During World War II, Hitler’s army ordered an 11-year-old Jewish girl named Ilse Eichner to the Terezin concentration camp near Prague before transferring her in October 1944 to Auschwitz, the largest Nazi death camp in Poland. After passing an inspection in front of the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele, Ilse was sent to a slave labor camp in nearby Silesia.
Of the 15,000 children sent to Terezin, Ilse is one of only 132 known to have survived.
As the war came to a close three months later, Ilse and other prisoners were forced to leave the Auschwitz satellite work camp in a death march designed to kill as many Jews as possible before Allies could find and liberate them. After the third day, Ilse escaped and eventually staggered toward the Czech border, where she collapsed. When she awoke, she was in a Red Cross van on her way to a hospital in Prague.
Today, Ilse Eichner Reiner, 83, lives in Sandy Springs near her daughter, Elaine Reiner. This is part two of her story, continued from last week’s Personal Journey.
Ilse Eichner Reiner toured the domed Capitol Rotunda in Washington with her husband, Charlie, and their two young children, Richard and Elaine. The year was 1964. Lyndon B. Johnson was in office. Like many naturalized citizens, Ilse took great pride in her status as an American, and no place made her feel more American than the nation’s capital. She and her family visited there often. She especially liked the memorials that paid tribute to the country’s founding fathers.
As she admired the structure’s curved sandstone walls and strolled past statues of presidents, Ilse passed a group of older tourists speaking in the familiar cadence and guttural intonations of German. Suddenly, someone in the group brusquely jostled into her, causing her to stumble.
“Stop pushing my mom!” shouted Richard, then 11.
Catching her balance, Ilse was immediately transported somewhere else, some place surrounded by guards, smoke, the sobs of parents and children being separated.
Ilse’s heart raced and she stopped to gather her composure. Charlie was at her side. He told his children to go on ahead. Charlie, a picture of concern, leaned close. Was she OK? He stayed with his wife for a few minutes until she collected herself.
Before that day, Ilse had never talked to her children about the Holocaust. She didn’t talk about life in Terezin, where tens of thousands of Jews were held in captivity outside Prague. She didn’t utter a word about the horrors of Auschwitz, where she was sent to die.
And yet, decades later, inside a building considered the physical and symbolic heart of the United States, the shove of a German tourist paralyzed her.
When the couple rejoined their children, Ilse made a decision. She would tell her children about that chapter of her life. She hadn’t wanted to saddle them with dark thoughts. She hadn’t wanted to stir heavy emotions in herself. But now she knew she couldn’t hide the past from herself — or her children — any longer.
Richard, now 59, considers that moment a turning point.
“My mother started revealing more,” he said.
She told her children about building trenches in frozen ground — at an age when she should have been in school. She talked about getting her head shaved, wearing prison garb and the piercing pain of icy hands and frostbitten toes.
But she also talked about brighter moments — the camaraderie among the children at Terezin, the older women who looked after her in the labor camp. She shared stories about the kind, loving family from Vsetin who took care of her after the war.
In the telling of her story, she expressed thanks for her life and a determination to make it count.
“She doesn’t kid herself that the world is not cruel,” said Richard, “but when she looks at the rose, she doesn’t see the thorns, she looks at the petals.”
After the war, Europe was in chaos as the region wrestled with food shortages, economic disaster and political turmoil. In Czechoslovakia, about 2 million Germans were expelled from the country; their property confiscated.
And Ilse, just 15 years old, had nowhere to go.
She was alone in a hospital, the sole survivor in her family. Her parents had been taken into custody and sent to concentration camps when Ilse was just 10. Her mother died from tuberculosis, and her father was killed.
At the hospital, Ilse hovered in a delicate state. She had pneumonia and pleurisy. She was malnourished. Sores covered her body. It was the second time illness threatened to cut her life short. In the Terezin concentration camp, she nearly died from typhus.
But Ilse had not been forgotten. In her hometown of Vsetin, a Protestant couple boarded a train for Prague. Lydia and Frantisek Lukás were the parents of Ilse’s childhood friend, Vera, and they had to find out if the sweet, playful child with impeccable manners had survived. The couple visited the repatriation office where they studied the list of survivors. There they discovered Ilse’s name.
“Don’t worry. Get well,” Lydia told Ilse in the hospital that day. “We’d like you to come stay with us.”
