The only weapon I have is to go around telling my story

Workshops, Performances and Discussions organized by the Stories Exchange Project

18-19 September 2000
Terezin, Czech Republic

Helga Weissova-Hoskova

You’ve all had the opportunity to tell your stories today, or you will later this evening. And I know that the story I have to tell is not so exceptional.

I am one of the fifteen thousand children who went through this Jewish camp. Only two hundred of the fifteen thousand stayed here, and of those who were deported to concentration camps and extermination camps in Poland and Germany, I am one of the one hundred who came back.

I was never prepared to present my story in public, but I am doing it for the sake of those who cannot tell their stories.

All of that hundred of us who survived, all of us have asked ourselves, "Why me? Why did I survive? There were other children who were more talented and more gifted.”

But we have realized that because we have had the privilege of staying alive we should tell our stories.

If an adult is killed, a person dies. If a child dies, the future dies: all the generations that child could have fathered or mothered. All that is killed.

After the war I got married and had a family. My children and grandchildren continue to live: they are the legacy I’m going to leave behind. But if you kill a child, the whole future of that child is also killed.

Of course out of the hundred children who survived here not so many of us are still living: many of us have died already.

It is hard for me to go out and tell these stories. It is hard for me both psychologically and physically. We are still here, though, and we have to tell these stories.

When we survived we thought, “This has happened once and for all. This is going to teach people a lesson. It is not going to happen again.” But time has gone on, and the same old things are happening again.

When we see that, we are forced to speak out: to say how it began, to explain why it happened and how people could have allowed this to happen.

We who were locked up in ghettoes like this one, we thought that the world didn’t know what was happening to us, and that if the world did know, people would help. But today the media are so omnipresent and in a moment you know what is happening at the end of the world, and there is still not much being done against these atrocities.

The only weapon I have is to go around telling my story.

I was born in Prague. I grew up in Prague. I spoke Czech, I had non-Jewish friends and neighbors, and we lived in the same way as the others. There was no difference.

Then when the Nuremburg racial policies were being implemented, all of a sudden we had become the other, and regulations excluded us.

The first time I encountered anti-Semitic attitudes, I was playing with friends and there was a girl who said, “We were told that the Jews killed Jesus Christ. So don’t play with her.”

I went home and cried and said, “Why am I to blame? I didn’t kill anyone.”

I’m telling you this because it is with small things like this that the big atrocities begin.

It grew and it grew and it became something that could not be stopped. So we all need to go out and point to these little discriminatory remarks. “Don’t play with these kids, they are different”: this is where it begins, with little things that at first don’t seem all that important.

So I will tell you my story.

I was twelve years old when I came to Terezin. I spent about three years here and then was deported to Auschwitz, and after Auschwitz I ended up in a work camp. I worked in an aircraft factory.

I was fifteen in Mauthausen when it was liberated.

When people ask me how I survived, I really can’t answer. Children who were under the age of fifteen shouldn’t have survived. Jews were used as a laborers, and when you first arrived at Auschwitz you waited in a line, and there was a man standing in front telling people to go left or right. That was Mengele. They separated people who could still work from those who couldn’t. I was less than fifteen, and it was a real miracle that I managed to get through this selection. I went through several of them and I always seemed to have a lucky number. That’s how I ended up at the labor camp in Germany: by chance, just by accident.

Even before coming to Terezin, we children had to give up all our possessions. We had to give away our skis and bicycles. We had to give away our little pet dogs and cats, and the little birds we were raising. These are things that children like to have.

Today it’s hard for youngsters to imagine this happening to them. But this was what happened to us before Terezin, when we were still in our old homes: we had to give away all these things.

One of the things that also happened to us was that we were banned from the schools. And it was the same in Terezin.

When I tell this to kids they sometimes say: “Oh, that was great! You had an endless holiday.” But that’s something that can keep you happy maybe for a week. And we soon realized that they didn’t want us to have access to education because they wanted to crush us, to destroy us. So our defense was to learn in secret.

In Terezin we had a secret school. Of course we didn’t have any textbooks or books or blackboards: we were only allowed to sing or to draw. But we always had somebody watch the door to warn us if anybody was coming, and that gave us a couple of minutes here or there to study a little bit – after lunch or before dinner. So we were being gradually educated in our subjects.

And we knew this was strength. We never had an inferiority complex. We wanted to survive and so we wanted to learn because we hoped that we would come back after the War. We would not be well be prepared for life if we were not educated.

People living around us here in Terezin taught us. They were not only teachers. They were also painters, and musicians. This was our school, these people coming and teaching us.

Of course we really could have caught up with this kind of learning after the War. What we really learned here in Terezin was friendship, tolerance, understanding others. Because we were deprived of everything we had, we learned to sympathize. We learned not to ignore the fates of other people.

When we came to Auschwitz we had to undress totally and we had nothing material. What we had, though, was what was in our heads and in our hearts.

And that of course goes hand in hand with what intangible values, what culture meant for us. We could read, we could draw, we could listen to music. This is what kept us people, and maintained our human dignity.

Even though we were stripped naked in front of those German guards we felt superior. It was culture and art that helped us. Especially art. We were very grateful to our musicians and composers.

We were starving here: the conditions were very bad: you may have seen how people lived here. But unbelievable performances took place here in this very attic. Music that you are going to hear tonight was composed. People drew, people wrote.

We were starving, but people were prepared to give up the little bread they had for a ticket to a concert. People paid for the tickets with a slice of bread. And they were willing to give up that slice of bread even on the night before they were to be deported to one of the concentration or extermination camps. For two hours they could listen to music: this was invaluable to them.

Art was immensely strong here.

