German propaganda illustration
In what used to be Czechoslovakia, about forty miles northwest of the capital of Prague, the Austrian emperor Jozef II built an army fortification and named it Terezin, after his mother Maria Theresa. The fortification was comprised of a small and a bigger fortress. The bigger fortress included ten garrisons. Each garrison was three stories high and contained an inner courtyard. They turned the big fortress into a concentration camp and kept the small fortress as a prison.
The Nazis changed the Czech name to the German name of Theresienstadt. Originally, Terezin could house six thousand people. By the end of 1943, it housed fifty-eight thousand.
February 25, 1944. Six o’clock in the morning. The weather was icy cold. Against the rules, they woke up together in the cabin. An old, run-down passenger train to Theresienstadt was scheduled to leave at eleven o’clock. Sonja was nervous. Herman tried to set her at ease. “It’s going to be fine.” He told her there are rumors that the Americans are planning something. You’ll see. It’s almost over.” She had a hard time believing him. “As long as we can stay together!”
They kissed and she left to fetch her belongings. She did not own much after she left her backpack on the train. One friend had given her a dress, and another sweater.
The passenger train was packed with exactly 911 persons aboard. There were forty people in a car with seating for twenty-four. Before the train started moving, the toilets were already filthy. Sonja sat on Herman’s lap. The commandant rode his bike along the length of the train. When he made an abrupt motion with his hand, the train groaned into motion. Suddenly, there were voices calling from the platform. “Are they calling us? No, that can’t be true.”
The ominous whistle blew. The train rolled slowly out of Camp Westerbork. At least she was with Herman. She leaned her head on his shoulder. “I’ll love you as long as I live,” she heard him whisper in her ear before she dosed off.
Reports were sent to the Allied governments in London and Washington. They included detailed accounts of Auschwitz-Birkenau: the number of transports per day, the layout of the camps, sketches of the gas chambers, and so forth. These reports lead to some politicians wanting to bomb the camps and the railways. But the British and the United States rejected the idea. The official explanation given by Congress was that a diversion of substantial resources to win the Jewish battle was unacceptable. Those resources were needed to win the war.
After three days, the train arrived in Theresienstadt. Sonja and Herman belonged to the 4,597 privileged Jews for whom the East meant Theresienstadt, for now.
Sonja and Herman were assigned to the Hamburger barracks. She landed in Room 112. Herman’s room was one floor up. Sonja’s room housed twelve double bunk beds for twenty-four Czech women. One of her roommates explained the camp’s hierarchy in German; whom to trust, whom to stay away from, what was allowed, and what wasn’t. She was told where to report for work the next day. They gave her a blouse and a pair of dark brown overalls, and she was put her to work in a ten men and women cleaning crew. Every ten days, they were assigned to clean a different location; the hospital, the admin offices, etc. Everyone wanted to work in the bakery because Theresienstadt meant going hungry.
Herman talked to the baker and got her a job. Her day started at six a.m. First, she went to a large washroom that had a long sink with a row of faucets above it. She made do with a couple drops of cold water. Then she hurried to the bakery. The bakery detail started at seven o’clock. They taught her how to knead bread, how to place the loaves in the oven, when to take them out, and how to make them look shiny. When the loaves were ready, she dropped them off at the distribution windows throughout the camp. At the end of the day, the baker nodded at her, giving her permission to take the leftover bread. She couldn’t let anybody see her. Being caught meant deportation to Auschwitz.
Herman worked in the agriculture detail. He worked long hours. From seven in the morning to six in the evening, his agri-detail worked on a piece of land outside the camp, growing all sorts of vegetables for German consumption only. He was in good condition. He worked hard and looked healthy, even though he started feeling pangs of hunger. The men in his work detail liked him. So did the guards.
Every day, after her shift, she’d go to the top of a hill and waited for Herman’s detail to return to camp. She touched a piece of bread in her pocket she’d saved for him.