Marianna Singer

Marianna and Gerson Singer with their friend Monika BohuskaJihlava, Czech Republic

Marianna Singer
Jihlava
Czech Republic
Interviewer: Martin Korcok
Date of interview: November 2004


Mrs. Marianne Singer is a very friendly, talkative and kind-hearted elderly lady. She lives with her husband in a beautiful villa, which remained as one of few material reminders of her family, who all died in concentration camps during the Holocaust. She returned to the Czech Republic from New York after fifty years. According to her, only at home, which is how she refers to Jihlava, did she once again begin to live. Our conversation took place in a friendly atmosphere. A couple of times she asked me to turn off the recording machine, mainly when she was speaking about her sons’ childhood.

My family background
Growing up
During the War 
After the War
Glossary:


 

My family background

My father’s mother was named Regina Neumann, nee Lavecka. I don’t know where she was from. Grandpa Alois Neumann had roots in Smrcna near Jihlava and later lived in Jihlava. He was the director of a large glass concern called U Schindlera that had numerous branches all over Europe. Later he went into business for himself and had a glassmaking and cutting firm. The factory, which belonged to him, employed around 60 people. About six people sat in his office. Then there were glasscutters that etched, cut and painted glass. He also had a workshop that produced display cases. They manufactured only the glass part of the cases, and had a supplier for the wooden one. Besides the glass factory he also had a cardboard factory, which he later sold to this cousin. He mainly employed women who wrapped the glass products, because it was all for export.

Grandpa Alois most likely had a good relationship with his employees. The products were exported all over the world – Europe, North and South America. He had agents all over Europe and the rest of the world. The agents in each country would show off and sell the goods. For example, in England he had a lady who I still remember, her name was Stormer, and in Italy Mrs. Steslo, those two I remember.

Grandfather didn’t have business partners. He alone led the factory up until his death. He was around 52 or 53 when he died. After his death my father, Fritz Neumann, took over the factory. Father already had a partner, the husband of his sister Marta, Mr. Horecky. After he died my father’s sister married again, and her second husband, Haupt, became my father’s new business partner. My father bought out Uncle Haupt, and after that was the sole owner.

When my father was the factory director, people liked him. He didn’t act like a big boss; when he went to work he dressed just like his employees. Even we children had to dress simply. I used to say to him, ‘look at the women that work for you, they are better dressed than I am.’ Father was friendly with his employees. Despite there being a crisis [Editor’s note: world economic crisis] he didn’t reduce the number of employees. Finally they took the factory away from him in 1939.

Our entire family was well off financially. My father’s parents had a beautiful apartment and also a house. The house had two separate apartments, and was in Jihlava. I don’t remember how it was furnished. They had one of the apartments and their daughter Marta and her family had the other one. The house had electricity, toilets and bathrooms. It was completely modern. They also had servants. Grandma also had a cook, and when my father married, she came over to Father’s family. She was named Zofie, Zofka. She cooked, cleaned and took care of me. On the ground floor there were additional apartments that they rented out. There was a tailor and one shoemaker. The tailor was named Pohl and the shoemaker Rokos.

I never knew Grandpa Neumann [he died in 1918 before the interviewee was born], but I don’t think that my father’s parents were religious. My parents weren’t religious, so I think that if my father wasn’t religious, neither were his parents. Father only went to the synagogue on the major holidays, otherwise he didn’t. Grandma Regina didn’t observe Jewish holidays at all. Sabbath was a normal working day. It wasn’t until in the concentration camp that I finally found out what kosher food was. I didn’t know anything about religion.

My father’s mother was a beautiful woman, of small build. Most of the time she wore dark clothing. She spoke German and sometimes Czech. I don’t remember my grandmother taking vacations. We didn’t visit her very much, only once in a while, and only with my mother. Father never spoke to his mother, for many years. I never found out why. When my mother and I visited her, we would sit outside in the garden and they would talk for an hour or two. I was about twelve years old when Grandma moved away to Prague with her daughter Marta’s family.

Mother’s father Ludwig Tausig came from Hlinsko in Bohemia. His wife, my grandmother Sophia Tausig, nee Singer, came from Vienna. Grandpa Tausig had several textile factories that made cloth, furniture upholstery fabrics. It all began with my great-great grandfather, who was a traveling salesman. He worked his way up all the way to having factories, which my grandfather then inherited and further developed. He had two factories in Hlinsko, one somewhere in Romania, where I don’t exactly know. He had a lot more of them, but these factories I don’t remember. Then he had a department store in Vienna on Garten Strasse. It’s hard to say how many employees he had, but certainly there were many. In the beginning the textiles in the Hlinsko factories were hand-made, but then they began to bring in various machines. He also had employees that worked only at home. Many of the products were exported internationally, but where, I don’t know. Grandpa Tausig had a silent partner, who received money but was never there.

Judaism wasn’t observed at all in the Tausig household. In fact my grandmother wanted to be cremated after her death and so they didn’t allow her to be buried in the Jewish cemetery, so her ashes are in an urn-field in Pardubice. When our son John first came to my hometown, he looked for my grandmother’s grave in the Jewish cemetery. Of course, he couldn’t find it. Someone told him to go look in the urn-field. That’s why they didn’t bury her in the Jewish cemetery, because Jews can’t or shouldn’t be cremated, and she wanted to be. I would also like to be, but my husband [Gerson Singer] doesn’t.

My mother’s parents lived in a large house. Downstairs there were three offices and a room for the maid. Upstairs were a kitchen, dining room, living room and three bedrooms. We visited them once every half-year. We would go there with my mother. Grandma had asthma, so she had a nurse who lived with her and took care of her. Every year she would travel to Italy so she could breathe better. When my grandmother was at home, she was always meeting with other ladies, while grandpa played cards with his friends.

Both grandmothers were very strict and I can’t say that I had some sort of close relationship with them. As far as grandfathers go, one of them, my father’s father, I never knew. My grandpa on my mother’s side was my favorite though. He was constantly singing songs and telling me stories, and telling me that he would buy me a katzabaika [ladies’ coat or jacket], which I never got. To this day I don’t even know what a katzabaika is. I don’t know of what political persuasion my grandparents on both my father’s and mother’s side were. I would have to make it up, I don’t know.

My father, Fritz Neumann, was born in Smrcna in 1891. He had two siblings, his sister Marta and his brother Richard. Richard died at a very young age. My father’s parents didn’t give him a religious upbringing. I don’t even know if he was circumcised. I don’t think that there was even a synagogue or prayer hall in the village he was from. Smrcna was a small village. I don’t know if all households had electricity and running water, but my father’s parents for sure did. In time they moved from Smrcna to Jihlava.

Father didn’t go to school, but was very educated and talented. I would say that he was self-taught; he educated himself. In the factory he made all the glass designs himself. The materials were purchased at a glassworks and he did all the product design details himself; he was like an artist. In Jihlava they elected him as a people’s judge, commercial counselor. I think that he was someone important in the town; otherwise they would have never chosen him for such a function. His mother tongue was German, and with us children he also spoke exclusively German.

My parents often went to balls in Jihlava. In fact they met each other at a ball. They were introduced to each other by my father’s friend who had a printing works in town. My parents’ wedding took place at the Jihlava town hall. The mayor married them.

My mother Valerie Neumannova, nee Tausig was born in Hlinsko in 1901. Her mother tongue was German. She went to high school in Jihlava. She was a modern woman who dressed very well; she had her dresses custom-tailored. She never wore make-up. She didn’t need it, as she was very pretty. She had black hair and hazel eyes.

