We're Alive, and Life Goes On: A Theresienstadt Diaryby Eva Roubickova, Zaia Alexander, Virginia Euwer Wolff
"It's a terrible feeling to see the fate of thousands of people dependent on a single person. . . . It seems like a mass judgment to me: life or death."
On December 17, 1941, twenty-year-old Eva Mándlová arrived at the Nazi's "model" concentration camp, Theresienstadt. From that day until she was freed three and a half years later, she kept a
"It's a terrible feeling to see the fate of thousands of people dependent on a single person. . . . It seems like a mass judgment to me: life or death."
On December 17, 1941, twenty-year-old Eva Mándlová arrived at the Nazi's "model" concentration camp, Theresienstadt. From that day until she was freed three and a half years later, she kept a diary. At times sweet and personal, at times agonized and profound, Eva is a human voice amidst inhuman evil.
Through Eva's eyes, the camp sometimes "even resembles normal life," as she makes friends and talks with Benny, or Egon, or Otto. But at any moment, anyone may be "selected" for a transport to "Poland." No one ever returns from "Poland."
Never before published, Eva's diary is a true-life Sophie's Choice in which each day brings impossible decisions. As a Gentile man inexplicably helps her, Eva must decide who should share her bounty. As close friends and loved ones are sent away, she has to decide, over and over again, whether to ask to join them on their final journey.
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We're Alive and Life Goes On
A Theresienstadt Diary
By Eva Roubícková, Zaia Alexander
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1998 Eva Mändlová Roubícková
All rights reserved.
DECEMBER 10, WEDNESDAY: I stayed home in the morning, went shopping in the afternoon, and came back. A half hour later Aunt Else phoned. We're in the next transport. I was quite calm about it and went immediately to the Jewish Community Center with Mommy to see if there is anything that can be done for us because of Daddy. Everyone at the community center was terribly worried; nobody knew anything, nobody had any advice. Mommy was upset. The Glasers and the Kohns came to see us; they're awfully upset too. At 11 P.M. a man from the community center came and laid out the situation in black and white for us. Just Mommy and I will be going. I couldn't sleep all night.
DECEMBER 11, THURSDAY: We started working again at four in the morning. We sewed sleeping bags. We visited Mama [Richard's mother] in the morning and then ran lots of errands. We worked at home in the afternoon. Lots of people came to visit us. Karl Reiner is trying to help us, but it's unclear whether he'll succeed.
DECEMBER 12, FRIDAY: I spent the entire morning at the community center. I got a number: 69. The mood wasn't quite as horrible and desperate as I'd expected. We're all in the same boat. Gi wants to sign up voluntarily, but first our appeal needs to be resolved. I was X-rayed at the clinic. If they found something, that would be another possibility. But you never know if you should play with destiny. The next transports are probably going to Poland after the New Year, but Theresienstadt is certainly much better. I spent the entire afternoon running from one clinic to the next. There was an incredible uproar everywhere, long lines everywhere, and we have so much to do at home! We're known everywhere as a special case because of Daddy. We're the only ones in this transport, so it's completely up to the Gestapo if they'll let us stay here with Daddy. We're touched by all our friends' kindness: Mama, the Glasers, and Frau Kohn, who has so much to do herself. We've been working day and night. Lots of times we thought we'd finished but then saw that the real work was still ahead of us. We got rid of everything in the apartment, stored things with Aryans, and sorted the food. That was most of the work. And throughout it all, the awful uncertainty of whether we're going or not. But we had to expect the answer would be yes. Poor Gi was the most upset of us all.
DECEMBER 13, SATURDAY: We started working again at 4 A.M. Peter and Danny came at 7 A.M. with the scale. We weighed all our things. We've got more than 100 pounds. The community center notified us in the morning that our appeal had been denied and that we had to go. Gi immediately volunteered to go as well. All our luggage was picked up in the morning. We cleaned the pantry in the afternoon. That was the hardest part. We got rid of much more in the evening and traded all the carpets and furniture. I felt paralyzed the entire day. Thank God there was no time to think about anything. It's as if somebody gave me a shot and I know it should hurt, but I can't feel a thing. Mama's with us all the time. Received photos from Richard. They're from Uncle Richard in America.
