Interview with My Mother, Miryam L., Child Survivor of Concentration Camp
As Told To Esther V. L., 1999
SOME BACKGROUND NOTES:
The place of my mother’s Birth, CHUST, is a small town in the province of galicia, in the foothills of the Carpathian mountains. The Romanian border was about 20 kilometers distant and the hungarian border not much further. The area was not in austria-hungary before the second world war. The austro-hungarian empire was long gone. The area was annexed by russia in 1945 and became part of the ukraine when it became a separate country. the name was changed to khust. there is no more czechoslovakia, but the separate countries, the czech republic and the slovak republic.
Tell me a little about your background in Czechoslovakia, before the war.
O.K. I was born on August 2, 1931 in a small town called Chust, which was previously in Austria/Hungary before World War II, in the Carpathian Mountains. It was not good enough for my mother, she wanted to go to the big city. So when I was about four years old we moved to Prague, which is the capital of Czechoslovakia. I loved it there, I went to school then, first grade. I enjoyed walking around in the streets and passages, which were like malls underneath buildings. I enjoyed going into a shooting gallery where there was an old man who was telling me stories and showing me all kinds of magic tricks, especially a trick which I still remember, with a little bullet which you put between two fingers and you feel two of them, so that made an impression on me.
So I was a little wanderer, I was a very happy child, very independent and I just enjoyed life. I had compassion for this old woman who was selling pickles in the street, and I usually bought a pickle. Sometimes when she had to go someplace I took her place. I must have been about five already, or six, at that point, and so she trusted me with her business. I enjoyed and I was saying the Czech expression, “Po korune a za korunu”—(-she sold it for a crown)– “ A Pickle For a Crown.” And I just loved that. I also liked to go to department stores and look around for all kinds of beautiful things, which I couldn’t afford, because we were not very rich. But later on, my father became well known for his orthopedic shoe repair work, so we became a little more prosperous.
And at that point, when things were just about going very well, the war broke out, and we were taken over by the Germans, the Nazis. They were like taking us, like, under their wings, which was called “Protectorate,” like a protection, that’s how it first started. Finally they started to deport people, the ones which were not desirable, such as Jews and political people who didn’t agree with their regime. So we were one of the first to be deported, because of our religion. My father went first.
What year was that?
It was in 1941. I don’t remember exactly what month, but it was end of ‘41. And we were sent in December, the rest of the family. But he really opened the camp, and fortunately they needed his trade, because he was a wonderful professional worker in his field, and the Germans picked a few for their work.
Didn’t he go to build the railroad, first, before?
Well, it was a military barrack, the men came first, there was a railroad there, but they set up the barracks—it was Terezin, it was a military outpost which they used for that, for concentrating all the people, the undesirables which were meant to be sent away from there later to the annihilation camps—which we didn’t know existed at the time—
Tell me a little bit more about your parents and your sister.
My sister Zora (“Dawn” in English, we called her Zorinka) was two and a half years older than I, she was 12 ½, I was 10. We were very close, but we couldn’t stay in the same barrack. I was in Brandenborg Barrack.
Before the war, she was your protector, wasn’t she? You were always getting into trouble.
Before the war I was a tomboy. She was a very good, quiet, feminine girl and I used to beat up the kids who would pull on her braids, pick on her and make her cry. She was beautiful, but I told people I was smart. I was her protector, I kicked the boys in the shins, at 7, 8, and 9, just before the war. We had a wonderful relationship, except for one thing, she had a friend who was not very healthy, she had troubles mentally, she had some problem, maybe ADD or something. The girl didn’t have any friends except for my sister, and I was so attached to my sister that I always wanted to go along with her on her visits to this friend, and it wasn’t always possible. There was a little conflict in that, but that was the only thing.
She protected me many ways. When I’d be overeating, I ate half a watermelon once and I was very sick, and my mother would be very upset with me. So Zorinka didn’t tell on me, she just covered up for me and took care of me till I felt better. So she was my protector. We protected each other. My mother doted on her but my father was amused by and doted on me, as if I were a boy. Before the war I was very outgoing and very spunky, I was not scared of anything. She was a quiet, very cultured little girl already at that time, she was very studious. She excelled in school. I didn’t do my homework properly, I didn’t care.
Zorinka was ordered in camp to star in Nazi propaganda films, because of her beauty and charm. I had to stay in the barrack where my mother was. Zorinka was in a separate group with older teenagers.
