My Terezín Diary
September 14, 2019 6:24 PM   Subscribe

On a freezing day in January, 1944, after my family and I had been confined at Terezín for six months, my mother was arrested by the S.S. and placed in a basement cell in the dreaded prison at their camp headquarters. Not even her lover, who was a member of the Terezín Aeltestenrat, or Council of Elders—the Jewish governing body—could get her released. I was twelve years old, and I was afraid that I would never see her again. But on February 21, 1944, all I wrote in my diary was “Mommy was away from us.” What is most striking to me today about the diary I kept in the camp, seventy-five years ago, is what I left out. [SLNewYorker]
posted by Ahmad Khani (11 comments total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
Thank you for posting this.
posted by mustard seeds at 7:18 PM on September 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

Heartbreaking narrative. I'm stunned.
posted by j_curiouser at 8:38 PM on September 14, 2019

But that was not the only thing that kept me from writing frankly. The biggest hindrance, I now see, was my fear of my own feelings.

Ms. Justman is writing frankly, now, but she still seems to be treading lightly. She is still very careful with her choice of words and how much emotion she permits them to show. All these years later, I can imagine those feelings remain extremely difficult to deal with. I appreciate her bravery in telling her story.

And I wonder how many careful little diaries are being kept by children on the U.S.'s southern border.
posted by bryon at 8:55 PM on September 14, 2019 [14 favorites]

Wow, that's a lot to unpack. Thanks for sharing!
posted by Harald74 at 10:27 PM on September 14, 2019

Thank you for posting this; it is indeed heartbreaking. I am currently teaching a (nonfiction)book about the Holocaust, and part of it takes place in Terezin, so I’m very interested to read different accounts of it.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:02 AM on September 15, 2019

I used to be very interested in this history. I have read many of the popular classics, been to Auschwitz multiple times, Dachau memorial site, etc. I wanted to bear witness, make it something immediate and personal to me.

Used to and still do, but something has changed. This story was heartbreaking, but what is more heartbreaking is seeing it all unfolding again, right now in real time, with the victims of the 30s and 40s still not even completely passed yet, with living memory still here.

I know plenty of men in my cohort that thought Nazis were cool or chic, seduced by the uniforms and high tech weapons, it seemed (from my privileged position) a strange but mostly meaningless defecit of character in the 70s, 80s, 90s, when I witnessed it. So now the Nazis join the Confederates on "Team White", failed hateful losers who we vanquished but not really, seems they will just never go away.

Fuck me, seriously, this is just unacceptable. What's wrong with people? Sorry, do not want to derail, but what a clusterfuck this world is!
posted by Meatbomb at 4:47 AM on September 15, 2019 [11 favorites]

I'm crying.
It stood out to me that she kept on hoping her dad would turn up, even when she was a young adult studying at Vassar. My paternal granddad died in a Nazi prison when it was bombed, and disappeared, and as a kid I always thought there might have been a mistake, and he would suddenly turn up. Even when I was very small, I knew how the grief never left my grandmother and dad. They are going to make a film about the event, and I wrote to the production company to remind them that the terror of war and persecution lives on, even with generations who didn't personally experience it. I don't want to meddle with their film, but I also don't want them to tell a heroic nationalist lie.
posted by mumimor at 4:56 AM on September 15, 2019 [16 favorites]

I visited Terezín in the 1990s. I was researching 18th-century fortifications for a book on Gothic lit, and Terezín was one of the best-preserved sites. I knew a little of its WWII history, but not enough to prevent me from being overwhelmed by the experience.

Thank you for posting this.
posted by doctornemo at 8:15 AM on September 15, 2019

This is an incredibly powerful piece of writing. Thank you for sharing it.

For anybody who wanted to know more about the author, this is her Wikipedia page. I also found a two part interview with transcript where Ms. Justman talks about a novel that her older brother wrote about his time in the Terezin hospital.
posted by joyceanmachine at 10:43 AM on September 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

It's so hard to speak about trauma directly. I'm so grateful for the accounts that we have, like this one.
posted by harriet vane at 12:00 AM on September 16, 2019

Some stories are only given to you to hand on. This seems like as good a place as any to tell this one:

In 2011, I produced a short opera that had been composed in Terezín: The Emperor of Atlantis, composed by Viktor Ullmann with a libretto by Petr Kien. The plot concerns Death, who decides to quit his job, and an emperor, "Kaiser Overall" (parody of guess who), who discovers he cannot rule without the assistance of Death. Enemies slain in war do not die, and neither do the prisoners he tries to execute. Eventually Death offers to resume his duties if he can take the Kaiser first. Overall agrees; the cast sing a hymn praising Death, and so ends the opera.

It's a strangely beautiful piece-- Ullmann wrote a a bit about how important that was:
"Theresienstadt was and remains for me a school that teaches structure. Previously, where one was unable to experience that weight of cruelty due to 'comfort' (this magic of civilisation), one was allowed simply to disregard it; it was easy to create the beautiful form. Here, where artistic substance has to try and endure its daily structure, where every bit of divine inspiration stands counter to its surroundings, it is here that one finds the masterclass."

--Viktor Ullmann, Goethe and Ghetto, 1944
The opera got as far as the dress rehearsal, when the SS guards and officers who came didn't like what they saw. Ullmann, Kien and many of the orchestra were transported to Auschwitz on 16 October 1944 and immediately murdered there. The opera only survives because Ullmann entrusted the score to a friend who survived.

One thing I'm proud of is that we kept Ullmann's original orchestration for 13 players. It's scored for all kinds of random instruments-- a saxophone, a guitar, a tam-tam-- because those instruments and players were what they happened to have in Terezín at the time. And Ullmann made it work: the sound is haunting but amazing.

It was my first go at producing, and I was no good at it. The stage director was awful to everyone, including me, and I didn't yet have the confidence to pull him up. This created a pretty lousy working environment, which only got worse as rehearsals went on. It was only that summer, after we'd done two rather fraught nights at a fringe festival, that I learned what it had all been for:

After the last show, an audience member asked to speak to whoever was in charge, so I went. She introduced herself as Zdenka Fantlovà, and said that she'd been in Terezìn with Ullmann. "I was twenty then," she said. "I'm ninety now." (She looked less than 70.)

She held my hand and asked why I had chosen to produce this opera; then she talked about what it had been like in Terezín. She said it was an extraordinary artistic atmosphere, because there was no monetary aspect so everyone was free to create whatever they wanted; there was a spirit of collaboration and little or no jealousy. She acted in 5 plays, and became an actress after the war when she had regained her health. She remembered The Emperor Of Atlantis being rehearsed, and the performance being forbidden by the camp governors; later she and the composer, Viktor Ullmann, were in the same cattle car when they were transported to Auschwitz.

She told us how she'd been lucky enough to be transferred out of Auschwitz, ending up in Belsen when it was liberated by British troops. But her parents, her brother, sister and her fiancé died. (Later I read her book, The Tin Ring, where she tells that story in more detail.)

As she was talking, the whole cast gathered, wide-eyed, to listen. One of them, the baritone who'd played Death, had come to London as a child refugee from the Yugoslav wars; I think he was probably the closest to understanding what she was talking about.

After she bid us a kind goodnight, they gave her a round of applause. We were all stagefolk, and applause was what we had to give. I still remember the feeling of her light-but-strong hand in mine as she told her story. Fraught and stressful as that project had been, I remember thinking "Oh. So that was what it was for."
posted by Pallas Athena at 12:25 PM on September 16, 2019 [19 favorites]

« Older 👷🏽🔥🍄🌱🧱🛁   |   Attaching Doll Hair Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments