Interviewer: Pavla Neuner
Date of interview: October 2004
Kurt Kotouc lives in a small apartment in Prague, in a pleasant neighborhood close to the city centre. Mr Kotouc is a very elegant and friendly gentleman who comes across as being calm and well-read. We did the interview in a room where one wall was covered in books; the focus of many of the volumes was visual art.
My grandfather's name on my father's side was Leopold Kotouc. He didn't come from a Jewish family. He made his living as a miner. He met my grandmother in Oslavany, which is a village not far from Brno - it was known for its coal mines and that's where he would commute to work. In those days, miners didn't belong to the proletariat the way they were later made out to be in socialist literature. In reality, he was employed and had a salary, so it's very probable that he was grandmother's equal partner. [He was up to the social level of his wife.] I mean, we are not talking about being rich or anything. I didn't know my grandfather at all; he died in Oslavany in the 1930s.
My grandmother on my father's side was named Johana Maria Kotoucova, born Hanslova in 1862 in Oslavany. Her father was Salamon Hansl. My grandmother was from a Jewish family but a non-religious Jewish family, and she herself was not religious. My grandmother was an ordinary woman. After the death of her husband, she moved to Brno with her daughter. I loved her, but my contact with her was minimal. I remember her as a withdrawn woman, with illnesses appropriate to her age. I think she didn't have any siblings.
My grandfather on my mother's side was named Alois Sensky. He was from Ivancice, which is a small town in Southern Moravia, where there used to be a Jewish settlement and where you can find a beautiful, romantic Jewish cemetery, which is also interesting because it isn't flat but spreads into a hill. Grandpa had a secondary school education. He lived in Mohelno with Grandma. At that time, it was a pretty big Czech village with about two thousand inhabitants. Grandpa had a shop with mixed goods; they sold groceries and sweets but also whips, shoes and hoses. I remember how once someone came, who needed shoes. Grandpa put this person's foot on a piece of paper and traced it to get the size. Then he brought the shoes back from Trebic, where he would travel to buy goods. There was an old, rickety bus that would go from Mohelno to Kralice, which was where the nearest railway was. When Grandpa would travel to get the goods he would take the rack wagon with him.
In the village, it worked that tradesmen served people for penny profits. Goods were sold on holidays and during the work week. The difference was that, during the holidays, the store was formally closed, but if someone really needed something, they would come to the back. I remember once we were sitting down to have Sunday lunch and suddenly we heard banging on the back door. Grandpa was irritated that someone was interrupting his lunch but he got up and gave them the goods they needed. There was a great deal of discipline in the family, Grandpa was a stern man but also an honest man.
Grandpa was an educated person and for many years he acted as the school alderman on the local town council where he was in charge of education. Twice he was even elected mayor of the village. People would come to Grandpa when they needed help with a request. When Grandpa wrote a letter, especially in German, it could be considered a graphic piece because he used handwritten runic lettering [gothic script of the German language] different from classic Latin script. It was an example of his elegant and cultured expression.
Grandpa had a brother named Jakub and I think a brother called Simon as well. This branch of the Sensky family also had a store with mixed goods; it was the second shop with mixed goods in Mohelno. Jakub took a non-Jewish woman for his wife and together they had many children and most of them married non-Jewish partners, so they were spared the Holocaust. Only Jakub's daughter Cili married a Jewish man. Together they had a son named Felix, who was deported to Terezin  and then to Auschwitz. By some kind of miracle Felix survived. Jakub died before the war even began.
Granddad died in Mohelno in 1934 and is buried in the Jewish cemetery in Ivancice.
My grandmother on my mother's side was named Josefina Senska [nee Steckerlova] and was born in Miroslav in 1875. Miroslav was a large village in the border region of Southern Moravia where the largest population was the German minority. [Editor's note: Prior to the creation of the Czechoslovak state (1918), Moravia was a province of Austria within the Austro-Hungarian double monarchy. The German population became a minority later, within Czechoslovakia; at the time Mr. Kotouc is describing they were an integral part of the German-Austrian majority.] The history of Miroslav dates back into the 13th century during which time a Jewish community settled near the original medieval settlement. So, one of the oldest settlements in this region is the Jewish one. In Miroslav there used to be a yeshivah and a synagogue. In 1938 the Germans took over Miroslav, just as they did the Sudetenland  and they chased out all the non-German inhabitants - the Jewish people being the first to go. From my childhood, I remember there was a Jewish street that led to the synagogue. Miroslav was close to the German border [in fact it is near the Austrian border] and is better known under the German name Misslitz.
Grandma came from the Steckerl family. Although she spoke Czech fluently, same as Grandpa, her mother tongue was German. My grandparents lived with the consciousness that a Jewish tradition existed but it was not accompanied by any rituals. They were religious and I think that they probably went to the synagogue for the high holidays. However, they didn't cook kosher food at home.
Grandma had a younger sister, Elsa, who was born in 1890. She was not married. She was transported to Terezin in 1942 and two years later she was killed in Auschwitz. In Terezin she acted as a nurse, so she had some sort of secondary school with a health practice orientation. Grandma also had a brother named Karel and I know that he was in the Austro-Hungarian [KuK] army  in World War I and that he was schooled as a butcher. Somehow, under circumstances that I'm not aware of, he escaped the Nazis through Austria and then to London.
My father was named Otto Kotouc and was born in Oslavany in 1895. Dad probably studied in secondary school. It is possible that he was a trained weaver because textiles were something he really knew a lot about. He was nineteen when World War I broke out in 1914, and so he entered the Austro- Hungarian army. I'm not exactly sure where he served but he got shot in the foot on the Italian front . He didn't talk about the war very much. After marrying my mother, they moved to Brno where dad engaged in textile trade. In Brno there were many textile factories producing a great deal of textile waste that could be further processed. My father would buy the leftovers and do just that. The leftovers were unwoven and processed differently, depending on what kind of textile it was. He wasn't particularly successful in his trade; I know at one time the company fell apart completely. I think he was trying to assert himself.
