Dagmar Lieblova, although in her 80s, is a tireless lecturer at the Terezin (Theresienstadt) Memorial. She meets and conducts classes with Czech, Austrian and German, as well as British and Americans students. Equally at home in three languages, Dr. Lieblova, a sprightly grandmother with a ready smile, shares with these teenagers stories of her own teenage years--when she and her family were uprooted from their comfortable home in a small town near Prague, and sent to Terezin. When Dr. Lieblova tells them, "Things were not so bad in Terezin-- compared to what I went through next," they can only imagine what she's about to tell them.
Working closely with Centropa on this film about her life, Dr. Lieblova shared with us scores of old family pictures. One of her primary motives for making this film was to pay tribute to Fanyka, the family cook, who not only raised Dr. Lieblova, but nursed her back to health after the war, and then went on to raise her children, too.
The historic town center of Kutna Hora, along with the Church of St. Barbara and the Cathedral of Our Lady at Sedlec has become a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Dagmar mentions that her father was a Czech patriot and protested against the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. In the 19th-century Bohemia was under Austrian control within the empire. During this time, the Czech people experienced a national revival, resulting in the revolutions of 1848 - it was clear, however, that Hapsburg absolutism did not look favorably upon Czech national aspirations.
Her father was arrested for protesting and sentenced to six years in prison. He served only three as he was granted general amnesty in 1917 during the First World War. Following the war – which resulted in the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – Czechoslovakia became an independent nation.
Though Dagmar states that there was not much of a Jewish community in Kutna Hora, it is possible that Jewish life in Bohemia dates back to before written accounts. In any case, Jews have had a presence in Bohemia for centuries.
The long history of Jewish life in the area that is now the Czech Republic has been marked by fierce anti-Semitism with intermittent periods of tolerance. The time of Czechoslovak independence, during which Dagmar was born, heralded a period of Jewish prosperity in the years before the Second World War.
In March 1939, the German army invaded the Czechoslovakian provinces of Bohemia and Moravia violating the agreement made in the Munich Pact in which Hitler made a pledge of peace in exchange for the Sudetenland.
Following German occupation, life for Czech significantly worsened. Dagmar mentions that a number of restrictions were imposed: Jews were no longer permitted to travel, they were required to wear the yellow star, and were limited to only one store in which to do their shopping. Many of these restrictions were part of the Nuremberg laws. Here is a chronological list of some of the restrictions places against Czech Jews.
Dagmar remembers hearing that children were being sent to England, but that she did not go because her father felt she was too young. Many Jewish Czech children were saved because of the Kindertransport. Between 1938 and 1940 thousands of German, Austrian, and Czech children were taken to England without their parents where they survived the war.
In 1942, Dagmar and her family were deported to Terezin, or Theresienstadt. Terezin was a “camp-ghetto” – meaning it had features of both ghettos and camps. In any case, it functioned as a transit camp, from where Jews were deported to labor and concentration camps, as well as killing centers.
Terezin was organized as a “model camp” for propaganda purposes. The camp was presented to the International Red Cross as a way to counter reports about appalling conditions and about the death camps.
In preparation for a visit from the Danish Red Cross, Germans disguised the real conditions at Terezin. Prisoners were tasked with beautifying and renovating the camp, and were engaged in cultural programs.
A propaganda film was also produced entitled “Theresienstadt: The Führer gives the Jews a City.” Nazi’s appointed well-known German actor and director Kurt Gerron to direct it. After the completion of the film, he and the other participants were deported to Auschwitz where they were murdered.
Dagmar recalls participating in a production of the children’s opera, Brundibar. The staging of this opera was also a part of the Nazi’s deception of the Red Cross. The opera was composed by Czech composer Hans Krasa who was interned in Terezin and later killed at Auschwitz.
Here is a collection of photos of Terezin.
Today Dagmar is a member of the Terezin Initiative, an association of former inmates and their descendants. She is actively involved with educating younger generations about her experiences.
In December 1943, Dagmar and her family were taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau. There they were placed in the “Theresienstadt family camp.” It was a temporary ghetto-like part of Birkenau and populated with Jews from Theresienstadt. For six months, those in the family camp were given certain “privileges” not offered to other prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
In June 1944, their privileges came to an end and Dagmar and her family were subject to their first selection. The selection process determined if one was fit for work – if not they were sent to the gas chambers. Dagmar was the only member of her immediate family who was selected for labor.
She was then sent to Hamburg for slave labor at Dessauer Ufer, a sub-camp of Neuengamme (Scroll down for information about Dessauer Ufer). Here the prisoners were primarily women who had arrived from Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Part of Dagmar’s tasks at Dessauer Ufer was to clean up from the 1943 bombings of Hamburg. The attack on Hamburg, carried out by British and American forces, was known as Operation Gomorrah. About 30,000 people were killed in this raid, and much of the city was destroyed.
She was then sent to the other Neuengamme satellite camp of Neugraben (scroll down).
Then in 1945 she was sent to the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen. Before its liberation in 1945, the camp absorbed prisoners from camps that were closer to the front, including Neuengamme.
After the war, Dagmar returned to Czechoslovakia. Eduard Benes, who was president of Czechoslovakia as the Nazis took power, had set up a government-in-exile in London. After the war he returned and decreed that all Sudeten Germans were to be expelled from the country.
After elections in 1948, the communists took control and Benes resigned. Czechoslovakia then became the Czechoslovak Republic. The name was changed again in 1960 to the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic.
Today there are over 3,000 Jews living in the Czech Republic.