You can have a great influence

Helga Weissova-Hoskova
Terezin survivor, Painter

Jewish Museum Prague
18 January 2000

I have been invited to tell you about what I lived through when I was a child. Usually I speak to children. So I am a bit at a loss when I see so many adults. But I see many young people here, and so I hope that my story will be of some interest to you.

It is probably an old story for you. It happened a long time ago: we will be talking about the last millennium, actually. Maybe you heard about these things? About the extermination of all European Jews? Or at least the plan for it. There were many children among these people in Terezin. There were fifteen thousand children in Terezin and one hundred of them returned. I am one of these one hundred children.

You know, we really thought that mankind would learn its lesson: that there would be no war and no more evil. Unfortunately, there are still wars going on and people still hate and kill each other. And with no real reason: because they speak other languages, because their skin is a different color – and sometimes for no reason at all. Somebody is always found to be the target of hatred, to become the victim. At that time Jews, today other ethnic groups.

I am going to talk about what we lived through as Jewish children. I will focus on children because they are the same all around the world, and they are always the first to suffer. I am constantly aware of this when I see what is going on, here or abroad. In Chechnya, for instance, I see mothers with children and I think: we have to fight evil because the little children are not responsible for anything, regardless of their origin. We who lived through Terezin talk about our experiences to make people realize what happened, how the thing got started, and what should be done to prevent such things from happening again. One hundred of us survived. Actually it is less than that now; we are old now but we are also the last ones to tell about it, about how it was.

I will be talking about myself.

People were saying various things about Jews, but we were normal children. I was born in Prague, we were neither rich nor poor; a middle class family, and we lived an ordinary life. My friends weren’t Jews and I lived like a normal child. I could only speak Czech, I couldn’t speak German; that was one of the things that were held against us. But there was no difference between the other kids and us. Except that we didn’t have a Christmas tree, because the Jews have other holidays. Though we didn’t celebrate those either.

Once a girl came up to me when I was playing outside and told the other children: “You know, Jesus was crucified by the Jews; don’t play with her; she is Jewish.” I told my mom about that because I didn’t understand. I said to myself: “What do I have to do with it? I didn’t kill anybody.” It was my first encounter with anti-Semitism.

Other things happened during the occupation. The Germans came and began to forbid Jews to do anything. One of the first prohibitions was intended to keep Jewish children from playing in playgrounds. Once I went to a playground to play with my friends and there was a sign: NO JEWS.

But there is a nice memory connected with this sign. The other children said:”You know what? If you can’t go there, we won’t either.”

I don’t want to tell you only about nasty things like the girl saying: “Don’t play with her” but also about nice ones like the children saying, “If you can’t go there , we won’t go either.” Although it didn’t change the situation, it gave us support: we knew we were not alone. And they really didn’t go to the playground. They came to play at our house and they remained my friends. Finally we had to tell them not to come anymore because it was dangerous for them: people in contact with Jews were called white Jews and their families could be deported to a concentration camp and killed for nothing but that.

I also have a nice memory of the girl who came after the war and said to me “Do you remember when I told the children not to play with you? Don’t be angry with me; I was stupid.”

But let me get back to the prohibitions. Step by step, the Germans prohibited everything that was important for children. Step by step. First it was the playground, then the theater and the cinema. Then we weren’t allowed to enter a forest. Then we were not allowed to own any domestic animals: no dogs, no cats, no canaries.
But during that time we were still at home.

Then they marked the Jews.

Jews don’t look alike. Some groups can be distinguished according to their looks: they have different hair or skin, for example. Look at me. My hair is gray now, but it used to be blonde. My eyes are blue. There were many children like me: you couldn’t tell they were Jews. So they marked us and we had to wear the yellow Jewish star on our clothes.

Then they started deporting us.

The Czech Jews went through Terezin. Terezin is a small town seventy-five kilometers from Prague. They turned this place into a town for Jews only, a so-called ghetto. An enclosed town where only a certain group of people can live, closed in, is called a ghetto. And I want to tell you about life in a ghetto.

At first, they told us that we would live there in freedom; that we could make a life there for ourselves. But we soon found out that it wasn’t true. Terezin was just a place for transfer. Some people stayed for a longer time, some people for a shorter time. But everybody was already sentenced to go on to Auschwitz or some other concentration camp with gas chambers.

