My Jewish Legacy | Gabriele Silten

Gabriele Silten

Gabriele Silten

Posted by Elyse in Stories 18 May 2009


I was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1933. That’s also the year Hitler came to power, so it was not a good year. But, obviously, I couldn’t help that. My whole family lived in Berlin: my grandparents, my parents and I and various cousins of my parents as well as my father’s brother and my mother’s sister. Many of them left for fear of Nazism, either in 1933 or some few years later, or, as we did, quite a bit later. My parents and I left when I was just 5 years old. We emigrated from (left) Germany and immigrated to (went to) Holland, in 1938. We went to Amsterdam, the capital. We found an appartment there, rented it and moved in. At that time, most everybody lived in appartments, not in single family houses as we do in this country mostly. Living in an appartment means also that you have neighbors on all sides; below you, above you and on both sides. We lived on the 2nd floor, so we had all those neighbors. I became good friends with the girl in the appartment above ours, on the 3rd floor. Her name was Carla (it still is of course) and she was the younger one of two sisters. We used to play together, both inside, in one appartment or the other, or in the street (we had no back- or front yards). We also both went to the same Kindergarten, a Montessori one. I learned Dutch (the language spoken in Holland) very quickly and so interpreted for my parents when it was necessary. In September 1939, my grandmother came to join us; she was my father’s mother. That was also the year when I started first grade. Until then, nothing had happened; there was no war yet. Only, of course, people were anxious and nervous because of what Hitler was doing in Germany – new laws and regulations which forbade the Jews to do certain things or to be in certain professions. More about that later, O.K.? Then came 1940. In May of 1940, in the night of May 9 to May 10, the German army invaded Holland. “Invade” means that the German army just sort of walked in; they attacked Holland. (If I explain a word, it is because you may or may not know what it means. If I explain too much or too many words, just let me know, all right? And if I don’t explain something which you don’t understand, just ask.) Well, Holland is a tiny country as you will see on any map of Europe and so the Dutch army was not very big either and also not prepared for war. But still, the Dutch army fought for 5 days and only then did they give up. So the Germans had won and they took over the government. Our Queen (at that time it was Queen Wilhelmina) and her family fled; the queen to England and her daughter with her own daughters to Canada. That is where they stayed during the whole war. So from that moment on, Holland was an occupied country. As soon as the Germans had taken over the government, they instituted the same laws and regulations and rules in Holland which had already begun in Germany. In the beginning, there were not too many and they were not too bad, but as time went by, they became more and more and they became much stricter.

I will tell you about them and some other things next time that will be Chapter 2. There will be about 10 chapters in all, so we have a long way to go!


Last time I told you how the Germans invaded Holland and that there were new laws. Here are some examples; they are not necessarily in the order in which they were imposed. Everybody Jewish had to wear a “Jewish Star”. That’s what we called it then; it is also known as a Magen David. That is Hebrew and it means “Shield of David”. David was a king of the Israelites, a very, very long time ago. Israelites today are known as Jews. That star was yellow with a black edge and had letters inside which were supposed to look like Hebrew letters . The letters spelled the word “Jew” in the language of the country – so for us that was Dutch. In books you also find the same star with the word “Jew” in French or German, depending in which country it was worn. We had to have it on our clothes from age 6 and up. It was “as big as the palm of a man’s hand”, that was the official size, even though that is not very precise. It had to be worn of the left side of your chest, about where your heart is and it had to be sewn on very tightly, all around. You could not just sew the points. And it had to be on all your clothes except your underwear.

Another rule was that Jewish men could no longer be in specific professions, like lawyer, doctor, orchestra conductor, journalist and others. So a lot of men were out of work because of that and it was difficult to get money to live because they had no work. Yet another law was that Jews were not allowed to sit on public benches, like benches at a bus stop or in a park. They had painted signs on them, saying “Forbidden for Jews”. Those signs – on a big piece of paper – appeared also in shops, like the baker, the butcher and so on. When a shop had that sign, we Jews could not shop there at all. The shops where we were allowed to shop, also had restrictions; we could only go there at certain hours, between 3:00 pm and 5:00 pm. Then, of course, all the best vegetables and the fresh bread was gone because non-Jews could go shopping (we call it marketing today) at any hour. Jews were also not allowed any more to ride the streetcar or bus or any other public transportation; we could no longer go to public buildings like a city swimming pool or the movies. We could no longer go to see the circus either, and that affected me because a Swiss circus came to Amsterdam once a year and my parents always took me. But now they couldn’t any more and that upset me. And Jewish children had to go to a Jewish school. In this case that meant, not a religious or temple school, but a regular school where only Jewish children went and only Jewish teachers taught. And also there was a curfew: everyone had to be home at 8:00 pm and had to stay home until 6:00 am. You could not be outside between those hours. That was strange to me, because my parents were, of course, adults. And in my child world, parents had no rules to follow. They could do whatever they wanted. So there were a lot of new rules and laws and they were very strictly enforced.
Chapter 3.

