"Since Then I Believe in Fate": remembering the transports of Czech Jews to the Baltic States


Memorial ceremonies were held over the weekend at the Nazi concentration camps of Bergen-Belsen, Sachsenhausen and Ravensbrueck, to mark the sixtieth anniversary of their liberation. The names of these and other camps where millions were murdered have become embedded in our memory. But there were also smaller camps, scattered throughout German occupied Europe, places of terror that have been all but forgotten. The Jewish Museum in Prague has just opened a moving exhibition following the fate of Czech Jews, who in 1942 were transported to camps in the Nazi occupied Baltic States of Latvia and Estonia. Jarka Halkova's report begins with one survivor, remembering what it was like, waking up each morning.

"The person on your right was dead and the person on your left was dying. The person behind you didn't get up and you were very surprised that you were still around that you were still functioning relatively normally."

This and any many other recordings of survivors' memories are a part of the exhibition. It brings to light life in smaller Nazi camps which have been over-shadowed by Auschwitz and other well known camps.

The exhibition is based on extensive research by Lukas Pribyl, its curator, whose grandfather lived through a Nazi camp that was too small to be noticed by most historians. After years of detective work Mr Pribyl found, contacted and recorded memories of Czech survivors from four small camps in the Baltic States.

"Most of them did not want to talk about it because it is very raw. But once you opened it up, it actually becomes a flood. Very often have no one to talk about it with. If you are the only survivor from a particular camp and there is no one else you can't really exchange anything with a fellow survivor. No one knows it so they feel left out, completely solitary. But at the same time their memories are very crisp. They can't read an article about the camp or they cannot see a TV documentary or hear stories from other survivors. The memories are completely clear and there is no echo."

The first two transports -"O" and "P" left the Terezin ghetto north of Prague in January 1942.

"The majority of local Jews [in the Baltic camps] had been killed by the Germans. In order to divide the groups the Germans told the local Jews that their families had been exterminated because of the need to make space for the Western Jews who came [from Terezin]. It is a natural human instinct to blame the newcomer for the death of your family. The Czech prisoners didn't speak Yiddish, so there was a language divide; often the transports that came were wealthier than the already impoverished Polish or Belarusian Jews. So it took some time before people actually realised they were on the same sinking boat. "

The transports "Bb" and "Be" set off for camps in the Baltic States in August of the same year. Of the one thousand prisoners on the transport "Bb" not a single survivor was found after the war. The numbers are shocking, but above all Lukas Pribyl tries to focus the exhibition on the testimonies of those who went through the camps. Interestingly, he spoke not just to former prisoners but also to their guards.

"I asked them about the post war, about how they suffered because some of them were sentenced. So I was asking them about Russian Gulag. You talk to them for an hour and a half and they lose their guard and they start telling you about these camps as well. They said if they could choose they would not do it now. They feel they were punished enough. They very often feel caught in the whole thing by circumstance. Their stories are not completely black and white. The choices were limited for these people because they were not Germans and they were on a relatively very low level."

The exhibition is rich in black-and-white photographs that evoke the grim atmosphere of the camps. For me, one photograph stands out, because the prisoner Gizela Danzigerova is smiling. The text underneath the photo tells her story. She would have been executed, but one day the German guard, Schwarze, came into the kitchen. 'Danzigerova, make this chicken for me, because you know last time I ate your chicken, it tasted like my mother used to make it'. It was this chicken that saved her life.

All the material is going to be edited for four TV documentaries and later adapted for cinema. The films will bring the reality of these unknown camps to a far wider audience.

To end with, here is a memory of an improvised séance in the camp, recalled by another former prisoner whose memories the exhibition records:

"What I remember is that we all of sudden got crazy and we found a painting in a brown wooden frame. We put on it numbers from one to nine and Yes and No and I believe some months. Then two girls would place two fingers on that. We would ask questions. The fingers would move to a date or Yes or No, something like that. I remember we asked about [the famous Czech comedians] Voskovec and Werich, whether they were okay. One thing I never ask was about the fate of my parents. I just did not want to know Yes or No, I didn't want to get any dates or anything. It was a taboo."