My father was a large man, with black hair and blue eyes, handsome. When he went to the factory he dressed like the workers: knickerbockers and a short jacket. He would always say that a person shouldn’t set himself apart from the people he worked with but that he had to fit in among them. My father also applied this philosophy when it came to dressing his children. We dressed pretty plainly; we weren’t to stick out from the crowd. For evenings out though, my father would dress up. He would put on an elegant tuxedo.

Our financial situation was very good. We lived in a large house with a huge well-kept garden. We had a cook, maid, and landscape architect for the garden. In the summer my father would always send us with our mother and maid for a month’s vacation. Usually it was to former Yugoslavia or to Austria.

We had a spacious two-story villa. On the first floor there was a large hall that we used as a living room, and next to it a kitchen and dining room. Adjoining the kitchen was a servants’ room. Behind the living room were a so-called men’s room [den] and a beautiful atrium. The caretaker lived on the ground floor. On the second floor there were six rooms: my parents’ bedroom, my and my brother’s rooms, a guest room and two more smaller rooms. The dining room had carved furniture. The chairs were ornamented with carved fruit motifs. The hall was modern, covered in fabric from grandpa Ludwig. In the den there was a huge bookcase, leather chairs and an upright piano. The atrium was full of flowers and had a beautiful light-green table with chairs. In my parents’ room on the second floor there were built-in closets that are there to this day. It had light, butter-yellow furniture and Persian carpets everywhere. I had white furniture in my room, and I don’t remember any more what was in the guest room. My brother had a couch, a large closet with toys and a ping-pong table.

In the garden there was a huge cage with six budgies. They made a constant racket. We also had three large land turtles that we had brought back from a vacation in Yugoslavia. Father had a large enclosure made for them so they wouldn’t run away. They ate mainly grass. Once one of them dug under the enclosure and ambled away. A neighbor found it outside on the street. In the courtyard of the glass factory my father had a guard dog. In our immediate neighborhood there was only one Jewish family; the rest were all Christians. However, we never had even the slightest problem with them.

Of course servants were also part of the household. On the ground floor lived a caretaker that worked for my father. We had central heating, coal or coke-fired, and he took care of the boiler. Because my father loved working in the garden, twice a year he would call a garden architect, who helped him. Our cook Tonicka cooked and cleaned on the first floor. My mother did the shopping, and Anezka, our maidservant, took care of us children and cleaned the top floor. By the way, Anezka is still alive, and we meet to this day, and with her family as well, who I now look upon as my relatives.

Jewish traditions weren’t observed very much in our household. Just at Passover there was some sort of seder, and for Chanukkah we lit candles. At Christmas we had a Christmas tree. We didn’t practice traditional Judaism, but we were aware of the fact that we were Jews. My father was very benevolent when it came to questions of faith and nationality. I think that despite this he felt himself to be mainly a Jew, but he didn’t differentiate people. He didn’t care if they were Germans, Czechs or Jews.

Our father was a member of various organizations, be it Czech, German or Jewish ones. The members would meet mainly in the Grand Hotel in Jihlava, which still stands to this day. There they would have their meetings. I don’t know what function he had in which organization. You know, that wasn’t the main thing that interested me in my younger years. Thinking of my father makes me remember his enormous library of books. I can’t remember concrete titles though; too many years have passed. Our household always subscribed to the Prager Tagblatt [1] though, and Jihlavske Listy [the local newspaper].

My mother went to a cafe once a week to meet with her girlfriends. Once or twice a week some friend of hers would come visit or mother would go visit someone when my father went to all those various meetings.

As I said earlier, my father had two siblings: a sister named Marta and a brother named Richard, who died in childhood. His sister lost her first husband, my father’s partner in the factory. He was named Horecky, and grandpa Neumann liked him a lot. Marta had a son with him, Hubert, who became a doctor. He escaped to Palestine, but later returned to Czechoslovakia. After her first husband’s death Marta married again, and with her second husband, Haupt, she had a son, Honza, and a daughter, Alice. My father eventually bought out Haupt’s share in the factory, because he didn’t like him. When my father bought them out, they moved to Prague and there they bought a gas station. During the World War II they were transported to Lodz [2] and never returned.

 

For vacations we used to go mainly to Austria and Yugoslavia. In Austria we usually stayed in one place, from which we then went on excursions into the surrounding countryside. In Yugoslavia we were mainly at the beach, where we rented tents. On our vacations we also brought our nanny, who babysat us in the evening, while our parents were out socializing.

Mother had two sisters. One of them behaved extremely badly towards me. She was named Dora [Doris] Pollack [nee Tausig]; she married a doctor from Vienna, a throat specialist. They escaped to America before the war. When I returned from the concentration camp, I wanted to return to Czechoslovakia, because I was engaged to someone there. She said, ‘no, no, no, you have to come to New York.’ So I went to New York, being the only one from our immediate family who didn’t die in a concentration camp. I had no one except for Aunt Dora. After about two or three months she said to me, ‘Marianka, I have to tell you, we don’t have room for you here.’ So I would have something to live on, I had to go work as a servant in other families. The things she did to me! My father had deposited some money in a bank in America, and my mother’s sister Dora stole it from me. I didn’t find out until recently that I had some other relatives, who lived in England. They didn’t want to have anything to do with me either, because she bad-mouthed me in front of them. Dora had a son in the USA, named John. He had many health problems, mainly mental ones. He felt that someone was always after him. In the meantime Dora died.

My mother’s other sister was named Edita [Edith Frenkel, nee Tausig]. She married her cousin, so they had no children. Before the war her husband worked for my grandfather in the factory office. They also moved to the USA before the war. They lived in New York. She treated me just the same as her sister Dora.

In pre-war times there was no typical Jewish occupation in Jihlava. Maybe with the exception of a certain baker who baked matzot for Passover. Perles was his name. Among the wealthier Jewish residents of the town was, for example, a family of factory owners, the Seidners, who had fabric mills. They were likely either two brothers, or cousins. Another fabric mill near Jihlava belonged to Löwy. Eisenstein, my grandpa Alois Neumann’s cousin, owned a large printing house that my grandfather had sold to him. The Spitzers produced smoked foods. We see each other to this day. All factory and shop owners regularly met with my father at various meetings. My mother socialized with the wives of these gentlemen.

Growing up

I was born on 13th February 1924, in Jihlava. My childhood memories are varied. For example, when our villa in Jihlava was being built – I was about five then – my father always took me along with him to the construction site and would show me what would be where. I also remember the birth of my brother Jan. I was four years old, and was playing in the garden in Hlinsko. My aunt called me and said, ‘Marianka, you’ve got a brother.’ We would go on various outings with our nanny. In the summer we would make campfires. We would roast bacon and potatoes. The date 14th March 1939 is also etched into my memory. We were to go to Prague for three days. My mother told me to pack enough for three days. I had a premonition though. I walked through the entire house in floods of tears. They asked me why I was crying; after all, we were going to be back home in three days. I still had some sort of strange feeling, so I took my mother’s jewelry box. Despite being only fifteen, I had a feeling that I wouldn’t be returning.

I went to municipal school in Jihlava. Today there is a medical high school in the same building. I went to high school on the former Freiheitsplatz, Freedom Square. Only a couple of Jews attended the school. My friends were both Jews and non-Jews, a mix. My worst subject in school was math and geometry, my best were Czech and biology. I came to like our homeroom teacher. I fell in love with him, just like the rest of my female classmates. Our biggest disappointment was his wedding. He used to take us on trips in the region, for example to Lednice. He was named Rudy Stefan. His parents had a bakery in Jihlava. Outside school I also attended private piano lessons and French lessons. My music teacher was named Eduard Sobotka. He had thick eyebrows and was extremely strict. When I didn’t hold my fingers properly, he would whack them. French didn’t belong to my favorite activities either. My teacher was named Miss Smolkova. She made me read difficult French texts that I didn’t understand at all.