The Germans did everything like that very slowly and took their time over it, thinking that people would not get too upset if they did one thing at a time. Over a period of time – 1940, 1941, 1942 – a number of things happened, in addition to the things which I’ve already told you about. By 1941, we began hearing about concentration camps, but they were then called “work camps”. Men and boys over 16 years of age were arrested for various reasons. The reason could be anything, even invented reasons like that the person had not greeted the German politely or had done something else, like maybe picking up a cigarette butt from the street. They also said that they needed these boys and men for “labor” that was important to the war. So these guys were arrested and taken to a concentration camps. Often, but not always, they would come back home after 3 weeks or 4 or 6, whatever punishment the Germans had given them. But they looked really bad, thin, dirty and had shaven heads. Pretty soon, though, the Germans started arresting Jews of all ages, even babies and grandparents of over 80 or 90. Well, everybody knew of course that these babies and older people couldn’t possibly work. So we didn’t know where they were taken. My friend Carla, who lived in the apartment above ours, and I used to talk about this, even though we were then only 8 or 9 years old. We didn’t know the word “concentration camp” but we called it the “bad place”. When the arrests became very numerous, Carla and I decided that, when we were arrested, I would leave her a note in her mail box so that she knew we had been taken away. In fact, we sat down right then and wrote the note together, in colored pencil (I don’t remember why we used colored pencil, though). On June 20, 1943, the Germans held a huge round-up of Jews in the whole city of Amsterdam. They went from house to house and arrested people. So they also came to our house and arrested us. While we went down the stairs, I managed to stay behind a little and to put the note into Carla’s mailbox. It said of course that we had been taken away but also that she should not try to ring my doorbell or go into our apartment because that was dangerous. When we got down to the street, the lady (the owner) from the grocery store next door was there and she was crying – she was not Jewish but she was crying because of the Jews who were being taken. She gave me a bag full of candy as a sort of “going away present”. Then we were literally stuffed into trucks, army trucks, the kind which has a canvas top over it, you may have seen them on TV. The Germans were pushing us and shouting at us. The trucks took us to one of the main squares of Amsterdam and there we were ordered to get out and wait. That June was a very warm June (rare in Holland) and all of us had many layers of clothing on, because our luggage was only one suitcase or a backpack, like you may have for school. Backpacks aren’t that big and you couldn’t put a lot into them, so we wore extra clothing to be able to take it with us. Well, just imagine that you sit around in 80 degree heat with a pair of shorts on, a pair of long pants over them, a skirt over that and a dress over that. Under the dress, on your top, you would have a blouse or two, and over it, a sweater and a coat. So, of course, we were very hot. We had to wait until about noon (they had come for us at about 9:00 am) and then, when they had a lot of Jews, we were put back into those trucks and driven to the railroad station. There a train was waiting for us, but they were not passenger cars, the train consisted of cattle cars. You may have seen them, in reality or on TV, those metal square train cars, with sliding doors and a small window way high up. (Here they are called freight cars.) Ours looked like that, only they were made of wood. We had to stand up because there was no room to sit down, there were too many people in each car. It was very stuffy, of course, and very uncomfortable.

