After two years of sharing the stories of Terezin artists, I came to realize that I could do more to support our amazing teachers and Holocaust educators. While still continuing to document Terezin artists, I am also working on developing lesson plans and teaching tips that feature their stories.
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Let us join together in teaching our students about the Holocaust, and promoting the message of empathy and tolerance.
The life of Petr Ginz, an artist, writer, Esperantist, magazine editor and scholar, dramatically illustrates the creativity and talent of so many children who died in the Holocaust.
Petr was born on February 1, 1928 in Prague to Otto and Miriam Ginz. His father was a manager in a textile company, and both his parents were passionate about Esperanto. In fact, his parents met at an Esperantist convention and taught the language to Petr and his younger sister, Eva. The children were from an interfaith background; Otto was Jewish and Miriam was Christian.
From a young age, Petr’s intelligence, curiosity and passion for knowledge was evident. He wrote his first novel at age 8 and wrote 5 novels in all before he was deported to Terezin. A skilled artist, Petr also illustrated the novels himself. He was interested in a wide variety of subjects, including literature, art, science, history and geography, was an avid reader and also recorded his experiences in a diary. Petr’s enthusiasm for the arts and learning did not diminish after he was transported to Terezin at age 14, in October 1942. He continued his studies and borrowed countless books from the makeshift Terezin library, and wrote short novels. He also made a major contribution to the cultural life of Terezin when he established a literary magazine called Vedem (We lead), which he published weekly. Petr wrote many of the pieces himself, and other boys from his barrack contributed work as well. The magazine featured pieces on daily life in Terezin, satirical essays, short fiction, poetry and artwork.
A close bond developed between the boys of Petr’s barrack, L417. They called their barrack the Republic of Shkid, and created a flag and national anthem. Their creativity and imagination in such circumstances were remarkable, as was the amount of work they produced for Vedem, much of which survives today.
Petr often wrote very matter-of-factly about the events he experienced and life in Terezin, and even managed to insert some humor. He did write some poignant pieces as well, most notably a poem in which he described how he missed Prague, though he knew it did not miss him. He described how he could not return because he was living like a caged animal but would always long for Prague, his “fairy-tale in stone.”
Tragically, he would never see Prague again. Petr was assigned to one of the last transports to leave Terezin, in September 1944. His sister Eva, who adored him, wrote about the day Petr left in her own diary. After Petr boarded the train, Eva spotted him at one of the windows and managed to pass some bread to him through the window, to hold his hand one more time before she was chased away by guards. Eva wrote honestly and poignantly about how she worried about her brother and wondered if he was still alive.
At the age of 16, Petr was murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, like hundreds of thousands of others. A prodigy was lost that day, and we will never know how many other gifted, talented young people were lost that same day. What remains are the writings and drawings he left behind, which his sister Eva preserved and shared with the world after the war, a poignant reminder of all that was lost the day Petr Ginz died.
Picture of the Ginz Family from Krizkova, Marie R., Kotouc, Kurt J. & Ornest, Zdenek. We Are Children Just the Same: Vedem, the Secret Magazine of the Boys of Terezin. The Jewish Publication Society, 1995. Print. Used with permission.
Further Reading We Are Children Just the Same: Vedem, the Secret Magazine by the Boys of Terezin (by Marie Krizkova, Kurt Jiri Kotouc and Zdenek Ornest)
The Diary of Petr Ginz (edited by Chava Pressburger)
In spring of 1945, as the Allies made progress on their liberation of Europe, Pavel’s mood lifted and he could again hope that freedom would come at last. Pavel wrote that freedom was such a beautiful concept for him and that he would be willing to risk his life for it. By late April, air raids occurred daily as the Allies approached the Czech border. The prisoners in Terezin were distraught by the arrival of emaciated survivors from Nazi death camps. In a deeply moving scene, Pavel took his bread ration and handed it to his mother, Valy, saying, “Give it to my father when he arrives.”
