J. R. Pick and a brilliant novel of the Holocaust: Part 2

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

In the last edition of Czech Books we featured an interview with Zuzana Justman, who with her older brother and mother survived the wartime Terezín ghetto. Her brother Jiří Robert Pick later wrote a remarkable novel set in the ghetto, under the title “Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals”. The book draws richly from his own memories; with an unexpected lightness and humour it tells the story of a teenage boy and the people around him – his friends and the older men sharing a ward with him in the ghetto infirmary. Thanks to Zuzana Justman it has just been published for the first time in English. This week David Vaughan continues his conversation with Zuzana.

Alex Zucker,  Zuzana Justman,  David Vaughan,  photo: Pavel Štingl
In the first half of our interview, Zuzana spoke about her childhood before the war and the shock of the German occupation and then being sent to Terezín. She told us about the pain of realizing that her father who was sent on to Auschwitz was never going to come home and of how she and her mother ended up in Argentina, while her brother decided to remain in communist Czechoslovakia. We pick up the conversation with Zuzana talking about the book itself. I asked her about the paradox of a humorous novel of the Holocaust.

“I think most people are rather shocked by the idea of a book about the Holocaust that has humour. It’s only when you begin to read the book that you realize that it is possible and that it can be well done. It was my brother’s way of dealing with it. We were powerless in Terezín, but he was doubly so when he was paralyzed [he contracted polio in the ghetto]. I think it was very difficult for him to deal with that period.”

Here is a brief extract, where Tony is talking to the older men sharing his ward in the ghetto hospital:

Tony grew to like the fly more and more with each passing day. Imagine the fuss Mr. Abeles would have made if he had to crawl along the ceiling with his head hanging down! At the very least, he would have complained that he was going to fall or get stuck in a spider’s web. “Vatching flies, eh, Tony?” said Mr. Hans Brisch from Berlin, Hermann Göring Strasse 7. He used to play violin in a bar. “Zat cannot be a very interesstink occupation.” “Actually,” said Tony, “this fly is pretty interesting. It reminds me of Mr. Abeles.” “Come now, Tony,” said Mr. Glaser and Sons, “you shouldn’t say such things. Whatever you may say about Mr. Abeles, he isn’t a fly.” “What is that supposed to mean?” Mr. Abeles objected. “I’m a respectable businessman. Just ask anyone in Kolín: Abeles, on the square.” Mr. Abeles and Mr. Glaser and Sons bumped heads in similar fashion at least three times a day. All Mr. Abeles had to do was remark on how blue the sky was that day and Mr. Glaser and Sons would reply that thank God his eyes were still good and if Abeles couldn’t see that cloud he’d better get his eyesight checked, and on it went from there. [trans. Alex Zucker]

Photo: Karolinum Press
You really get a feel for the characters, he brings them to life, but underneath there is the knowledge that most of them are going to be sent away on the transports to the death camps.

“The characters in the book – the older men in the hospital and his young friends – one by one leave in the transports, and in the end he is left alone, without his friends. Almost all the older men were gone as well.”

There is a powerful scene with the burial of his friend Ernie. He has been a close friend and role model, a little bit older than Tony. He dies when he is trying to escape, and Tony buries him in the ghetto cemetery. It’s an extraordinarily moving scene, but even there we find humour.

“Yes. Even that has humour. Tony is debating whether he should join Ernie in his escape, but he is too late to join him because of the rules of the hospital. So he feels that at least he should help to bury him. He feels guilty about not being able to say goodbye to him and he feels strongly that he should participate in his funeral. In that scene there is humour, but it’s very sad and very moving.

“Anyway,” said Karpfen, poking at Ernie, “it’s funny, us standing here, about to bury the boy. It’s that goddamn German logic. Die in peace and quiet and they burn you in the crematorium. But do something wrong and they give you a dignified burial.” “I guess the graveyard is supposed to serve as a warning,” said Dr. Neugeboren. “It sure does,” said Karpfen. “Lovers come here at night, and just when they’re about to go all the way, they suddenly realize where they are and stop.” “Brr,” said Mr. Veselý. “I’d be afraid to come here at night.” “I’m not sure anyone would come with you, anyway,” Karpfen said. “You aren’t exactly a spring chicken anymore.” [trans. Alex Zucker]

A vivid and lively character in the book is Tony’s mother who is very young and energetic, very much a member of the circle of friends. Is that how you remember your mother in Terezín?

“My mother was young and very attractive, and the young men who are described in the book as having affairs with her did like and admire her, but she did not have affairs with them. My mother was part of the cleaning committee and worked very hard scrubbing floors. My parents signed up for some illegal food packages under my mother’s name. The leader of this effort was caught and gave up her name, and she was in the Terezín Gestapo prison for three weeks. Again, it was a miracle that she was able to come out of there. That is not in the book.”

Terezín concentration camp
The book was published in Czech in 1969, which, once again, is almost miraculous because this was after the Prague Spring had been ended by the Soviet-led occupation of Czechoslovakia. Holocaust-related and Jewish themes tended to be, at best, neglected, at worst, suppressed. In the 1970s your brother stayed in Czechoslovakia and he had quite a tough time. He was thrown out of the Communist Party for the second time in his life [the first time being in the 1950s], but he did manage to carry on writing.

