From Bad to Worse
Reflecting on History
June 6 1944 was Decision Day or D-day, as we know it. American and British troops landed on the west coast of France. For a while, there were no deportations. The prisoners breathed slightly easier. The following month Claus von Stauffenberg tried to kill Hitler, but failed. The rumors of the attempt and the landing in France filled the prisoners with hope.
The Nazis coordinated a propaganda campaign to show the world that the prisoners in Theresienstadt had nothing to complain about. The Red Cross was coming to inspect the camp. The center underwent a metamorphosis. Buildings were painted. Parks, playgrounds, and cafés were constructed.
Tablecloths and flowers in little vases decorated the café tables. Windows on the downstairs floor were beautified with flowerpots and curtains. Rumors spread like wildfire that on behalf of the international community, committee delegates of the International Red Cross were coming to visit. The Jewish Orchestra conducted by Rafael Schächter started practicing Verdi’s Requiem. Prisoners received bigger food rations. Children received special attention; a playground was built, complete with sand boxes, kiddy baths, swings, and rocking horses. When the day approached of the delegation’s visit, the streets were cleaned and the sidewalk scrubbed with water and soap.
Answers were rehearsed. Prisoners who refused to cooperate were locked up. Kurt Gerron, a famous producer, director, actor who fled from Germany to Holland where the
Nazis caught up with him all the same, was responsible for entertainment. Gerron assembled a choir and started rehearsing the choir in the Maagdenburger barracks.
Violinist playing at Terezin
Herman told Kurt Gerron about Sonja’s beautiful coloratura soprano voice and arranged an audition during a rehearsal break. So much had happened, her nerves were frazzled and her voice failed her. She cleared her throat and tried again, but it was no good. She apologized and Herman thanked Gerron for his time. He could tell she started to unravel emotionally.
Walking back through the playground, she cried as he tried to cheer her up. His voice was warm and his firm arm around her shoulder made her feel an intense love for him. “I’d go crazy without you here.”
He kissed her tears. He stopped walking and looked into her eyes. He told her not to worry and that everything was going to work out. He was convinced that the Americans were going to show up eventually.
August 25, 1944. The Americans liberated Paris. When word reached the camp, the prisoners thought the war would be over soon. But it would take another nine months for the war in Europe to be over.
Theresienstadt remained a transit camp to the ovens of Auschwitz. Tens of thousands of prisoners were dying from starvation and dehydration. The lack of food and water and the squalid living situation took its toll.
They needed a thousand men to help build a new camp somewhere. They were told that it was only temporary. They’d be reunited with their wives soon again. Herman was called up to leave. They stayed awake all night and talked.
“When am I going to get to see you again?” “I wish I knew. As soon as the war is over, go back to Amsterdam. I’ll find you there. I promise.” Soldiers ordered him to keep walking.
“I’ll wait for you.” “Remember the good times. Always remember the good times.” He blew her one last kiss before he and Jimmy, a friend from Holland, boarded the train together with some thousand men. She felt scared. Uncle Ben had left for Switzerland, and now Herman was gone.