DECEMBER 14, SUNDAY: Took another bath in the morning and washed my hair. We had an awful lot of visitors and there's still so much more work, and on top of that I'm worried about Mommy. She's terribly upset and cries all the time, mostly because of Daddy. I wrote him a long letter, but it won't go out until we've left for the Messepalast. It's terrible for him, like getting hit by lightning. For God's sake, he shouldn't volunteer to go with us. It would be a catastrophe. Otto Mändl came to see us. Frau Glauber has sent us food every day. Mama came today and cooked for us. Though we had plenty of everything, we couldn't eat and had to force every bite down. We drove to the Messepalast at noon. Gi went to the community center. He doesn't have a number yet and doesn't know if he'll be included. Mama, Eva, Danny, and lots of others went along to keep us company. Good-bye, Prague. Just don't think! We had to register by 1 P.M. We quickly said good-bye to everybody. The gates closed behind us, and from now on we're prisoners; we're no longer free human beings.
The Messepalast is a huge wooden hall that's been divided into many sections. The first impression is terrible. I couldn't show how I really felt because of Mommy and tried to seem cheerful. The entire floor is covered with mattresses, with only a few narrow paths between them. We're on the mattresses day and night. Some of the people seem in a good mood, but others are horribly upset, unhappy, devastated. We belong to the first group. We went exploring right away. I saw a lot of people I knew: Egon Forscher, whom I'd once met at Benny's; a good friend of Zwi's named Pacovsky, who I went to school with in Saaz; and a nephew of the Taussigs. At four o'clock they brought in a man who looked deathly ill, with a wife in tears and a screaming child. They put them right next to us. On closer inspection we saw it was Paul Mändl. After a while we found out it was only an act they hoped would eventually get them sent home.
There's a girl (Fanny) my age on the other side of me. She seems very nice. I made friends with her immediately. She got married six weeks ago and voluntarily signed up to be with her husband. There are large pipes with faucets for washing at the side and to the front of the hall. On the other side is an open kitchen. There's a shed with a sink that the women use for washing clothes. The "nicest" part is the WC — a long wooden shed with buckets that need to be taken out daily. Everyone's disgusted and terribly unhappy about it. I don't really mind that much.
My new friend is with me all the time. I'm glad to have her. She's athletic and cheerful, and all of this is easier to take when you're with somebody. Egon visited us in the evening and stayed all night. I didn't sleep, and we stayed up talking all night.
DECEMBER 15, MONDAY: We had to turn in our house keys. Not us, of course, but Daddy, because he stayed home. Just keys to closets — to all those completely empty closets. We were ordered to turn in all our money, silver, etc. Fiedler, the man in charge of things here, came around several times to check on us. He's a twenty-three-year-old hoodlum who yells at everybody. His sidekick is Mandler, who's even worse. G. arrived in the evening. We were terribly happy.
I've been given a yellow armband. I've been given a kettle to heat water so people can wash themselves and wash dishes. It's a great job. I don't have to stand in line for food and sometimes even get two helpings. There's plenty of good food. In the morning there's black coffee and a stale roll, at noon soup and meat with a side dish, in the afternoon lime blossom tea, and in the evening soup or goulash. But it's best not to watch how they cook it.
DECEMBER 16, TUESDAY: I'm with Egon a lot and with a few other young people, but always with Fanny. I've written home twice now, once illegally to Eva, once legally to Mama. There was a terrible commotion this evening. Fiedler started slapping people around because somebody was smoking. All smoking items, money to the last cent, liquor, and other valuables had to be turned in. There was lots of screaming to get everybody scared and upset. But it was mostly Jews doing it. We were told they also spot-check people's luggage, and much slapping and beating goes along with that too. It was pouring rain just as we started to load the luggage. We kept very few things and even sent our sleeping bags ahead without sleeping in them on the last night.
