There’s no doubt that the period I spent in the Terezin ghetto provided the basis of my future development. One might say it shaped me. I learned to be independent and responsible and I was given the chance to appear onstage in the children’s play “Fireflies”.
What’s more, in the children’s quarters I received an education in hygiene, respect and manners. The tutors looked after all of us in the room where I was given a place on a three-tiered bunk. I was eight years old
It was only here in Israel that Willy, who was my tutor over there, told me how much effort he had put into persuading my mother to place my twelve year old sister and me in his care. Which is how we came to be in Children’s House L410.
It was my good fortune to be in a framework that attended to many aspects of my education and I was very busy. Eager to absorb with antennae that later became truly mine. This is what I want to write about, now.
I met Nava Shanova at one of the annual meetings held at Theresienstadt House on the first Saturday in May, which was the day we were liberated from the Nazi yoke in 1945. Nava was the director of the ghetto performances of Fireflies. I only recently learned that the play was staged also before my time in the ghetto and that I replaced a girl who was sent to Auschwitz in October 1944, in one of the last transports. I arrived on the 23rd of December, that year.
I have forgotten many things, but I remembered my director! I approached her and told her I was one of her actresses. She was so happy!!! Both of us were happy. It turned out that I was one of the first of her girls that she met after the war.
The intellectuals concentrated in Terezin ghetto were among Europe’s finest. Thanks to the theatre people and the composer Karel Svenk, I was chosen to appear in the ‘musical’ Fireflies, which was based on the book by Jan Karafiat; Nava read extracts from the book during the play. The production included dancing and singing by characters such as fireflies and a ladybird. I was the ladybird. The many rehearsals kept us busy and full of the joy of creativity. We knew it was really going to happen when we were measured for our costumes. These are childhood experiences one does not forget.
Everything I had missed by force of circumstances over the two preceding years, when my mind was blocked, was enabled to emerge and be fulfilled in the children’s house, where a world full of culture opened before me. I thirsted for attention and knowledge and all I had to do was to absorb and process. In the past, not only was my mind blocked, but all that was expected of me before I came to the ghetto was silence, the questions I choked in my heart. In any case, they had no answers and so I didn’t persist.
Memories and associations have diverted me from the subject of my singing and dancing role on the stage of the Terezin ghetto. I can vividly remember my part as Ladybird. I had a red canvas back with black dots and I had transparent wings. On my head I wore a tight black hat with antennae. I think I was barefoot. I had to dance across the stage, waving my hands up an down to the rhythm of the song that, freely translated from Czechoslovakian, went like this:
In the springtime
May will come again
flowers will bloom
and meadows will green again.
Although the words are rather optimistic, we didn’t know exactly when the war would end. The play was performed a number of times in the months before the Liberation. The tune is delightful and the composer’s name appeared on the original announcement:Karel Svenk. An entire chapter should be devoted to the great Karel Svenk, but it is beyond the scope of this writing. My excitement during rehearsals and before the performance on the 20th of March, 1945 gave me butterflies in my stomach and a dreamlike floating sensation.
We performed in a big hall, before a large audience; we on the brightly lit stage and they in darkness. There was much enthusiasm and I assume it was an outstanding performance, according to the tremendous applause. Like professionals, we came onstage again and again to take our bow. Then the lights went up! And what did I see? The front rows were filled with German soldiers and officers in black uniforms. White skulls on the officers’ caps, which some were holding, while most were already wearing theirs. Here it comes! End of the performance. They’ve come to take us. After all, children aren’t productive. This was the end of us – we were going to die. This is what I had learned at the Selection. It was all a ruse! I was trembling all over. There were no parents to lean on. It was as if they had invested in us for their own amusement. Now it was over. Finished! I didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye to my mother and sister. How cold it was. Maybe it was just the fear. I looked around to see how they were getting organized to surround us and herd us to destruction. I already knew that a German in a black uniform meant disaster. A skull meant death!
My eyes were almost bursting from their sockets, when I saw that the audience had risen as if in salute and was on the way out of the hall. Nava and some others came over with hugs and kisses, to praise, caress and encourage us. Everything was as it was before. It took me a long time to calm down. For three years until that moment, I was poisoned with the pessimism that characterizes me to this day. At the time of that horrifying experience, I had already heard it said that I was ‘going to the slaughter’. Standing in line at the Selection, I already heard that children, old people and mothers with small children were destined for Auschwitz – for the gas chambers.
Thus equipped, I saw the end of the performance as a trap laid for me. The pessimism, the tension of every moment’s potential for disaster, took root in me never to leave.
But I must not forget – the fireflies, even if only by their weak light, illuminated a path for me, for us, and gave us many moments of hope and happiness. The month of May really did come, the prophecy was fulfilled and on its eighth day the gates of the ghetto opened on freedom.
Spring! Spring in the lives of the very few children who survived.
Translated from Hebrew by Riva Rubin