The Girls of Room 28: Friendship, Hope, and Survival in Theresienstadt
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From 1942 to 1944, twelve thousand children passed through the Theresienstadt internment camp, near Prague, on their way to Auschwitz. Only a few hundred of them survived the war. In The Girls of Room 28, ten of these children—mothers and grandmothers today in their seventies—tell us how they did it.
The Jews deported to Theresienstadt from countries all over Europe were aware of the fate that awaited them, and they decided that it was the young people who had the best chance to survive. Keeping these adolescents alive, keeping them whole in body, mind, and spirit, became the priority. They were housed separately, in dormitory-like barracks, where they had a greater chance of staying healthy and better access to food, and where counselors (young men and women who had been teachers and youth workers) created a disciplined environment despite the surrounding horrors. The counselors also made available to the young people the talents of an amazing array of world-class artists, musicians, and playwrights–European Jews who were also on their way to Auschwitz. Under their instruction, the children produced art, poetry, and music, and they performed in theatrical productions, most notably Brundibar, the legendary “children’s opera” that celebrates the triumph of good over evil.
In the mid-1990s, German journalist Hannelore Brenner met ten of these child survivors—women in their late-seventies today, who reunite every year at a resort in the Czech Republic. Weaving her interviews with the women together with excerpts from diaries that were kept secretly during the war and samples of the art, music, and poetry created at Theresienstadt, Brenner gives us an unprecedented picture of daily life there, and of the extraordinary strength, sacrifice, and indomitable will that combined—in the girls and in their caretakers—to make survival possible.
shot them. It was Rahm and Haindl and a couple other SS men. I think they had visitors from Prague. We had to do this for a long time. There we stood in the ice-cold water. Some girls were very ill afterward.” Ela was lucky, because her mother, Markéta, did all she could to keep her healthy. Markéta was a thoroughly practical woman and was assigned to all kinds of work. Now and then she managed to “organize” food of one sort or another—cautiously and at great risk. Sometimes she made pickles for
short and shoes too small. In Auschwitz we didn’t even have that. All we had were wooden slippers that were falling apart, and filthy clothes that were too small for me. I want so much for this quarantine to be over soon. I’m so afraid we’ll come down with something here yet. Please, Papa, come to see me; we can talk over the fence if you have them send for me. Daddy, my dearest. I want to be with you so much! Try to get me out of here. Please bring me my tattered washcloth and soap. The man
that may have been due to the difference in age. In any case, I was only twenty, and he was of my uncle’s generation. But I remember him as a odd fellow, dressed in a rather old-fashioned frockcoat with tails that stuck out, but with an artist’s lovely head of curly hair.” Hanukkah, the festival of lights and of hope, was drawing near. The children in the Homes set about preparing their gifts. This meant a great deal of craftwork and organizing. Helga had a Theresienstadt coat of arms made for
presence of the receiver,” Otto Pollak noted on February 6. And one month later: “Cancellation of the rule that we must greet anyone in uniform.” March 6 to March 12 was spring-cleaning week. “Our Invalids’ Home won a prize,” Otto wrote. “My share was two pounds of bread, half a tin of liverwurst, three ounces of margarine, and three ounces of sugar.” At six o’clock on the evening of March 11 he visited the coffeehouse: “Orchestra concert, sixteen musicians, with Professor Carlo S. Taube. They
bright sunlight across the southwest,” Otto Pollak wrote on July 21, 1944, “were observed between eleven in the morning and one in the afternoon. The children in the Home watched the spectacle from their window on the third floor. We are caught up in indescribable excitement. (Children blew kisses at them.)” The next day a new rumor sent a wave of excitement through the ghetto. “AH succumbed to his wounds at two this afternoon,” Otto Pollak noted. The news of Stauffenberg’s attempted