Near the front steps of the ghetto museum, a man approaches us. I’m fumbling with a map that I’ve just bought there. When I look up, I notice his posture first. It seems typical of people who often have to ask others for something: The shoulders are hunched, the head bent downwards. He has a rugged face and worn down clothes.
“Eine Krone?” he asks, requesting money. He lifts his face slightly. His open hands form a bowl in front of his chest. My grandmother, who stands a few steps away from me, turns around and looks at her sister. “Give him something, Helga,” my great-aunt Liese says in German. My grandmother rummages in her backpack and finds a euro coin, which she hands to the man. “It’s so nice to give to someone from Theresienstadt,” Liese says, watching the stranger walk away.
Theresienstadt, which is where we are, is a small town in the Czech republic, 37 miles north of Prague. Much of it still looks as Helga and Liese remember it from when they first got here more than 70 years ago. In the spring of 1943, the two sisters were deported from Vienna to the ghetto and concentration camp Theresienstadt. Helga was 14 years old, and Liese, 7. They came with their mother, and lived here for two years. Theresienstadt held as many as 53,000 inmates at one time in its cramped quarters. Most were Jews from Bohemia and Moravia, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands and never returned home. They died of cold or hunger, or in the Nazis’ extermination camps. Liese, Helga and their mother survived.
Theresienstadt was built as a fort in the late 18th century by the Austrian Emperor Joseph II, and was named after his mother, the influential Habsburg Empress Maria Theresia. It is perhaps a minor irony of history that Joseph was among the most progressive Habsburg emperors. His edicts of toleration were the first to give Jews some freedom of religion in the Habsburg empire, which stretched across an area that today roughly comprises Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, as well as parts of Poland, Romania, Ukraine, Italy and Croatia. Theresienstadt was used as a garrison town and housed military personnel. In 1941, the Nazis established a ghetto, and presented it as a model Jewish settlement when the Red Cross came to visit in 1944.
As I look around the small town today, I feel I can almost understand how the Nazis managed to make outsiders believe their propaganda. It still has mostly the same layout and buildings, only its name changed to the Czech Terezin. It’s small — 3,000 people live here — and seems in rather bad shape, with bird droppings on the window sills, and cracked sidewalks. But there’s a pizzeria and grocery stores, and I spot a woman pushing a stroller. Having grown up in vibrant Vienna, I find it hard to imagine what life in Terezin must be like today. Envisioning what life was like when my grandmother was here — that’s almost impossible.
I have never been able to ignore the impact the Holocaust had on the members of my family. They lived in Germany and Austria before the war, and trace their roots back to other corners of the former Habsburg Empire, such as Bohemia and Galicia.
The Nazis orphaned three of my grandparents, and took their aunts, uncles, cousins and siblings. My grandfather’s younger brother died in a gas chamber at the age of 15. My only great-grandfather who lived to see his grandchildren was one of the few survivors of Auschwitz. What he experienced there left him deeply traumatized. And then there are my grandmother and her sister, who spent a considerable part of their formative years in a concentration camp, and much of their youth being treated as inferior in their hometown of Vienna. Growing up with them, I took their personalities for granted, and never questioned how the horror they survived might have shaped them.
The two sisters often speak publicly about their stories, at schools or teachers’ seminars. I’ve heard them; they’re good at it. They don’t choke up or patronize their audiences; they are matter-of-fact and sometimes they even joke. I used to think that those speaking engagements were the only visible trace the Holocaust left on them. Perhaps what happens in their lives now is simply more important to them: My grandmother Helga, who is a doctor of internal medicine, recently turned 85 and still treats patients.
My great-aunt Liese, 77, runs the small film production company that her 91-year-old husband started. For many years, they produced an English-language weekly TV show about life in Austria, called “Hello Austria – Hello Vienna.” She is currently in the process of closing down the company, but it seems unlikely that she will become inactive once she has retired. Liese was the first in the family to get an iPad. She’s an avid Facebook user, and a loyal “liker” of my status updates. Liese comments on photos of her friends, uploads pictures of her dogs Samy and Goia, and shares posts about racism and xenophobia.
Liese used to pick up my cousin Laura and me from primary school in Vienna. She’d take us to the Turkish bakery around the corner, where we were allowed to choose sweets while she chatted with the owner about her family. On the way home in Liese’s bright red VW golf, we’d eat gummy bears and bourekas, fully aware that lunch had been prepared for us at home.