Aside from the fact that I survived the later atrocities, another thing which was exceptional about me was that I could draw.

Most drawings that were done by children here in Terezin were created during lessons given by a German-speaking artist who came from Vienna. She spent her time teaching children to draw, and she helped the children a lot because she helped them forget the immediate reality. She wanted them to draw other things they remembered from the past: animals and flowers and little houses. So these drawings were just like those of children who lived outside.

My drawings were different.

I came here when I was twelve – it was in December 1941 – and I drew two pictures. One of two children building a snowman. I managed to send this picture to my father, to his barracks, and my father did something very different from this drawing teacher. He sent me a message that said: “Draw what you see.”

That made me draw everyday life in the ghetto. I drew over a hundred pictures. I had the vision of a child when I drew, and I could feel the details.

No photography was permitted here. Apart from a propaganda film that was made by the Germans, there is no documentation of what the Jewish ghetto looked like.

Of course there were also adult artists who were painting and drawing here. They were employed by the Germans in a drawing-room. But on the side they were illegally drawing daily life in Terezin, and trying to save these drawings as documents for the future. And they tried to smuggle these paintings and drawings out of the ghetto to warn the rest of the world.

Now we know that the outside world did know what was happening here, but we didn’t think it did. So we were trying to warn them.

Unfortunately one of these smuggled drawings was found, and all the artists and their families were sent first to the Small Fortress here in Terezin and then to the concentration and extermination camps. Only one of the painters survived. And the four-year-old son of one of the others. The surviving painter adopted that little boy.

What happened with my drawings when we were leaving for Auschwitz?

We had no idea where we were going. We were always being lied to by the Germans, and we always knew we were being told lies – but we still hoped that we weren’t. When we were told that we were going away to build a new ghetto, we had no idea that we were going to an extermination camp. We didn’t know about the gas chambers. In any case, we wanted to believe it was a new ghetto. Though at the same time we didn’t really believe it.

So we left behind some of the important things we had.

I left all my drawings with my uncle who was working here with the Jewish self-government. He saved all the drawings by hiding them in a wall, and covering them with plaster. He survived too, and after the War was able to bring them back.

I must also tell you that I was never able to speak in public about these things. But during the last few years I began to do it.

I’ve been going to Germany to tell my story.

I never spoke any German before coming here to Terezin but then I learned some. Later on I promised myself never to go to Germany.

I never went to Germany for forty years, while most of those who caused these atrocities were still alive.

And when I first went my eight-year-old granddaughter said, “You’re going to Germany? You want to be friends with those terrible Germans?”

I said, “I’m not going to speak with those Germans. I’m gong to speak with the new generation. They’re kids like you, and we have to tell them these things because they never hear about it.”

I’ve always asked the German children, “Did your parents or grandparents ever tell you about what happened?”

But these children never hear anything about it in the family, and they need to hear about it from someone. They hear it from me, and they are very interested.

So now I go to Germany and I speak in my broken English and my broken German to foreign audiences. I hope that when I talk to them it can help.


16 May 2002

My name is Michaela Reichlova, I am 18, I attend a secondary school in Usti.

While reading your story the tears started falling from my eyes. I couldn´t believe that something like that could have happened. You are a very important person who tells us about the past. I wish you much success in telling your story. I wish more students read your story.

16 May 2002
Michaela Hrudkova
Usti nad Labem

Dear Mrs Weiss,

I don´t know how to begin…I admire you. I admire your courage to look at things that should have been hidden deep in your soul Unfortunately such things seem impossible to forget and it might be better to speak about them.

It is interesting that German children know nothing about what happened here during these terrible years. We are told and taught about it. I will never know if German children learn about it as well.

3 years ago I visited Terezin and a year ago I saw Lezaky (a Czech village completely destroyed by Nazis).

When I saw these places I felt terror and shivers went down my spine. I admire all the people who managed to survive and are able to live a normal life.

I know such people. A woman I know lost one eye, her husband died and she aborted a child. Due to this she has never had children. She also survived the death march.

I admire her and I admire you. I wish you a lot of health, happiness, love, courage, vitality, energy and many friends.

I keep my fingers crossed for telling more true stories.

16 May 2002

Misa Dulova
Usti nad Labem

Your story opened my eyes, and now I know what happened in Terezin. I was there when I was attending the primary school, but I couldn´t imagine such things happening there. You gave me a chance to see part of your childhood as well as pieces of life of other people who are not alive any more. I agree with you- everybody should know the truth about what happened at that time. I would like to congratulate you on your courage and confidence(because you are confident). Continue in telling your stories – because there are not many true stories to be heard.

16 May 2002

Adela Kupcova

Hello, first of all I would like to say that I am a young girl, I attend secondary school and I have been living in Terezin for the whole of my life.

I know quite a lot about the World War II and about all those terriblethings that happened in Terezin. But I have to say: Please, people, don´t think that Terezin is an ugly ghetto. It is a town like any other. It is a town with ordinary people. It is very unpleasant to listen to remarks like: Oh, you live in Terezin? What a filthy town. It smells of dead bodies….

Jack Erwin, Director of the Stories Exchange Project ( responded to Adela at on 18 June 2002:

Of course, Adela, I completely understand. But I wonder to whether you have read some of the stories about what happened in Terezin in September 2000 to an Indian participant in a conference which the Stories Exchange Project organized…

You might want to have a look at two stories in the “Being a Citizen” menu at “They forced me into the car and took me to the police station” and “It is not possible to arrest a person because of his physical appearance.”

Thanks for your comments so far. I would also be grateful to hear what you think about these two other Terezin stories. You – and any friends whom you might care to invite to join you – can respond at the end of either or both stories on the Project Web-page, if you like.

Have a happy summer!


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