The Survivor (Part 1)

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The Survivor (Part 1)

Hear more stories about surviving the Holocaust

Bearing Witness: Unforgettable Stories From the Holocaust. 2 p.m, first Sunday of the month. Free with museum admission: $12 adults; $8 seniors;$6 students and educators. Free to Breman members. The William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum, 1440 Spring St. NW, Atlanta. 678-222-3700. A guided tour of the Holocaust Gallery follows each talk. Recommended for fifth-graders and older.

During World War II, Hitler’s army ordered a young Jewish girl named Ilse Eichner Reiner to the Terezin concentration camp near Prague before transferring her to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Of the 15,000 children sent to Terezin, Reiner is one of only 132 known to have survived. Today, Reiner lives in Sandy Springs near her daughter. This is her journey.

Ilse Eichner Reiner surrounds herself with flowers. Yellow carnations, pink lilies, peach roses fill her kitchen, her living room, her study. The 83-year-old grandmother has rendered countless paintings of flowers in acrylics, every petal awash in vivid colors. She has hung dozens of them on her walls. They remind her of the fields in Czechoslovakia where she played as a child and picked flowers for her mother on holidays. They remind her of the happy moments of her childhood — before it ended.

***

It was a warm, cloudless day in 1940. Ilse Eichner smiled at her mother, Charlotte, as she hung sheets on a clothesline.

Ilse closed her eyes, inhaled the scent of freshly cut grass and honeysuckle in the soft breeze and thought about how well she would sleep in those sun-dried sheets.

But a sharp cry from her mother jolted Ilse from her daydream. When she opened her eyes she saw two men in suits and fedoras approaching. They flipped over their lapels to flash swastikas at the Jewish mother and child, and Ilse’s mom turned pale.

Ilse’s small town in Czechoslovakia — along with the entire country and beyond — had been taken over by Nazis.

Charlotte embraced her only child, and Ilse watched the Gestapo agents take her mother away.

***

Two years later, Ilse gazed out of the window of the train as its wheels slowly rolled toward Prague.

She considered reading her book, but couldn’t focus, so she looked out at a countryside now under Nazi control. Despite the darkness that lay over the land, she couldn’t help noticing the fields were dotted with daisies, buttercups and her favorite — crimson poppies.

Ilse had lived with a family friend after her mother was taken away. But by order of a German court, she was now on her way to a Jewish orphanage, 170 miles away. Ilse took only what few items she could carry on the train, but her memories were many. She could still feel her mother’s presence, and she remembered her mother’s words: “Be strong.” “Hold onto hope.” “Keep your cheerful disposition.” They were words that would give her strength when she needed it most.

Although she was at the mercy of others, Ilse was not without fortitude. She decided to give herself a nickname that would remind her of her mother and their life together.

She settled on a name that would carry her into a place where people were identified by numbers, not names.

From now on, she decided, she would be known as “Miluska.” It means “to be loved by someone.”

That ability to find daylight in darkness would help Ilse survive and ultimately define her life.

The conductor walked into her car and announced they would arrive in Prague in 30 minutes. Her body stiffened. Ilse combed her hair, grabbed her suitcases and took a deep breath.

2. Dear diary

At the Jewish orphanage in Prague, Ilse did what many 11-year-old girls do: She started writing in a diary about her daily life — the meals served, games played, friendships formed. Housed in an 1800s-era building on a street lined with rose bushes, the orphanage didn’t feel like a stony institution. It was a place where children read in the courtyard, exercised in a gym, played instruments in music rooms. They went to school, voted for class president. Ilse adorned the drab brown cover of her diary with red and violet flowers and a curvy border.

In one entry she wrote about having to wear a Star of David identifying her as Jewish. She confided that she secretly removed it to enter a store that barred Jews so she could buy ice cream for herself and other children.

“Yes,” she told her diary. “I took my chances, more than once.”

Time after time, she seized on the good and found ways to lift her spirits.

June 17, 1942

We aired out our bedding in the morning and after breakfast, cleaned up the dining hall. Then we had to concentrate on our homework. Prior to noon time, we had to hurry and set the tables. We had soup and big dumplings with a tomato sauce. … We kept laughing the entire afternoon, aggravating the teachers…Then Lana and I went to wash our socks. With luck, we had warm water, so we were also able to take a bath. I was telling jokes and kidding around and both of us kept laughing. Finally we said goodnight and went to sleep.