Helga wouldn’t have approved of this indulgence. Maintaining her weight is a big issue for her; she has long been a member of several gyms, and now has a personal trainer who works out with her several times a week. She takes piano lessons, works on her French, and has seen significantly more Hollywood blockbusters and French art house movies in the cinema than I have. When her birthday approaches, she becomes childishly giddy, puts up a wish list in the family home — the last one included a stereo sound system and umbrellas, and stated that “some surprises would be nice” — and schedules at least two birthday parties. There’s usually one for the family, with the goal of gathering as many as possible of her 11 grandchildren, who are currently spread across three continents, and one for the “old Jews,” the friends from the tribe who formed her much-needed social circle in post-war Vienna.
About a year ago, when I was attending Columbia Journalism School, I presented a condensed version of my grandmother’s story at a radio workshop. My classmates wanted to know how my grandmother remained content, and never seemed to get lost in her dark past. I didn’t have an answer. Post-traumatic stress disorders, symptoms of which include feelings of guilt, fear of relationships, insomnia and depression, are common among Holocaust survivors. Some are only faced with trauma and painful memories late in life, as they grow older and the pace of life decreases, which means that they have more time to think. Artist Tosia Reich-Ranicki, who died in 2011, suffered from severe depression and famed author Primo Levi took his life at the age of 67.
Helga and Liese are different. They regularly confront their past when they give talks, but nevertheless appear to be full of joie de vivre. I could never really figure out why. Seventy years after Helga and Liese first embarked on the 250-mile train ride from Vienna to Theresienstadt, I asked them to take the journey again. I wanted to come along.
Finding time proved to be the main hurdle for the trip. When I called Helga last July, she agreed immediately, but asked for dates that wouldn’t clash with her patients’ schedules. She generously offered to skip one of her aerobic lessons to make coordinating with her sister easier. After sending her a Facebook message, my great-aunt called me back the next day. She, too, was up for it without any hesitation, but had to arrange some interviews she was working on, first, and also find someone to look after her husband while she was away for the two-day trip.
A few days later, my cousin Laura asked if she could join us. We’d been on all the rides to and from primary school together, so this seemed to be a natural next step. Helga and Liese seemed elated: another family trip!
On the day before our departure I asked my grandmother if she thought that she was the same person after the war. “No,” was her immediate reply. She felt more grown up than many of her peers, she said. Before she was deported, she was just a kid going through a tough time like many others, too. Until the age of 12, Helga attended school. Then Jewish children were barred. At that point, her father was already separated from his family. Trying to escape to Shanghai, he had travelled to the Italian port Genoa, only to discover that the ticket for the passage was fake. He ended up in the Italian detention camp Urbisaglia near Perugia.
Helga worked to support her sister and mother. For a while, she drew sketches for a fashion designer. One day, the family was informed of a roundup in their cramped, Jewish-only living quarters in Vienna. Helga’s employer hid them for two days. “She gave us food,” Helga said. “When we returned to the apartment, it was empty.”
My grandmother often says that she could have dealt with the hardship had it not involved being treated as a second-class human. One day, walking on the street in Vienna, the yellow star on her coat, a woman approached her, slapped her face, and called her a “Dirty Jew.” Another time, she was on the very same street, when a different woman gave her three oranges, a luxury. “Those stories go together,” she says.
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.”
Liese only has piecemeal recollections of the two years she spent in Theresienstadt. When asked what she still remembers vividly, she says, “The most horrible thing was being left alone.” She spent several months by herself in the attic of the barracks, while her sister and mother worked. Then she was placed in a children’s home, where she slept in a room with a group of disabled children from Berlin. One morning, when she woke up, the dorm room was empty. The other children had been deported to an extermination camp.
In my 24 years, I cannot remember a time when I didn’t know about the Holocaust. My relation to this knowledge about my family’s past has been a tricky one. At the age of 6, I was deeply suspicious about hotel showers. I knew that gas chambers had been disguised as showers, and that my ancestors had been murdered in them. It seemed only logical to me that a ski resort in Salzburg, Austria could easily pose a similar threat.
As soon as I could, I began reading Holocaust literature for young people: Anne Frank’s diary, the story of Malka Mai, who survived alone as a 7-year-old in Poland, and the biography of Janusz Korczak, who accompanied the children from his Warsaw orphanage to their deaths in Treblinka. I was in grade school when I first heard my grandmother and great-aunt’s stories. Told during car rides to school, I found them to be as enthralling as my books, and they gave me comforting shivers.
It wasn’t until adolescence that those stories lost their abstractness. I started to understand the enormity of the crimes committed, and identified myself with the victims. I kept asking myself what would have happened to me during the Shoah. It was painful. Every few weeks I would awake from a nightmare, my heart beating loudly, because a Nazi had just discovered my hiding place in a cupboard, or because I had watched my family disappear into a gas chamber. The dreams made me feel powerless and angry. Every mention of the Holocaust hurt, because I didn’t know how to deal with the fact that my nightmares had been my family’s reality. I began avoiding the topic completely.