On the train back to Vsetin, Lydia told her husband what she’d done.
“I know she was nervous about how he would react,” said her daughter, Eva Zarska, now 79. The Lukás family already had four girls and one boy. Could they afford to open their home to another child?
The patriarch of the family didn’t hesitate: “If we can take care of five children, we can take care of six.”
2. A time to heal
Ilse returned to her hometown with a redefined identity. She dropped the nickname “Miluska,” which means “to be loved by someone.” She had adopted it on the train ride to the Jewish orphanage in Prague after her mother died.
“I felt like I didn’t need that anymore,” said Ilse. “It was a new chapter in my life.”
And she was in proud possession of an official ID card that identified her as a political prisoner.
“It reinstated me as a human being who had her rightful name and was no longer just a number,” said Ilse, “a number I refused to remember.”
Her appearance had changed, too. She was gaunt, and her brunette curls were gone.
“I can still see the moment today,” said Marie Starobova, one of the Lukás daughters, now in her 80s. “She was so skinny. Her hair was so short. But yet, it was still Ilse.”
Although eggs were scarce, Marie’s mother, Lydia, sneaked them into Ilse’s coffee for added protein. She knew Ilse wouldn’t knowingly eat them while others went without.
“I kept asking what was that floating in my coffee,” Ilse recalled with a laugh. “She mixed it with the milk, which would sometimes be in chunks because it wasn’t homogenized. I eventually realized what was going on.”
Ilse shared a room with the two oldest sisters, Marie and Vera, and she returned to school. In the summer, she joined the Lukás family at their country farmhouse, where she roamed the fields barefoot and picked strawberries, which they ate with heavy cream.
Little by little, Ilse’s playfulness returned. So did her laugh — not just a giggle, but a happy, feel-it-in-your-belly laugh.
“I was deeply touched,” said Eva. “For a child so young to go through what she went through and it didn’t break her. It didn’t destroy her.”
The Lukas sisters were moved by Ilse’s enduring bond with her mother.
One day, Eva recalled, she followed her mother into Ilse’s room. It was Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year in Judaism, marked by fasting and the honoring of loved ones who have died. Carrying a plate of grapes, Eva’s mother urged Ilse to eat a few. After all, she was still so frail. Eva was struck by the image of Ilse, alone in the room at a table set with flowers, a flickering candle, a photograph of her mother and an open book of prayers. Ilse’s delicate face, turned to the side, was framed by dark curls that had begun to grow in.
“It was so powerful,” said Eva. “My mother did not press her to eat, and we both quickly left the room.”
Eight months later, Ilse set sail for New York City to live with her mother’s brother and his wife.
Before she left, she gave the Lukas family a photograph of herself. On the back she wrote, “Remember me sometimes even if I am not here with you. Your Ilse.”
But in her excitement to begin the next chapter of her life, she’d forgotten one thing: the diary she wrote at the Jewish orphanage in Prague after she lost her parents. She had sent it to the Lukás family for safekeeping before she was sent to the concentration camp in Terezin. It would remain stowed in an attic dresser in the Lukás home for decades, waiting for the day it would come to light and inspire a new generation of children.
3. Life in America
Still a teenager when she arrived in America, Ilse attended high school and worked part time at a clothing store.
She met her husband, Charlie Reiner, during a summer getaway to the Adirondacks in 1948. He invited her to a game of tennis. She was immediately smitten. Eleven years her senior, he was even-keeled, kind. He was a good listener and adept at easing tensions with humor.
Charlie was also a war hero. An infantryman during WWII, he was one of the soldiers who landed on Utah Beach during the Normandy Invasion. He helped liberate Dachau, the first concentration camp established by the Nazi regime.
Charlie understood the terror his wife had experienced. He saw the vestiges of cruelty and massacre when he entered Dachau — the corpses, bones and ashes.
Ilse and Charlie married in 1950, started their family and eventually moved to Levittown, Pa., one of the country’s earliest suburbs, designed for post-war families of modest means. Charlie knew his wife would become friends with their neighbor, Dolores Padron, also a new mom. But he wanted to have a few words with her first.
“He told me his wife, Ilse, was a survivor of Auschwitz, and to never mention anything about it,” recalled Padron, who now lives in Maryland. “I said OK. And I never did.”
