Opera Terezín

A Survivor's Story of Hope Amid Horror

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Ela Stein Weissberger was born in this house, located in Lom u Mostu, now part of the Czech Republic. In 1938, it was ransacked during Kristallnacht and seized by the Gestapo.WELCOME TO TEREZÍN
Weissberger’s uncle, Otto Altenstein, clutched her arm as they shuffled through the snow, weighed down by the 110 pounds of belongings each person was allowed to bring. Weissberger and her family had no idea where they’d be sent when in February 1942 they were ordered to leave their last refuge in Prague—an apartment they had shared with two other families. They didn’t know where they were when the train came to a stop outside Terezín. All they knew is that a transport guard had shouted for everyone to get off the train and start walking.

The two-mile hike to the gates of Terezín was taxing for Altenstein. A childhood illness impeded his growth, making it difficult for him to walk alone. Weissberger, then 11, dragged her heavy suitcase through the snow with one hand and helped steady her uncle’s steps with the other. Ghetto guards with billy clubs yelled, “March! March!” as they struggled to stay on their feet. When they reached Terezín, armed Nazi officers wearing swastika armbands herded them into the once-provincial village, now barricaded and surrounded by barbed wire. When the gate closed behind them, Weissberger says, “We knew we were locked up.”

CHILDHOOD LOST
About three years before her family was sent to Terezín, 8-year-old Weissberger was awakened in the middle of the night by her mother in their small town of Lom u Mostu, located in Sudetenland, a border region of Czechoslovakia that one month earlier had been annexed into the Third Reich. She quickly ushered Weissberger and her older sister, Ilona, to the attic, where they hid with their mother and an aunt from the approaching mob. “I still hear the drums of Hitler youth as they were marching down the street,” Weissberger says.

Huddled together to fend off the cold November air wafting through the attic, the foursome heard windows breaking downstairs and the sound of footsteps traipsing through the house. They hid in the attic for hours, waiting for the intruders to leave. Once the house grew quiet, they emerged, shocked and shivering, from their dank hiding spot.

Still in their pajamas, they crept through the house surveying the damage. There was broken glass everywhere. Carp from the pond in the family garden floated in the bathtub, overflowing with bloody water. Painted on the front door were the words Jews Out!

The world would come to know this night as Kristallnacht, “the night of broken glass.” For Weissberger, it was just one more nail in the coffin of her childhood.

The next day, the Gestapo summoned Weissberger’s mother to their headquarters. They demanded that she turn over the deeds to their house, her father’s porcelain business and the grocery store her mother inherited from her family. She was then told to leave town or face death. When she returned home, she told her daughters they would have to leave immediately. There was no time to pack anything. Their Uncle Vojta was waiting outside.

Sleet and freezing rain stung Weissberger’s face as she and her family sped toward the Czech border in the sidecar of her Uncle Vojta’s motorcycle. By the time they reached the border of Czechoslovakia and occupied Sudetenland, Weissberger was nearly frozen, both physically and emotionally. Everything had changed so quickly. One day she was watching her father tend to his roses and play chess with a friend. The next she was watching him be led away by police for daring to speak out against Hitler at the town barbershop. Her father’s arrest was just weeks before that ominous race toward the border. She never saw him again, and his fate is unknown to this day.

Weissberger’s last class picture, taken in 1940 before the Third Reich forbadex Jewish children from attending public school.A FALSE SENSE OF SECURITY
A German guard took pity on Weissberger’s family when her silent terror erupted into tears at the border checkpoint between occupied Sudetenland and what was left of Czechoslovakia. She begged her mother to take her home, but there was no turning back and the guard surely knew it. He yelled, “Schnell (quick)! Now run.” Weissberger and her family jumped off her uncle’s motorcycle and ran across the border.

They made their way to Prague, where they moved in with Altenstein. Weissberger’s life began to resume some semblance of normality. Altenstein became a surrogate father to her. She went back to school and made new friends. Then the Nazis came to town.

One day, all the students in her school were pulled out of class to greet the Führer. Children were lined up on both sides of the street for Hitler’s grand entrance. He stood up in his chauffeured convertible, heiling as he made his way down the street. Weissberger was afraid to look at him when he rode by. She thought about how his storm troopers had taken her father from their home, never to be seen again. She remembered how she and her sister would cover their ears at the very sound of Hitler’s booming voice coming through the radio.

Seeing her father sitting in front of the radio listening to reports about Hitler is one of the last memories she has of him. “My father didn’t think Hitler had the guts to invade Czechoslovakia,” Weissberger says.

She recalls that Prague turned ugly after the Nazis’ arrival. The so-called Golden City, with its cobblestone streets, towering cathedrals and colorful town square, seemed somehow darker in those days.

It wasn’t long before Jewish children were forbidden to attend public school. Weissberger watched her newfound friends walk to school together and wondered why she couldn’t join them. What had she done? What was wrong with her?

Her answer came the day she was given her yellow star. It had one word on it: Jude, “Jew.” She would wear the star for the next five years on every piece of clothing she had, save one—her costume for Brundibár.

THE PROSPECT FOR SURVIVAL
When Weissberger arrived in Terezín, she stayed in a tiny room with her mother and sister. The entire building was cold and cramped. People slept in hallways and on staircases. The smell of dysentery and disease hung in the air. Lice were rampant. Rats and bedbugs infested the rooms. Around her, people lay sick and dying from typhus and malnutrition.

Repugnant green soup made from dried peas and bits of frozen potatoes was the only thing to eat. Elderly men and women rummaged through piles of garbage in the courtyard, searching for rotten potato peels. “They looked like walking skeletons,” Weissberger says.

As the number of detainees rose in Terezín, so, too, did the death toll. Starvation and disease were the main culprits, although many political prisoners and POWs were killed there after torturous encounters with the Gestapo in the Small Fortress, built by Emperor Joseph II as part of the original 18th-century garrison town. Tens of thousands more were loaded onto cattle trains bound for the death camps in the east.

According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website, approximately 140,000 Jews were sent to Terezín during the war. About 33,000 people died while held captive there. Nearly 90,000 of its prisoners were transported to almost certain death in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and its sister concentration camps in occupied Poland. Of the 15,000 children who passed through Terezín, approximately 13,500 perished in death camps. Although figures vary, it is estimated that only 100 to 300 children who avoided the transports to the east lived to see Terezín’s liberation in May 1945. The death toll in Terezín was so high that the Nazis built a crematorium in the camp capable of incinerating nearly 200 bodies a day.

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