I was a good child. I never caused trouble, because our father was a strict person. My only vice was love. I always fell in love, beginning when I was fourteen. There were always a lot of boys hanging around me. Not far from us was a swimming pool, from which once two boys walked me home. Father was coming home from the factory and saw it. He began to shout at me and I could have died of embarrassment. I fell in love a lot. I constantly had some boys writing me poetry. I used to go out and promenade around, but I had to be home by seven or seven-thirty. My mother and I loved each other a lot; she was an amazingly gentle lady. I had no secrets from her. I told her everything.

We girls used to go out on the promenade. The promenade in Jihlava was on the square, where today’s town hall and post office are. Everyone used to walk around and around. When there was some boy in front of me that I liked, I would step on his heel, so that he would turn around and I could see him. Those were things that just don’t exist any more. Every day I would go on a promenade. First though I had to study, do my homework, play on the piano for my mother and then I could finally go. When my father was angry and scolded me, I wasn’t allowed to go to the cinema. It was horrible.

My last best friend was Lisa Eliasova, who came from Mukachevo. She moved to Jihlava along with her entire family. I’m not sure if one of her parents was a Jew. In the end even this shows that I was never interested in who was of what religion. Lisa was a beautiful girl and also had many admirers. Besides her I had lots of other girlfriends. Most of them would come to our house for visits.

Despite never having been a member of any organization, association or club, I was very active in sports. I swam, skied, and rode horses. We used to go skiing in hills near Jihlava. The swimming pool was close to our house. A person could go there alone and always found some friends or acquaintances to hang around with.

My only sibling was my brother Jan. He was born on 6th July 1928 in Jihlava. He always brought over friends that would annoy me. When we were in Hlinsko and I would go out on a date, he had to come with me. Mother told him that he had to be with Marianna. To get rid of him, we would buy him an ice-cream cone and tell him to get lost.

My brother attended the Czech Masaryk School, a little way away from our villa. The school building stands to this day. Jan was very clever. In Terezin [3], for example, when someone’s shoe needed repair, he would find a piece of rubber tire and make soles from it. Or he made a bed. Simply a very clever boy. He had many friends who would come over to play. He also liked to play hockey. Once – this was in Hlinsko – he got hit on the eyebrow with a puck, and had a scar there that never healed properly. In Terezin, his dexterity and cleverness made him a favorite of the chief of the generating station, Bobek. He took Jan on as his gardener on the condition that while at his place he could eat anything he wanted, but couldn’t take anything back to the ghetto. However my brother took a pail, filled it with dirt and under it put fruit. Mother took the fruit to the bakery and exchanged it for bread. Jan didn’t survive the Holocaust, just like our parents, he went to the gas chamber at Auschwitz.

As schoolchildren we also attended religion lessons. I studied Hebrew but was stupid. I had to memorize Hebrew because I just didn’t get it. The cantor taught us and came to school once a week. His daughter worked for my father in the office. She was named Etelka but I don’t remember her surname. There was only one rabbi in Jihlava, Grunfeld. The synagogue was burnt down in 1939 by Jihlava Germans.

In the winter we celebrated both Chanukkah and Christmas. Chanukkah, however, somewhat lagged behind Christmas. I remember that we didn’t even have a real chanukkiyah, but some sort of piece of wood and on that we would put candles. But every year we had a beautifully, beautifully decorated Christmas tree. On it were ornaments, chocolates, sparklers and candles. Mother would decorate the tree and would constantly be sending us children out. The tree smelled so beautifully. We also had Christmas dinner. In the evening we would eat carp and potato salad. Then we would exchange gifts. For St. Nicholas’ Day father would always dress up as St. Nicholas and give children gifts.

My favorite holidays were Christmas and after that my birthday. Because that tree was so beautiful. Outside everything was fragrant, even the snow. Everything was so romantic. Now it’s not romantic for me anymore, because my husband won’t allow us to have a Christmas tree. I’d like to have it. My son John has a tree, because of his girlfriend. For example my husband’s sister, my sister-in-law had a tree, but not my husband. So nothing doing, I have it in my memory. For Christmas dinner our family would get together at the table, that is, my parents, my brother and I. The cook would serve us dinner. Our servants also got presents and not just any. They got more than we did. Mother was constantly fitting them out. They got completely set up. They got a whole lot.

Anezka, who was our nanny, had a daughter, and recently her son and his wife were visiting us and as we were talking she told me how well Anezka had had it with us. She came from a very poor family and didn’t have a mother, only a stepmother. Anezka’s children knew everything, because she had photos and constantly talked about us, so that when we met, it was like we already knew each other. She used to live with us in a room off the kitchen. Together, her and the cook had two closets, two beds and a table. They were named Tonicka and Anezka. Tonicka was the cook; she was older than Anezka and Anezka was ten years older than me. Anezka is now 90, and the poor soul is a bit mixed up, but still talks about Hans [Jan in German] and Marianne.

During the War 

Before World War II, I never had any personal experiences with anti-Semitism, only directly in the concentration camp. One of my girlfriends who came from a mixed marriage, was physically attacked several times, which never happened to me. Some local boys attacked her, here in Jihlava. In the last ten years though I’ve seen right here in town, on the square, skinheads using the Nazi salute. Before the war never, not even in the German school I used to attend. No one attacked me verbally or physically.

We felt the impact of the anti-Jewish laws [4] right from the beginning of the war. We were the first Jews to leave Jihlava. The Gestapo picked out our villa in 1939, which served them until they left the town as their staff headquarters. My father’s factory was taken over by some German, Ofenbeck. He bought it for the price of one of the machines, and even that money my father never got, because they put it into some account that my father never saw. So that suddenly we were as poor as church mice. We had to move to my grandfather Tausig’s in Hlinsko. In the evenings we couldn’t be out past eight. There was only one store where Jews were allowed to shop. Our food ration tickets had a much lower value than the ration tickets of Aryans. We couldn’t go to the local pub. We had to give up all domestic animals, gold, radios. It progressed to the point that they even confiscated my grandfather’s house in Hlinsko. I was home alone at the time. My parents were out for a walk and my grandfather was playing cards with friends. All of a sudden someone was knocking and ringing. I opened the door and saw Gestapo officers. They gave me an hour to pack all of our things. Since no one was at home, I had to pack for everyone. Each one of us was only allowed one suitcase. Of course I packed more of them, and told the caretaker to put the remaining ones in the cellar, and that in time we would let him know where to bring them. In the meantime my brother Jan returned and so together we stood with the suitcases in front of the house. The neighbors already knew what it meant when a Jew was standing in front of his house with suitcases. Undoubtedly they informed my grandfather and parents, because in the meantime they returned home. The Gestapo also came, and sealed the door of our house. Each one of us was boarded with a different family, so from that time on we were separated.

My mother and I ended up with a Jewish family named Grote. They put us into one room together. My brother was at the Samko’s, but I don’t know where my father and grandfather were. We stayed like this for only a short time, because later they put us on a transport. All Jews from Hlinsko were transported on a transport designated CM. From Hlinsko they deported us to Pardubice; this was in November of 1942. We were in Pardubice overnight, and then they took us to Terezin, where they separated us. I shared a room with my mother and seventeen other women. Each one of us had only a very small amount of space in the building. We had a suitcase and a couple of nails to hang our things on. I was the first from our immediate family to go from Terezin to Auschwitz. My father, mother and brother came by stages after me. All I found out was that they went straight to the gas chambers. After the war I received the confirmation of their gassing, in which the year 1944 was given for my brother and parents. Whether this tragic event actually took place in that year, I don’t know, because most people got their confirmation with this date on it.