My mom's name was Stella Kotoucova, born Senska in Mohelno in 1902. Although she did not go to university, she was a very educated woman in her day. After elementary school she attended a secondary school for women, which was a German school in Brno, where she learned subjects ranging from maths and Czech to cooking. After marrying my dad, she stayed at home, but she helped him with the company.
My mom had four siblings: her brothers were Hugo, Bedrich and Hanus, her sister was named Greta. My aunt Greta was born in Mohelno in 1910. My aunt was known as a woman of great beauty and she had many suitors but she stayed single. One of my teachers was interested in her and so I had special status at school thanks to that. Aunt Greta had an offer for marriage from a rich furrier from Brno who was named Piowaty. He wanted her to marry him and he told her that he had already arranged everything, that together they would go to Canada and that there they would live beautifully. But my aunt couldn't abandon her mother and so she stayed and perished in [Lublin] concentration camp.
Hugo was born in Mohelno in 1896. He went to Miroslav for training; Grandpa probably wanted him to take his place. In Miroslav, Hugo fell in love with a certain young woman who came from a very wealthy family. He gave her gifts, bought her jewels and worshipped her. Unfortunately, he bought things that he didn't have the money for and he would borrow the money from the business where he was in training. And then he had no way of paying them back. He was afraid to admit it, so he shot himself. This all happened before World War I.
Bedrich was born in Mohelno in 1899 and went to university and became a construction engineer. He was sort of an adventurous type. When World War I started he was an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army. During the war he became ill with malaria and all his hair fell out and then he didn't have a single hair on his entire body. He always made jokes about it, he said it was the reason he was so socially successful because wherever he came everyone noticed him thanks to his bald head. As a construction engineer, he went to Slovakia after the war where he fell in love with a bigoted Catholic named Katka [diminutive of the Hungarian name Katalin]. Bedrich was so clever that even though Katka was of a strict upbringing he started to go out with her, which her family had no intention of supporting.
Katka was from Southern Slovakia, from the town of Modry Kamen, near the border with Hungary; she was from a wealthy country family. For them he was a nothing - just a poor engineer and a Jew on top of it. In the end, they married at the beginning of World War II. They had two children together and lived in Banska Bystrica. She remained Catholic and went to church regularly. My uncle wouldn't be baptized but it worked for them. When the deportations began in 1944, my uncle hid at his friends' in the mountains. After the communist take-over [February 1948] , the situation with her parents totally changed. They went from being rich farmers to kulaks , who had everything taken away. Bedrich died in 1967 and Katka died recently.
Hanus was born in 1910 in Mohelno. He finished textile industrial secondary school and became an expert on textile. His wife was a Sudeten German named Margareta; thanks to her he wasn't transported to Terezin before 1945. Together they had a son named Petr who was born in 1939. In 1948 they emigrated. Hanus was a fairly well-known textile expert and two British businessmen, who bought textile equipment in Bohemia and wanted to start up production in Rhodesia [today Zimbabwe], turned to him with the request to choose reliable equipment and mediate the sale. Then they told him that they would like to take him on board. My uncle was afraid that it wouldn't be possible because after the communist take-over no one could leave the country freely. They told my uncle: 'look here, they are interested in us because we are buying equipment and because they will have other orders with us.' In a flash he arranged passports and travel permits for Hanus, Margareta and my cousin to travel out of the country. Hanus and his family then moved to Rhodesia and my uncle became the manager of a textile company and later became independent. However, Rhodesia became the totalitarian state of Zimbabwe and they chased out the white people and took their land and property. In 1966 my uncle died and my aunt moved to London to be with her son, Petr. Petr already had a son there, whose name is Tomy and who is a professor in London today. Petr died a year ago .
My father had a sister named Marie; she was born in 1890. During the 1930s my grandpa died and Grandma and my aunt Marie moved from Oslavany to Brno. They lived together and they both helped my father: he would always bring textile to a storage space and they would unweave it. I remember that the last storage space that he had was in a shack that was in the courtyard of a house on Bratislavska Street. I loved my aunt very much and she loved me; I was a spoiled good-looking child, like out of the movies. She was crazy about me and kept wanting to give me something and talk to me. She had some sort of a hormonal problem; she was overweight as a result. Probably because of it, she never married. So she didn't have her own family and as a result she was closer to my father. She was friends with my mom. Marie wasn't religious at all.
My brother Hanus was born in 1924 in Brno. Before the war he studied at an industrial secondary school, but he finished his last two years after the war. My brother still managed to have a bar mitzvah that our relatives, the Steckerls, organized in Miroslav.
Brno was the second city after Prague. There were about three hundred thousand inhabitants. Almost a third of those were the German minority which was not noticeable up until 1938. I wasn't conscious of the Czech- German relations issue up until that time. As a child, the crazy German national consciousness took me by complete surprise; it came across in long white socks and leather pants among other things [Austro-German folk wear, later abused by the Nazis]. All in all, old Brno was an industrial city with many textile factories.
I'm not able to say how strong the Jewish community was in Brno. There were about three synagogues there. A Jewish life existed there but it was assimilated and on a non-religious basis. I never met a person there with side-locks and in caftans. I remember the cafe Esplanade, which was known to be a 'Jewish' cafe. Our family didn't partake in Jewish community life at all. As a child I didn't have any great consciousness of Judaism. That came in 1940 when restrictions were put into place. Up until that time, I can't say that I experienced any anti-Semitism. I didn't go to the synagogue regularly, only my parents did during the high holidays and mostly because of our relatives. We didn't uphold the holidays at home and we didn't cook kosher. Our parents didn't raise us in a Jewish way. My father was of Jewish origin on his mother's side but he wasn't religious at all; my mother was the same. My mom knew how to write Hebrew a little; she learned it during her childhood. If my parents upheld any traditions, it was out of respect for their parents. At home we celebrated Christmas: we had a Christmas tree, gifts and everything else that is part of it.
