Children Knew 'We're Going To Die'

April 10, 1994|By Traci A. Johnson | Traci A. Johnson,Sun Staff Writer

No, It mustn't happen. They can't do it. No one will let them! But why shouldn't they do it? Who prevented them from bringing us here, and who will prevent the gas chambers, who -- God? I have stopped believing in God, so is this punishment for that? No, it isn't, Tonicka and Berticka pray and they would be sent to the gas chambers with me.

-- Charlotte Veresova

After reciting the diary entry -- written by a 12-year-old Jewish girl in Terezin, in the Czechoslovakian ghetto, during World War II -- Kym Samuels stared at the other papers representing the thousands of children who languished or perished in that place.

She stubbed out the first of four cigarettes she would smoke in 45 minutes and shook her head.

"In their diaries and poetry, they [the children] just say flat out, 'We're going to die.' They knew it was coming," said Ms. Samuels, 21, a Western Maryland College senior.

"No matter how much the adults tried to hide it from them, trying to make their lives as easy as possible, there were just real indications that they knew what was up. . . ."

Ms. Samuels went beyond the campus library to research her senior project -- how art and writings of children in Terezin reflect their Holocaust experiences.

She went to Washington and to the Czech Republic to Terezin -- or Theresienstadt, as it was called then. She collected enough material for a book, a pictorial for the campus library for which she received a grant from WMC.

She delved into the children's words and pictures. Through those intimate documents, she felt what was in their hearts.

And hers broke.

"What they went through is mind-boggling," she said, her speech quickening though she tried to speak casually. "Fifteen thousand children went through Terezin between 1941 and 1944. And approximately 100 survived."

It was a blustery day, and Ms. Samuels had on thick tights beneath her long skirt and combat boots. Once inside the college pub, she opened her knapsack and poured months of research onto the table.

Terezin -- pronounced Tair-uh-zeen -- is a regular city, with stores and cafes and residents, a fact that Ms. Samuels, who is Jewish, took for granted before she visited the city for 10 days during the college's winter semester.

As a child living in Germany -- her father was stationed in Heidelberg by the Army for four years -- Ms. Samuels had visited many of the "Holocaust sites" such as Dachau, Anne Frank's house and the Eagle's Nest -- "Hitler's little get-away-from-it-all, Camp David-type place."

But she wasn't prepared for Terezin, which gave its name to the nearby concentration camp.

"This is where I slept . . . huge bedroom, little shower room, my own hallway -- all mine in the hotel in Terezin for $10," she said, displaying pictures of her quarters.

"It was an old SS commander's flat, which I found out just before I went to sleep." She shook her head. "I had hideous nightmares. It was awful."

The Terezin ghetto was actually the larger section of a fortress built just outside the city in 1780, Ms. Samuels said. Der Kleine Festung, or "the little fortress," was the death camp, with Arbeit Macht Frei -- "Work will set you free" -- inscribed over its entrance.

Ms. Samuels saw the train tracks that brought the cattle cars filled with Jewish prisoners to the city. They were overgrown. She entered the barracks -- not much bigger than the tiny WMC pub, she said -- where 1,000 people slept at once.

She walked around the spacious shaving room Hitler ordered built as a tool for his propaganda. The Jewish prisoners probably never used that room, she said.

Many children were sent to the little fortress, through the "death gate" and down the corridor to where a firing squad waited. Ms. Samuel said blood still stains the walls and bullet holes pock the ground in the compound.

But before the firing squad, the children lived in Terezin.

"I've always been aware that there was a place called Terezin, and that the children there had this incredible culture," Ms. Samuels said.

"I looked into the diaries kept by some of the children. They have some interesting quotations, like from these three young women," said Ms. Samuels. "They were about 12 to 14 years old."

God, her plight and the fate of her friends were among the things Charlotte Veresova, the young girl from Prague quoted at the beginning of this story, wrote about during her two-year stay in Terezin, which held prisoners from 1941 until 1945.

She watched from the dirt streets as Nazis set up an elaborate production for the rest of the world. She wrote:

The Germans are going to make a film here so they are up to all sorts of monkey shines. . . . The sidewalks are being scrubbed and wherever there is even a tiny bit of earth they plant flowers. They carried earth to the main square and made a park, but no one is allowed to go into it.

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