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.
Dagmar was born in Kutna Hora, a city in what is today the Czech Republic. Through most of the twentieth century, the Czech Republic was part of a nation called Czechoslovakia- this state was created in 1918 when, after the First World War, the historic regions of Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia combined to create the Republic of Czechoslovakia. Kutna Hora's historic town centre, once a part of Bohemia, is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Prior to 1918, Bohemia had been a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and had been under the influence of the Hapsburgs long before the formation of the dual monarchy in 1867. Dagmar mentions that her father was a Czech patriot, and protested against the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. From the end of the eighteenth century, a Czech national revival took place, during which time popular interest in Czech language, culture, and national identity rose. Nationalist movements such as these were a driving force in the wave of revolutions that swept through Europe in 1848. A broad overview of the 1848 revolutions can be found here, and more information on the revolutions under the Hapsburg regime here.
After 1918, the Austro-Hungrian Empire ceased to exist, and the first Czechoslovak Republic was formed. Read about its first president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, and find here a chronology of key events during Czechoslovakia's statehood (1918-1992) provided by the BBC.
In 1938, England, France, Italy, and Germany signed the Munich Agreement. This Agreement ceded the Sudetenland to Germany. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, a key figure in the negotiations, believed appeasing Adolf Hitler’s territorial ambitions was the most logical way to avoid another large-scale war. Read more about Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement here. The agreement was negotiated among Europe’s major powers without any Czechoslovakian representative- today’s Czechs and Slovakians often refer to the agreement as "the Munich dictate" or the "Munich betrayal". Read a transcript of the original text here.
The Sudetenland was of immense strategic importance to Czechoslovakia, as most of its border defenses were situated there. As a result, the Agreement left Czechoslovakia vulnerable to German military power. On the 15th March 1939, Germany violated the Munich Agreement, invading and occupying the remaining provinces of the rump Czechoslovak state. To solidify this, Hitler proclaimed the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia from Prague Castle on the day of the invasion. Read a translation of the Protectorate here.
Dagmar recalls that the Jewish community in Kutna Hora was very small, however Jews have had a presence in Bohemia for centuries. Read more about the history of Jewish Bohemia here.
There is currently a thriving Jewish community in the Czech Republic, most of whom live in Prague. The European Jewish Congress offers a summary of contemporary Jewish life in the Czech Republic, and an overview of the Jewish history there. At the start of the twentieth century, the Jewish community in Prague was one of the largest in Europe, at over 92,000. It was also home to a thriving literary-intellectual community, associated with such names as Franz Kafa, Max Brod, and Franz Werfel.
The Czech Torah Network is an educational organization that promotes Jewish spiritual continuity by fostering connections between synagogues and religious institutions that have Czech Torah Scrolls. During the past 35 years, over 1,500 Czech Torahs have been rescued and distributed by the Czech Memorial Scrolls Centre of London, England. They are now on permanent loan throughout the world.
There is a long history of Jewish life in the area that is now the Czech Republic. It has been marked by fierce anti-Semitism and intermittent periods of tolerance. The years of Czechoslovakian independence (1918-1938) when Dagmar was born were a time of prosperity for Czechoslovak Jews. Find more information on the history of the Czechoslovak Jewry here.
For an overview of Jewish life in Europe before the Holocaust, read this article.
Following the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939, restrictions were placed on the Jewish population there. Some of these restrictions were part of the German Nuremburg Laws. These laws influenced many areas of Jewish people's lives, including employment and profession, marriage, property ownership, and day-to-day movements. The yellow star badges Jewish people living in German-occupied territories were made to wear have become a symbol of Jewish oppression during World War Two.
The Second World War began for Czechoslovakia when the German army invaded the provinces of Bohemia and Moravia, violating the 1938 Munich Agreement.
After the occupation, Czechoslovak president Edvard Beneš fled to Paris where he formed the Czechoslovak National Liberation Committee. Following British diplomatic recognition, this became the Czechoslovak government-in-exile, which operated in London throughout the war.