As a 10-year-old child I was given the job of dental assistant in the infirmary mixing the amalgams. I was wiping the blood from the instruments and boiling them and assisting with the operations, which the Czech government was still supervising along with the Nazis.
I contracted scarlet fever; I was hospitalized for several months and almost didn’t make it. When I was convalescing I had a heart complication and I had to stay in the hospital a long time, and my sister was bringing me spinach leaves which she stole while she was working in the fields. She was putting one leaf to the other and she put them in her slacks, in her pants, which had a rubber band, which were like work pants. She didn’t eat it herself, she saved it for me. Also, my mother saved her own bread ration, which was like a roll,( it was given us every three days), to give to my sister. She only ate the soup and whatever else we had, some vegetables, some “tureen.”
What was that, exactly?
It was turnip and potato soup, the mainstay of our diet, with the bread. The vegetables were cut up or mashed up. We had no meat or milk, nothing nutritious for four years, we were not really functioning very well, but we were surviving. But my sister took that bread my mother had given her and she gave it to an old woman who wasn’t feeling well, she was very compassionate, and my mother cried because she really wanted the child to have it. But she understood my sister’s heart, because she was really very, very good. She was an angel. She was very beautiful. She had flawless skin, her cheeks were pink and glowing even without the nutrition, and she had a halo of dark golden hair. She was blossoming into a beautiful teenager. She was a beauty with pale gray, almost translucent eyes, the pupils very big and black, with long eyelashes. She was in danger of being used by the Nazis for her beauty, but luckily it never came to that.
What about the propaganda films she had to star in?
They took some films about the camp to show when the Red Cross inspection was supposed to come. They prepared all kinds of goodies for the children, chocolate and cans of sardines. We did not eat it, it was just laying there to show how we were treated. And the beautiful children, especially my sister, were called, and they were taking pictures of them for how beautiful, how well-fed they looked. She did not look undernourished. I was like skin and bones. My glands were sticking out and I was something horrible to look at. I was a poor eater even before the war. Anyway, they took a picture of her and they wanted her to get undressed for the picture, to show the body, but she was very modest and she started to cry bitterly, and somehow they took pity on her, even the elite SS (the highest in command of all the Nazis), because of her beauty, and she didn’t have to undress.
The propaganda went on for a few days, and there was a coffee shop built especially for that propaganda. We had money printed, ghetto money, which I still have, all kinds and colors of bills, and the coffee shop people went in there and made believe they were served coffee. It was made to look like a paradise.
Is this why it was called “The Showplace Camp”?
It was called “The Paradise Camp,” actually. And there was a square where usually we saw wagons full of people with blood on them being dragged to like a jail there, there was a jail. The name of it was “Pernost” (in KleineFestung—Small Fort). If they didn’t like somebody’s face or somebody walked wrong, or something like that—I could have been put into jail because I was stealing potatoes from a cellar— I was walking around there and I was hungry, so I put my hand down in the cellar, there were houses, barracks, and I just took a chance. I took a few raw potatoes and I ate them. That was a real treat when you were hungry. Anyway, that square was the most horrible place, usually, because of the wagons bringing people back and forth to jail. All of a sudden they built a podium there and they started to play music, a concert. There was beautiful music, they planted flowers.
The main SS was called Ram, that was the Commandante’s name, he was the one who managed this whole propaganda deal. And my father was in another barrack, where the men were separated from the women and children. He had a little shoe repair and shoe-making shop; he made riding boots for the SS, he had to measure and deliver them to their quarters, and they showed him with their gestures of their hands to their throats, that if the boots didn’t fit he will hang. He had a very stressful job. He was kicked several times, and before he got established as a worker he was lying on the ground when he first arrived, sleeping on the bare stone ground, before the barracks were set up, and he developed arthritis and a bad knee which still bothers him to this day.
He was a young man then, yes? How old?
He was born in 1905. It was 1941 then. So he was 36. And my mother was a beautiful blonde, with her hair in natural big curls. My father is Ludvik Sapsovic, my mother, six years his junior, was Fanny—she died in 1993. She went to concentration camp a beautiful 30-year-old woman. We showered with cold water, we had no soap, and she had the most beautiful voice. Some people had a few sugar cubes, they were saving them because it was very hard to get food. After my mother would sing a song, the people in the barrack enjoyed it so much and would be so appreciative they’d give her a sugar cube, whoever could afford to give it away.