The only person Ilse talked to about those dark days was her husband.
“He was great emotional support for me,” Ilse said.
But in many ways, Ilse’s life resembled those of her neighbors. She was a stay-at-home mom. She helped the kids with their homework, played dolls with Elaine, cheered for Richard at his baseball games and volunteered at school. Despite the horrors of her past, Ilse continued to find joy in everyday life.
“With many of the [Holocaust] survivors I have met, you won’t see them smile or laugh,” said Ilse’s daughter, Elaine. “Their faces are sullen. And with my mom, she has her moments, but she doesn’t let it stop her joyfulness. She still has that laughter and life. Her eyes twinkle.”
But Richard, an artist and talent agent who now lives in Los Angeles, learned early on that you don’t want to cross Ilse. He recalled the time when he was in middle school in the early 1960s, and he invited an African-American classmate to come to the house. The visit prompted phone calls from people in the neighborhood.
“They said to my mother, ‘We don’t want to see that [racial slur] boy around here again,’ and my mother lost it,” said Richard. “She said, ‘Oh, so you think you are better than others?’ She let them have it. And I remember thinking, ‘You are messing with the wrong woman.’ ”
4. A piece of her past
Through the years, memories from Ilse’s past would wash over her with such urgency, she was compelled to jot them down on scraps of paper and tuck them away in a drawer. The drawer began to overflow.
In June 1990, after the Velvet Revolution restored democracy to the Czech Republic, Ilse returned to Vsetin for the first time since she left for the U.S. As she prepared to pay a visit to the Lukás sisters, who were well into adulthood by then, the Lukás sisters were preparing a surprise for Ilse. Lydia had come across Ilse’s diary in the attic, and it was placed on a table with a lace tablecloth and red roses for Ilse’s arrival.
Ilse was stunned. She hadn’t remembered sending it to the Lukas family. She hadn’t even remembered it existed. And there it was — her words filling a book, the cover adorned with the familiar red and purple flowers.
“I was happy to have a piece of my past,” said Ilse. “I was happy to have something from my childhood, and something that connected me to my mother.”
And then she decided to share it with others.
Ilse and a friend translated her diary into English, and, in 2006, she self-published “Through the Eyes of a Child: Diary of an Eleven-year-old Jewish Girl.” In addition to the contents of her diary, the book includes Ilse’s reflections on religion and life, as well as family photos and, most poignant, letters from her mother written from prison and the Ravensbruck concentration camp:
At the end of this month, it will be a year since we were separated from each other. You see, my Ilsinko, how much strength one needs and what one must endure at times. Be sure to hold onto your cheerful disposition as it helps one get through life…I am embracing you, hugging and kissing you, Your loving mommy.
“This is a story about the pain of losing a mother and the intimacy of a mother and child,” Ilse said about the book.
A couple of years later, a Czech version of the book was published. Ilse wanted to acknowledge the warm embrace of the Lukás family in their own language, and it was important to her that children in Vsetin read her words.
She had no idea the impact her decision would have on her hometown.
5. Hometown hero returns
Jaroslava Sevcikova has taught history in Vsetin for nine years, and she looks for local ties to help students connect their community to World War II history.
She has taken students to the place where a synagogue once stood before the Nazis burned it to the ground. Today, a menorah carved of stone and surrounded by birch trees stands in its place. She’s also taken students to a hilltop memorial that lists the names of every local person who died from the Holocaust.
One day about four years ago, Sevcikova saw one of the Lukás sisters, who told her about Ilse’s book.
“When I read it, I just knew it could have a deep impact on the children,” said Sevcikova, who teaches grades one through nine. “I wanted the students to see through Ilse’s story someone who went through something very, very hard and she never gave up.”
Ilse’s book is now part of Sevcikova’s World War II history curriculum.
And in the process, the students at Vsetin Sychrov Primary School embraced Ilse for her courage, her strength, and her ability to emerge from the horror with warmth and kindness. In 2011, the students decided that Ilse deserved special recognition from her hometown. They drafted a petition, gathered signatures from every student, teacher and staff member of their school, and delivered it to the mayor.
In September 2011, Ilse returned to Czech Republic to receive an honorary citizenship award.
