Doris Grozdanovičová: the girl with the sheep in Terezín

Doris Grozdanovičová in Terezín, photo: archive of Doris Grozdanovičová

One of the most memorable images of the wartime ghetto in Terezín is of a young girl standing in the middle of a flock of sheep. Taking photographs was strictly forbidden, and it is remarkable that this image and a number of others showing the same incongruously pastoral scene have been preserved. Miraculously, the girl in the pictures also survived, unlike the great majority of the tens of thousands of European Jews who passed through the ghetto between 1942 and 1945. Doris Grozdanovičová went on to have a successful career as a literary editor and became friends with many post-war Czech writers, including Václav Havel. Now an energetic 91-year-old, Doris continues to travel, telling people about her wartime experiences. And she has never forgotten how a flock of sheep helped her to survive the horrors of the ghetto. David Vaughan went to meet her.

Doris Grozdanovičová,  photo: David Vaughan
We are sitting in your favourite restaurant, in an old house just around the corner from where you live in Prague-Střešovice. Tell me what you like about this restaurant.

“I do like this place very much. It’s an excellent restaurant. It’s very close to my place and if there are some friends we are always coming here. But I’m not here very often because I have no time.”

You seem to be permanently very busy, travelling not just around the Czech Republic but internationally. How is it that at 91 years old you are still travelling so much?

“I am travelling because I like it and my son says that I travel so that I don’t have to clean my flat. And, as always, he is quite right.”

So you are not a naturally domestic person.

“Not at all, and I have no time to be.”

You were born in 1926 in Moravia, in the town of Jihlava.

“I was born in Jihlava, but when I was seven years old, we moved to Brno.”

And what did your parents do?

“My father was in a bank. My mother was at home, because she had two children, my brother and me. And it was usual in those days that women were mainly at home.”

Brno was a very lively city before the war…

“I like it to this day. For me it was a very nice city because I had many friends. I was there when the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia and I was lucky that in Brno there was the only Jewish secondary school in the whole Protectorate. So I could go to school until they closed it as well in 1941. We had to leave Brno with one of the first transports. That means that in January 1942 we had to go to Terezín.”

It must have come as a shock – suddenly having to leave everything.

“It was a shock, but we had already had to leave our nice home. We were made to live in a very bad area, where three families who had never seen each other before lived in one flat. That was in the street Ponávka.

“We were one of the first transports– we didn’t know where they were sending us. We travelled by train for one night and one day to Bohušovice, because there was not yet a railway line directly to Terezín. It was not built till later. Everyone could have fifty kilos of luggage and no more. It was a very cold winter, so we had a lot of clothes on. They weren’t counted, so we had more than people who came in summer who couldn’t have winter clothes on.

Doris Grozdanovičová in Terezín,  photo: archive of Doris Grozdanovičová
“I had just turned fifteen, so I had to work, but I was lucky to have work outside the terrible camp – in agriculture. There were a lot of animals – geese and then sheep. It was the best possible work there, to be outside. But my mother died here; she was fifty years old.”

She didn’t survive the hardship of the ghetto…

“She was ill and she died in February 1944. My father and my brother were also there. And then there were ten transports to the east. We didn’t know where they were going to. They were the last transports. I said that I wanted to go with my father. An SS officer who knew me from my work with the sheep came and he asked me what I was doing there. I said that my father was in the transport and that I would like to go with him. And he said, ‘No.’ I replied that I would be on my own in Terezín and he said, ‘It’s nice to be on your own in Terezín.’ And I thought how inhuman he was. But he saved my life. So my father was sent away in the tenth transport and I couldn’t do anything. Of course, I never saw him again. My brother, who was in another transport, came back after the war, and I always say that it was the greatest luck in my life that he survived.”

I have several photographs in front of me from that time, showing you as a young girl in the Terezín ghetto. You were seventeen at the time and you are surrounded by a flock of sheep. Looking after the sheep was your main task in the camp.

“I was lucky to be with the sheep because it was outside. These photos are quite unique because they were taken illegally by a man who was digging a well there. He was not a prisoner in the ghetto. He was just a workman. As I was nearby with the sheep, he photographed me. And life is so funny sometimes. I would never have expected ever to see these photos.

“I had nobody, and we were guarded by Czech gendarmes – the SS were in charge, but there were not so many of them – and the Czech gendarmes were always stationed there for three months only so as not to get too friendly with the Jews. So they were always changing. Some of them were very bad, like the SS, but most of them were normal. The last gendarmes came in April 1945, and it was clear that the war would soon be over. One of them asked me where I will go after the war. I told him that I didn’t have anybody and didn’t know where to go. He had a daughter who would have been my age and had died. So he asked me if I would like to come instead of his daughter to be with his family. I didn’t believe he meant it, but I said yes. Then the end of the war came, and a Jeep turned up that took me to Kostelec nad Orlicí, his home town. So there I was, and it was very strange because I was not used to talking with normal people and I was afraid of everything. But it was very good that I was there. This man, Josef Urban, died a long time ago. He was witness at my wedding. He had a small nephew, who was two years old and he is now a great-granddad, but he’s still my family.”