But memories of her mother were never far away. One day she received a postcard from a relative that showed the house where she lived with her mother, and she was reminded of their happy life. She recalled how the two of them hiked in the meadows collecting pine cones in the winter and berries in the summer. She remembered her birthdays when her mother would fill up a miniature tea set with hot chocolate.

And she remembered when it all changed. It was March 1939 when the Germans arrived in her hometown of Vsetin. She recalled the red flags with swastikas draped from their car windows and how they goosestepped to the town square. Ilse and her parents were fingerprinted and forced to live in the attic of their villa while Germans took control of their house. A couple days later, the Gestapo took Ilse’s father, Max Eichner, into custody. He was released about six weeks later, but because Ilse’s parents were in the process of divorcing, he went to live with a brother after his release.

Ilse and her mother moved to the nearby village of Ruzdka and rented a one-room apartment. Ilse continued to go to school until the day she received a report card stamped “Israelite,” and she was no longer permitted to attend. Her piano teacher told her she could no longer give her lessons.

“I remember she was there and all of a sudden, she was gone,” said Marta Holiková, a former classmate of Ilse’s who lives in Vsetin. “I didn’t know what happened. I didn’t even know she was Jewish.”

The next time Ilse saw her mother after the Gestapo took her away, she was in a jail cell.

“Momma, tell me when are you going to be allowed to come home again?” Ilse cried as she hugged her mother.

Ilse’s mother shook her head. “I don’t know my child. I simply don’t know. We must keep praying and hoping.”

It was the last time Ilse saw her mother. Charlotte was sent to Ravensbruck, a concentration camp for women, where she contracted tuberculosis. She died in February 1942.

Later that same year, Ilse’s father was also taken into custody again and sent to a concentration camp in Poland where he perished.

***

Ilse sensed that her time at the orphanage was nearing an end. Still, she tried to stay upbeat.

July 8, 1942

We are constantly getting ourselves and our things ready for Terezin. Mrs. Silberman is constantly sewing for us new things while we are ourselves fixing things we hope to take with us. Miss Beckova has some of our belongings packed in a state of readiness so if we should, God forbid, have to leave, there would not be too much last minute commotion…All and all we are doing fairly well. Mrs. Hecht brought the two of us a compote made with gooseberries and cherries. Erna gave me her dish of farina.

Ilse watched one child after another receive summons to go to some unknown place. She knew young couples who had become engaged; one would receive a summons and the other would volunteer to go, too, so they could stay together. Little did they know they were being sent to concentration camps and, for most of them, to their deaths.

On Oct. 24, 1942, Ilse was sent to the Jewish ghetto in Terezin (Theresienstadt in German), a walled town near the northern border of Czechoslovakia. In addition to 15,000 children, Terezin housed many prominent Jews — writers, scholars, musicians and artists — 140,000 Jewish people in all. Before she left, Ilse mailed her diary and a photograph of her mother to her friend Vera Lukás in Vsetin for safekeeping.

3. Life in Terezin

Today Terezin is eerily quiet, a melancholy town with empty streets and decaying buildings. On a recent afternoon thick with fog and misting with rain, the main square was nearly vacant except for a couple of men sitting on benches with beers in paper bags, asking anyone who walked by for a cigarette.

What was known as The Girls Home, or Building L410, during the war is a formidable structure, more institutional looking than residential. The building now contains apartments with cold, damp hallways, chipped paint and dark water stains blanketing the walls. Clothes hang to dry in a wide hallway.

A basket of apples sits outside a door, along with several pairs of children’s shoes.

Helena Salacová calls Building L410 home.

“It was an apartment, a place to live. I raised my kids here,” says Salacová, her studio apartment blaring with heavy-metal music and overflowing with cactus, a freshly baked apple strudel cooling on the stove.

When asked about the building’s history, her eyes grow moist. She occasionally gets a knock on the door from a Holocaust survivor wanting to look around, she says. She lets them inside.

“It is very sad, but there is more to this building — the architecture,” Salacová says.

Terezin was built in 1780 by Emperor Joseph II as a military post. He named it in honor of his mother, the Empress Maria Theresa. Just an hour’s bus ride from Prague, Terezin is mostly visited by tourists for its World War II history. The Boy’s Home was converted into a museum.

Many of the other buildings, including the enormous central hospital, still stand, touched by age apparent in the rusty window bars and faded paint. Security guards stand outside the empty buildings to prevent looting.

***

In Building L410, Ilse shared a room with 32 girls between the ages of 11 and 15, who slept in three-tiered bunks with straw mattresses.