Chapter 4

O.K., last time we ended in the train. Once we were in it, the doors were locked from the outside and the train left. That was at about noon of June 20, 1943. By the time we arrived in Westerbork – our first concentration camp – it was dark outside. Now, in Europe it doesn’t get dark as early as it does in California. Maybe where you are, dark comes after a long twilight. In Europe it does that. The sun sets and then there is a very long twilight and it doesn’t get dark until after 10:00 pm. So when we arrived and it was dark, I knew that it was late at night. The train trip had taken almost 12 hours. Now, today, when you go to Westerbork, no matter how you go: by car or train or bus, it takes two hours. So you can see that the train went very slowly. Once we were out of the train, there was a big gate in front of us and the guard opened it to let us in. We had to wait in front of a long, low barrack (all the buildings in which prisoners in camps were housed, were called barrack). It had wide doors. My mother told me to sit on a chair which was there and said that she and my father and grandmother would come back to get me. But I saw only people go INTO the barrack; I never saw anyone come out. So, after a long time, I started to cry and eventually a man came up to me and asked what was the matter. When he found out, he took me into the barrack and found my mother for me. It turned out that everybody went into one end of the barrack and out at the other end – but I could not see the other end. The barrack was there so we could register and state our names, etc. and professions. Then we were assigned a barrack to stay in – which in our case was number 65.

Westerbork was a smallish camp, but it was a typical concentration camp. It was surrounded by barbed wire and there were watchtowers all around the camp. It was overcrowded also – most camps were. Barrack 65 was, as were they all, divided into two parts: one half for the men and boys over 8 years old, the other half for the women, girls and boys under 8. There were bunk beds, three “stories” high. Since the camp was overcrowded, we had to share beds and I shared with my mother and grandmother. For the 3 of us, we shared 2 narrow beds. If I had been by myself, I would have had to share with a stranger! The beds had straw sacks for mattresses and a smaller straw sack for a pillow. We had no sheets and only the one blanket which we had brought from home. Also the straw was not clean and there were thousands of fleas living in each mattress. That was terrible! Westerbork is in the province of Drenthe and in the middle of a sort of marshy, sandy ground. There is a lot of wind, too. So the wind blew dust and dirt into the barracks and also flies and other vermin.

All adults had to work, of course, but the children didn’t have to. There was no school, though, because that was forbidden by the Germans. So we children mostly just hung out and/or got into trouble. There were no toys for the real young kids, no books, nothing. My father worked in the so-called “metal industry” which was a barrack where the men had to flatten really big pipes, like sewer pipes, but made of metal. My mother worked first in a place where the women had to take batteries apart, like flashlight batteries and such. Later she was assigned to take care of the small children whose mothers worked. The food was really bad and never enough: we got bread, a hunk which was to last for 3 days. You could cut it into slices and then you had one slice per day! There was soup, called “potato soup” but it had never been near a potato. It was murkey like used dishwater and had a bad taste. The adults got also a liquid called “coffee”, but I don’t know what it was made of. My mother said that I was too young to drink coffee, so I never tasted it. I think today that I didn’t miss much!

We stayed there for 6 months and then we were further deported to a concentration camp called Theresienstadt. That was on January 18, 1944.