I think we lived in relative poverty. We lived in an old rental unit in a two-bedroom apartment with a kitchen, a hall and without a bathroom. There was a little garden and gazebo that we also rented. In the apartment, everything was very basic, primitive almost. I remember as a small child my mother bathed me in the kitchen in a basin. My brother and I shared one small room: we each had our own bed and my father's typewriter and desk was also in our room. My mother and father were next-door in the other small room. They had a bed, a night table, an old dresser and mom's vanity table. When we had guests, we received them in the kitchen. In the kitchen we cooked on a stove; we heated the apartment with coal or wood that we would bring up from the basement. We had cold running water and electricity. In the room we had wooden floors and in the kitchen there were wooden boards on the floor. The walls were also painted crudely. My parents were both from the countryside, they were new to the city and so they were adjusting to city life. It can't be said that we had a painting of value or any kind of art in the apartment.
Given to the large German minority in Brno it was very important to have a strong command of the German language. My parents not only spoke German well; they spoke it just as well as they spoke Czech. When my father was writing business letters, he wrote in Czech or in German, depending on what company he was dealing with. My parents had their office at home and when my father dictated a business letter to my mother, I could hear him switching easily between Czech and German. Given the nature of my father's business he had many friends and acquaintances. Relatives would also come for visits at our place. My parents never divided people into Jews and non- Jews.
I attended a Czech general school in Brno on Mendlovo Square. A significant part of the school was made up of the sons of the proletariat. School attendance was, of course, mandatory. The parents of Roma or circus performers got around the attendance law by sending their kids to school at the end of the school year, so that their child would receive a report card. Perhaps they were getting 5 [the worst grade] or they failed but on paper it was proof of attendance. [Editor's note: They were occasional performers visiting Brno and they had no constant residence. This is why their children were often left out from school.] I remember a grotesque scene where a circus performer came to school and he chased the teacher with a whip because the teacher didn't want to give his son a report card.
At school, there were very few Jews. We were an exception; we didn't have to go to the religious classes with everyone else. I remember in the fourth or fifth grade, there was a young and elegant Catholic religion teacher. Once he called me and asked me to come to his place for a visit. He lived in a Jesuit convent; it was a real experience for me because the Jesuits were a very wealthy order. Upon entering the convent I walked through halls with high carpets and then I knocked on the teacher's door. In the room there were beautiful glass windows, a bed and a small table; everything was very elegant. And then he said, 'Listen, don't you have any books in Hebrew at home?' I answered that I didn't know. He said that he would be very interested, that he would like to read one. I came home and told my mom and she said that we didn't have any books in Hebrew. I said that I needed them for the teacher, so then I guess my mom found the book that I later took to the teacher, at my grandma's place.
In 1941 I completed elementary school and was supposed to start gymnasium [secondary school] on Na Porici Street, but it wasn't possible anymore [because of the exclusion of Jews from schools in the Protectorate] . I started attending the co-educational Jewish gymnasium. There were only two in the whole country: in Brno and in Prague. The Germans allowed teaching to happen but on the report cards it read: this report card is not a valid public school report card. Before the war, the school didn't have enough Jewish teachers because the Jewish community was so emancipated and assimilated. When Jewish teachers and students were forced to leave all other schools, our secondary school experienced a short renaissance. The school was the last place where many Jewish pedagogues could teach, among them was sociologist Dr. Bruno Zwicker, previously an assistant at Masaryk University in Brno, Valtr Eisinger, previously a teacher at a secondary school in Kyjov and Orlov, Otto Ungar, Arnost Gerad and others. Everything was carried out under an atmosphere of nervousness and fear, so discipline and teaching slackened. In May 1941 the Nazis took control of the building and so teaching stopped. The Jewish Community tried to keep some improvised teaching going in Valeji Street for some time. At that time, I would go to Mrs. Stefi Fiserova to learn English.
In grade five, I went to the Tatra Mountains with my elementary school. In those days, trips like that were quite rare. We had a very active teacher who organized trips. His name was Novotny and he taught Czech language and thanks to him it became a favorite subject of mine. Otherwise, I usually spent my free time with friends. In the summer, we would swim in the Svratka and in the winter we would toboggan on Kravi Mountain. We would go to a park near my apartment, back then it was called Obilnak; it was a wild place, where bushes of all kinds grew. There were all sorts of different places to climb and secret places where we would play, shoot from sling- shots or horse around in different ways. All that only until 1940.
Over the holidays, what I liked best was going to visit my grandparents in Mohelno. There were two rivers - the Jihlavka and the Oslava that ran beside the village. The nature there is romantic and beautiful. My brother would visit our relatives in Miroslav more often than me; I didn't like Miroslav as much as Mohelno. In Miroslav, there was a strict order and I didn't have the freedom to just pick up and go run around the woods. In Mohelno there was beautiful nature and I liked it there very much. Near the house, there was a fairly big garden, where there were no garden-beds but only fruit trees. After Grandpa's death Grandma moved to another small house where she lived until her deportation.
From 1939, Brno's powerful German minority began to buzz with traditional German hats and Henlein  organizations. Suddenly, the way to school along the Spilberg hillside became dangerous. Teens from the Hitlerjugend  waited for us there and our only defense was humiliating: all we could do was run away. It wouldn't be more than an adventure, if we, Jewish children, could share these experiences with our non-Jewish friends - as a shared fate. But we had to give up our friendships and start new ones with other Jewish boys out of self-protection; we had to exchange friendships that came naturally for friendships that arose from being the condemned. I remember going to visit a friend. His mother opened the door a crack and said, 'He isn't home!' The same thing happened the next day. Later, some feeling inside told me that my friend was not home for me because I was a Jew. I came home and because I felt shame, I didn't even tell anyone about it.
Later, in the streets, I met my favorite teacher, who used to praise my brother Hanus and me for our good school performance. On his collar he wore the symbol of the Narodni sourucenstvi [Czech fascist organization, from 1939 - 1945 the only legal political party in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.] and he said, 'I knew that it couldn't end differently with the Jews.' Another time a group of guys jumped me and they twisted my arm behind my back and one of them asked, 'do you know where you belong Jew?' By coincidence someone was passing by so I was let go. At home, my father warned me not to go there. I realized, with bitterness, that he couldn't help me.
In Brno the rise of Nazism and the persecution of the Jews [see Anti-Jewish laws in the Protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia]  was quicker than in other regions. At the end of the 1940s the Gestapo barged into our apartment for the first time. Two men were throwing the contents out of the wardrobe into the middle of the room. My mom had to put some of the things, like clothing and sweaters into a suitcase and it was sealed. One of the men, who had a vulgar expression on his face said, 'Das wird alles fur die NSDAP gut sein! Wir sind nicht eure republikanische Polizei.' [German: This will all be good for the NSDAP. We are not your republican police.] The next day my dad had to go with the suitcases to the law faculty building which had been converted into the headquarters of Brno's Gestapo. We lived through two days of anxiety, but my dad came back that time, even with the things that had been confiscated. It was a stroke of luck: the Gestapo administrator had served on the front with my dad during World War I and so for this reason, he let my dad return home.
Soon afterwards, we had to leave our apartment on Falkensteiner Street. In 1941, we were forced to move into a three-room housing unit, near Koliste Park in Brno, with two other Jewish families. I can still see a colorful kaleidoscope of the inhabitants of the building, stuffed together into a small space, made even smaller by a bunch of useless objects that their owners were unable to part with. It was a grotesquely diverse group of people who kept tripping over one another in a Kafka-like environment, but they wanted to maintain their pride, at least to the outer world. This apartment was also taken over by the Gestapo in August of 1941. In panic, I threw the butter that my parents had gone to a lot of trouble to acquire, out the window. Our room was the furthest removed, so the voices of the commando traveled to us and then the scene from Falkensteiner Street repeated itself. During this raid, both my parents and also the Weinsteins, immigrants from Vienna, were brought to the Gestapo.
The Weinsteins returned from the interrogation later and were silent about what had happened. Our parents were put into jail: my father was sent to the Kounic Hall  and my mother was sent to the jail at Cejl. By strange coincidence, we had a chance to see my father for a few seconds a couple of times after that. It was permitted to bring clean laundry into the residence once a week. During one of these times, my brother saw my father in the window of the building. So then we would regularly try and walk by there at the same time of day and my father sometimes did look out of the glass window. However, after a short period of time, my parents were deported to concentration camps. In 1942, they were both murdered in Auschwitz; my mother was in Ravensbruck  before this.
At that time, my brother and I didn't know about the death of our parents. Basically, we stayed alone, I was twelve and my brother was seventeen. Of our relatives, only my father's mother and sister lived in Brno, but grandma was over eighty and my aunt was chronically ill. They were both quite powerless. In 1942 they were murdered in Treblinka and Rejowiec [Poland]. We received a permit to move to our family in Mohelno. I was looking forward to escaping the scary atmosphere of Brno but in Mohelno it was no better. We hardly went out on the streets: in the village, our fate was that much more uncommon and visible and the yellow star on our clothing that much more humiliating. We were included in the transport leaving from Trebic. In May 1942, a family friend, a farmer named Rudolf Mohelsky took myself, my grandma, my aunt, my brother and our 50 kg baggage by horse- drawn carriage to Trebic. It was a beautiful spring day. At the Trebic school they transformed the transport of people into camp numbers. In the train we were with Grandma Josefina and Aunt Greta together for the last time, because after our arrival in Terezin we were separated at the so- called sluice. [Sluice: from the German word Schleusse. That is what the place where the transports were received and checked out was called.] We didn't even know when they dragged them out further east. They were murdered in the concentration camps in Auschwitz and Lublin in 1942.
In Terezin I was placed in Sudeten barracks; my brother was elsewhere. We were not allowed to leave the barracks and walk freely in the streets until 6th July 1942. [The civilian population left Terezin at the beginning of July 1942 and then the whole city became a ghetto.] For me it was a very bad time because I didn't have anyone there, I didn't know anyone and I knew nothing about my parents, my brother, my grandma or my aunt. I remember when the barracks were opened I ran out of the gates with a whole mob of people and everyone was looking for their relatives.
Gradually, my brother worked in a number of locations. At one time, he worked in the disinfection squad where he used very dangerous gas; I think it was called Ventox. For some time he worked in a kitchen as a helper and so at least he could eat a little better.
The Jewish self government starting organizing life in the ghetto and I was lucky because I got into building L-417. It was in a Terezin school building where there were ten boys' 'heims' [homes in German]. Each home had its own room, its own caretaker, who we called 'madrich' [leader in Hebrew], its own number and its own name. I was in number one. The dozen boys, who were all around thirteen, who came together at number one created a specific social group that was different from the other units in the building. The reason for its specific character was the age difference. With the exception of home number five, we were the only ones who were coming of age. At the beginning of the occupation we were too grown up to be able to lock ourselves into the microcosm of children. Actually, all these events sped up the process of growing up, at least psychologically and spiritually. We witnessed our homes being uprooted and our parents' powerlessness. Marked with stars and transport numbers, in quarantine and in sluice, we saw the fall of conventions, the fragility and impermanence of human relationships, selflessness and selfishness, we listened to the heavy breathing of the dying and to the breathing of couples making love.
That is the state our madrich, Valtr Eisinger, got us in. He himself was also quite young: he was twenty-nine years old. He was a talented teacher who was just starting out. He was given the opportunity to test his abilities, live out his ideals about life and the world. He had so much to do to take care of himself and on top of it he wanted to help us. We loved his confidence and his certainty in that unpredictable ghetto world. Eisinger didn't question surviving but announced, 'after the war, I will try for a doctorate.' He was close to us, that is why we could and wanted to follow the example of our great teacher who spoke about the philosophy of Ghandi, translated poetry, played soccer, moved into the dorms with us, sang in the opera 'Prodana nevesta' [The Bartered Bride, opera by Czech composer Bedrich Smetana] and loved his wife Vera from Terezin. Awareness of our common fate and Eisinger's personality allowed us to create a social atmosphere that made no difference between an orphan and the son of a scientist.