DECEMBER 17, WEDNESDAY: We got up at six in the morning. Sleeping is awful. People walk around all night. Somebody's always coughing. Mommy slept horribly. I've fared better the last two nights. All the men had their heads shaved, but not the women. Everything was ready for departure by eight. At nine they led us to the station, heavily guarded by German soldiers carrying loaded guns. They put us into a sealed train, and at eleven we left for Theresienstadt. We're hideously squeezed together with all the luggage. It's all so strange; you simply can't understand it. Thank God, because if you could, you'd go crazy.
We arrived in Theresienstadt at two in the afternoon. We were welcomed by the emergency service. The boys looked pretty bad — not enough food, unshaven faces, shaved heads — but their mood wasn't all that bad. We had to go on foot from Bohuovice to Theresienstadt. Even though we didn't have much luggage, it was a terribly difficult walk. We were taken to the barracks and welcomed by lots of Jews, Rudy Lekner among them. He's changed, decidedly for the better. Fanny's husband and some of his friends took us to our room. It's a small room with running water and a nice heater. There are wood shavings on the floor. It's the Hohenelber barracks. It's a hospital, and we'll probably only stay here temporarily. The men are staying in the same barracks but in different rooms. There are eight of us. They all seem like very nice people.
DECEMBER 18, THURSDAY: We get black coffee in the morning, soup at noon, and soup in the evening. We're slowly settling in. The boys from the Sudeten barracks carried our luggage in. The poor fellows had so much to lug.
DECEMBER 19, FRIDAY: I talked to Benny in the morning. I was so happy. He carried suitcases too, but then sat with us all afternoon. Zwi came in the afternoon, and I spent the afternoon with both of them. Mommy had a bridge party.
DECEMBER 20, SATURDAY: A boy came early this morning with greetings from Zwi and a box of matches, which are an absolute necessity here, even though nobody's allowed to have them. Zwi has a permanent pass and can even go shopping. I was really glad. We did some morning gymnastics in the yard under German surveillance. Cigarettes are in great demand here. They're even more valuable than bread. Everybody's crazy about them, and there are people smoking everywhere, even though it's strictly forbidden. Zwi and Benny came to visit me in the afternoon. Our room looks really nice. We can heat it, and we don't fight like the others. The boys and girls behave terribly here. We suddenly got an order at ten. The women have to move out of the Hohenelber barracks by tomorrow morning. A man was found together with his wife and was arrested immediately, so now all of us have to move. We packed at night and were up again by 5 A.M.
DECEMBER 21, SUNDAY: It's Fanny's birthday. We spent the morning sitting on our suitcases until they took us to our new barracks. We had to stand outside a long while. There was lots of commotion. Our room wanted to stay together. Do what you like, but don't make us room with old people! They let us inside, and we all ran to grab a room. There was no order whatsoever. Whoever knew somebody in the barracks got a nice room. In the end, we alone were without a room. We kept going into rooms with people already in them, and they'd throw us out. Finally we were given a huge freezing room. The situation was hopeless. Everybody was crying. Zwi managed to grab my two bags of food and get them back to me. We sat on our luggage, fought for space. We were freezing, hungry, and about to go crazy. We were completely shut off from the world, no help anywhere, no way out.
This was the worst day yet since the evacuation. They were looking for a room leader, and I was selected. At least I had something to do right away. I had to take down everybody's name, etc., and so the worst was over. The barracks were ancient. In the morning they told us they were the most modern barracks, with central heating, hot water, and everything else, but nobody's ever seen those things. We gradually thawed out as the room heated up. Then some food came from the Hohenelber barracks. Each of us got a mattress. It was not very comfortable to sleep on.
DECEMBER 22, MONDAY: Constant running around with our luggage. We have a fairly decent bathroom with cold water. They're setting up an office.
