Mrs. Diamant explained that this highly compassionate woman named Bertha Wolf was in charge of caring for the girls in House L410. Bertha did all she could to keep some degree of normalcy for the girls in the home, and her lessons in particular helped to structure their days. Judy remembers how Bertha spent many hours teaching them subjects such as German and Hebrew, and Jewish studies, and her presence was comforting and reassuring.
Bertha and Judy both survived the war in Terezin. Judy’s aunt Lily was murdered in Auschwitz in the fall of 1944. Though her hair was filled with lice and a quarantine was set soon after the camp was liberated, Judy along with her grandmother’s friend Milena managed to leave the camp before the quarantine. Milena accompanied Judy to a convent where she received a harsh treatment that burned and blistered her forehead and scalp, though it was effective in treating her head lice. After leaving the convent, Judy and Milena returned to Ostrava, where they were reunited with Judy’s stepfather. Judy did not remain in her hometown for long, as she was sent to boarding school in England, and as a young woman she took a job in Kenya. She met her husband at that company, a man whose family had fled Russia for Egypt some years before. Her daughter Sarah was born in South Africa and her daughter Naomi was born in England. The family lived in Kenya, South Africa, England and Italy and it wasn’t until both her daughters earned their PhDs and relocated to the United States did Judy move to New York. Judy has no nostalgia for her hometown of Ostrava; once she left she had no desire to return there. And though she has had a very fulfilling and rich adult life, Judy told me that survivor’s guilt is very real, and that it affects her to this day. Why was I chosen to survive? Why was my beautiful Aunt Lily chosen to die? These haunting questions still cross her mind at times, even after all these years.
At the same time, she retains a great affection for her special teacher Bertha Wolf. The two women remained in contact for many years until Bertha died, and Judy generously provided a picture of Bertha for me to copy and post on the blog. Here is a picture of Bertha Wolf, whose kindness and dedication to her girls provided some comfort and stability, even in Terezin.
Mrs. Diamant began by asking me about my project and how I came to learn of Terezin. Then she began to tell me about her background and story. Judy Diamant was born in the Moravian village of Ostrava, in what was then Czechoslovakia in 1932. Her parents divorced before she was born and her mother later married a Czech Christian man. This action likely saved Judy’s life, because her stepfather’s “Aryan” status conferred a certain degree of protection on her and her mother. But because she was Jewish, Judy’s mother, who suffered from tuberculosis, was forbidden from going to a sanatorium and getting the treatment that was available at the time. The disease progressed, and her mother ultimately died from tuberculosis in 1943. A year later, her stepfather’s Aryan status no longer could protect her, and at age twelve Judy was put on a train to Terezin.
Soon after arriving, Judy and the other new arrivals were told they would need to shower. By this point in the war stories of death camps and gas chambers had reached Judy’s hometown, and when she heard the word “shower”, Judy trembled in fear and began crying uncontrollably. A woman who was a stranger spoke softly to her and tried to comfort her, assuring her that only water poured from these showerheads. The woman stayed by Judy’s side as they walked to the communal showers. Though not a new arrival and not required to shower at that time, the woman also undressed and stepped beneath the cold drops of water, to assure Judy that there was nothing to fear. Judy never learned the woman’s name or who she was, but she never forgot this woman’s act of kindness.
Illness was rampant in Terezin, in particular the typhus outbreaks, and Judy was ill much of the time. Despite her illnesses, certain memories remain vivid: the boiled potatoes and lumps of cooked barley that made up most of the rations, the disease, her young Aunt Lily being sent away on one of the last transports to Auschwitz, how the camp was cleaned up and renovated, stores and cafes constructed as part of the deception on the Red Cross. Despite these terrible memories, there is also the memory of one very devoted and compassionate woman. Her name was Bertha Wolf, and as you will see, she had a profound impact on Judy’s life.
As mentioned before, less than 200 children survived Terezin. By an amazing coincidence, I met one of these children. I don’t know what prompted me to mention my blog in the career advising seminar. After all, I hadn’t really developed the blog yet, had only drafted a few posts and was trying my best to get permissions to reprint the Terezin poems. Yet, I felt compelled to speak about my project and though my heart raced, I mustered up the courage to mention the blog. Then, to my utter shock, one of the women in my class, a research librarian at a Jewish seminary, spoke up.
“My mother was in Terezin,” she said, to my complete astonishment. I had only met a few Holocaust survivors before, but never anyone who had been in Terezin. And to think that the mother of one of my classmates had been there…my classmate offered to put me in contact with her mother so I could learn more about her experience. Her mother graciously agreed to meet with me, and a couple of weeks later I found myself riding the subway far uptown to an unfamiliar part of the city to meet Mrs. Diamant. As I rode uptown I worried that I would accidently say the wrong thing, since I could never truly understand the experience of a concentration camp survivor. I was also nervous that Mrs. Diamant might become upset when talking about her experience and I hoped I would know how to react. And I was also concerned about how she would react when I revealed I was a convert to Judaism, since the other survivors had reacted with bewilderment or skepticism when they learned that fact. I had been asked “Why would you ever want to be Jewish?”, and “Do you really understand what you are getting yourself into?”
But my worries began to subside as soon as I arrived at Mrs. Diamant’s apartment. She had warm blue eyes and a friendly personality that put me at ease immediately. In her soft British accent, Mrs. Diamant welcomed me to her home and led me down the hall to her living room, where we sat in lounge chairs in a room with Jewish-themed art, paintings depicting African villages and a silver mezuzah adorning the doorway. Then this unlikely pair, the Irish-American convert to Judaism and the child survivor of Terezin, began to share stories with one another.
A paved pathway leads to the reddish stone wall surrounding the prison, and you are confronted with a large arched entranceway that is painted with thick white and black stripes. Beyond the entrance is a gravel main courtyard with rows and rows of barracks. Inside the barracks are long hallways and bare prison cells, some with rows of wooden bunks for numerous occupants and others for solitary prisoners. Stepping into one of the solitary confinement cells was deeply disturbing. You find yourself in a tiny square shaped room with stone floor, walls, and a ceiling which rises high above you. High up on the wall is a long narrow window, too high for a person to see out of, except perhaps a patch of blue sky and light on sunny days. On the day I visited there was nothing visible from the window but dim gray light and clouds and within the cell was a sense of crushing bleakness. It seemed to me that this was a place that was meant to break human spirits and take away all hope. The feeling lingered with me as we wandered through the courtyard, in and out of barracks, and explored a tunnel that stretched for many meters beneath the grounds of the Small Fortress. And especially when I saw the words Arbeit Macht Frei painted above a prison gateway. The Nazis no doubt knew exactly what this place could do to a human spirit, I was sure of it.
By the time we left the Small Fortress, the rain was pounding the buildings, roads and earth heavily and the dark gray sky reflected my mood on leaving the Small Fortress. We soon caught our bus back to Prague, and though I had been at Terezin for less than a day, its impact on me was profound. Above all, the voices of the artists echoed in my mind and wouldn’t let me go. At that time I did not yet know that sharing their stories would become a kind of mission for me. And I never dreamed that nearly four years later I would meet one of the few children who survived Terezin.