After my arrival in Terezin I was in a state of shock. A young person, however, in time adapts. After all, I was young, not even eighteen. In the beginning I worked as a cleaner. There were these cells; we went through the barracks and cleaned them. In the building that we lived in there was a certain lady that had a large hairdressing shop on Wenceslas Square in Prague. In Terezin she got a permit for shaving men, I used to call it a permit to shave every old geezer. I asked her if I could work for her. After consulting with her son she agreed. She gave me a straight razor – there was no soap, only some sort of pumice type – and said, ‘go at it’. Then some old men came and I didn’t want to shave moustaches, because that meant I had to hold them by the nose and I didn’t like doing that. I told each one of them how much a moustache would suit them. All of my customers, whose throats I thank God didn’t slit, had moustaches.

Mother worked in some sort of shop. Well, if you could call it that. You see, in Terezin we used to get ghetto money. It was ludicrous, because in stores you could use it to buy for example a suitcase, mustard... However, my mother learned how to do pedicures before we left for Terezin, and in the ghetto this enabled her to earn a piece of bread or something else to eat. In the ghetto our father worked at the waterworks. He had it good. There were only two of them in their room. They could even cook something for themselves. In Terezin I saw my father ever day. We used to meet in his room. My grandfather also used to go there; later, in 1943 he was deported, almost certainly to Auschwitz. We never saw him again.

In Terezin everyone knew that the transports ended up at the gas chambers, so all young people lived every day like it was their last. No one knew how much longer they were going to live. What shocked me the most? The first few days in Terezin I lost my voice. Someone told me that there was a doctor there. I went to visit him. He was a young, repulsive, very ugly man. He looked at my throat, gave me something, and told me to come again the next day. So I went there again the next day, the nurse wasn’t there, and he told me that if I became his lover, we would have a room for ourselves and blah blah. I ran away and told the rest of the girls about it. More than a few of them told me that they had gotten the same offer from him. All of them ran away. No one wanted him. It shocked me. But then it continued, for example, when we were sick, each block had its own doctor. Ours was called Arne; he was a handsome man. I needed him to give me a note, and he invited me to his room. I didn’t go. Not because I wasn’t that type of girl, I had affairs, but I had to fall in love. In Terezin I told myself that I wouldn’t sell myself. Of course I didn’t get the note. There was a dentist there too, he invited me out for a walk, and made all sorts of suggestions, but I didn’t go for it. When I came again, to have a filling changed, he asked me what I was doing there. I told him that I had an appointment. His answer was: ‘You’ve ended with me’. That’s how it worked there. Yes, when I loved someone, I wanted to be with him, but to sell myself? Even the cook made me an offer, that he would give me food for the entire family. Maybe I should have done it, but I couldn’t.

A person could also have nice experiences in Terezin. For example, for my birthday I got a mirror from this one boy. Imagine that: I had to come to Terezin to get a gift! In the preceding few years my parents had had so many worries that trivial things like birthdays didn’t exist any more. I came to Terezin, to a ghetto, and got a birthday gift. The mirror was the size of my palm, with a gray frame. It made me very happy. And it made me happy when we went for our food ration with an eschuss [aluminum food bowl] and I guess that the cook liked the way I looked, because I got a double portion.

I left Terezin in 1944, around May, I’m not exactly sure, for Auschwitz. They crammed us into those wagons, rail wagons. You couldn’t lay down, you could barely sit. Sick people, men, women. There were two pails in the corner – the toilet; it was disgusting. I ate a bit; we had a little with us. We traveled very slowly, two days. We stopped often. Some boy around my age was sitting beside me. We didn’t know each other, but during that time we felt very close. We held hands and knew that it was going to be very bad.

When we arrived at Auschwitz, the SS was waiting for us. They said to us: ‚Sie sind in eine schöne Scheisse hereingekommen.’ [German for: ‘You’ve gotten into deep shit’] That confirmed everything I already knew. We were in Birkenau, where there was a crematorium and we could smell the burning bones and skin, but not only that. Three times a day they came and announced to us that in six weeks we were going to the gas chambers! You can well imagine how a person felt. But I think that I eventually became numb. I wasn’t even afraid any more. We slept on these bunks. I was up on the third tier, together with a lady and her daughter. I asked her if I could also call her Mother. She answered, ‘yes.’

We had been there about three weeks when there was a selection. Selection meant that we had to strip naked and the SS would inspect us. They walked back and forth and we had to stand like that all day. During a moment when they walked away something told me, go to the right, to the other side. I ran away to the other side, and it’s a good thing I did, because if I had stayed where I was, I wouldn’t be having this conversation. I would have ended up in the gas chambers. When we went off, I still didn’t know if it was to the showers or to the gas chamber. It was only when the water came... The SS women searched all of our body orifices, in case we were hiding jewels, gold or something. They gave us some rags to wear. Then they led us over to the women’s camp. There I felt a lot worse than in the family camp, where we had all been from Terezin. The women’s camp was horrific! They threw our food all into one bucket, no spoons, nothing. I couldn’t eat. When they let us use the latrine and we sat down, some boss came along and ousted us out. It was horrible there.

We were in the women’s camp for only a few days. In Auschwitz they loaded us onto wagons and sent us to Christianstadt, a branch of the Gross-Rosen concentration camp. We came to a bare camp; nothing had been built yet. They gave us sacks that we had to stuff with straw. The barracks were made of wood, built in the middle of the forest. They didn’t even have any food for us. The first few days we would go into the forest and pick herbs and berries. We lived on that for two days. Eventually we learned that we were to get good food and large portions [in comparison to conditions that had existed in Auschwitz], because we were working in munitions factories and the Germans wanted us to be very productive. The camp guards, though, stole our food and sold it on the black market.

I got into a forest where they were cutting down trees and hauling away the trunks. It was horrible. Then we were moving railway tracks. I was always at the end of the queue. Physically I was at complete rock bottom, skin and bones. I worked very hard. I couldn’t handle it. So I once went to the Lagerfuehrer [camp commander] and said to her: ‘I’m not lazy, I want to work, but please, please let me do something that I’ll be able to handle.’ No, was the answer. So I asked the women working in the munitions factory to bring me paper rolls. I rolled my hair on them, and fixed it up nicely with my fingers. The next day I went to the lágerführerke. I said please, could I..? Yes, I could. From then on I cleaned the mess hall. It was light work; it was fine. When they threw out trash from the kitchen I would go and look. Sometimes I managed to find a bone.

However, winter came. All the women were supposed to get coats. The camp sub-commander though, was a horrible woman. She tortured people. She looked like a rat, and that’s what we called her, too. During the giving out of coats she came over to me and said, ‘you’re working inside, you’re not getting anything.’ Not having a coat in winter meant certain death. Once again I set out to see the Lagerfuehrer; she always called me over, I guess she liked that I had courage. I knew that if I asked her if I could work in the other munitions factory, I was working against myself [working in the munitions factory was arduous physical work], but on the other hand I would save my life [wouldn’t freeze to death]. In the end I got a coat and hard work. I worked only at night. We scraped lead from grenades. We heard rumors that the Russians were approaching. We even heard gunfire. The guards blew up all of our shacks – barracks in the woods. In the meantime I had an accident: I injured my hand. I got into the hospital, some hospital, it was just a shack. A friend came in there after me and said, out, out! The Germans are digging pits and people are saying that whoever is sick is going to be shot. I left the hospital, and truly, those that stayed there were shot, because they couldn’t march. We went on one of those death marches [5]. We marched for six weeks, across all over Germany.