In Westerbork, when you were sent on transport, your name was written on a list and posted. Every Monday, the list was made up and every Tuesday, the train departed. So one day, our names came up on a transport list. Any time the Germans sent another transport to another concentration camp, the list of names was posted, so that was how we knew it was our turn. We packed all our belongings – by this time that wasn’t much, just our clothes, our one blanket and for me also my doll Peter whom I had taken with me to Westerbork. On January 18, 1944 we were marched to the train. Westerbork had no real train station, just rails in the middle of the camp where the train could stop. It was cattle cars again, of course. We were loaded in with a lot of people in one car and then the doors were closed. It took a very long time till we arrived because we didn’t arrive till 2 days later, on January 20, 1944. We didn’t find that out till we got there, though. We had to go through a “disinfection” procedure. I’m putting that in quotation marks because it wasn’t a real disinfection. But while we were there, many things were stolen out of our luggage. Of course, that happened to everyone. Eventually, we were assigned to a barracks. Now here I have to stop “my” story for a minute to tell you about what Theresienstadt (in Czech it’s called Terezin) looked like. Theresienstadt was built a very long time ago, in 1780, by an emperor (a kind of ruler, sort of like a king, but not democratic like a president) whose name was Franz Joseph. He named the town after his mother whose name was Maria Theresa. The word “Theresienstadt” means “city of Theresa”. It was a small town and there were soldiers stationed there to defend the country (Czechoslovakia) if it ever became necessary. With the soldiers were their families and some commercial places, like a butcher, a shoemaker, a baker, and so on. The town was small because it wasn’t meant for a lot of people; while soldiers were there with their families, etc., there were never more than 7,000 people in town. The town itself has a star shape with 12 sides. It has big walls around it which had been covered on top with earth and grass grew there. There was also a moat. Outside the town limits was a prison for those who broke the law. Later that out-of-town prison was called “Small Fortress”. The town had seven streets in one direction and five at right angles to those seven. They were unpaved so, as in Westerbork, they were a sea of mud when it rained. The climate is different from Holland, though, and in winter there was snow and it was bitterly cold. The barracks were built of stone and in a square form. The four sides enclosed a sort of small yard, sometimes cobblestoned and sometimes not. In the middle of the yard stood a big, round stone with on top of that a hand pump. Nowadays we don’t use many hand pumps but in 1780 they were very common. They look like a pipe sticking up from the ground. On one side of the pipe there is a long handle which you can swing up and down. On the other side is a faucet. When you pump the handle up and down, water will come out of the faucet, cold water of course. That’s where most of our water supply came from. Inside the barracks were a lot of rooms. Most of them were big and in the soldiers’ time, probably 15 or 20 soldiers slept there. In our time, when Theresienstadt was a concentration camp, we were at least 50 people per room. We had the same sort of bunk beds as in Westerbork, but this time they were made of wood, not metal, like the ones in Westerbork. There were also smaller rooms which, I imagine, had once been for an officer. But now the smaller rooms which were just right for one person, held about 5 or 6 people. So like Westerbork, we were vastly overcrowded again. There were washrooms, of course, like the ones in Westerbork, with one big sink running through the middle of the room and faucets about every 3 feet. Again there were no partitions and, of course, cold water only. The Germans shut off the water several hours every day, but I don’t know why. Possibly just to annoy us. The toilets were in separate rooms from the faucets, but the builders of the town must not have thought that the soldiers needed privacy because there were no doors in the cubicles. Since we inmates were so overcrowded, there were not enough toilets and mostly they didn’t work. As I said earlier, Theresienstadt was meant for about 7,000 people. When my family and I arrived, there were 60,000 people. So obviously, none of the rooms were big enough and people slept on the floor and in the hallways.

That gives you a picture of what Theresienstadt looked like.


Well, we were assigned to a room, my mother and I to one big room and my father to another big room. Men and women were kept separated, but we could meet and talk during the day. We could also eat together if it fitted into our work schedule. The bunk beds were made of wood and that became very important. In Westerbork, you may remember, we had flies and fleas and other vermin. In Theresienstadt it was even worse. We had the same sort of “mattress” made of a big sack with straw inside and in Theresienstadt also, there were a lot of fleas. But in addition to those, we now had bed bugs as well. They are insects, about as big as your thumb nail and they have 6 legs. They also bite you and suck your blood. But…they can live and did live inside the wood of the beds. They chew their way into the wood and then they come out only when it’s dark and they feed on you. Like the fleas, bed bugs also leave red spots or welts and they itch terribly. There were also more head lice than in Westerbork. If you had them or caught them, you got your head shaved. Today you see boys and men with shaven heads because it’s the fashion. But at the time of the Shoah (Shoah is the Hebrew word for what we call Holocaust), it was because of the lice. Then there were also some insects which I call “clothes lice”. They have a proper name but I can never remember it. The word I use is a translation from the Dutch and German. They live in the hems and seams of your clothes and they are dangerous because with their bite they can make you ill. They spread typhus, also called typhoid fever. It is very infectious, so you can catch it from another person. In the camps – because this was common to all camps – most people who caught typhus died because they were so weak and undernourished (they never got enough to eat). That makes that your resistance goes down and then you fall ill more easily.