We called our group 'Republika Skid.' The name came from Eisinger who told us about the Russian book 'Republika Skid' that he liked very much. [Boys literature, by Belych, Grigoriy Georgiyevich and Panteleev, Alexei Ivanovich, 1927.] We were all taken by this and we wanted to be Skids. In brief a Skid comes from the 'Skola Imeni Dostoyevskovo' [school called after Dostoyevsky], a school for the homeless kids in post-revolution St. Petersburg [orphanage]. A Skid was secret. Although a symbol of our home hung on our wall Eisinger told us to explain this title to strangers as 'Skola I. domov' [school in house number one]. We were therefore a republic and had our own leadership, which was established on a festive Friday night on 18th December 1942. We were each given duties and responsibilities that corresponded with our interests and abilities. The members of the group were elected to different functions and at one time I acted as the chairman. A notable characteristic of Skid was that it was a collective where each person found their place.
One of Eisinger's strongest characteristics was his sense of tolerance. He himself firmly believed in a new, socially just way of organizing the world, but he didn't require us to mechanically take on his beliefs. In contrast, he said at our age it would be too early for us to have a set opinion, first he thought it was important to experience and know many things. His opinion came across in his practice; the diverse lectures in our home were a good example. People with all sorts of opinions visited us. For Eisinger it was dangerous to organize this kind of upbringing in a concentration camp [ghetto], with a flag, a group hymn and even a magazine that we produced. Back then, we didn't understand that; for us it was an adventure and it gave us the illusion of freedom.
The magazine Vedem  was exclusively the domain of us, the boys. Professor Eisinger only wrote introductions and sometimes he contributed with a translation from Russian. On Friday night we would always sit around the table, or on the bunks and each person who had written something that week would read their contribution. The magazine was not publicized in any other way than during these Friday night session. For two whole years, we 'put out' our magazine each Friday thanks to the leadership of our editor, Petr Ginz. Petr was great for this work, he had all the right predispositions; he had brought them from home, from Prague. He was an extremely intelligent boy. He was a year older than us. He even had experience editing a magazine, I think from the time when he studied in Prague. He spent all his time working on the magazine, all week, day after day he worked on the latest issue. It was hard work, especially when he handwrote all the contributions that he had gotten in any way he possibly could. He would make a fuss and he would try to appeal to our consciences but sometimes he wrote the entire issue himself under different names to save the situation. I would try and get contributions from the boys and sometimes from the adults; here and there I wrote something and took care of organizational details. The magazine reflected many of the personalities in Terezin and house number one became a well-known place in the ghetto. That is why different, noted guests would come to us: people like Karel Polacek , Norbert Fryd, Hans Adler and different personalities like that, who would come lecture or come and chat about something with us. Petr was a really great guy. I can still see him sitting on his bunk with his legs under him, working away on something. Petr was dragged away to Auschwitz in September 1944 where he died in the gas chamber.
On a regular day at L-417, forty boys would go do different work around the ghetto. They were chosen from the homes where the oldest boys lived: homes one and five. I myself began going to work in 1943. It wasn't particularly hard work; usually we worked in the vegetable garden in the barricades around Terezin. At least we had a little bit of nature there. We were supervised by one Jewish gardener, a very sympathetic young man, who we called Manci; I think his real name was Manuel. Occasionally, we were allowed to steal a tomato or a kohlrabi. The special thing about the group who worked in the garden was that to go to work we had to walk through a few hundred meters on 'free land', if that is what you can call the streets of the Protectorate [of Bohemia and Moravia] .
The wake up call was at six or seven in the morning, then we washed under cold water, cleaned the living quarters, and divided the daily duties: that is cleaning the rooms, the halls, the WC and the courtyard. Then we had breakfast and roll call. All the members of the homes gathered on the steps and the leader of L-417, Otik Klein, outlined the daily plan. Then the teaching began that all the children in the building attended. The teaching happened in the individual homes, but because of lack of space it mostly occurred in the attic, where it was also less likely that we would be barged in on by the SS. Wherever we were taught, one boy was always on guard duty. Each class was prepared to immediately start doing something different, like cleaning, in case the SS came to check up on us.
Of the eight or ten teachers, only two or three were trained teachers. We didn't have any resources and often children of very different ages and from different educational backgrounds were put together in the same classes. None the less, the teachers tried to establish some kind of system and they would consult each other at teacher meetings. They taught for about three or four hours a day. To this day, I still remember math, history and geography. Hebrew was not 'mandatory.' The system wasn't only about the teaching, but also about the day to day living of the boys with the teachers and caretakers. I realized how effective it had been after coming back from the concentration camp: I found myself in a normal school and actually, I was not behind at all.
We would go to lunch with a mug where one had to wait in a line in front of the kitchen in the Hamburg barracks. Afterwards we reviewed the material we had learned in the morning but without the teachers. Real free time started in the late afternoon before supper, between four and six. Some of the kids had their parents or other relatives in Terezin and so they would go visit them during this time. After supper, the homes became separate worlds, where the children would entertain themselves differently, depending on their age and their caretakers' abilities. We, the older ones, would stay up later. We even got to see the famous Terezin attic performances: cabaret, theater recitals and concerts.
I also remember expeditions, where after dark we would go to steal coal. Once I almost paid for it dearly because I couldn't crawl back out of some basement. 'Lights out' was at ten but we chatted after that until even the hardiest fell asleep. Those were magical moments, when the lights were out and we spoke to each other from the bunks. Eisinger was a great storyteller, we could have listened to him talk for hours. It is important to explain that it was unusual for a caretaker to live in the home. The caretakers had their own room in L-417. Just the fact that Eisinger decided to really live like one of us says more about him than words can ever say.
My brother and I were in Terezin until October 1944, until a series of transports practically wiped out the ghetto. My brother was deported at the beginning of October and my deportation ensued a few days later. I think there were seven transports and they went quickly one after the other. We didn't know where we were going at all, first the train headed west to Dresden but there it turned east. It probably went in a zig zag fashion because in the freight car some prisoner from the transport before us wrote in pencil 'to Auschwitz.' In Auschwitz-Birkenau, where 1,500 of us came to, most people went directly from the train into the gas chambers. Back then we didn't know what it was all about, but somehow I knew that I should group myself with people who were stronger. When we came to the ramp in Auschwitz, the prison camp guards jumped into the trains that they called 'Kanada' and they started taking our baggage. There was a young guy among them and I refused to give him my things. And he asked me, 'Wie alt bist du?' [German: How old are you?]. I told him I was fifteen or sixteen. And he advised me, 'Musst sagen du bist achtzehn!' [German: You have to say that you are eighteen!]. When I stepped out on the ramp, no one asked me for my age, but I tried to stick to the group of prisoners who were physically stronger, who then went to the camp together.
