J. R. Pick and a brilliant novel of the Holocaust – at last available in English: Part 1

Alex Zucker, Zuzana Justman, David Vaughan, photo: Pavel Štingl

“Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals” is a remarkable book by many standards. It is a comic novel set in the wartime Jewish ghetto in Terezín, written by the Czech satirist Jiří Robert Pick some twenty years after he survived the ghetto. The book is a classic, sparkling with life and humour, in defiance of the dehumanizing environment about which it was written. Thanks to J. R. Pick’s sister, the award-winning documentary film-maker Zuzana Justman, the book has just been published in English translation. In a two-part special, Zuzana talks about the book and the ways in which both she and her brother dealt with their childhood memories of the Holocaust. She talks to David Vaughan.

Tony, the hero of our story was neither smart nor stupid. When the Germans came, in 1939, he was eight years old. He imagined he was in store for an incredible adventure – getting hold of a gun, say, and shooting one of Hitler’s mustachioed aides-de-camp. Tony picture all of Hitler’s aides with mustaches like the Führer’s, but looking at photos of them he was disappointed to see that none of Hitler’s closest colleagues had a mustache, and no one ever gave him a gun either. Soon he was wearing a Star of David and attending a Jewish school. He wasn’t much of a student. He tried to explain it away by pointing out that he had transferred from another school, but no one listened, since all the students had transferred from other schools, and they all tried to use it as an excuse. When he was eleven, he and his mother, Liza, left for the ghetto. Tony quite liked it there. Like everybody else, of course, he assumed one day the war would end and everything would be fine again. For Tony, fine meant he could go the movies and eat hard-boiled eggs for supper at least two days a week. [Trans. Alex Zucker]

These are the opening few lines of the novel. The hero Tony is a few years younger than J. R. Pick, closer to the age of his sister Zuzana when they were sent to the ghetto, together with their parents. The book draws from their life in Terezín with an unsettling frankness and lightness of touch, and without a hint of euphemism or pathos.

Alex Zucker,  Zuzana Justman,  David Vaughan,  photo: Pavel Štingl
Both Zuzana and Bobby, as she always called her brother, survived the ghetto. Bobby died in 1983 some fifteen years after writing “Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals”, but Zuzana is still very much with us. She was recently in Prague to launch Alex Zucker’s new English translation, published by Karolinum Press. The launch took place at the Memorial of Silence at the railway station in Bubny, Prague 7. It was from here that Zuzana, her brother and their parents were sent to Terezín in 1943. After seventy-five years, the launch was a little victory over those who thought they could rewrite history through murder.

In the next edition of the programme in two weeks’ time we’ll be talking about the book in more detail, but today Zuzana will be telling us about the lives that she and her brother led before, during and after the war.

“My memories of my childhood are good. We had a close family life with all the relatives spending vacations together. My brother was six years older than me and I admired him very much. I looked up to him. I followed him around. I really have very happy memories of my childhood, spending time with him.”

From an early age he was writing…

“My first memories of my brother are of him writing. He was always writing. He wrote lyrical poetry and then a little later he wrote satirical epigrams at a very early age.”

And satire was where he was at home.

“Satire came very naturally to him. The way we communicated in my family was always making jokes, all the time. Humour was a very important part of our family life.”

Otherwise, would you say that you were a fairly typical Prague middle-class family?

“Yes. I think we were. We were not observant Jews. We were highly assimilated, and I think we only fully realized that we were Jewish when the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia. We never hid being Jewish, but my family was not observant. My mother’s family not at all but my father’s parents were much more observant than my mother’s. And they were German-speaking. My father went to German schools, to the same high school as Kafka, though he was ten years younger, and he was very good friends with Kafka’s younger sister Ottla…”

… who perished in the Holocaust.

Zuzana Justman,  photo: David Vaughan
“Yes. She perished. She went to Terezín where she worked as a nurse. She went to Auschwitz with the children who came from Poland. And they all went to gas.”

When the occupation began, there were suddenly many restrictions on your family.

“The changes came rather gradually, and I think the first big change was that we had to stop going to school. At that time my brother was about thirteen. He went to high school near where we lived and he had to leave. All the Jewish children and young people stopped going to school. At the beginning they had study circles and my brother participated in that. After a while we just had to study on our own.”

And the next stage was that you were summoned to join a transport to Terezín, to the ghetto.

“We received our first summons to go to Terezín in 1942. I got scarlet fever and the Jewish community was very afraid of infections. It was extremely infectious, so a German doctor came to examine me and we were all exempted from the transport and stayed in Prague for another year...”

… which probably saved your life.

“It may have saved our lives because during that year there were many transports to Auschwitz. We arrived in July of 1943 and my brother was placed in a young men’s home. My father was in another barracks and my mother and I were placed in the attic at Q 306. Just a few days after we arrived in Terezín my brother wasn’t feeling well. He came to visit us, my mother and me, and lay down on the bed next to me. When he got up to go back to where he was living, he fell down. He had polio. There was a polio epidemic and he was the first case.”

And he ended up spending most of the time you were in Terezín in the infirmary.