We were assigned to a barracks called the “Hamburger Barracks”. Most of the barracks were named after a city, but I don’t know why. It was overcrowded and people slept wherever they could, maybe on a bed but also maybe on the floor or on a table. On the floor and on a table they had no mattresses; they just lay directly on the bare wood. The streets were overcrowded also and you could never go out and see empty streets, or even just with few people. They were always filled with people, just like the rooms. That made everything very noisy, because everyone talked. There were always too many people, too much noise, too much dirt and no privacy at all. My parents had to go to work, but I did not – not yet. That came later. My father was, by profession, a pharmacist, but now, in Theresienstadt, he was assigned to be a street cleaner. I don’t know how they clean streets where you live, but here in California they have these huge vehicles with round brooms at the back. They spout water and then the brooms sweep up whatever is there to be swept. But that was not the case in Theresienstadt. Those vehicles hadn’t come to Europe yet – and they may not even be there now. In any event, my father had a little two-wheeled cart that he pushed, he had a broom made of twigs attached in a “bush” to a long handle and he had a shovel. He used the broom to sweep dirt onto the shovel and then tipped the shovel into the cart. There are countries which use that method even today, for example Switzerland. Only today, there, the broom is not made of twigs, but of plastic. My mother had learned to be a commercial photographer, but she, too, worked in different things. First she was assigned to a cleaning crew. We did not have cleaning people to clean our own spaces, we had to do that ourselves. But the cleaning crew went to the Nazi Headquarters and cleaned there. Eventually, after a long, long time, my father was put in charge of the so-called “pharmacy”. It was a sort of cave and had no medications at all, except what people had brought into Theresienstadt in their luggage, things like Aspirin for example. At about that same time, my mother was assigned to work in what was then called the “mica factory”. Mica is a mineral, that is: it is not a plant or a human, but different. It looks like see-through plastic but it isn’t. It comes in big chunks and those had to be split – I don’t know what the mica was used for, but certainly some sort of war industry. Mica splits very easily but creates a lot of dust when you split it. Many people – mostly, if not only, women, died after the war (sometimes long after the war) from lung problems or cancer because of having worked in mica. They had 3 shifts a day, eight hours each. My mother was first in one shift, later in another. At that time, I did not yet work, so I did whatever needed doing: cleaning, fetching food, repairing clothes, mending stockings (we hardly ever do that today, but at that time it was very common. If your socks or stockings had holes, then you mended those holes and you could wear the socks or stockings again.)


I had to clean the floor around our beds, and I had to go get the food three times a day – it was given out in another barracks and we had a sort of tray with a handle to carry the food on. Also I had to mend our socks and stockings, especially my father’s and mine. We had really nothing to mend with, so I had to unravel the woolen outfit my grandmother had made for my doll Peter. With that unraveled thread, I could then mend the holes in our socks.

The food we got was sort of like the food in Westerbork: bread which consisted mostly of sawdust but also had a portion of horse chestnuts in it. You aren’t supposed to eat horse chestnuts (I don’t know whether horses really eat them!) because they are poisonous. But they were in the bread all the same. The soup was much the same as in Westerbork as well, watery with sometimes a potato peel in it. Then there was what I call a “cereal” today, though I don’t know whether it actually was one or not. I just don’t know another name for it. It had the consistency of oatmeal, but it was yellowish-greenish in color. At that time I liked it – today I probably wouldn’t eat it! The adults also had “coffee” which was not real coffee, but a black liquid. I don’t know what was in it and my mother would not let me have any, she said I was too young to drink coffee. All of it had to be picked up at one of the food stations where it was given out. So I went to get it whenever the time was right.

Eventually, in the fall of 1944, we children also had to work. Children as of the age of 10 years old. By then I was 11, so that included me. My main job was as a message carrier. I was told to go to the “Home for the Old and Sick”. I’m putting that in quotation marks because it was no home. It was just another barracks where the older people were taken and they were very neglected there and most of them were very ill and did not survive. I was supposed to sit in the office until someone needed me to take a letter or an oral message to somewhere else. That was then given to me and I was told where to go and whether to bring back an answer. This job was easy because at 11, as you well know, it is easy to take a letter to someone else. Then came another job: I received a note (yes, in writing) to come the next day at six o’clock in the morning, to a special place and there to pick or collect horse chestnuts. This was in November and it was very, very cold. Of course we had, by then, no longer any gloves or socks and nothing on our heads so it didn’t take long before we felt frozen. Only children had this job. It lasted maybe 3 days, then I went back to being a message carrier. Finally, I was called up to the crematorium. A crematorium is a place where the bodies of people who have died, are burned (that’s called “cremate”. So those bodies were cremated.) People could not be buried in Theresienstadt because the ground is marshy and water would seep into the graves. That could cause disease and though the Germans didn’t care if we inmates got ill, they didn’t want to fall ill themselves. Because bodies could not be buried, they had to be cremated. My job was to go to the crematorium and to stand in a line with other children (again only children did this job) and hand boxes from one child to the next and the next and the next and so on. The boxes were cardboard (some were of wood, but not many) and they held the ashes which are left over when you burn something – in your home fireplace as well as in a crematorium. I didn’t know at the time what they did with these ashes, but many years later I found out that the Germans dumped the ashes into the river Eger which runs next to Theresienstadt. That job lasted about three days and we got “paid” for this job. Not in money, of course, but some children got some sardines. I got a tiny little piece of sausage which I wanted badly to share with my parents. But I was too hungry and by the time I got back to the barracks, I had eaten it all.