Ilse, about 12 when she was sent to Terezin, worked in the gardens, cultivating carrots, cucumbers and tomatoes — none of which she ate because it was all turned over to the SS officers who guarded the camp.

She and the other girls woke up early every day for a breakfast consisting of one cup of muddy, imitation coffee. At lunch she stood in long lines for watery soup that only occasionally contained a potato. Dinner was stale bread and sometimes a teaspoon of sugar. They were forever hungry. Lice and bed bugs were rampant.

Still, Ilse and the other girls tried to maintain a sense of normalcy. They did what they could to make life more bearable. They kept their rooms orderly. They attended a secret school in the basement, hiding their books behind their beds. Ilse sang songs and prayed. And she often reminisced about food as a way to feel connected to her family.

She imagined cooking her favorite dishes, such as homemade challah bread. In her mind she braided the dough and brushed it with egg white to make it evenly brown and shiny. In December, she imagined frying latkes and serving them with scoops of applesauce. She dreamed about the taste of her mother’s apple strudel.

“You have to have something to hope for with all your might,” Ilse recalled recently from the comfort of her Sandy Springs home, surrounded by her beloved flowers, both real and painted. “To be in crisis and not have hope, your spirits would sink immediately. I wanted to reclaim what was lost: love and family.”

Another bright spot were the drawing lessons Ilse took from Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, a respected Austrian artist. Among Ilse’s creations was a collage featuring a scrap of yellow paper, a navy blue box, a green apple and pear.

Before Dicker-Brandeis was transported to Auschwitz, where she died in 1944, she hid two suitcases containing about 5,000 pieces of children’s artwork, including Ilse’s collage. It is now part of a collection of children’s artwork from Terezin at the Jewish Museum in Prague.

Sometimes girls in Ilse’s room received packages containing powdered milk and sardines. They divided the packages up evenly, even if that meant one small package was parceled out to 33 children.

For birthdays, Ilse and other girls saved a corner of bread and a tiny bit of sugar. They took turns whipping up the sugar and powdered milk until it got airy and light. They called it, “sweet nothing.”

They combined water and bits of bread and molded the mixture into the shape of a cake.

She sometimes used blades of grass for candles. They made birthday cards from scraps of paper.

“We were innovative,” Ilse recalled with a soft smile.

Ilse grew close to her bunk mates, and the girls did everything they could to ease the suffering and hold onto hope.

“There wasn’t talk of gloom and doom,” said Ilse. “We always told each other better days were in store.”

Terezin was not a death camp by the usual definition. Horrid living conditions made survival difficult. But despite the hardships, Terezin had a thriving cultural life: painting and theater, school and music. It was a place to hold on to to the last bit of hope, another day or week, until Hitler’s defeat would surely come.

None of the children — or adults — knew what really awaited them. One by one, they continued to be shipped “East.”

4. ‘Draw What You See’

Helga Weissová-Hosková is an artist who lives in a modest fourth-floor apartment in Prague. It was from this same apartment that Weissova-Hoskova was taken in 1942 and sent to Terezin, where she was a bunk mate of Ilse Eichner.

At Terezin, Helga spent every evening with a pad of paper on her knees. The first drawing she made featured two children building a snowman. She smuggled it to her father in the men’s barracks. His response came in the form of a note: “Draw what you see.” From then on, she painted gaunt faces, mothers carrying children on a transport and children pushing a hearse with loaves of bread. Weissova-Hoskova is one of the most celebrated artists of the Holocaust era because her drawings captured, through a child’s eyes, everyday moments inside the walls of Terezin.

Asked about her memories of Ilse at Terezin, Weissová-Hosková shares a plate of chocolates with a visitor and smiles, recalling the day a woman gave Ilse a bowl of pudding.

“It’s funny the things you remember,” says Weissová-Hosková. “It was a little thing, but a kind thing to do. I think that meant a lot to Ilse.”

Weissová-Hosková’s first drawings in Terezin used bright colors and clear lines, but over time her palette darkened, the lines more rushed, revealing children with fear in their eyes.

“We all had this strong will to survive and hope,” says Weissová-Hosková, seated in a dusty gold chair near a painting of a red balloon floating into the sky — a symbol, she said, of lost childhood.

Then her soft voice hardens. “Of course, many people, many children, hoped in vain.”

***

There were never enough doctors or nurses in Terezin, and health conditions worsened. Some people froze to death. During the German occupation, 34,647 people died of starvation or disease in Terezin.