I haven’t a clue about the route we traveled. Each one of us had a small blanket, but I was so weak that I couldn’t carry it, so I threw it away. We slept in the woods. Interestingly enough, no one got a cough, no one got pneumonia. You adapted. When you needed to go to the toilet, there was no paper. I began to tear off bits of my shirt. Then there wasn’t anything left of the shirt, so I began to tear apart my skirt, then the lining of my coat, until I was completely in rags. Once we slept on some farm and there was some sort of machine there. We had wooden shoes, and with all that walking they were wearing through, and someone stole a belt from the machine and wanted to stick it in her shoe instead of a sole. The Germans found out about it. Now, who did this? No one answered. In Christianstadt there were Czechs, Germans, Hungarians, Ukrainians, Dutch women... There were a lot of us. The problem was, one of the SS officers despised Czechs. While we were marching, he stopped us and said: ‘Since no one has owned up to the theft, every sixth Czech is going to be shot.’ He shot several. Ironically, we were close to the Czech border, because one of the road signs showed the direction to Prague. I said to my friend, Lida, ‘if you survive, tell Lada [my boyfriend], that I don’t mind dying, but that it was so close to home.’ Well, as he was counting number six fell to me. All of a sudden, air-raid sirens started wailing. The Germans were afraid and ran to hide, and I escaped death.

I’ll tell you, I believe in fate. Several times, I escaped death as if by miracle: the first time, when I ran over to the other side during the selection in Auschwitz. The second time I was saved by an air raid. The third time, that was when we were sleeping in a hayloft. It was already dark. I sleep very fitfully, and roll around from one side to the other. I threw myself down and fell asleep. In the morning I woke up right next to a hole where they threw the hay. If I had rolled over on the wrong side during the night, I would have fallen and could have broken my neck. The fourth time was when we were once again sleeping over somewhere, in some pigsty. I fainted when we were waiting before setting out. However the Germans had run off to arrange something, and as if by miracle I came to before they returned. Otherwise they would have shot me on the spot.

During the march, some German woman stuck some clothing into my arms, which I didn’t take off until we were liberated. I was afraid that someone would steal it. The local civilians saw us of course. Occasionally some of them would give something to some of us. Yes, and on my birthday, as we were marching, one of them gave me an apple. I knew it was my birthday, so it made me feel wonderful.

Eventually we arrived at Bergen-Belsen. We didn’t have any food or water. We drank from streams. We were completely lice-ridden and all the women got spotted fever and dysentery. At Bergen-Belsen I was more dead than alive. Thank God that I had lost my sense of smell, because there were corpses laying beside us; no one carried them away. People that didn’t make it to the latrine … well, it was horrible, just horrible. Suddenly we heard the front approaching. The Germans had put the camp under quarantine, because of typhus, so no one would come near.

I think the front got to us a day earlier than the Germans had expected, because I heard that they wanted to blow the whole camp up. Most of the Germans ran away. The rest hung out white flags, or dressed up as prisoners. I heard that even the Red Cross had come. I couldn’t walk, only crawl. As I was crawling, a British soldier appeared. I didn’t speak English, but it turned out that he was a Czech in the British army. I told him that I needed help, because I was dying. Luckily for me I was one of the first ones to get into the field hospital. That likely saved my life. The soldiers felt sorry for us and started handing out black bread and bacon. Fortunately I couldn’t eat anything, because I was so sick. A few girls died because they ate. Then they announced that people in quarantine couldn’t eat any food. There was no medicine, only later did I get morphine for the pain. Many women died in hospital after the liberation, very many.

After the War

When they had sort of put me back together, they suggested that the Red Cross take me to Sweden. I spent nine months in Sweden, at first in a hospital and then a sanatorium. At first we were in a town named Sigtuna, then in Ryd, and afterwards, when we were healthy, in Göteborg. I was there for nine months in all. When I arrived I weighed thirty-something kilos. Later, when I arrived in America, I ate a lot, but I couldn’t gain weight. Finally I got a blood transfusion, from which I literally tried running away. In the end, though, it helped me and I gained some weight.

From Sweden I went to the USA. I was convinced by my aunt Dora, that wicked one. How did I contact her? In Bergen-Belsen I met a nurse, who was from Switzerland, where in Basel I had family, my mother’s aunt and uncle. I asked her if she could please contact them at home and have them contact my family in the USA. She actually did it. After my return home, I wrote them a letter saying that I was alive, but not to expect me to come because I was so sick. The last person that could have made me stay in Czechoslovakia was my boyfriend Lada. His father wrote me that Lada had joined the partisans and near the end of the war had died of tuberculosis. The letter also said that Lada had kept a diary. Every day he wrote me a letter in that diary. In the end I didn’t have family in Czechoslovakia any more, and aunt Dora from the USA wrote me, come, come, come... So I came.  She was wicked to me. I had to leave her house and work as a servant, cook and clean.

My aunt Dora paid for my trip from Sweden to the USA, but I think that it was my father’s money. I traveled for fourteen days by ship. The ship was very slow, because the sea was still mined. I was in cabins on the lower deck. That was something horrible. The ship had been freshly painted and it gave off a penetrating stench. During the voyage I got to know this one Swedish officer. I was a pretty girl. We always promenaded together on the deck. He even came to visit me once in New York.

All of my relatives – my mother, father, brother, grandfather, aunt Marta and her family – died. Only I survived. I don’t even have a clue as to how many Jews returned to Jihlava. I only know those who live here now [2004]. Besides me there are an additional three more people here. How many there were in 1945, I don’t know. None of us who live here now is religiously inclined.

In 1945 nothing of our pre-war property had remained for me. We hadn’t been allowed to take anything from Jihlava with us. The Gestapo had confiscated our house and thrown us out. They put our suitcases with clothing outside the front door and that was all that remained. Bed linen, carpets, furniture, paintings, porcelain... they took everything. Nothing was saved. I have no idea what happened to our things after the war, when the Germans left our house.

I arrived in New York in May. I didn’t speak a word of English. Aunt Dora and my uncle knew some people that owned an exclusive children’s camp, and they sent me there to work. The purpose wasn’t work though; it was that I learn to speak. No one there knew Czech or German, so like it or not, I had to learn English. After a month I could more or less speak the language.

I spent my first two months in New York at my aunt’s. Her husband was a doctor. After two months they told me that I couldn’t live with them any more. I rented a room from a family. At first I went and worked as a servant. I did this for a year. I took care of children, cleaned and cooked. One family was Jewish, but I wasn’t there long. The second wasn’t Jewish. The husband was a high-school principal and his wife was a teacher. They were called the Habers. They were very kind to me. They gave me their bedroom and slept in the living room. They more or less accepted me as a member of the family. My friends started telling me that I’m not earning enough. I was dumb and let myself be influenced by them. I left that kind family and from then on I had mainly bad experiences with people in the USA. It’s true that I was earning only 30 dollars a month, but I had a place to live, food, and was with wonderful people.

In New York I found the same girls that had been with me in Sweden, so I hung around with them. One was from Prague, named Ruth Horakova, and then there were the two Stern sisters, from Kosice. These were my only friends. Later, when my son Joe was born in 1953, I got to know one nice young mother. She came from Cyprus. She had a child the same age as Joe. We became friends. We would go to the park for walks with our children. She was a Catholic, but that never mattered to me. In fact, even after we moved back to Jihlava, we still called each other. Around two years ago [2002] I lost touch with her.