You probably know that most of the concentration camps were really, really bad and that thousands of people died of disease (illnesses) and starvation (when you get so little to eat that you lose a lot of weight and eventually you die). Camps like Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen and many others were like that. Theresienstadt was different, because the Germans wanted to have it known as a “model camp”. They also called it a “ghetto”. It never was a real ghetto, though, it always was a concentration camp from the moment that the Germans took the town away from the original inhabitants. The International Red Cross had asked many times to visit a concentration camp because they wanted to see what it was like and whether the rumors about starving inmates and dying inmates were true. The Germans had never given in to that request. But then, in summer of 1944, they decided to give in and said that the International Red Cross could send a committee to Theresienstadt.

In order to prepare for that visit, the Germans decided on a course of action, now generally called the “beautification”. It meant that the fronts of the town’s buildings were going to be painted and a whole lot of other things happened. The buildings were indeed painted – but only from the outside. Of course, the inmates had to do the work. The streets, up to that time, had had no names, only letters and numbers. For example a street that ran the length of the camp was always called L . Since there was more than one, we had

L 1, L 2, L 3, and so on. The street which went across were all called Q . That stands for the first letter of the German word for “cross street”. Then there was also a number. Now the buildings also received numbers, just like the streets and houses in our cities and towns today. The streets also got names; we had a “Lake Street” (although there was no lake anywhere near), a “Main Street”, a “Station Street”, a “Short Street”, “Park Street”, and so on. Some people had brought a book or some books to Theresienstadt. When they were sent to other camps, they often left the books behind because they were too heavy to carry. All those books and those which were originally owned by people who had died, were now taken and put into one building which was then called the “Library”. There had been an empty square in front of the Nazi Headquarters; by that I mean that there were no trees or bushes or flowers or grass and nothing but cobblestones. Now, in preparation for the Red Cross visit, this square was made into a park: instant grass was put down and flowering bushes and green bushes. In the middle of it, inmates were told to build a sort of band stand. No band ever played in it, because that was forbidden. No-one either ever went into the park, because that was forbidden. Also the inmates built a sort of “children’s playhouse” which was painted yellow and a famous artist was forced to draw pictures of fairy tale characters on the walls. Of course, children were forbidden to go in there; it was just for show, like the band stand and the park itself. One building had the word “School” above the door. Underneath there was a sign: “closed for vacation”. That was a lie also, because all teaching and learning and schooling was forbidden. Above the door of another building was the word “Post Office”. We never had a post office before and we were forbidden to go in now as well. No letters or packages came through it. Then the day for the Red Cross visit came and the committee came. They were forced to follow a specific route, they could not go where they wanted. All inmates had been ordered to stay inside, so that the Red Cross would not see us, starved and dirty as we were. The visitors did not have the opportunity to talk to us. They had to listen to a speech, given by the “Elder of the Jews”, a kind of mayor. The Germans had given him the speech and he had to learn it and say it and he was not allowed to say anything else. The visitors also only saw the outside of the buildings. The Red Cross accepted all this as full and complete truth and left well satisfied.

Then the Germans decided to take advantage of all this beautification. They decided to make a movie: the inmates would be the “actors”. It was directed by an inmate (who was forced to do it, of course) but it was filmed by professional movie makers. It showed the same things the Red Cross had seen but also showed a soccer game played in the courtyard of one of the barracks. I don’t know whether you are familiar with soccer; each team has 11 members. But since the courtyard was small, in this case each team had only 7 members. The movie also showed some of the work done by the inmates; it showed a swimming pool which we did not have, in reality, and it showed inmates working in small public gardens, harvesting vegetables. Those gardens existed, but they were for the Germans and we Jews never got any of the vegetables which grew there. The film was made in about 4 weeks, between July and August 1944. When it was completely finished, most of the “actors” were deported to a extermination (killing) camp (like Auschwitz, but not only to there). The first transport went in September; later, in October, there was another one. They were very big transports, because the Germans wanted Theresienstadt emptier. The man who had been the movie director was sent to Auschwitz and killed there. The movie itself was taken to Prague, the capital of Czechoslovakia. It was supposed to be shown in Germany, but it never was. After the war, it could not be found. Finally, in 1966, what remained of it was found in the offices of the Czech film makers who had filmed it. But it was in very bad condition (film at that time did not last anywhere near as long as it does now) and a lot of it was missing. It was made as a full-length movie, but there is now only about half an hour of it left. Also, what’s left are really just fragments, not a whole story.