When we came to Auschwitz, on a platform next to the train all the prisoners were sorted out. They wanted to use people up to the last moment before they let us die. They wanted to use us for various kinds of work. So some people were sent straight to the gas chamber – usually older people and mothers with children since they couldn’t be used for any work. The stronger people they would use for work before sending them to the gas chambers.

Usually children under fifteen were sent straight to the gas chambers. It’s just luck, it’s a fluke that I am here. I have no idea why I was selected for work. I was even selected with my mom. You could count on your fingers how many children out of the one hundred who survived managed to survive with their mom.
We were sent to work in Germany.

What I want to tell you, what I think is important is that they mainly wanted to destroy the future generation. Mainly children. That is why they prevented us from going to school. If you want to humiliate somebody or make him defenseless, you prevent him from getting an education. Some of you might like it for a couple of days: we did. But then we realized that it was something horrible, and that the worst thing is to leave people without education.

The more you are prevented from doing something the more you want to do it. And we really wanted to learn: we really wanted to know things. We did it even though it was illegal. In Prague, small illegal school groups were organized and we were taught. In Terezin, one possibility was to stay with your parents. Another was to stay with other children. There was a self-government that wanted to help children and so it organized foster homes divided into sections for girls and for boys, and subdivided into rooms according to age.

Each room formed small group. We called it “Heim” in German: home. And each of these homes had a tutor, a “Betreuer.” We named everything in German because all the directives were in German.

These tutors were often young people, former teachers or former leaders of youth organizations: people with affection for kids who wanted to help us. And thanks to these people what actually happened was the exact opposite of what was planned.

We were learning, illegally. We had no textbooks, no paper, no pencils, no books: nothing. There was no classroom with a blackboard and a teacher; we sat in a corner or around a table. And somebody always waited outside watching for an inspection to come. When one came, he would immediately warn us. The only thing that was allowed was painting, so whenever an inspection came we pretended we were painting.

And we learned something more; we learned to be very friendly, very considerate.

Terezin was a small town. Before, there were about seven thousand people. But suddenly there were sixty-five thousand people living there. We were really cramped: there was hardly any space. They built three-level beds, and each of us had one-and-a-half square meters to use. And because there was not enough water, not enough food, and no medicine somebody was always sick. We learned to respect a sick person. We were considerate, and spoke in low voices so that we would not disturb him. When somebody was being deported we helped him to pack his luggage.

There were many children from foster homes who had no parents, so we took care of each other. This is probably the only thing you can envy. Today kids go to summer camps and have friends, but I don’t think such friendship could grow anywhere else. This friendship is so strong because we share an experience, and it has lasted. We spread out all around the world after the war and we could not meet for fifty years, but we still know about each other, and have remained friends.

We learned to respect each other, to respect the fact that each of us was different. There were children from many kinds of family: some were from rich families and some were from poor families. And we all had different habits. But people have to respect each other; they have to be considerate. We were friendly to each other, we helped each other.

We had no place to put things. Each of us had one-and-a-half square meters; that meant two mattresses were put on a bed like that, and there was a shelf next to your head. And it was the only space you had.

Our suitcases were on the shelves; all our stuff was in those suitcases. And we put our bread in there. We got a piece of bread as small as that for two days. We were hungry, really hungry. But I don’t recall that anybody ever stole this little piece of bread. Because we knew that this piece of bread was priceless. I can still remember that. I think everybody who came back remembers that too.

Sometimes bread becomes stale but I cannot just throw it out. I keep the bread for my neighbor’s rabbits. Because I know that a piece of bread could save a life.

So even though they wanted to break us, we did not steal. We helped each other and we learned to understand each other.

We came with a small suitcase. We had to leave everything at home when we went to Terezin. We could take fifty kilos of stuff. That’s not much: you can carry that on your shoulders when you go to a summer camp in a backpack. But everybody took something that was important for him. For some it was a book. Even though there weren’t many books in Terezin we read a lot. Books circulated; we read aloud in the evening. I still have the books. We copied the books by hand: poems, for example. Some liked music, so they took music.