I met my first husband, Walter Bernei, in the Cafe Viena. We used to go dancing there. I was married in the year 1947. Walter was of Jewish origin; he came from Germany. He was twelve years older than me. He hadn’t been in a concentration camp. His family had emigrated to Montevideo before the war, and from there to New York. He had a sister, named Ruth. Her husband was a dentist.

His Jewish roots didn’t play any role in our getting together. When we met, I knew he was a Jew, because he told me. I wasn’t at all in love. I felt very alone in that huge city of New York: I was only this little nothing. I needed someone. I needed to belong somewhere. I needed security. We were married by a rabbi. I don’t remember his name. His relatives were there. They had wine, and there were some, not exactly pastries, more like cookies. My second husband and I were also married by a rabbi, and we didn’t have anything there either. Walter’s and my marriage didn’t last long. He was a big card player and spent more time away than at home with me. In the end we divorced.

I met my second husband, Gerson Singer, at Christmas time. I had been invited to some Christmas party, and he was there. He asked me if I would go out on a date with him. I wanted to annoy him a bit, so I told him that he could look in the phone directory and find my number there under the name Walter Bernei. After I said this he was startled a bit. I told him that I didn’t live with him any more. We talked. I found out that Gerson came from a religious Jewish family. I just laughed. I told him that I didn’t even know what kosher was. ‘I’m not religious at all. I don’t know if you’re going to like that, but I’m not going to change. What I believe, I’ll do, but I’m not going to pretend to be something I’m not.’ ‘That’s fine,’ he said. And then, when his mother came from England to visit us for the first time, she didn’t want anything to eat, only tea. Then she came a second time, and must have been very hungry, so she ate. I made some potatoes and meat. She came to like me, because I boiled potatoes with caraway seeds just like she did.

My husband’s mother ate kosher, they all ate kosher. I didn’t even know what kosher was until I was in the concentration camp. We ate pork and everything. My second husband lived in South Africa during World War II. He was in Pechuan, in this small village. It was all natives there, only a few white people. He got to Africa due to an advertisement. They wanted to manufacture furs there. Gerson came from a family of furriers, so he went for it. In the end fur manufacture in South Africa went bust. They simply couldn’t do it. He ended up working in some store as a security guard. He would watch and make sure no one stole. He lived in a traditional native house, a sort of oval. He had his own cook that cooked for him.

Gerson had four siblings: Julius, Fany, Viktor and Lea. Out of their whole family only Fany ended up in a concentration camp. Despite the fact that she and I had a close relationship, we never talked about it. Maybe our common experiences during the war were what made us close. Fany lost her husband in the concentration camp. She even gave birth there to a child, which of course didn’t survive. His oldest brother, Julius, was already living in Argentina during the time of World War II, in Buenos Aires.

My husband’s parents managed to escape from Germany around 1940, from Leipzig to London, England. My husband and I have never been to London to visit his parents, they’ve been to visit us a couple of times. Actually, we never went on holidays, we didn’t have the money. Most of Gerson’s family was very religious. They observed all Jewish holidays. As far as my husband goes, our wedding must have been a shock for him. He was marrying someone who didn’t believe in anything, so I think that he must have married me out of love. The only thing that I had to give up after our wedding was a Christmas tree; Gerson won’t tolerate one in the house. That’s how much he‘s remained a Jew.

We had a small wedding. My aunt Dora was there, my uncle and cousin, and my husband’s sister Fany with her second husband and with her son. That was all. The rabbi married us under the chuppah. The wedding feast consisted of some wine, a few cookies and ‘hasta la vista’.

We lived in Queens. It was a mixed neighborhood. We used to meet both Jews and non-Jews. My husband had a small fur manufacture in New York. Business didn’t go as he would have liked. He decided to go out of business, but after that for a long time he couldn’t find any decent employment. For a time he even sold cosmetics. In the end he got a job at a dry cleaner’s. He would pick up things for cleaning from customers and then bring them back after they had been cleaned. We weren’t anything big in New York, so-called small fry.

I never let my husband go off by himself. No friends! When I met him, I told him, no. No going off to play cards, and I won’t go out with the girls. If we’re going to go somewhere, we’ll go together, and I told the same to Joe’s wife when he married for the second time. If Joe goes somewhere, go with him and don’t let him go anywhere by himself. Our marriage has lasted 56 years [in 2004], I’m assuming partly thanks to this principle.

Before, when I was going to be married for the first time, to Walter, I had a beautifully furnished bachelor apartment. My second husband Gerson and I, when I became pregnant for the first time, moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Queens. In time we moved to a two-bedroom apartment, because my husband had bought a dry cleaner’s with a partner of his. The dry cleaning business didn’t generate what they had thought it would. It couldn’t provide a livelihood for both families, so my husband decided to get rid of it. We moved back to Queens. There we bought a small house.

As I said, we never went on vacations. We simply didn’t have any money to spare. Everyone thinks that when you live in New York... It’s not like that. In the summer we would rent out a bungalow by the sea in Long Island, and that’s where we would spend all of our time. Every day my girlfriend and I would drive there with the children, and my husband would join us after work. In the evening we would return home. This was our ‘vacation’ circuit. We only started to take vacations when we retired. We would go to a hotel somewhere in the surrounding region for three or four days and relax. In New York my husband and I were used to going out for dinner to restaurants, to the movies or theatre. That was our entire cultural program.

My first son, Joe, was born in a New York suburb. We moved there when I was in my seventh month. There was only one hospital in the region. And even that one wasn’t used much. Imagine that the nurse that did childbirths also worked as a sales clerk in a local store to get by. That’s the kind of hospital I gave birth to my son in, in 1953. He got the name Joe Harrold. My second son John Frederick was born in New York in 1959. Neither of my sons is circumcised, not even my brother Jan was. That is, not according to Jewish tradition. A doctor in the hospital circumcised him. Even if it was according to Jewish tradition, I wouldn’t have known it. I don’t understand these things. Because they weren’t circumcised, they couldn’t have a bar mitzvah either.

When my children were small, I used to go to the park for walks with them, along with my girlfriend from Cyprus. Eventually we bought the house I mentioned, where John and Joe used to play in the yard with their friends. We didn’t do anything interesting; it was a truly boring life. I really only started to live after I returned to my homeland, to Bohemia.

The boys knew that they were of Jewish origin. In America no one made any big secret out of it. There a person didn’t have problems like here during Communism, because he was a Jew. In the end, if it hadn’t been for World War II, I would have never experienced any anti-Semitism. We didn’t really observe any of the holidays. We didn’t celebrate Christmas either. For Chanukkah we lit a menorah, exchanged gifts, and that was that. We never went to visit anyone on any of the holidays. My husband, despite being from such a religious family, didn’t complain. I don’t know, maybe he missed it. You know, he’s a very good-natured person. He’ll never let on that he’s not satisfied; he holds it all inside. He’s an introvert.

I never joined any Jewish community in the USA. Once someone from the Jewish community came to us in Queens, saying that we’re supposed to register. My husband told him that we wouldn’t be able to contribute very much financially, and after that we never heard from him again. But I have to tell you something, now that we’re talking about the Jewish community: once when my husband was in the hospital in America after a heart attack, no one from the Jewish community came, not even a rabbi, no one. I was very afraid for him. I was returning home from visiting, and there was a priest standing there and I went over to him and said: ‘Father, I’m Jewish, my husband is very ill. Could you please pray for him?’ And he said yes. But I couldn’t tell my husband that. He doesn’t know it to this day.