“Well, he always wrote. I’ve just read an article about the archive. There are forty boxes of his writing. He was extremely prolific. Writing was his life really. He had to write all the time – or when he talked he made jokes. When his work was banned, he published a few things under other people’s names and he also had ideas for cartoons. He worked with certain artists who produced cartoons with his ideas. He began to write plays. One of his plays was produced at the Theatre of E. F. Burian in the 70s, because the director of the theatre was a powerful communist named Větrovec. He was able to produce the play despite my brother’s being banned. He produced the play because there was a good part in it for him. He was an actor as well.”

Your brother died at the age of just 58 in 1983.

“He lived with one lung, and life expectancy with that condition is brief. I think he lived longer than he was expected to. He was not in good health but he had a full life and many friends. And I think he enjoyed life.”

Your own life story is also remarkable. Quite late in life you adopted a second career as a documentary film-maker and you made several films which came back to your experiences in Terezín and in Czechoslovakia.

“In the 1980s I sometimes saw documentaries about the Holocaust and it occurred to me that the life of the children of Terezín would make a good subject. I decided to give it a try. I had to learn how to make films. Without going to film school it was tough, but I did my best. I was very lucky because I was able to work with absolutely the best crew I could imagine, wonderful cameramen. I had a lot of help.”

In a sense you were making autobiographical films, but you were the person behind the camera.

“Sometimes when I show my film Voices of the Children, people ask me why I didn’t put myself in it. I did not because I wasn’t ready, I think. But now that I’m retired from film-making I’ve written a play which is more a story of my life.”

In that film, Voices of the Children, you spoke to several people living in the Czech Republic, in Vienna and America, who as teenagers were in Terezín. What intrigues me is that you talk not just to them but also to their own children about how they have experienced the Holocaust through their parents.

'Voices of the Children',  photo: The Terezin Foundation
“I think that’s a very important part of this history – how the second and third generation were affected by their parents’ ordeal. I felt that I learned through making that film that every family dealt with the trauma in a different way. Some people talked about it constantly and some people never said a word to their children.”

And you mentioned a play that you have written.

“I have had many things happen to me. I went to a very good college in the United States, called Vassar College five years after the war. There was such a huge contrast between what I went through before and my life at Vassar College, which was very privileged, in a beautiful campus, and wonderful academically. I’d never really been to a good school before, so I loved my experience and loved my friends. So my play is about my life at Vassar College, but there is a flashback to Terezín. And it’s a big contrast, of course.”

Were you able to write with an element of humour, in the way that your brother did?

“No, I’m afraid that I don’t have the same talent that my brother does. I don’t think there’s much humour in my play, but it has to do with the fact that while I was at Vassar I still did not believe that my father was dead. We used to bicycle from class to class, and while I bicycled on my green bike I had fantasies of my father appearing on the campus, because I believed that perhaps he had been taken to a camp in Russia. People were returning from Russia many years later.”

Did you write the play in English or in Czech?

“I wrote it in English. I’ve lived in the United States since 1950 and I feel fairly comfortable writing in English.”

And is it going to be performed?

“We had two readings so far. Perhaps there is going to be a more public reading at the Czech Center in New York, a staged reading. I was able to work with a wonderful dramaturg and a wonderful director and a first-rate cast in our last reading. So it may be performed at the Czech Center in New York in November. But it’s not definite.”

One of the reasons why you’re in Prague is because the English translation of your brother’s book, Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, has just been published by Karolinum Press and you are launching the book. How did the English translation come about?

“It was difficult to find a publisher for this book because people just weren’t used to the idea of dealing with the Holocaust with humour. I think that was the main reason. Incidentally it was translated into Hungarian, Polish and five years ago into German. When it came out in Germany it received a wonderful review in Die Welt. But when I finally found a great translator, Alex Zucker, I went to one of his readings, I introduced myself to Alex and asked him if he would be interested in translating the book. At first he was hesitant, but I was a little pushy and I asked him to read the book. He did, and he decided to translate it.”

It’s a very good translation. I’m glad that you did persuade him.

Alex Zucker,  Zuzana Justman,  David Vaughan,  photo: Pavel Štingl
“I think Alex is a wonderful translator. We had many conversations where he asked me questions about Terezín, because there are some Terezín expressions or references to situations in Terezín that had to be explained.”

Two of your sons were at the launch of the book, and you had your little grandson, a toddler, there with you as well. The launch was actually at the station in Bubny from where your family was sent to Terezín. You hadn’t been back there since 1943.

“That’s right. The launch took place at the Bubny Memorial of Silence. I do not remember leaving from there. All I remember of that trip is overhearing my father talking to the teacher from the Jewish school. But that’s the only memory I have of that time. You know, we all remember different things.”

There was something miraculous about the fact that you were joined at the launch in Bubny by your two sons and your little grandson, in defiance of history.

“Yes. That’s right. I survived and I actually have four children, because I have two step-children. They’ve all been to Prague and my sons have actually been here many times, because my brother didn’t have children and my sons were very close to my brother. My daughter-in-law had never been to Prague, so she came as well with Daniel, who is named after my late husband. He’s a year-and-a-half.”