As I grew older, the dreams became less frequent. I left Austria to go to university, first in England, then in the United States. Even though religion never played a significant role in my upbringing, I found it comforting to not be the only Jewish person in a classroom anymore. I no longer had to explain why I didn’t celebrate Christmas, or what the small star I wore around my neck meant. It felt good to spend time with peers to whom the Holocaust also meant more than an exam topic in history class.
Theresienstadt was liberated by Russian troops in May 1945. Helga was working at a greenhouse outside the city walls when she noticed mounds that hadn’t been there before. Suddenly heads appeared behind them, their hats displaying Soviet stars. The family returned to Vienna in July, and that fall Helga and Liese, now 16 and 9 years old, were back at school. “I went there with a strict order from home: Don’t talk about what happened to you. Don’t tell anyone that you are Jewish,” says Liese, her voice filled with bitterness.
I want to know how they managed to integrate into a society that first expelled them and later didn’t want to hear about their past. Maybe that will help me understand how they found their joie de vivre after surviving a past that still occasionally gives me nightmares. Maybe they managed to overcome their trauma in the old but new hometown. And maybe that explains why it made them so happy to give money to the stranger in Terezin.
But when I ask Helga how it felt to be back in Vienna, I’m led to believe that I’m on the wrong track. I discover a moment of pure self-loathing in my grandmother, whose self-confidence usually intimidates others. After the war, she tells me, she was full of thoughts of hate and revenge. “I wanted to see them hang from every lamp pole,” she says, referring to the Nazis. And then she mentions something she doesn’t really want to talk about: the reunion with her father. From the Italian detention camp, where he lived in relative comfort, he had been deported to Auschwitz. After 11 months, he was liberated by Russian troops in January 1945. We know little about his experiences there.
And the sisters don’t want to share how it felt to live with the depressive, deeply traumatized man. All they say is that it took time to get used to each other. “I was so ready to love him, but I wasn’t able to do it,” Helga says about the first few years after the war. Then she changes topics. She tells me how her mother became an active member of the Jewish Socialist League in Vienna and organized summer camps for Jewish children. Helga caught up on her high school graduation in a year and a half, and started studying medicine. When she graduated, she was 23 years old, and one of the very few women in the program. She met my grandfather, who was the only one in his immediate family to survive the Holocaust; he hid in the Vienna apartment of a non-Jewish doctor, who later adopted him. My grandfather later converted the apartment into a doctor’s practice. Today, it is run by my aunt.
My great-aunt Liese studied dance, and became part of the ballet ensemble of the Vienna Volksoper at age 19. Her eyes glow as she tells me about that fun-filled time, during which she played chess and knitted in the cafeteria while she waited to perform, and went out with the dancers after the show. Both sisters found distraction from their past, and disappointment at what they had longed for when they were in Theresienstadt: their father, now fragile and depressed, and Vienna, the beautiful hometown now largely destroyed by the Allied bombardment.
The day in Terezin is exhausting, so we take a break in the cafe of the memorial site. As she unwraps a dry sandwich we purchased there, Liese jokes that she’d never had such good food here before. But then she grows serious: “Truth is, this is a town of murderers.” Helga’s face shows no reaction. She only slightly lifts her shoulders and says, “Those aren’t the same people.” She sounds tired, and weary of that discussion. Perhaps she has had it with herself many times before. But Liese doesn’t give up: “The Czech guards were the most unfriendly ones.”
“Some were, some weren’t,” Helga replies. As usual, she has the last word. As I watch the conversation unfold, it suddenly clicks. Like a film on fast-forward, I see the people they’ve told me about before my eyes. The lady with the oranges, the mother of the school friend, the fashion designer, the enamellist, the head of the camp’s agricultural division The clarity in my imagination is uncanny. After all, Helga and Liese have described them to me with such detail that I often rolled my eyes because there didn’t seem to be an end to the flow of seemingly insignificant details.
But now I understand why those details were so important to them: They believe that they owe their lives to the people who helped and protected them, who showed them that it was worth it to keep on living. Luck and chance played their part in determining the sisters’ fates, but they know from their own past the power of acting here and now. When many felt powerless in facing the murderous regime of the Nazis, the sisters found people who tore holes into the system, holes that saved their lives. Someone who believes that their own survival happened because of the courage of others has no choice but to help a man in Terezin who asks for spare change.
There is one last question I need to ask my grandmother: How about people like the lady who slapped her in the face because she was Jewish, and those who failed to help or actively participated in the murderous system of the Nazis? “Do you remember more good or bad experiences with other people?” I ask her.
“Look,” says my grandmother, “it depends on what you remember.”
Anna Goldenberg is the Forward’s arts and culture intern. A German version of this article first appeared in Die Zeit’s ZEITmagazin No.51 in December 2013.