I don’t want to talk about our children’s childhood this publicly. I’ll only tell you that they both finished their basic education. John stopped after elementary school. Later he did some additional exams via correspondence school. Joe finished high school and then found a job. He’s been working for almost thirty years now as a civil servant for the City of New York. Momentarily he’s taking care of parking fines. His entire job consists of telling people whether they can pay the fine in his office or whether they’ll have to go to court. His wife Gill, who is also Jewish, worked in some factory that went bankrupt. Now she works in the vegetable section of a supermarket, preparing salads. Joe and Gill have no children.

John moved to the Czech Republic with us, despite the fact that neither he nor my husband speaks a word of Czech. He was married twice here and twice divorced. He’s always surrounded by beautiful women. They think that because he’s an American, he must be rich. I’ve told those girls, he’s not rich, he’s got almost nothing. But they’ve seen our villa, and are probably assuming that whoever’s got a villa also has money. Well, John would always fall madly in love and then the relationship would fall apart. Both of his wives were beautiful women, and both of them were much younger than he. Now he’s got a girlfriend, an artist, who teaches graphics at art school. She’s very kind and modest. John on the other hand is quick-tempered, but she knows how to handle him. With me he likes to fly off the handle. I think that he’s allergic to me. He claims that I always provoke him. But I love him anyways.

John earns a living by giving private English lessons. Usually they meet in some cafe or wine bar. How does he spend his time? He bought a house in Luky [a small village near Jihlava] that he takes care of. He has a dog that he takes care of, he has chickens that he takes care of. He has a goat that he takes care of and drives his car a lot. When he moved here from New York, he changed completely. After I die, he doesn’t want to move to Jihlava, to our villa. He’s going to stay in Luky. He really does have a very, very nicely furnished house with a big garden where he does all the work himself. In New York or here in Jihlava he never did any gardening. In New York, when my husband and I moved away, he hired people to do it, but now, as I say, he’s a regular little farmer.

I never read the papers regularly. In the USA I bought the News. Books are something different, I like them a lot and always read. Since I suffer from depressions and tend to overly concern myself with them and analyze them in detail, I prefer light literature. When I read, I need to forget about the world around me, about everything that is happening. For example, I like detective stories. For the last few years my favorite author has been Agatha Christie. My husband also used to read a lot, but had to give it up because his eyesight is very poor. Even now, we still have a nicely stocked library. For me it’s no problem whether it’s in German, Czech or English. My husband and I communicate together in various languages. Usually it’s in German, from which we slip into English and then back. John and Joe don’t speak German or Czech, only English. That’s my fault, that I didn’t teach them.

When we lived in the USA, I didn’t follow the political situation very closely. Despite this we belonged to the Democrats, we don’t like the Republicans very much. Of course, when something happened, it interested us. When there were elections, we followed political events, but I didn’t concern myself with politics very much. My favorite politician was John Fitzgerald Kennedy. I liked his opinions, I liked how he knew everything and mainly because he had charisma. I literally couldn’t stand Bush, neither of them. I was against the Republicans. Republicans are for the rich, not for the small folk. The problem is that the President is elected only when he’s got a lot of money. Elections, they’re all about money. No one looks at the ordinary people. It would be better if it was someone ordinary. If he doesn’t have money, he could be a lot better. When they’re millionaires, multi-millionaires, what do they know about the little people? Nothing!

I carefully followed the political situation in Czechoslovakia, in spite of the fact that I was in the States. It hurt me to see what was happening in Czechoslovakia. Mainly that people weren’t free, that they had to do what they were told. That they couldn’t say what they thought, what they wanted. We found out about the events of 1968 [see Prague Spring] [6] from television. You weren’t allowed to know anything from the outside world, but we knew a lot. Almost everything. I didn’t meet anyone who had immigrated in 1968 to the USA. I always wanted to return home, and thank God that I was able to after the revolution [see Velvet Revolution] [7]. Now I’m happy and I’ve never regretted it. Jihlava is for me, my Jihlava

We also followed the political situation in Israel. There was always the possibility of moving there from the USA. My husband and I never even thought of it. You know, there are too many Jews in Israel. [Editor’s note: the interviewee meant this comment as a joke.]

Our move to Czechoslovakia, as it was still called at the time, was completely spontaneous. In 1991 my son John set out for Jihlava and the surrounding region to search out his roots. He wanted to see the house that I grew up in. He ended up meeting a few people I knew from my childhood. He returned with many photos and videos. As soon as I saw them, I said ‘We’re going home!’ No one believed me; they laughed at me. The boys were constantly teasing me and I told them, ‘all right, you’re staying here [New York] and I’m returning home [Jihlava].’ When I had all my things actually packed, they said, we’d only believe it when you’re on the plane. I got my plane ticket quickly. I had never flown before; I had come to the USA by ship. It was my first time sitting in a plane.

I was returning with my husband, who already had heart problems. When we arrived at the airport in Prague, we had four huge trunks full of clothing. I was at my wits’ end at how we were going to handle it all. But I found my luggage, oh boy. Now how to get the trunks down to the parking lot? I asked a man who was watching over the luggage if he could help us. He answered that he had to stand guard. I went to my husband and he told me to give him five dollars. I gave the money to him, and he didn’t have to stand guard any more. We didn’t even go through customs, but straight to the taxis. We decided to stay overnight in Prague, at a hotel. We called over a taxi driver, who looked at us, at our trunks, and said: ‘Lady, those trunks won’t fit into one taxi, you’ll have to take a second one.’ Once in the taxi I started to act a bit. I started to wonder aloud: ‘Poor me, what am I going to do? Now that I’ve had to take two taxis...That’s too bad, tomorrow we’re planning to go to Jihlava, but we can barely afford one taxi, let alone two. We’ll go by bus, and there won’t be any problem with space for the trunks.’ I knew that I’d get him. Right away he piped up and said that tomorrow morning he’ll come for us, we’ll measure it all and see. Well, we saw all right, one taxi was plenty. I won’t let myself be cheated that easily.

Before our arrival I asked one of my friends [Bohuska] in Jihlava if she would rent us an apartment. Before we got there, Bohuska had already fixed the place up, and was anxiously awaiting us with her entire family. We signed a lease with the owners for one year. In the end we couldn’t stay there, because the owner’s daughter with her husband and child also lived there. Her husband was a drunk and harassed us terribly, so we had to break the lease and bought a flat in a ‘panelak’ [prefab apartment building]. I was very happy there. We had good neighbors.

Suddenly a law was passed that Jews that had been persecuted during World War II could ask for their property back. Well, and I asked for it. That was around 1994/95. The villa that my father had had built before the war had in the meantime gotten under the administration of the hospital. We began court proceedings, asking for the return of our property. In front of the court they accused us of being collaborators and traitors...When the proceedings started taking too long, we decided to change lawyers. I had the feeling that he wasn’t representing us, but that I was doing everything myself. In court I asked how it was possible that they could accuse us of being collaborators. After all, we were the first Jewish family that was driven out of that town. The house was taken over by the Gestapo. Everyone but me had died in concentration camps, and I lost my health there. I kept saying the same things over and over. In the end I had to bring in four witnesses, who confirmed that the house belonged to our family. It was all very arduous and upsetting. My lawyer told me that the judge was a horrible stickler for details. In the end they decided in our favor and returned the villa to us. I then stood up and told the judge: ‘Mr. Judge, you’ve made one old woman very happy.’