When we entered the premise, the crematoriums were operating and the wind blew the smoke from the chimneys at us. We marched to our appointed building, which took a while because we had to go through the disinfection room where they shaved us and poured some kind of solution on us. As they led us, I saw Jirka Zappner behind the wires; he also used to be in home number one in Terezin. He waved at me when he saw me. Otherwise, I was in Birkenau by myself. When we came to our building at the camp we had our 'greeting' right away. There our kapo [the word kapo was probably introduced into Dachau by Italian workers in the 1930s. During WWII, in popular language, kapo became a generic term for all inmate (prisoner) functionaries.] 'greeted us' with the words: 'Damit ihr wisst, wo ihr seid. Ihr seid in Auschwitz! Bei uns stinken die Toten nicht!' and at the same time he pointed at the chimneys. [German: So that you know where you are, you are in Auschwitz! Here the dead don't stink!] He was a terrible person. For Auschwitz it was typical that the positions were filled by career criminals and after being in the camps for such a long time they deformed into sadistic beings. This creature beat a prisoner to death on the second day, under the guise that the prisoner had taken an extra portion of food. Some assistant kapos held the prisoner on a bench and he beat him with a cane, until he totally exhausted himself, he was heaving and his veins were popping out, as he gave the blows.
The days in Birkenau were indescribable. There wasn't anything to eat; it was so bad that people picked potato peels out of the mud. You couldn't sleep, because the wooden house was so full that you had to lie on your hip. People were crammed together on each level of the bunks. If we were not going to do some kind of work we were ever on guard. Drills and commands and constantly standing on guard in the harsh, cold weather were worse than the work in Birkenau.
Near the end of 1944, it became more common to pick prisoners for labor in Birkenau. The German industry was doing so badly that they needed slaves. In one of these rounds, some civilians came: they were engineers and representatives of German factories. We were told to stand guard and all the metal trade people were ordered to identify themselves. At that point I already knew that the only way to save myself was to get out any way that I could. But we also all knew that it was very dangerous to pretend that a person had a specific trade. If they found out it wasn't true, it cost you your life. But I had no other chance so I stepped out of the row and identified myself. The civilians accompanied by the SS walked through our row and asked each person who had stepped out to say what they were. I said that I was an electrician. One of the factory representatives looked at the other and said: 'isn't he a bit young?' The other one just waved his hand, and by miracle I got into one of the transports leaving Birkenau for work.
We were deported to the labor camp Niederorschel in Western Germany. [Niederorschel is in Thuringen province, today Eastern Germany.] The camp was near the city of Kassel and fell under the jurisdiction of the camp Buchenwald . It was a long journey. We were so crowded together in the cattle-cars that we could only stand. One prisoner made a nervous movement with his hand during the inspection. He was told to step out and was shot on the spot. There were a number of victims in the train, some people were not able to stand on their feet for entire hours, without water and without sanitation.
In Niederorschel there was an airplane factory, Junkers, where we worked riveting aircraft wings. The so-called 'Aussenkommando Niederorschel' had existed a few months before our arrival and about seven hundred prisoners from a number of countries worked there: Poland, Hungary, Romania, Holland, France. My co-worker was even from Riga, and there were also German anti- fascists there and some Russians. But about 80 percent of the people there were Jewish. I had a pneumatic hammer, which I used to put rivets through tin. A more experienced prisoner hammered the rivets from the other side using a hammer and an iron bar. The work was directed by German bosses. I can't say there was any close contact, but I was lucky to have a decent boss; his name was Andreas Schroter. He was an older, graying person. On Christmas he brought a piece of Christmas cake for two of us prisoners who he supervised.
Looking back, it can be said that Niederorschel was a hard camp, but back then, after Birkenau, I felt like I had been re-born there. Death was not so at hand: that a person would see the smoke from the crematoriums and would constantly be waiting to be called upon for selection and sent to be gassed. We lived in an old building that had been a textile factory from which we would walk down a long, narrow corridor lined with a wire. It was cold and there wasn't enough clothing for the prisoners. They didn't heat the factory. I found a paper bag from cement somewhere and crammed it under my prison clothing to warm myself up a bit. Each week, we received three cigarettes and about twice they poured a little beer into our mugs. Today, it seems laughable, but for those three cigarettes I always got a piece of bread from one German soldier. The SS guarded the factory exits and soldiers led us to and from work through the corridors. Inside, we were guarded by civilians, employees of Junkers, some of them were adamant Nazis.
In Buchenwald, German political prisoners acted as the kapos which was a contrast to Birkenau where these functions were performed by various criminals and horrible individuals. So in Buchenwald there was a certain mutual order that was maintained. The kapos supported the prisoners to work out things amongst themselves. They ensured a certain order of things. A source of news was our kapo Otto Herrmann and his two assistants. He was from Halle an der Saale and he had been deported to the ghetto right at the beginning of Hitler's reign. The German political prisoners managed to maintain a degree of self-esteem in relation to the SS officers and sometimes they even got away with quite a lot. In his 'office' Otto Hessman had hung up a map of Europe that had been published in some German newspaper. Even though the SS would go to him, he kept tabs of the front on his map.
Once I was going along the hall and he walked out and saw me. As a kapo he was not short of food. He asked me, 'Willst du Suppe?' [German: Would you like soup?] and in his hands he held a bowl full of soup. Of course I wanted it and I got it. He added, 'Musst nicht auswaschen!' [German: You don't need to wash it!] I thought that he was saying it as an act of kindness but there was a different reason. Later, I understood that he didn't want anyone to know that he gave his soup to someone, because the kapos had their bowls washed in the kitchen. I realized it at the moment when I brought him the washed bowl and he got angry at me.