And now I am getting to my paintings. I liked to paint and so I took some water colors, a box of pencils, and some paper. Paper didn’t last long.

You know, I have grandchildren who are about your age – at that time I was your age – and they need new paints every week: they always need more. And they wonder how it was possible that it was enough for me. One small box of water colors lasted three years in Terezin. And then I looked for some paper. My daddy worked in an office and he always found some paper, some old directives and similar documents. You could paint on the back of them.

We are going to see some paintings later on, but first I want to tell you something about those children.
So learning was forbidden and the only thing allowed was painting. And there was a teacher, her name was Friedl Brandeisova, and she organized the children into several groups. These children lived in horrible conditions. And they were forgetting; some of them couldn’t recognize an animal any more.

There were just mice, fleas and lice in Terezin: animals that like filth. Other animals avoided this town; it’s interesting. There is even a book named after a poem written by a boy from Terezin. It described the last butterfly he had seen before he went to Terezin. The book is called “Butterflies Do Not Live Here.” There really were no butterflies in Terezin. I don’t know, maybe animals have some instinct; they just didn’t live there.
This teacher didn’t want the children to see just sickness, poverty, and fear. So she told them to paint their homes, living with their parents, woods and houses; so the children painted the same things that you probably like to paint. Flowers and trees and windows with curtains.

But some of these children were slowly forgetting how things really did look, and sometimes they got it wrong. They painted a room and there was a vase with flowers – they couldn’t find that in Terezin: it was just a memory – but in the corner they put a three-level bed. They had forgotten that there are regular beds, and they got everything mixed up.

And then little children came who didn’t know anything like that and there was a textbook made for them, with paintings of animals in it so that they would know what animals look like. Maybe you’ll go to Terezin one day to have a look. But I think we’ll see that in a movie here. There will be the movie “Imprisoned Dreams,” yes? right? A painter, actually a student, made a movie out of these paintings; he animated the paintings. That means that he made the figures move. The movie is called “Imprisoned Dreams.”

I want to talk about that. There is a goose, for example, and you wouldn’t notice anything strange but when it starts moving we notice that it has four legs. It has four legs and walks and it is really very funny, isn’t it? A goose with four legs. But actually it is a very sad picture because the child had never seen a goose; it just heard that animals have four legs.

And the teacher kept all the paintings and nobody knew about that; she kept them hidden somewhere. And after the war when all the children had gone and the houses were empty, when the town – the ghetto — was being liquidated, they found two suitcases in the loft of the former foster home. They opened them and found five thousand paintings.

The children left only these paintings behind. But these paintings tell us what the children felt. They described what used to be and also what would be: what they dreamed about and what they believed in.
They all believed they would survive the war.

So we were worried.

I was twelve at that time. I was a fourth grader, and the fifth grade I spent in one of those illegal learning groups and then nothing, just the lectures there. And we were growing up. I was thirteen, fourteen, and we started to be worried that we are growing up and we have no education. And what would happen when the war was over? We would have to be ready for it.

So this was the only thing that remained. The children didn’t survive but they all died with this faith and hope and they put their dreams and their hopes into the paintings.

And then there are other paintings.

I became well known because of these paintings, probably. Not only that I survived.

I liked to paint even before I went to Terezin. That’s why I took the colors with me. And my first painting in Terezin showed two children building a snowman. It was in December and it was snowing. We arrived and they separated us. They put daddy into different barracks then me and mommy and we couldn’t meet each other. So we would send little letters to each other hidden in a shoe, for example: it is called a kite. And so I sent this painting to my daddy. And he wrote something completely different from what the teacher told us. She wanted the children to think about what had been before they came and not to think about what was in Terezin. But my daddy wrote: “Paint what you see.”

And I started to describe life in Terezin. I was probably very diligent during these three years. I didn’t stay in Terezin, I went on. I went through Auschwitz and other camps and I managed to come back. But I painted a hundred paintings during these three years, and these paintings describe life in Terezin.

Other children painted as well, but they usually painted other things: dreams and memories. I also painted dreams, but mainly I painted reality.