But unfortunately the house was in horrible shape. They had ruined it. We didn’t have money. We decided to sell our house in New York, where our boys were still living. We sold the house, found apartments for the boys, and invested the rest of the money into repairs of the returned villa. I replaced the windows, bought new furniture. We had to redo the stucco, the floors, the kitchen... Of course I looked for a construction company that would fix the house up for me. Soon I had to give up my naive idea of one firm. For each type of work I had to hire a different company. Then what happened was that the electricians got in the way of the bricklayers, the bricklayers in the way of the parquet layers etc. It was a vicious circle. We had meetings with representatives of the individual firms working on the reconstruction of our house. The meeting ended up with them arguing and shouting at each other, like I wasn’t even there. No one paid any attention to me. Once I got angry and said: ‘you are going to all talk to me! Who is it that’s paying you here?!’ When the next meeting came around, once again I didn’t exist. In the end I handled it all. In the beginning people told me that I was crazy, to take on such a project at my age. Sometimes I myself didn’t know if I wanted it. Once though, I met an old man and he started to weep as he remembered my parents and told me that we owed those repairs to my father and mother! It was then that I finally decided that we were going to go through with it.

My father’s factory was now a computer office. They changed it completely. Before there had been a large garden in the factory courtyard. The caretaker had a little house there and that was all gone. I also got it back after some tough battles. At one time my nerves were so strained that when I went shopping, I started to shake and couldn’t take money out of my wallet. Eventually I couldn’t even manage walking. They hospitalized me in the neurological ward. I lay there for some time. Everything around me was like in a fog. Finally I got out of the fog and could once again walk.

When we returned home from the USA, I was completely happy. How has my life changed? I think I’ve enjoyed it here more than in America. In the beginning my husband’s health wasn’t so bad. We went to visit Terezin, now and then to Prague. We celebrated birthdays in our circle of friends. I still had about 10-12 people I knew here. I invited them to a hotel. Like I say, I started to live here. Then my husband’s health got worse and now I’m back home.

When I went to visit Terezin, I was flooded by memories. It was bad, because I needed to go around on foot, so I could remember all....But we went by car, because the weather was bad. My husband suddenly got severe pains in his leg and when we returned he had to go to the hospital. I looked for the house I had lived in. I knew that it had to be on the main street, but because we were driving, it went by too quickly. It didn’t mean anything to me. I would have to walk through it all and have time for it.

In the last few years another thing that upset me was the breaking up of Czechoslovakia. That was the stupidest thing that could have happened. We were together for all those years. Why now, why separation? I didn’t understand it at all. I thought that it was some sort of mistake. Why, did the Slovaks want it, or the Czechs? I was upset. And now you’re also a foreigner [the interviewee comes from Slovakia] and you’re a Czechoslovak.

Glossary:

[1] Prager Tagblatt: German-language daily that was established in 1875 and was the largest Austro-Hungarian daily paper outside Vienna and the most widely read German-language paper in Bohemia. During the time of the First Republic (Czechoslovakia – CSR) the ‘Prager Tagblatt’ had a number of Jewish journalists and many Jewish authors as contributors: Max Brod, Willy Haas, Rudolf Fuchs, E. E. Kisch, Theodor Lessing and others. The last issue came out in March 1939, during World War II the paper’s offices in Panska Street in Prague were used by the daily ‘Der neue Tag’, after the war the building and printing plant was taken over by the Czech daily ‘Mlada Fronta’.

[2] Lodz Ghetto: It was set up in February 1940 city in the former Jewish quarter on the northern outskirts of the city. 164,000 Jews from Lodz were packed together in a 4 sq. km. area. In 1941 and 1942, 38,500 more Jews were deported to the ghetto. In November 1941, 5,000 Roma were also deported to the ghetto from Burgenland province, Austria. The Jewish self-government, led by Mordechai Rumkowsky, sought to make the ghetto as productive as possible and to put as many inmates to work as he could. But not even this could prevent overcrowding and hunger or improve the inhuman living conditions. As a result of epidemics, shortages of fuel and food and insufficient sanitary conditions, about 43,500 people (21% of all the residents of the ghetto) died of undernourishment, cold and illness. The others were transported to death camps; only a very small number of them survived.

[3] Terezin/Theresienstadt: A ghetto in the Czech Republic, run by the SS. Jews were transferred from there to various extermination camps. It was used to camouflage the extermination of European Jews by the Nazis, who presented Theresienstadt as a ‘model Jewish settlement’. Czech gendarmes served as ghetto guards, and with their help the Jews were able to maintain contact with the outside world. Although education was prohibited, regular classes were held, clandestinely. Thanks to the large number of artists, writers, and scholars in the ghetto, there was an intensive program of cultural activities. At the end of 1943, when word spread of what was happening in the Nazi camps, the Germans decided to allow an International Red Cross investigation committee to visit Theresienstadt. In preparation, more prisoners were deported to Auschwitz, in order to reduce congestion in the ghetto. Dummy stores, a cafe, a bank, kindergartens, a school, and flower gardens were put up to deceive the committee.

[4] Anti-Jewish laws in the Protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia: After the Germans occupied Bohemia and Moravia, anti-Jewish legislation was gradually introduced. Jews were not allowed to enter public places, such as parks, theatres, cinemas, libraries, swimming pools, etc. They were excluded from all kinds of professional associations and could not be civil servants. They were not allowed to attend German or Czech schools, and later private lessons were forbidden, too. They were not allowed to leave their houses after 8pm. Their shopping hours were limited to 3 to 5pm. They were only allowed to travel in special sections of public transportation. They had their telephones and radios confiscated. They were not allowed to change their place of residence without permission. In 1941 they were ordered to wear the yellow badge.

[5] Death Marches: The Germans, in fear of the approaching Allied armies, tried to erase evidence of the concentration camps. They often destroyed all the facilities and forced all Jews regardless of their age or sex to go on a death march. This march often led nowhere; there was no concrete goal. The marchers got no food and no rest at night. It was solely up to the guards how they treated the prisoners, how they acted towards them, what they gave them to eat and they even had the power of their life or death in their hands. The conditions during the march were so cruel that this journey became a journey that ended in death.

[6] Prague Spring: The term Prague Spring designates the liberalization period in communist-ruled Czechoslovakia between 1967-1969. In 1967 Alexander Dubcek became the head of the Czech Communist Party and promoted ideas of ‘socialism with a human face’, i.e. with more personal freedom and freedom of the press, and the rehabilitation of victims of Stalinism. In August 1968 Soviet troops, along with contingents from Poland, East Germany, Hungary and Bulgaria, occupied Prague and put an end to the reforms.of normalization began, another phase of the totalitarian regime, which lasted 21 years.

[7] Velvet Revolution: Also known as November Events, this term is used for the period between 17th November and 29th December 1989, which resulted in the downfall of the Czechoslovak communist regime. The Velvet Revolution started with student demonstrations, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the student demonstration against the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. Brutal police intervention stirred up public unrest, mass demonstrations took place in Prague, Bratislava and other towns, and a general strike began on 27th November. The Civic Forum demanded the resignation of the communist government. Due to the general strike Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec was finally forced to hold talks with the Civic Forum and agreed to form a new coalition government. On 29th December democratic elections were held, and Vaclav Havel was elected President of Czechoslovakia.

Country: 
City: 
Jihlava

Interview details

Interviewee: Marianna Singer
Interviewer:
Martin Korcok
Month of interview:
December
Year of interview:
2004
Jihlava, Czech Republic

KEY PERSON

Marianna Singer
Year of birth:
1924
Decade of birth:
1924
City of birth:
Jihlava
Country name at time of birth:
Czechoslovakia
Occupation
after WW II:
Housewife
Family names
  • Previous family name: 
    Neumannova
    Reason for changing: 
    Marriage

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