Let’s return to the girls and women of Terezin.
Something was put in the soup (“tureen,” a sort of gruel) diet to prevent menstruation. There was, rarely, a special treat of a sticky dumpling with jam, particularly when the Red Cross was visiting our “paradise” camp.
My mother was given the most terrible duty imaginable: washing and preparing dead bodies for burial. She had a tumor in her abdomen before the war but could not have it operated on; in camp it kept growing and growing until she had to have a 5-lb tumor removed from her abdomen with only ice as an anesthetic. A highly respected and expensive Czech doctor (supervised by the Czech government, as well as the Nazis) was her surgeon, fortunately. My father, having gotten a little more privileges as time went on, was able to share extra food with this doctor (as well as others.) To seal the wound after the operation, the doctor lay down with his whole body on her incision and pressed with all his might. He saved her life. It was meant for her to go on
Something was put into the water to contaminate my sister’s barracks, it was believed. I went once to visit her there. We were free to walk around. So I went to see her before she died when she was sick already from the typhoid epidemic, and she sent me away. With glassy eyes she begged me to run away, she said to me, “Please, Milushka, run, run!” She knew she was going to die. Within two weeks she died…… After our beloved Zorinka died of typhus at age 14 (her whole bunker perished), my mother became severely depressed and catatonic. “Melancholy,” they called her. She lay down, covered her head, and she did not get up. I would sometimes remind her, while reading to her from prayer books, that I was still alive. After two years, she started to respond.
My mother’s father, wounded in World War I, didn’t want to lose his leg, so he died young rather than have his leg amputated. My father had two brothers who died in camp, the older brother was Herschel who died in Auschwitz, and Avram died in labor camp as a prisoner in jail together with the Nazis. All my father’s family was gassed. My mother raised her three siblings and took care of them after the war: her older sister Paula, younger sister Helen and younger brother David. The siblings all survived the camps.
My mother’s mother, my grandmother Gisela (Giselle), was a midwife who went to medical school but never completed it because she had to take care of a sick father. She was ahead of her time, ostracized for using rubber gloves during her deliveries. My mother was brought up in a house where she had to dip her hands in disinfectants, and whenever anyone was sick my grandmother made sure everyone stayed away. My mother had typhus as a child, and survived because of my grandmother’s exceptional care of her. People were dying from this, because there were no antibiotics and not much knowledge about treatments . My mother always wanted the best for her loved ones, she had big dreams. My mother was a cultured person with a lot of natural intelligence, despite her lack of schooling; my father was less refined.
Tell me more about the liberation, in camp.
My mother had a little cooker, as I said before we had acquired some extra privileges by the later years, and I would distribute the food she prepared to people who came and left, because people were coming from all over, and then they were taken away, but of course we stayed because they needed the shoes and boots, the SS. Other people were being taken away to other camps, to Auschwitz, to Bergen-Belsen, and there was a rumor which turned out to be true, that they were already starting t o build gas chambers in Terezin, on the outskirts. The Germans were losing the war, and the Russians were getting close. The Germans were getting ready to clean out the camp and run away, and my father was starting to make shoes for them to run away in. They were called “Jewish Shoes.” Money and papers were to be built inside the shoes. My father was ordered to make the shoes, and we knew there was danger involved, but we were preparing ourselves to go underground ; he had connections with the underground. (We knew that the Nazis would kill as many people as possible before they cleaned out the camp and ran).
On May 5, 1945 the Russians came. It was the most marvelous day. It was heaven.
How many children do you imagine survived along with you?
I don’t know. I had a few people there I knew. We were walking around there. I was playing, I had a little ball (when I didn’t work), we played ball with a few boys, they were a little older than me. They were like my sister’s age group. I don’t remember anyone my age, because the younger children went to death camps. I only survived as a 10-year-old (when I first came) because of my father’s protection. A 14-year-old could work. I have a friend Regina who is a survivor, she had been in Auschwitz at age 15, she worked there, she lost her parents and her whole family. Of course she has agoraphobia and a very bad life. She survived but not too well. Somehow it did not touch me, I don’t know why, my nature maybe. I did not get depressed from all that, I just picked myself up. I was crying when my mother was lying there for two years. Then I was in a bad way because I kept telling her, “I am here too, I am here!” and she didn’t want to hear me.