We worked in the factory until the end of March 1945. Near the end, work was often interrupted because the German economy was not working anymore. Earlier, the wings had been transported elsewhere, where they put them together with other airplane parts, but because transport was not working, it was no longer possible. The wings started to pile up beside the factory and they started to send us to do other work, so our conditions worsened as a result. With the accompaniment of the SS, we started going into the forest for wood. We had to dig out tree roots from the frozen ground and we did other work in the woods for which there just wasn't enough labor force to do. We experienced a great deal of cold and hunger. When we were accompanied to work by some of the milder SS officers, we would look around, and when we saw a piece of beet that had been forgotten in the field, we dug it out from the ground and ate the frozen beet. I will never forget how once, when we were working in the forest, a middle aged woman came to us, a German woman. None of us knew her and she brought us a big pot of boiled potatoes. For me it was a big experience, not only because of the food alone, but because Mr. Schroter, with that piece of Christmas cake and decent behavior, and this woman restored my idea of the Germans. They convinced me that among the Germans there are good, non-violent people, because a person needed a lot of courage to do what they had done.
In March 1945, the western front came close to the camp; you could hear the rumbling and the gunfire. The leader of the camp tried to cover it up. Once, at roll call, he noticed that the rumbling was getting attention. He announced that they were blowing up rock in a quarry. At another roll call he said' 'Ihr denkt, wir haben den Krieg verloren. Aber da irrt ihr euch. Und wenn, dann werdet ihr das nicht erleben!' [German: You think that we have lost the war, but you are mistaken. Even if we do, you will not live to see it.] He almost managed it because following that, we were sent to the central camps in Buchenwald, on one of the notorious death marches. That was the second day in April 1945. We were unexpectedly called upon. Shortly before that, I had had leather shoes. They were completely beat up, they leaked and my feet were freezing in them. So I exchanged them for wooden clogs in the storage because at least those did not leak. That was my bad luck, because I had to do the whole march in wooden clogs. The march was long and cruel and I hardly survived it. My feet stopped serving me: the sole didn't bend on those wooden clogs, so I was limping from the last of my strength. I just pulled myself along and wasn't aware of what was happening around me. We marched at night and during the day and we would rest in old barns. It was because American planes were appearing in the sky more and more often and the danger of an airplane attack became more and more likely, and the SS were clearly afraid of that. Also, at night the civilian population couldn't observe us.
The march took seven or eight days. Whenever we stopped to rest in some old barn or building, I would take off the clogs and look at my battered feet. In this desperate situation, we would look at processed wheat stalks to see if there was one grain, so that we could at least swallow something. The German soldiers knew that the war had been lost and so they just walked in silence. We got to Buchenwald, where right the next day, we were liberated by the American army. Later I found out that the Americans circled the whole of Buchenwald, which was located on a hill, before they came up to the camp. For a short while, shooting could be heard, the Germans surrendered and suddenly we saw the first jeep with a crew of one driver, two soldiers and one woman.
I didn't get back to Czechoslovakia until June, when buses started arriving to pick up the prisoners. Although I was very much looking forward to seeing the place of my birth, Brno, at the same time I thought that I wouldn't find any of my family members alive. After my return, I found out that my brother was alive and I traveled to Mohelno, to my mother's birthplace, to rejoin him. My brother had gone from Auschwitz to the work camp Gleiwitz  in southern Poland. It was a camp where they repaired damaged wagons and had been under the jurisdiction of Auschwitz. He survived there until the end of the war. In Brno we got an apartment left behind by a Hitler supporter who had run away. My brother finished his studies that he had started before the war at the chemical industrial secondary school. We had to live modestly but we were young.
In 1948 my brother immigrated to Germany. Although I knew that he had been thinking about emigration, I had no idea when it would actually happen. Then I got a greeting card from Germany, from him. Hanus wanted to go out into the world and he wanted to get away from the place where we had experienced so much horror. The communist turn-over motivated him even more. At that time, I hadn't even thought of emigrating; my goal was to finish my secondary school education. Another reason why I didn't emigrate was that Valtr Eisinger had significantly influenced me in Terezin and so I didn't see the communist regime as a threat but more as a promise of something better. I had certain ideals and I really believed that the socialist regime would bring the solutions to the main problems people were facing.
When he first left Germany, Hanus was in a refugee camp. Then a Brazilian businessman came through, who bought and sold seeds, and my brother got an offer to work for his company. He got a permit to move to Brazil. Until all the permits were worked out, he worked as a waiter and did other odd jobs in Brazil. After a few years, he became independent, set up an office and began doing business with construction ceramics. He married and lives in Rio de Janeiro. Unfortunately, his wife died, but he has a large family: three sons and grandchildren. As an immigrant he couldn't come for a visit and so we saw each other again after a long forty years, once I received a permit to travel abroad.
In 1949, I completed Industrial Art School in Brno, and I did various jobs. First, I was at the Institute of Regional Planning where I helped with the graphic design of maps. I wrote articles about art exhibits and thanks to that I got work at the Brno House of Art where I had opportunities to meet artists and organize exhibits. From 1958, I worked in the Centre for Trade Art in Brno. In 1963, I re-located to Prague to work in the head office of the Centre for Trade Art. The last twenty years I've worked in the National Gallery in Prague preparing art catalogues and posters.
I married for the first time in 1951. My first wife had gone to the same secondary school. She wasn't Jewish and it didn't matter. At the beginning of the 1950s two sons were born, Jirka and Dan. When I moved to Prague, we divorced but I stayed in close contact with my family. My younger son, Dan, unfortunately died of cancer at the age of thirty-four. He was single. In the second half of the 1960s I married again, but the marriage only lasted until the beginning of the 1970s. My second wife worked as a journalist in CTK [Ceska Tiskova Kancelar, Czech press agency]. My older son, Jirka, lives in Brno, he completed university and at the current time he is an engineer and has an electronics company. He is single.
I became a member of the Communist Party [of Czechoslovakia]  right after returning from the concentration camp. Gradually, I began to lose trust in the regime and in the end I even thought of emigration, but I already had a family and it wasn't so easy. The trials of the 1950s [Slansky trial]  and their open anti-Semitism were shocking and sobering for me. One had to remain cautious because to openly distance oneself from the regime could cause a serious threat to one's existence. After the war, anti-Semitism was evident even in official politics. Concrete instances of anti-Semitism directed at me personally only came on a few occasions. During the trials I was working for the Brno House of Art. At that time I was at the army base, doing mandatory military service. After my return from the army, my friends told me that in the Brno House of Art there was some doorman or caretaker saying that I was a suspicious individual, perhaps an anti-state collaborator. He was a totally illiterate primitive and I'm convinced that his motivation was because I was Jewish. After the war, I didn't draw attention to the fact that I was Jewish, but I didn't deny it either. The Holocaust and the concentration camp awoke a consciousness about the Jewish fate in me. But I didn't think that this made me different from other people; being Jewish was simply a question of my fate.
About a hundred or a hundred and ten boys went through house number one in Terezin and of those about ten survived the Holocaust. Zdenek Taussig brought the magazine Vedem from Terezin to Prague; he was the only one from the entire 'Heim' who had stayed in Terezin the whole time. His father was a blacksmith in Terezin and he was the only one capable of re-shoeing a horse. Zdenek lived with him in the blacksmithery; they converted the coal storage room into a place to sleep. After returning to Prague, he passed the magazine on to my friend from house number one, Jirka Brady, who gave the material to me when he emigrated in 1948. Life went differently than we had dreamed.
The anti-Semitism that came after February prevented us from publishing our youthful literary attempts from Terezin. With the Prague Spring  of 1968, Zdenek Ornest and I were playing with the idea of putting together a book that would contain at least some fraction of the eight-hundred pages of the magazine. We were hesitant. With some detachment we had to choose the best prose and poems, of which all spoke to us in the intimate voices of our childhood friends. That is why we were glad to cooperate with Marie Rut Krizkova who is a literary historian. During the normalization period she was a dissident and Charter 77  spokeswoman. A publishing house accepted our book in 1971. A year later, we closed a deal and put together a publication of the Terezin Memorial and the Severoceske publishing house. The final draft of the book called 'Je moji vlasti hradba ghett?' [We Are Children Just the Same] was refused by Dr. Vaclav Kral, who in his strange judgment managed to connect the publishing of children's prose with the 'aggression of Israel against the Arab world.'
In 1968, we had the goal of turning our building in Terezin into a museum of the ghetto, but those in charge of normalization created a monstrous museum SNB [short for Statni narodni bezpecnost, police during communist regime] and revolutionary traditions of the Northern Czech lands. Oto Ornest, Zdenek's brother, tried to smuggle the book across the border but the whole matter ended up in court because they caught Oto at the border. I was incredibly afraid, because before they caught him, we had met on a number of occasions: I had given him manuscripts to be sent abroad and I had supported this project financially. When he later got in front of the court, he only said what he had to and he didn't give away me or any other participants. He was sentenced, the procurator said that sending literary contributions across the border was a threat to our society. Thanks to the care of Marie Rut Krizkova the manuscript was published in 1978 as a samizdat . The response to the first edition led to a second edition at the end of the 1980s; again it was written on a type-writer in a different format. It was shown like this in 1990 at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
I was expelled from the communist party after the Prague Spring. At that time, I was working at the National Gallery in Prague, where I worked in uncertainty because I wasn't a member of the Party. I was the director of the print section, which bothered one director who constantly emphasized that I shouldn't be allowed to continue in my function. In the end, I managed to hang in there, in part because the National Gallery was directed by Jiri Kotalik. Many people reproach him for cooperating with the regime because he remained diplomatic with party and state representatives. Otherwise, they wouldn't have kept him there but at the same time, he allowed the National Gallery to work with certain people who would otherwise have been politically unacceptable. That in itself is notable because at that time, it was difficult to employ someone who had been expelled or written off by the party to a position that was not manual labor.
I managed to stay in my job but I was constantly living in doubt. After I divorced for the second time, I shared an apartment with a man who was a traffic police officer. Once, early in the morning, his friends came to visit him and they were in uniform. I was lying in my room and I could see the movement of the uniforms through the frosted glass on my door and in my sleepiness, I was sure that they had come for me. But other people experienced much worse things. Because of my work at the National Gallery, I didn't have a great deal of free time. I liked to travel and I was one of the lucky people who because of various exhibits got to go abroad. I retired in 1987.
In 1989 there was so much happening in Europe that there was reason to believe that it would come here too, although in earlier years I didn't hope that I would live to see it. I was incredibly thrilled about November [see Velvet Revolution] , I even participated in the famous student march from Albertov [the march was stopped at Narodni Avenue with brutal police intervention]. Since then my life has changed completely, even though the change-over reached me at a time when I was an older person. When I was of an active age, I was lucky to be able to do work that I enjoyed. From this point of view, it was a beautiful time. However, the feeling that came with the return of a democratic regime meant a lot of things to me. After 1989, I visited America, Israel and Canada. I visited Israel as a delegate of the Terezin Initiative .
An exhibition about the literature of the prisoners was created as part of the Terezin Memorial, I contributed to it with Marie Krizkova. Recently, we prepared a traveling exhibit about the magazine Vedem. I also worked in the Terezin Initiative that was founded in 1990. The initiative publishes its own magazine and played a large role in the creation of the Terezin Memorial. The initiative has done and continues to do very good work and was a key player in the battle for compensation that I also received. Like many survivors, I didn't tell my children much about the concentration camps. This is because, a person who went through a concentration camp lived through the complete devastation of a human's character and that is an extremely humiliating experience. When the book 'Je moji vlasti hradba ghett?' came out in 1995 my son read it and found out many things that he knew nothing about before that.
Many people are disappointed with the post-November developments, but I am not. I'm a sceptic thanks to my lifetime experiences, and so I didn't paint some kind of a rosy future. Right at the beginning of the new regime, I didn't assume that things would develop the way people imagined that they would. The difficulties that we face today leave me indifferent. We live in freedom, we travel abroad, as we want to, we can read freely, talk and do everything that a person wants to do and I see that as a really important thing.