Conditions in wartime Czechoslovakia were bleak. The occupying Nazi government conducted mass-deportations of Jews living in the Bohemia and Moravia regions to Theresienstadt concentration camp. Read more about the Holocaust in Czechoslovakia here. A Czech movement resisting German occupation emerged, and participation was punished harshly by the occupying Germans. Following the assassination of brutal Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich in 1942, the town of Lidice was completely destroyed in retalliation.
The deportation of Jews commenced from 1941, after the establishment of the "camp-ghetto" at Theresienstadt. From there, many were sent to death camps in the Baltic States, or to concentration camps in occupied Poland. Read more about the Holocaust in Bohemia and Moravia here.
Dagmar and her family were deported to Theresienstadt, also called Terezin, in 1942. To counter reports of the appalling conditions and deny the existence of death camps, Terezin was presented to the International Red Cross as a "model camp". Prisoners were tasked with beautifying the camp and were engaged in cultural programs. Dagmar recalls participating in a production of the children’s opera, Brundibar. The staging of this opera was also a part of the Nazi deception of the Red Cross. Brundibar was composed by Czech composer Hans Krasa who was interned in Terezin and later killed at Auschwitz. Propaganda film Theresienstadt: The Führer gives the Jews a City was also produced at Terezin, directed by popular actor and director Kurt Gerron. After the film was completed, he and the other participants were killed at Auschwitz. Read more about Theresienstadt in Nazi propaganda here.
In June 1944, Dagmar and fer family were subject to their first selection. This process determined which prisoners were fit for work. Those who were not selected for labour were killed. Being the only one of her family who was selected, Dagmar was sent to Dessauer Ufer, a sub-camp of Neuengamme. Part of Dagmar's labour at Dessauer Ufer was to clear rubble from the 1943 Hamburg bombings. Carried out by British and American forces, the bombings, codename Operation Gamorrah, killed 30,000 people and destroyed much of the city.
Dagmar was later moved to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. British forces liberated the camp on the 15th April 1945, and finding it so filled with disease, once the camp had been evaucated they burned it down to avoid the spead of typhus.
On the 5th May 1945, the Czech resistance staged an uprising in Prague in an attempt to throw off German control. Fighting lasted until the 8th of May, the uprising ending the day before Soviet forces arrived to liberate the country. Over 3,000 people died in the uprising.
Dagmar returned to Czechoslovakia after the war, as did the president-in-exile Edvard Beneš. Upon his return, Beneš decreed that all Sudeten Germans (ethnic Germans from the Sudetenland, the old name for the western regions of Czechoslovakia, specifically the border areas of Bohemia, Moravia, and those parts of Silesia associated with Bohemia) were to be expelled from the country. Read more about th expulsion here.
The first elections held after the war took place in 1946. It was a resounding victory for the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, who in 1948 installed themselves as the nation's central governing party. To learn more about the 1948 takeover, commonly described as a coup d'etat, read this article from Radio Praha. Long-time party leader, Klement Gottwald, was the first head of the Czechoslovak communist state until his death in 1953.
After twenty years under communism, Czechoslovakia experienced the Prague Spring (5th January-21st August 1968), a period of political liberalisation during the Soviet-style governance. This was an attempt to reform the invasive and oppressive elements of Czechoslovakian communism, but it was not successful: Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslavakia in August 1968 and restored the Soviet regime.
Charter 77 was an informal civic initiative in Czechoslovakia that lasted from 1977 to 1992. It was an attempt to solidify the human rights granted and assured to Soviet citizens during the Helsinki Conference, but were repeatedly violated or ignored. Many of the Charter's fouding members would play important roles in Czech and Slovak politics after the fall of communism, including Václav Havel who would become president in 1989.
With the Soviet system weakening, 1989 saw many countries assert their independence. This was, for the most part, a non-violent process, especially in Czechoslovakia where the break with communism happened so neatly that it has been named the Velvet Revolution. Czechoslovakia dissolved in 1993 and now exists as two states: the Czech Republic, and Slovakia.