Back to Theresienstadt

Returning With Grandmother to Concentration Camp She Survived

Back in Time: The author accompanies her grandmother on a visit to Theresienstadt.
Lena Amuat
Back in Time: The author accompanies her grandmother on a visit to Theresienstadt.

By Anna Goldenberg

Published April 27, 2014, issue of May 02, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 4 of 6)

The Nuremberg race laws classified Helga’s mother as “mixed blood” because only her mother was Jewish. Until her 14th birthday in February 1943, Helga held the status of her mother. A few weeks after she had turned 14 — and “fully Jewish” because of her Jewish father — she received a summons for deportation. It was for her alone, without her mother and sister. The destination was unknown. My great-grandmother refused to let her daughter go on her own, so she signed herself and Liese up for the transport.

Seventy years later, the sisters find themselves back on a quiet courtyard. On one side, it is confined by a wall, and on the other looms a gray, two-story building that forms a semicircle. A few cars are parked outside of it, and some weeds spread through the cracks of the cement. Liese coos at a small dog that runs toward us. It barks.

“I have real déjà-vu,” Helga says as she looks around. We’re facing the Sudeten barracks in the former ghetto and concentration camp Theresienstadt. When Helga, Liese and their mother arrived in April 1943, they were assigned bunks in the attic of the immense building. It is just a few hundred meters away from the ghetto museum. The latrines and bathrooms were on the ground floor, but are no longer here.

I want to know where exactly the latrines had been located: in the courtyard — there’s a car repair shop there now — or inside the building? Helga and Liese don’t remember, and start discussing the options. I’m taken aback: It’s as if they are talking about a vacation home they haven’t visited for decades. They display joy when they recognize details, such as the distinctive, barred windows of the barracks. I wonder why they’re so calm. Perhaps it’s because of the human drive to close holes in one’s own memory, no matter how painful those recollections are. Or have they made peace with their past?

More than 35,000 people died in Theresienstadt, and another 88,000 were deported from the ghetto to the death camps. After a year and a half in the camp, Helga was listed for a transport to Auschwitz in the fall of 1944. “I didn’t mind coming along,” she told me. “All my friends were there.” Like everyone else, she thought they were destined for a labor camp.

Each transport held 2,000 people, and each deportee had a number. Helga’s was in the 1600s, which meant that she had to wait for several hours to board the train. She was carrying a large backpack, and got tired. She lay down in an empty room in the barracks that doubled as departure hall, and fell asleep. When she woke up, the train was gone. “I feel sorry that someone else had to go instead of me,” she says quietly.

This barracks, a bulky, yellow building close to the southern city wall, is still there today and seems to have barely changed. The train tracks that led up to the building in the Nazi era have been almost entirely removed; a few meters of track remain to commemorate the site. We ask Helga to stand there for a photo. The sun is shining and a soft wind blows. I look at her, and notice how small and vulnerable she looks. I wonder what she is thinking, and I can’t read it from her face.

The Czech head of the camp’s agricultural division for which Helga worked, later wrote her a certificate of exemption. It stated that because she was needed for farming work, she could not be listed for any more transports to the death camps. He saved her life.

When Helga tells this story, her voice remains confident, but soft. It’s the same tone with which she asks her patients how they are doing or tells her grandchildren stories. I wonder if she realizes that her past sounds unbelievable to those who hear it for the first time. Perhaps being so calm is her way to deal with it. When I ask her, she says that she considers herself unsentimental.

There is one issue that gets her emotional, though: hunger. When I ask her about the work on the fields, she tells me that the labor was hard, but desirable, because they could steal fruits and vegetables. She ate raw potatoes and turnips on the fields, and laughs at the memory: “Our stomachs must have been so tough!” Then she grows serious, emphasizing every syllable as she speaks. “Until the liberation, I cannot remember a single moment in which I felt full,” she says. “Or in which I thought: Now it’s okay.”

My grandmother has a sharp memory of people who gave her food, like the enamellist who she worked for back in Vienna when she was 13. He would give her his breakfast, which consisted of lard bread and tea, and later sent food parcels to Theresienstadt. Even though he used a fake name, because his wife and adult sons were Nazis, Helga still remembers his name and address in Vienna.

Family Album: The sisters Liese (left) and Helga (right) with their mother Hertha, circa 1940.
Courtesy of Anna Goldenberg
Family Album: The sisters Liese (left) and Helga (right) with their mother Hertha, circa 1940.

In Terezin, Helga wants to find the spot where she harvested tomatoes, beans, cucumbers and apples. It was called the laundry garden, located somewhere outside the city walls. Helga doesn’t remember which city gate she passed, and thinks she can find the answer in the camp’s official archive. We find it outside the city walls, in a complex of buildings called the Small Fortress that was used as a prison for Czech resistance fighters during the Nazi-rule. Today, it is a memorial site, complete with a souvenir shop and a grim cafe.

The archivist unfolds a large, hand-drawn map on her office desk. Made in March 1944 by the SS-camp administration, it displays exactly which crop was grown where. Helga’s face lights up as she spots the laundry garden halfway between the garrison town and the Small Fortress. We discover that it was given its name because it was adjacent to the laundry rooms for the camp administration.

We get there by taxi, and all we see are garden plots and an office building. Stretching her neck out of the car window, Helga says, “That must be it.”

The workers put apples and turnips in their bras or tied them to their thighs with a piece of cloth in order to smuggle them into the camp. Helga always shared the goods with her mother and sister. Liese never forgot that. “My sister has complete power over me, and she’s always had it,” she says. “It’s because she protected me. She stole food for me. I’ve always had that strong feeling that nothing is going to happen to me if Helga is there. Up to today, she’s the one I would call if something were to happen to me. And I’m really panicking at the thought that something could happen to her.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.