Accompanied by daughter Elaine, Ilse started her trip in Prague. At the Jewish Museum, she discovered the collage she made in Terezin. She also visited the site of the Jewish orphanage. Today, the stately building is home to the Lauder Schools, believed to be the only Jewish school in the country. And she visited her mother’s grave. There she closed her eyes and pictured her mother, wearing a green silk suit and a big smile, standing on a hillside with flowers up to her knees.
Ilse snipped a piece of ivy near the grave site and placed it in a plastic bag for a keepsake.
Then Ilse and Elaine took the 3½-hour train trip to Vsetin. It was the place of her childhood, which started so splendidly and ceased so abruptly. On this September day, she was returning to be honored by the town’s children.
The day of the event was sunny with dozens of people — residents, relatives, students, teachers, town officials — gathered at the town’s castle, a 17th century structure on a hill overlooking Vsetin. A Czech TV crew came to record it.
Students lined up while a violinist performed. One by one, each student handed Ilse a single red rose. The mayor spoke, and a child read from Ilse’s book — a letter from her mother, sent from a concentration camp.
Dearest Ilsinko, Have courage for time passes quickly and one of these days your momma will be with you once again. Are you learning in school these days or are you studying at home? Do you have a warm winter coat? Aunt Terka [a family friend who watched Ilse before she went to the orphanage] will surely look after you well during my absence. I am sending her my heartfelt greetings. As for you, my one and only dearly beloved child, I am sending greetings along with a thousand kisses. Momma. (Ilse’s mother died 16 months later of tuberculosis.)
Sevcikova, the teacher, also spoke, her voice choked with emotion.
“Here, all of us teachers and students of the primary school of Vsetin Sychrov, we were given such a wonderful hope,” Sevcikova said in closing. “Thanks to you for this hope. Even if one suffers deeply and survives awful experiences, one can still become a charming person like you again. A person that gives joy with every smile, every greeting, every gesture. And we thank you for that.”
6. Sharing her story
Dressed in a pale pink sweater, silver curls framing her face, Ilse looked much younger than her 83 years as she took center stage at the William Breman Jewish Museum in Atlanta last September. Ilse was a guest speaker in Breman’s monthly “Bearing Witness” program, featuring local Holocaust survivors.
At Ilse’s request, children were present; the Atlanta Young Singers of Callanwolde performed songs from “Brundibar,” the children’s opera she’d first heard in Terezin.
Ilse’s doctor has warned her against public speaking, knowing it stirs intense emotions and can take a a toll on her body.
Still, from time to time, Ilse likes to speak to children. She believes it’s her responsibility to deliver a message of tolerance and respect, to not let history be forgotten.
At the Breman, during a question-and-answer session with the audience, a woman asked Ilse to describe her worst — and best — day in Terezin.
Ilse didn’t hesitate. The worst, she said, was the day she emerged from consciousness in the hospital after a life-threatening bout of typhus. That was when she learned all her friends from the orphanage who had accompanied her to Terezin were dead.
Her best day? She paused for a moment, and then her face lit up.
“I had my first kiss there,” she said. “And I liked it.
“You see,” she said. “It wasn’t all bad. I was always looking for moments of daylight.”
How we got the story
After reading Part 1 of Ilse Reiner’s experience in Nazi concentration camps in Personal Journeys last week, many readers emailed reporter Helena Oliviero saying they couldn’t wait to read part two. Today, Oliviero narrates how Reiner survived the camps, came to the United States and built a life based on hope, not fear.
It’s one of the most remarkable stories I’ve encountered in my 25-year career as a journalist. And I’m enormously proud of the staff that brings such stories to our readers every week. Features like this one take time, hard work and a commitment to deliver the absolute best story we can. That’s why we sent Oliviero to the Czech Republic to see with her own eyes the town, the orphanage and the concentration camp that Reiner survived. And Reiner’s story doesn’t end with the war. Oliviero also learned how grade school teachers in Reiner’s hometown are using her life story to educate children about the horrors and atrocities of World War II.
assistant managing editor
About the reporter
Helena Oliviero joined the AJC in 2002 as a features writer after four-year stints with the Sun News in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Knight Ridder as a correspondent in Mexico. She lives in Decatur with her family, was educated at the University of San Francisco and is often inspired by the people she writes about.
Next week: When the bottom fell out of the carpet industry in Dalton, one man saw opportunity.