Prague in 1938 could have fathomed what Hans Krása, a prisoner in the ghetto from 1942 to 1944, was forced to witness with his own eyes: how his opera, along with other art and culture in Theresienstadt, was exploited by the Nazis in their pernicious propaganda operations. Who could ever have imagined that such a thing was possible? That one day the history of a children’s opera would also be the story of an infamous deception and of the cruel murder of Jewish children?  
 
***
 
My conversation with Ela revealed something surprising. When I raised the topic of Brundibár, her eyes sparkled. The very word seemed to prompt a veritable stream of consciousness—a phenomenon I would encounter over and over in my research. Quite evidently, Brundibár is a magic word that enlivens heart and soul, and conjures images of bygone times. They were nightmarish, yet Brundibár imbued them with visions of a more humane, cultured, and hopeful world.  
 
The hours with Ela passed too quickly, and I left with a strong sense that I had heard only the beginning of a gripping and important story. But how was I to proceed? How could I find out more? As if she had read my mind, Ela said: “I’ll be going to Prague again in September. I’ll be seeing my old friends there. If you like, you can join us.”  
 
Before long, I was able to meet Ela’s friends from Room 28 in Prague—an encounter that led to many others in their homes in Brno, Vienna, Israel, and England. I learned about their childhoods, their experiences in Theresienstadt, and the period after they were transported to the East, to Auschwitz, where so many vanished from their midst. The abyss of horror into which these young people gazed on their journey through hell, the cataclysm that tore at their souls—never before had I experienced the tragedy of the Holocaust so directly and starkly as during those meetings. My sense of time seemed to have been suspended, the lines that normally separate today from yesterday suddenly appeared random and irrelevant, and I was all too painfully aware of the truth that we never leave the past behind. “If we had stayed in Room 28 until the end of the war, I think many things would have turned out differently.” I clearly remember Judith Schwarzbart’s words. “We would be happier people today. But most of us had to leave on the transports. And what happened then was so terrible that you just want to forget it.”
 
It was during these interviews that I realized that I had to do everything in my power to pass on the torch of memory. This book draws primarily on the experiences of ten of the fifteen surviving girls from Room28, who took part in our annual September meetings: Anna Flach, Helga Pollak, Ela Stein, Judith Schwarzbart, Eva Landa, Marta Fröhlich, Hanka Wertheimer, Handa Pollak, Eva Winkler, and Vera Nath. Two former counselors, Eva Weiss, from England, and Eva Eckstein, from Sweden, happily joined these gatherings with “their girls” when their health permitted. Three of the girls—Eva Stern, Marianne Deutsch, and Eva Kohn—opted not to participate in the annual reunion in Spindlermühle. But Eva Stern and Marianne Deutsch welcomed me into their homes. Eva Heller and Marianne Rosenzweig, both of whom live in America, would have liked to come to Spindlermühle, but were unable to do so.  
 
I consider myself extremely fortunate to have become part of this circle of friends and to have witnessed their happiness at being together. It has taught me a remarkable lesson: In recalling periods marked by the deepest of horrors, memory can be merciful, and happy recollections can be extracted and sheltered within our hearts, providing strength during times of adversity. Moreover, it is even possible to share and pass on this healing energy, provided that, like the girls of Room 28, we base our lives, against all odds, on the principle of love.  
 
“When I think of those truly evil years of the war and the Holocaust, one bright, shining point of light always emerges in my memory—our Children’s Home in the ghetto, our Room 28,” recalls Eva Landa. “I was in Theresienstadt for eighteen months. That isn’t long in the life of an adult, but in the life of a twelve-year-old, it is practically an eternity.
 
“I came to Theresienstadt in 1942, when I was eleven. By the time I left the ghetto on a transport to Auschwitz in December 1943, I felt almost grown up. Parting from Theresienstadt was very hard for me. I left behind my friends and the community we had fashioned with so much care. However, I took with me the memories of our striving for a better and more just world. I did my best to be brave and not to betray our ideals.  
 
“Our little community helped me to overcome many hardships. Sadly, only fifteen girls from Room 28 were fortunate enough to survive. In the ‘Theresienstadt Hymn,’ we all sang: ‘If you wish, you will succeed, hand in hand we’ll be as one, on the ghetto ruins we’ll all laugh one day.’ These prophecies never came true. No one could laugh on those ruins. But we who survived remember our childhood in Room 28 of the children’s home at Theresienstadt with a gentle smile.”    

From the Hardcover edition.

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 3 of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 1, 2012

    These girls become part of you

    This book isn't just about the horrors experienced in the Jewish ghettos. It is about youth, growing up in new surroundings. Friendship, hope, and resilience. Brenner includes journal exerpts and backgrounds, tells this story from the viewpoint of the 12 to 14 year old girls that came of age in this place. They argued, played games, missed their parents, learned to trust one another. These girls reminded me of the powers of youth and hope. This book is absolutely worth reading, and I hope you find their story as moving and personal as I did.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 3, 2011

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 16, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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