There were also grown-up painters there, and they knew exactly what they wanted to pass on: what they wanted the world to learn about. Of course, it was extremely dangerous to make such paintings. The painters had a job there; they worked for the Germans in a so-called painting room where the produced various posters and diagrams. So they had enough paper and pencils. But secretly they painted Terezin, what it looked like.
It was prohibited to take photos in Terezin. There are no photographs from that time. There is only a movie made by the Germans as propaganda. It was a long process; first they moved all the sick and old people out and they selected a group of young, good-looking people and taught them what to say in front of the camera. And they made them sit in front of the camera, people of various nationalities, and each of them said what they had been taught to say: “I am doing fine in Terezin. I don’t miss anything.”

They even used children in this movie. The same children to whom they had long ago forbidden playgrounds and everything else.

They built a playground for a single day. There were swings and sandboxes and all the other usual things. And they let the children go there.

There was a commander named Rahm and all of us feared him; he used to check us in order to prevent us from learning. He would just drop in unexpectedly. And he walked in front of the camera and handed bread with sardines in oil to the children and they learned to say in German: ” Schon wieder Sardienen, Onkel Rahm?” ” More sardines, Uncle Rahm?” But these children never before and never after ate bread and butter and sardines.
They canceled the playground and most of the children ended up in the gas chambers.

If you ever see the movie, there is even the children’s opera that was performed in Terezin. It is a jolly opera but when we see it today we always cry. We cannot help it. We know that most of the children singing in the opera ended up in the gas chambers. That was the way it worked. And nothing was left of these children in Terezin. And I think that we have to keep the memory of the children; we cannot let them die. They live on in their paintings.

You’ll see the paintings later; some of them are exhibited here. There is a museum next to us, and there are the names of all the people that died written on a wall downstairs. There is a small exhibition of the paintings upstairs. There is also a hall in the museum of the ghetto in Terezin where there are names written on a wall, the names of children under fifteen. There are fifteen thousand names.

You know, I didn’t have any speech prepared. I never have. And I can tell you, I never wanted to be a teacher: I didn’t want to sit in front of other people and speak. I was always terrified of doing that. But I am one of only a few people who can talk about it. So I have recently got used to doing it.

It may be important that I am often invited to Germany these days.

I didn’t want to go to Germany: none of us did. I always said, “Never. Never go to Germany and never speak German.” But I have been doing it lately. I meet children there. And these children are the second, the third generation. It is not their fault. And those children are very interested in it and want to know about it and have to know about it. So I am used to talking to German children, though I would have never said that I would do it.
I was even in the U.S. a couple of times, and I am supposed to go there again. We talk to adults and to children there – mainly to children – because I think that this might be a way to make people understand each other. I thought that I wouldn’t be able to talk to German children in German. And now I see that they are the same. And they keep asking and they want to know. And, sometimes, the situation is very difficult for them, I can see that. Maybe more difficult than it is for me, since all our families died: the Germans killed them. But the German children know now that their grandpas or somebody else from their family was a murderer and I think it is a worse thought than for us. And they keep asking. They ask very clever questions, and they are ashamed. But I always tell them: “It is not your fault; you were not even alive at that time. But you are responsible for the future and you must prevent this from happening again.”

So I talk to Czech, American and German children. And when I look at them I can see no difference. And we have to think about it. It is up to these children to prevent it from happening again. It’s up to people to relate to each other, to look for what connects us, not what divides us.

I talk mainly to children. But I also talk to young people. We put up a memorial tablet for the tutors in Terezin. We are very grateful to these tutors. I can tell you that all of us, even though we couldn’t go to school, were able to finish school when we cameback after the war. Most of us finished our studies and all of us grew up to be upright people, none of us sank down. And this is thanks to the tutors: they did it.

And so you, the young people, have great power in your hands. You can have a great influence.

[see also, in this menu, “The Holocaust,” Helga’s conversation with another Terezin survivor, Zuzana Podmelova: “It’s very close to us, the past”]

2 Responses to “You can have a great influence”

  1. i was amazed by this story it was so moving. I would ask that somebody thank Helga for me for sharing her amazing story i was almost crying when i read it.

  2. Hey i like your story….it helps kids like me who have to do a reasearch paper on the children of terezin….so thanks for writing it!!


  3. i don’t like this story!!

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