(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.
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.”