Pavel’s last entry was April 22, 1945 and in it he described a chaotic day in Terezin. Hundreds of people ran away with as many stolen goods as they could carry, a quarantine was placed on part of the camp and many inmates were fighting with each other. Then the good news arrived that the Red Cross was now taking care of them. Hope arose that freedom was drawing near. Soon after, Terezin was liberated and Pavel returned to Prague with his mother. They searched for Ludvik and Handa, and Pavel learned that his father and brother did not survive. We do not learn his thoughts from this time, as Pavel no longer kept a diary after he left Terezin.
In 1948, Pavel and his mother moved to Canada, and Pavel later moved to New York City, where he married and had a successful career as a chemical engineer. He had one child, a daughter named Karen. In 1979, Pavel discovered that his mother had kept his diary for all those years and he made the decision to edit the diary and translate it into English. It took Karen a long time before she could bring herself to read the diary, afraid of what she would find. After reading his diary and accompanying her father to Terezin, Karen believed that her father’s story should be shared. She began assisting her father with editing the translations. Sadly, Pavel did not live to see his diary published, but Karen persevered and the diary was published in 2012, ensuring that her father’s experiences would be shared with others.
Further Reading A Boy in Terezin: The Private Diary of Pavel Weiner, April 1944-April 1945
By Pavel and Karen Weiner
As I mentioned in my earlier post about the young diarist Helga Pollak, there were many people who kept diaries in Terezin, including children. Many of these documents have been lost, which makes the ones we do have all the more valuable. One diary that has been translated and published in English belonged to a young boy named Pavel Weiner.
Pavel was born and raised in Prague and lived in a middle-class home with his parents Ludvik and Valy and his older brother Handa. The family was not particularly religious, but their social network consisted mainly of their Jewish friends and relatives. Everything changed when the Nazis came to power and began enforcing anti-Jewish laws. And then in May 1942, Pavel and his family was sent to Terezin, ending the life they had known. The family was separated and assigned to different barracks, and Pavel was sent to Room 7 in building L417, which was the designated Kinderheim (children’s home) for Czech boys. The Kinderheim was created by Jewish administrators of Terezin and was designed to create better living conditions for the children and to facilitate secret classes for them.
Much of Pavel’s diary takes place in the heim, and focuses on his relationships with the other boys and the youth leaders who ran his heim. He didn’t start writing his diary until April 1944, when he was twelve years old. Despite the situation he was in, many of the challenges Pavel faced were interpersonal. He argued with the boys, and was sometimes teased and excluded by them. This led to Pavel feeling alienated from them much of the time. He longed for affirmation from Franta, his youth leader, and often was hurt when Franta appeared to favor other boys over him. Pavel worried intensely about his father’s health and his mother’s well-being, and yet he often argued with them, in particular with his mother. Pavel also founded a literary magazine, Nesar, which was no easy task, as he struggled to recruit the other boys in his heim to contribute articles and drawings and worked hard to build a readership. Still, he managed to produce thirteen issues, and later contributed to another magazine called Rim Rim.
Many months later, in August 1944, Pavel reflected more deeply on his feelings and the situation he was in. He discussed his anger that two years of his life were stolen from him, that he had no opportunity and no freedom in Terezin. He vowed to write about his feelings so that he might learn from them, to study hard and to start a new life for himself, even within the ghetto walls. He tried hard to keep to his goals, though it was far from easy.
Then in late September 1944, the terrifying news arrived that another transport was scheduled, consisting of men aged sixteen to fifty-five. In a panic, Pavel raced to find his father and learned that his father and his brother Handa were on the transport. Terribly upset and anxious, Pavel returned to his barrack to find that his youth leader, Franta was also on the transport. The sight of Franta sitting around the table with the boys overwhelmed Pavel, and he couldn’t hold back his tears any longer.