O.K., so Fall of 1944 came around and the two really big transports had left. By November of 1944, there were not many people left in Theresienstadt, at least if you compare the numbers to how many people were there before. A whole lot of adults had been sent away, so as a result there were not enough adults to do all the work that needed to be done. That was the reason why, in Fall of 1944, children age 10 and older had to work. I have already told you about my main job and the other two which were not long lasting. We could not choose our job of course; we were assigned to a job. I think that the assignments went by chance, or at least that there was no real method in it. Why? Well, you already know that I worked as a message carrier and that that was easy. By then I was 11 years old. I have a friend who today lives in New York. She is now a film maker and has made a couple of films about Theresienstadt. At the time she was there and I was there, she was also assigned to a job, of course, because we are the same age. But she was assigned to go and repair roofs. Now you wouldn’t give that job to an 11-year-old today. I don’t know what the roofs look like in Massachussetts or in Burlington, but in California they are often flat. That would be easy to stand on. In Europe at that time and maybe even today, the roofs were made of tiles, roof tiles, made of clay or ceramics. The roofs are very steep also, so that the rain and the snow and ice can slide off. And those roofs are not at all easy to stand on. Here was this little girl, 11 years old, just like you, and she had to climb on the roofs – with others – and repair them. She had to do that even if it rained and in the rain those roofs get very slick and you slide even more easily and you may fall off.

So you see, there were different jobs we had to do. The adults still worked in the kitchen, that is: they cooked the food and others passed it out. We children mostly had to go and get the food for the whole family because the adults were working. We were entitled to one ladle full of soup or the “cereal” I have described in an earlier chapter.

Conditions now became worse and worse. There wasn’t much food, so we got less and less. We had nothing to heat the rooms with, either in the beginning or now. Czechoslovakia (the Czech Republic today) gets very, very cold in winter; it will snow and there will be ice. So the rooms were always cold.

Slowly the winter of 1944 passed. People kept getting sick, including my mother, and people kept dying – though not my mother. By the time Spring came, we were in very bad shape, as you can imagine. In early May of 1945 we began hearing loud noises in the area where Theresienstadt was located. We children did not know what they were, but today I know that there were cannon shots and gunshots because there was fighting in that part of Europe. The Russian army had come into Czechoslovakia and in their progress to wherever they were going (and I don’t know where that was ), they came upon Theresienstadt. By then most of the Germans had fled. Those who were still there, were caught by the Russian army. They had a stripe shaved in their hair – sort of like a roadway in the middle of their

hair – and on the back of their jackets, the Russians had painted a very large S . That is the first letter of the German word for “punishment”. The Germans now had to do all the work which we had done before. Unfortunately, the Russians didn’t bring us more food, because they didn’t have any themselves. But they did liberate us, that is, they set us free. But still we could not go home right away because before the Russians arrived, a large number of “death marches” had come into Theresienstadt. A “death march” was when the Germans of a particular concentration camp wanted to empty the camp and so forced all the inmates to march to another camp, sometimes hundreds of miles away.Whoever could not keep up, was shot. Now the winter of 1944 – 1945 was a very, very hard winter in Europe, with great cold, lots of snow and ice. The inmates of the other camps who had to go on death marches, had no warm clothing, no shoes, no socks. They might have clogs, though. But clogs fall off easily, as you now know. So these poor people had to march barefoot in the snow and many, many people could not keep up and collapsed. They were shot right then and there. But some of those marches who made it, came to Theresienstadt. Not all of the death marches came to Theresienstadt, but many came. They brough typhus with them, because, like us, they had clothes lice. Typhus, as I have told you, is very infectious. So pretty soon a lot of people who had been healthy (kind of) before, fell ill with typhus. The Russians quarantined Theresienstadt. Quarantine means that nobody could go out and nobody could come in. That was to limit the exposure to typhus. Eventually, after about 6 weeks, the epidemic abated and people began to try and find ways to go home.