DECEMBER 23, TUESDAY: I've got lots of running around to do as room elder, that is, as room youngest. I'm still with Fanny all the time. We do everything together. I'm so lucky to have her. Of couse Mommy's always with us too. Every day we have to check in with the office. They tell us what we can and cannot do. All the room elders are there, and it's quite interesting. I spoke to Mio. It made me so happy. He was here with some suitcases. He looked fabulous, but I almost didn't recognize him. He's big and strong and seems to be doing well. Somebody brought me a letter from Gi. He does pedicures and is very busy. Fanny's husband is here every day. He comes with the cleaning crew. They're just about the only men we talk to. In a few days we'll be able to cook here. Fanny, Paula, and I are always together. We've volunteered to peel potatoes. It's not the most pleasant job, but it may be an opportunity to get into the kitchen, which of course would be ideal.
DECEMBER 24, WEDNESDAY: Besides coffee, soup, and a potato for lunch, and soup or coffee for dinner, Mommy and I get a slice of bread to share every other day. We've given away most of the bread we brought from Prague. The poor fellows were so hungry. I don't know how we'll manage with the rations. For now we still have some crackers and pumpernickel bread, but what will happen when they're gone? Well, we'll manage somehow. We're supposed to get up every day at six in the morning, but of course we don't. They've set up a home for boys and they'll make another one for girls, but at the moment there's a scarlet fever epidemic. They'll probably use our room for it, and we'll have to move again. Horrible. Today's order is to turn in all canned goods, tea, medicines, and perfumes in addition to the things we've already turned in. And, of course, cigarettes, matches, money, jewels, etc. The worst thing is the request to give up canned goods. Of course we're not going to turn them in, and we won't eat them the way the others do. It's Christmas Eve.
DECEMBER 25, THURSDAY: The housing situation is making us desperate. All the rooms are overcrowded. They'll probably put each of us in different rooms. We can't unpack anything and never have a moment's peace. By January 1 everything is supposed to be turned in, and now we don't even have a place to hide stuff. We're constantly looking for a new room. Mommy finally found a room with two other ladies. It has a stone floor and no heat. We wouldn't have minded that, but they didn't let us keep it anyway. Fanny, Paula, and I peel potatoes every day, and it's not so bad. I have a lot of writing and paperwork to do as room elder during my free time. We always need something.
DECEMBER 26, FRIDAY: With the exception of the toilet cleaners, we don't get to talk to any men. Benny came with the crew today. I was overjoyed! A ghetto guard and a fireman also came. I coincidentally became friends with a fellow who has a permanent pass, and he immediately handed me a sack of clothes to wash for him. I offered to do laundry for all the boys. It's not such a hard job, and the poor boys really have no idea how to go about it.
DECEMBER 27, SATURDAY: We finally have a room, but it doesn't have heat yet. A couple of older ladies have moved, but we still sleep in the old room. I've lost my watch. There's very little food, but it's bearable. We still have some left from home. I don't wear dresses at all, only slacks. Unfortunately I only brought a few pairs, and no decent ones. A man offered to send letters for us. I wrote to Mama. Although that means the death penalty, everybody writes anyway. Actually I imagined that being in a ghetto would be much worse, sort of like death, in that you can't really conceive what it's like. When we first saw the people who've been here for a while, they seemed to come from another world. But we live here too, and we're not in too terrible a mood. We even laugh quite often, which I wouldn't have considered possible in Prague. In short, life goes on. You just can't allow yourself to think about anything. We're busy all day, and then at night we lie on the mattresses and sleep. Just don't think. Anything but that! We even talk to boys.
Excerpted from We're Alive and Life Goes On by Eva Roubícková, Zaia Alexander. Copyright © 1998 Eva Mändlová Roubícková. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Eva Roubickova is retired and lives in Prague. She regulary visits her daughter and grandchildren in the United States.
Zaia Alexander, the translator, is completing her Ph.D. in German literature at the University of California at Los Angeles.
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