In entries that follow, Pavel reflected on the sorrow he felt following the transport and continuously worried about his father and Handa. Most of the boys in his heim were gone, including the few he considered friends and he was terribly lonely, longing for a friend to confide in. He wrote about his loss of enthusiasm and motivation for everything, and no longer felt any comfort or pleasure in anything. Despite his depression and intense feelings of loss, Pavel continued with his studies, continued to write, and began to work in the ghetto bakery and warehouses. Rumors of the Allied advance drifted into Terezin as the winter dragged on, but the liberation still did not come. More and more, Pavel wondered if the liberation would ever arrive and if he would live to see it.
Hannelore Brenner’s book The Girls of Room 28 relates the experiences of ten women who survived Terezin. The book goes into detail about each of these women, and is a worthwhile read. For my blog, I decided to focus on two of the women whose stories resonated most strongly with me. The first woman is Helga Pollak, who kept a remarkable diary during her time at Terezin. Her complete diary has not been published in English, though segments of it are included in Brenner’s book.
Helga Pollak was born in Vienna on May 28, 1930. Her father Otto was a disabled war veteran who owned a large concert café. When she was eight years old her parents divorced and Helga continued to live with her father. That same year, 1938, after the situation deteriorated for Jews in Austria, Helga’s parents sent her to Czechoslovakia.
Helga attended a German-speaking school in the city of Brno and had to live in a boardinghouse by herself. After Helga’s mother dropped her off in Brno, Helga watched her mother walk away and then went into a deserted room and sobbed. I could only imagine how terrifying and devastating this separation would be for a little girl. It is no wonder that Helga fell into a state of apathy and depression. Helga’s father ultimately arranged for her to stay with relatives in the town of Kyjov. She couldn’t speak Czech and had to repeat 2nd grade, but was much happier.
In 1939, Helga was supposed to travel to Great Britain as a child refugee, where she would join her mother, who had managed to emigrate there earlier. But after the German army invaded Poland and World War II began, the borders were closed, and Helga was trapped in Czechoslovakia. She would not see her mother again for nearly eight years.
Beginning in 1943, Helga recorded many of her experiences in a diary. Many Jews kept diaries during the war, but except for Anne Frank’s iconic diary, most are not well known. While Anne’s diary is exceptionally well-written, she is too often depicted as a symbol for the suffering of Jewish children during the Holocaust. That risks downplaying her individuality and the way she perceived what was happening to her, and I fear it may have resulted in other war diaries being ignored.
In the excerpts from Helga’s diary we see a sensitive girl who felt alienated from the girls in her barrack, and worried that they did not like her. We learn of her intense fears when her infant cousin Lea is seriously ill, and of her close relationship with her beloved father Otto. Helga also had moments of hope, of being deeply moved by the beauty of a sunset, for even Terezin’s walls could not block out the sky.
On October 23, 1944, Helga and some other girls from Room 28 were placed on a transport to Auschwitz. Helga survived the selection and vainly tried to search for her Lea, who she would never see again. She was sent from Auschwitz to different labor camps, and eventually returned to Terezin in late April 1945 where she was reunited with her father. The letter she wrote to him upon her return is deeply touching, as she so badly wanted to stay with him but could not because she was placed under quarantine.
Eventually she and her father were able to return to their surviving relatives in Kyjov, and the following year Helga went to England to join her mother. She completed high school and college, and later married a Prussian Jew who had fled to Bangkok to escape the Nazis. Helga and her husband lived in Thailand and Ethiopia until 1957, when they returned to Vienna with their children to be near Helga’s beloved father.
Though not published in its entirety, segments of her diary have been featured in the documentary films Terezin Diary and Voices of the Children and the main character of a play Ghetto Tears 1944: The Girls of Room 28 was based on Helga Pollak, the little known diarist of Terezin.
Further Reading The Girls of Room 28: Friendship, Hope and Survival in Theresienstadt , by Hannelore Brenner