Well, in the last chapter I told you how and when the Russians came to Theresienstadt. And I told you about the typhus epidemic. When it was finally over, we were allowed to go home. But how? Most of us could not walk home, because our country was too far away. The Czechs were able to leave right away because they were in their own country and spoke the language. Most of them, I think, hitched rides with Russian soldiers and so got home. But that wasn’t possible for us. So we had to wait and eventually we were taken to Pilsen, a small town in Czechoslovakia (now, of course, in the Czech Republic), and there we stayed for about a week. Then, one day, an airplane came to pick us up. It may have been an American airplane, but I am not sure of that; it could have also been a Russian one. It wasn’t an airplane as we know them now, with seats behind one another in rows of three or five. This one was an army transport plane and it had benches round the inside, along the walls. I don’t remember how long it took to get to Holland. We landed in Eindhoven which is a city where the Phillips factories used to make radios and electric light bulbs and that sort of thing. Today they make electronic things. We were housed in the then empty barracks (we called them that but actually they were factory buildings). There were red mattresses all over the floor – but there was a difference with Theresienstadt. These were real mattresses and they were clean. There were no fleas and no other vermin. The people who received us, fed us and gave us real soap to wash with, too. Then they tried to figure out whether we – all of us – had a place to go to, or a job or friends, and so on. Finally, after another week, a truck came to take us to Amsterdam. The weather was beautiful and the sky was blue; it was as though the sky laughed and smiled at us. Toward evening we got to Amsterdam – again at the Central Station. A doctor examined us and someone with a list said that our former neighbors had told him to send us to their apartment; that we could stay with them. So we did that. We had to walk there, of course, there was no public transportation like busses or trams; that was because of the war. We got there safely though and they received us very warmly and showed us where we could sleep and so on.

There were four people in that family: father, mother, one girl older than I by three years and another girl my age. The younger one was called Carla and we were best friends before the war. We stayed with them for about one year and then the landlord rented us back our pre-war apartment. We got home in June of 1945. In August, Elementary School started again after summer vacation and so I had to go to school. I was 12 years old by then. They put me in 5th grade – your grade now – because I was too old to go into 3rd grade which I had missed. I had also missed 4th grade. That meant that I had missed a whole lot of subjects and didn’t always know what the teacher was talking about. But everyone was in the same boat. There were kids in that 5th grade who ranged in age from 11 all the way to 16 years old. That’s because a lot of kids had missed school, kids like me who had been in the camps and kids who had been in hiding and kids, a little older, who had been forced to go to Germany and work. It must have been really hard on the teacher. After a year, we could move back into what had been our apartment and so, very, very slowly, we began to live kind of how we had lived before the war and before the camps. It wasn’t the same, of course, because of what we had been through, but we tried. In 1947 I started what would be here in the USA 7th grade and went straight through to the end of High School which in Holland lasted 6 years (from 7th through 12th grades). I graduated in 1953.

And I guess that is the end of my story. Nothing was ever the same, of course, but my parents had a fairly long life after the war: my mother died in 1977 and my father in 1980. I came to the USA in 1959, went back to school (UCLA) and studied languages. After getting my degree and my teacher’s credential, I taught at a Junior College. Today sometimes they call them Community Colleges. And now I am retired and still work with students, both your class and also a High School class – but in the High School class I teach French.

  • emma cowan April 3, 2017 at 12:05 am / Reply

    omg! gabriele i am learning about ww2 and in my class we have to tell the life story of a kid that our teacher/us pick and my teacher said she felt a vibe about your picture and mine so i am telling ur story and have researched literally every website and i think ur a true inspiration. i can’t wait 2 tell ur story.
    – emma cowan

  • John Thomason March 3, 2018 at 10:35 pm / Reply

    HI, This is a message for Gabriele, my name is John Thomason, I live in Northampton in England. My mother Marlies Herz lived in Berlin as a child, but managed to get a job here in England in January 1939. She was a relative of yours, as her father Max Herz was the brother of your grandmother Getrude Silten. I met Tante Trude once in Berlin when I visited in 1969, and I also met you once. If you are still alive and well, I would like to hear from you.

  • John Thomason March 3, 2018 at 10:38 pm / Reply

    Correction, your grandmother Trude Teppich. Your grandfather Richard Teppich worked with Max in the factory in Kolonie Strasse, Wedding, Berlin. We have some pictures of the factory in 1910, although I think the factory has now been demolished and replaced with a modern building.

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