“He did. He was in the polio ward for about a year. Miraculously, he recovered almost completely. His stomach muscles were affected, and he always walked with rather a strange gait, but he was able to leave the polio ward, and for about a week he worked in the Terezín café, where he played the accordion. He was musically gifted and, as an adult, he wrote many lyrics for Czech songs. After a week he started spitting blood, and he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He spent the rest of his time in Terezín in the tuberculosis hospital.”

So it’s virtually a miracle that he survived.

“It is. When he had polio, most of the children and young people died, because there was no iron lung. There were wonderful doctors in Terezín, from Germany, Austria and the former Czechoslovakia…”

… all of whom were Jewish prisoners in the ghetto.

“Absolutely. But as far as medications were concerned there wasn’t much there and there was no iron lung to help polio patients to breathe. So it was rather a miracle that he survived.”

You talk about how he played the accordion in the café in Terezín. There was a semblance of normality in the ghetto but in fact it was anything but normal…

Jewish children in Terezín,  photo: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
“No. It wasn’t normal at all, but at the café they had the most wonderful jazz musicians, and there were many artists in Terezín and theatre people. The cultural life in Terezín is often described in films and books and I think people get the mistaken impression that the prisoners just rushed from one cultural event to another. But that is misleading. The places where plays were performed were very tiny. You needed a ticket. So there weren’t many people who were able to attend these performances. Also, people worked rather hard and they came back to their barracks exhausted.”

On the one hand there was a kind of everyday life, but always in the background there were the transports to the east. You never knew when you might be on a list to be sent to Auschwitz or one of the other camps. Your father was on one of those lists.

“Yes. The fear of going on a transport was ever-present. We were lucky for a long time, but my father was put on a transport on October 16 1944. There were eleven transports at that time and almost all the men left Terezín. After October 1944 women took over the men’s jobs and children had to work.”

And you never saw your father again.

“I never saw my father again. A friend of his stood next to him when he was sent to the wrong side.”

So you know what happened.

“We were told that he went to the wrong side into gas. I personally had a very hard time accepting that. I didn’t believe that he was dead for a long time.”

With the liberation in May 1945, it must have been very difficult getting used to daily life in Prague again.

“Every day in Terezín we talked about what we would do when it was over – až bude konec. That came up every day – what we would do and what we would eat. And then, when we were finally liberated, it was a very sad moment, because it was the first time we found out about Auschwitz. We realized that our relatives were not coming back. So, it was actually a very sad time. Going back to Prague, I think the adjustment may have been very difficult for some people, but I personally didn’t find it that difficult.”

And you still had your mother.

“I had my mother and I had my brother, even though he was sick. So I was lucky. I can’t speak for my brother. I don’t know how he felt, but of course he was very sick with tuberculosis. He was coughing blood again, and he was placed in a sanatorium in Ústí nad Labem. After about a year there it was decided that he needed surgery and one of his lungs was collapsed.”

With the communist takeover of 1948, the family was split again. You and your mother emigrated to Argentina. Your brother decided to stay here.

“The young intellectuals in Terezín were either Zionists or communists. Maybe some people were both. My brother was a communist and when my uncle from Argentina came to Prague in early 1948, he told my mother and me that we should leave. My brother decided to stay because he was already a published writer and he knew by then that he could never learn another language well enough to do the kind of writing he did. Also because he was a member of the Communist Party, he decided to stay. So our family was separated.”

Were you able to keep in touch?

Alex Zucker,  Zuzana Justman,  David Vaughan,  photo: Pavel Štingl
“We wrote. But it was during the Cold War and we didn’t want to cause any harm to come to him. So I think we only spoke on the telephone once. Nine years after we left, my mother was finally able to go back and see him and I went back ten years later. But my mother went to Prague every summer. She lived in Argentina.”

And you didn’t feel at home in Argentina at all…

“No. I arrived in Argentina when Peron was in power. At the age of sixteen I had already lived under Hitler – and Stalin for a few months. I was very political, and Peron was too much for me. I went to an American high school and applied to go to college in the States.”

And you studied Slavonic philology?

“I actually wanted to be an architect, but when I arrived at Vassar College, the art course that I wanted to take was full, because it was very popular. So I took Russian instead. I majored in Russian and continued my studies for many years.”

Through those years, you did not talk about the time that you had spent in Terezín. Was it something that you tried to put behind you?

“I wouldn’t say that I tried to put it behind me. It came naturally, because I lived in the present and made plans for the future. I think that’s true about young people anywhere – that you don’t think that much about the past. Then, many years later I realized that my friends in college, who were almost like my family, because I was only able to see my mother once in four years, many of them didn’t know about Terezín. I just didn’t talk about it. And that was not unusual.”

Yet both you and your brother later came back to the experiences that you had had in Terezín: your brother in the mid- to late-sixties wrote the book “Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals”, which was published in 1969. In the book he vividly evokes the atmosphere of Terezín for the young people who were imprisoned there.

“It took my brother twenty years to be able to deal with it in his work. I think that was not so unusual. It took me even much longer, because I started making films in the 1980s. I made two films about Terezín.”

We’ll be hearing more from Zuzana Justman, about how she and her brother gradually came to work through the traumas of their past in the next edition of Czech Books, in two weeks’ time.