Monthly Archives: December 2015

Gavrilo Princip and the Butterfly Effect

One of the most notorious Terezin prisoners was neither Jewish nor an artist. He was instead a Serbian teenage assassin whose actions lit a fuse that ignited the First World War and set the stage for the rise of the Nazis. His story is a sobering reminder of how the unintended consequence of a single action can affect the lives of others  in another time and place.

In 1914, Terezin was not yet a ghetto. The Large Fortress was a garrison town inhabited by a Czech-speaking population, and the Small Fortress was a military prison. It was to the Small Fortress that nineteen year old Gavrilo Princip was sent for assassinating Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria-Hungary.

Who was this teenage assassin? He was born in 1894 to a poor Serbian family living in Bosnia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Gavrilo first attended school at age nine, and was a very successful student. At thirteen, Gavrilo was sent to Sarajevo, Bosnia, to attend a merchant school. He came to admire a Bosnian Serb who tried and failed to assassinate an Austro-Hungarian governor. He also joined a group called Young Bosnia, which wanted to free Bosnia from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and join it with the neighboring Kingdom of Serbia. After being expelled from his school for demonstrating against Austria-Hungary, Princip was recruited and given military training by a Serbian guerilla organization.

In 1914 Princip became involved in a plot to assassinate the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. During a June 28th visit to Sarajevo, the Archduke and his wife were taken by car through the city. Princip and six other conspirators were among the spectators, armed with grenades and pistols. One of them threw a grenade, which missed the Archduke’s car and wounded the occupants of another vehicle. Chaos ensued, and the conspirators were unable to continue their plot.

Ferdinand later decided to visit the victims of the grenade at the hospital. On the way there, the driver of the car made a wrong turn into Franz Josef Street. Gavrilo Princip was also on Franz Josef Street at the moment, standing outside a café, when he spotted the car. The driver was turning the vehicle around when the engine stalled. Princip raced toward the car, pulled out his pistol, and fired twice at the vehicle, mortally wounding Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. They died within minutes of the shooting.

Princip then attempted suicide but his weapon was snatched from him and he was taken into custody. At 19, he was too young to receive the death penalty and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He was sent to the Small Fortress in Terezin, where he died from tuberculosis four years later.

Princip’s action set off a chain of events that he himself could never have envisioned. A month after the assassination, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Russia, which had an alliance with Serbia, declared war on Austria-Hungary the following day. Russia then mobilized against Germany, which was allied with Austria-Hungary. In response, Germany declared war on Russia. After disputing with France and Belgium, Germany declared war on them as well. That same day Britain declared war on Germany. The Great War had begun.

By the end of the war, Imperial Germany ceased to exist, replaced by the Weimar Republic. Weimar signed the Treaty of Versailles, which forced Germany to disarm, surrender territory and colonies, and pay billions in war reparations. It also forced Germany to accept total responsibility for the war.  Many Germans denounced the Treaty and blamed it for the near collapse of their economy. Later, Nazi propaganda would take advantage of the widespread view that the Treaty was unfair, and Hitler would blame the Weimar for accepting the Treaty. It helped to create an atmosphere that allowed the Nazi party to thrive and set the stage for the rise of the Nazis and World War II.

Gavrilo Princip did not live to see the massive consequences that resulted from his assassination of the Archduke. He was dead long before the Nazis occupied Terezin and transformed it into a ghetto. He could never have imagined the long-ranging consequences of his action. And we can never know what would have happened had he not assassinated the Archduke. Would the world have just plunged into war anyway? Or would war have been avoided, and millions upon millions of lives saved? We can never know, but we can reflect on the story of Gavrilo Princip and how one act of violence can flare and blaze wildly, triggering destruction that spreads far and wide. But as the stories of people such as Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and Franta Maier show, one act of goodness can also radiate into the world, across vast distances of space and time. May we never forget.

Franta Maier and the Boys of Room 7, Part 2

A few days after arriving at Terezin, the children were assigned to various barracks based on their age and gender. Franta later spoke of the impact this trauma had on the children, saying that they were in shock at their world being torn apart once again. Franta remained in charge of these children, and he was able to access the barracks whenever necessary.

Under Franta’s influence, the children received extra rations and were kept on a schedule which included exercise, classes and recreation. He was assigned to be a madrich (leader) in Room 7, in which 40 boys aged twelve and thirteen lived.

Franta kept the boys on a disciplined schedule, and made sure they were clean and that the room was orderly. But what made the greatest impact on the boys was how Franta would speak to them at night and tell them that no matter what the Nazis did, they could not take away the boys’ dignity and humanity. He told them they had three duties: to survive, to respect their parents, and to be ready for a new life when the war was over. He encouraged them to love life, no matter what hardships they endured.

Still, Franta had fears and vulnerabilities that the boys did not know about. They did not know about the heartbreak he experienced when he proposed marriage to a woman named Lucy, hoping to save her from the transports. Lucy accepted his proposal, but Franta’s mother convinced Lucy to break off the engagement, believing this was the wrong time and place to marry. Lucy was later transported with her parents, and Franta was unable to forgive his mother for years. The boys also didn’t know how much Franta feared for them, how at night he would break down and cry silently as he wondered what would happen to them the next day.

A creative life developed in Room 7; they were the first home to produce plays, and two literary magazines, Rim Rim and Nesar were created and circulated. A sense of community developed among the boys of Room 7, and deep friendships were forged. When some of the boys had to leave on a transport, there was a profound sorrow when they had to say good-bye and the entire community felt the losses.

In September 1944, Franta was assigned to a transport. The night before he left, Franta said good-bye to the boys in Room 7; the scene was poignantly described by Pavel Weiner in his diary. Franta was sent to Auschwitz, where he learned that his family was dead, as were most of the children. He vowed he would live to see the Nazis defeated. In January, Franta was placed on a death march to a work camp called Blechhammer. As the Russians approached, the Nazis abandoned the camp, and Franta walked out of the camp to search for food. He was discovered by some Russian soldiers, who sent him to a repatriation center in Czestochowa. He later became a civilian assistant to an officer for the remainder of the war.

After the war, Franta worked hard to get properties back from the 24 relatives he lost during the war. He returned to his hometown of Brno and later married a woman who had lost her husband in the war. They immigrated to America in 1947, and Franta found work in a business that produced malt for breweries. Though he initially did not know anything about this industry, he learned quickly and became a successful businessman in the malt business and later the paper export business.

Franta died in 2013, and the surviving boys of Room 7 remember to this day how he profoundly touched their lives. Franta put forth tremendous effort to provide order, stability and compassion to these young boys, and their bond with him and with one another remained strong many decades later.

Further Reading
Nesarim: Child Survivors of Terezin by Thelma Gruenbaum