So what about the photographs?

“As I said, the photograph was taken by a worker who was there. I was in Kostelec and, funnily enough, he was in Klášterec nad Orlicí. That’s about four kilometres from Kostelec, so I used to visit him and his family, and until his death I was in contact with them.”

These photographs are pretty much unique in that they were not taken officially.

Doris Grozdanovičová in Terezín,  photo: archive of Doris Grozdanovičová
“They are quite unique. Funnily enough, I couldn’t remember where they were taken because I hadn’t been there for so many years. There’s a policeman in Terezín today. His name is Tom Rotbauer and he was very much interested in places around Terezín. It makes me laugh – that I used to know the gendarmes in Terezín and now I know the only policeman in Terezín. He’s writing a book, which I will be editing because I am an editor, and he took me to the place where they were taken. I wouldn’t have known where it was exactly, after so many years.”

As we said, in the photos you are surrounded by sheep. Ever since then you have had a soft spot – if you’ll excuse the pun – for sheep.

“I love sheep and I know everything to do with sheep. I can milk them and cut their wool and take care of them. And so I like sheep and I’m collecting sheep, and, as I have many friends and am going to many places – and all the people know about my love for sheep – they all always give me sheep.”

I should stress that when you say you collect sheep, you don’t mean live sheep – in a small flat on the second floor in a suburb of Prague…

“No, but I have got all shapes of sheep, more than a thousand, and no two are the same.”

Getting used to life after Terezín must have been incredibly difficult, because you had spent most of your teenage years there.

“The only thing I knew was how to be with sheep, and there were no sheep anymore, so I had to finish my studies. I was nineteen – that means I was young enough to do it. And so in one year I had to do three years of grammar school to get to the University of Brno, where I studied English and Philosophy. And then I studied in Denmark as well.”

And for a short while, you also worked in the Czechoslovak Foreign Ministry in Prague.

“Yes. After my studies I was at the ministry, but it was in the bad fifties, so I had to leave it and I was in a printing house, Československý spisovatel.”

This was one of the big publishing houses in Czechoslovakia. In fact, you spent the rest of your career with books and writers.

“Now they are classics, but I knew them as my authors. Writers like Vladimír Neff and František Kožík and Eduard Petiška and others, who are now classics. But I’m sorry that many of the new generation don’t know them. I loved my work as an editor.”

Terezín concentration camp,  photo: Gerald Schubert
As an editor, you were reading books and preparing them for publication. Was that difficult, given the ever-shifting political climate during the communist period – when you never quite knew who would be in fashion or who would suddenly be banned as a writer?

“It was difficult, but it was not so black-and-white. You had friends, and it was not so easy, of course, but I never wanted to emigrate.”

And you married and had a son…

“I married a young biologist, but I was very happily divorced after three years! I’ve got an only son, who was always a very good child, I must say. He studied law.”

You had lost most of your family during the Second World War, and then in 1980 your son went into exile in Britain, at a time when it was quite possible that you would never be able to see him again. That must have been a very difficult time for both of you.

“It was very difficult.”

Did you know about his decision?

“I did know about it, even though I couldn’t tell anybody. I didn’t see any future for him here, because we didn’t know that communism would come to an end. I was crying, but I thought it would be much better for him. But since the Velvet Revolution he has been coming here and he is both a Czech and English lawyer. So he’s partly here and partly there, and everything is alright.”

You mentioned that you knew a lot of writers. One Czech writer who was a friend of yours was Václav Havel.

“I did know Havel very well. Nobody recognised him in my publishing house because he had grown his moustache for the first time.”

Would it have been a problem if people had recognised him at that time?

“I think there would have been a problem. I even knew Milan Kundera, and that would have been a problem as well. I was a friend of his since our days in Brno. I knew all the writers. Because I had been in the concentration camp, I was able to stay there in the publishing house, but I could never get out of our country. When my auntie died in 1983 in London, of course I wanted to go to her funeral, so I had to be pensioned if I wanted to be allowed to go to England. Those of us who had been in concentration camps could retire earlier than others, so I was freshly retired when I went there.”

But I can’t image you as being really retired…

“I never retired, but formally I did. Now I’m 91, so I’m retired!”

Terezín concentration camp,  photo: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,  Public Domain
But I know that one thing you have continued to do tirelessly is to talk to people – to people of different generations and nationalities – about the things that you, your family and people you knew lived through in Terezín. Do you feel it is something you have to do, so that people will know what happened and so that it won’t happen again?

“I’m sure it’s necessary to tell the people. We have to tell them what fascism was like, what the Germans were like. I also travel to Germany, because I think it’s necessary to tell the young generation what happened and what their ancestors did, because many times I meet young German boys or girls whose grandfathers were in the SS. And these Germans – the old ones – they never speak about it. So I think it’s very necessary for the young to know what happened.”