In 1943, Ilse caught typhus, a bacterial infection spread by lice and fleas. She faced a particularly dangerous form of the disease that attacks the spine. During her months-long hospitalization, Ilse was in and out of consciousness.

“I fully expected her to die,” said Weissová-Hosková.

For nine months Ilse was hospitalized. She underwent two operations. The typhus eventually passed, and when she gained consciousness her first question was about her friends at the orphanage. They were all gone, either having died from disease or transferred “East.”

Ilse learned that she, too, had been scheduled for transport, but doctors intervened to keep her off the list. Someone else was shipped “East” in her place.

Little by little, Ilse, bedridden for so long and unable to walk, started gaining back her strength.

In June 1944, the International Red Cross was permitted to visit Terezin to inspect the living conditions.

In preparation, Ilse saw men at night scrubbing sidewalks, painting signs that said “bakery” on a storefront and erecting a stage. Children were dressed up in special clothes. A candy shop overflowed with bonbons for the scheduled visit.

When the Red Cross committee arrived, they were treated to a performance of the children’s opera “Brundibar,” written by Hans Krása, one of the camp’s leading prisoner-composers.

When Ilse heard the music playing, she couldn’t help but dance. But an older woman grabbed her and told her to stop.

“Don’t you know you are playing into the hands of propaganda?” the woman said.

The Red Cross was tricked. Representatives deemed the living conditions acceptable at Terezin.

After the visit, the camp slipped back into its cruel routine. Transports east picked up speed. Almost every child in the “Brunidbar” cast was sent to their deaths in Auschwitz soon after their performance.

By October 1944, Ilse was deemed healthy enough for transport.

5. Go to the Right

Crammed inside a train car so crowded she could barely move, Ilse struggled for air in the stuffy car designed for transporting cattle. It was also dark, until someone found a flashlight.

“Oh, God,” she heard someone exclaim.

Then she saw the scribbling on the wall of the train car, put there by a previous prisoner: “Long Journey Auschwitz.”

Ilse tried to figure out which direction the train was headed. She wasn’t even sure what Auschwitz meant.

All she knew was its ominous reputation as a “terrible place where they did unspeakable things.” No one ever returned.

The train moved slowly, and at times, stood still for hours.

Finally the train stopped and the doors flung open to chaos: SS officers with rifles shouting orders; German shepherds barking; men and women separated; mothers and children screaming.

Ilse saw a skeletal prisoner with bulging eyes rush toward her.

Toss away any food she had, he said. The guards would take it from her anyway. She threw away a few crackers.

“How old are you?” he asked. “Fourteen,” she said.

“When you get in front of the doctor, say you are 18,” he implored. He was gone as quickly as he appeared.

Ilse’s head was shaved. She was given prison garb to wear with a serial number sewn into the uniform.

Then Ilse faced a doctor in an impeccably tailored suit and white gloves who casually waved his hand in front of each prisoner, determining who lived and who died. She later learned it was the infamous Dr. Joseph Mengele, who performed gruesome medical experiments on prisoners — injecting chemicals into children’s eyes to change the color and removing children’s body parts and organs without anesthesia.

Virtually anyone under 18, considered too young for slave labor, was sent to their deaths.

Mengele turned Ilse’s neck. He examined her shoulders. He asked her age.

Ilse’s impulse was to tell the truth. But in that moment, she felt a sort of pinprick in her back, something telling her she must say she was older than she was.

“Eighteen,” she stuttered.

With a flick of a cane, Mengele waved her to the right. Just behind Ilse was a mother and child. They were waved to the left.

Surviving became increasingly difficult. It was freezing. Ilse only had wooden clogs to wear and no socks. One foot was frostbitten. She was bleeding and hobbling.

“My child, you should not be here,” a German soldier told her one day when she was building trenches. “You should be in a hospital.”

Ilse prayed and told herself not to give up. “I want to live. I want to live,” she kept telling herself.

And, as in Terezin, she tried to be a morale booster inside the camp.

She told other prisoners her birthday was coming up, and she talked about the apple strudel her mom made her.

“It smells so good, I can almost taste it,” she said.

Then one January day in 1945, after Ilse had been in Auschwitz for about three months, all the prisoners were rounded up and forced to leave the camp by foot. Day after day they marched toward Wodzislaw, a town 35 miles away where prisoners were being put on freight trains and sent to other camps. Some of the prisoners dropped dead along the way. The SS guards shot anyone who fell behind. One in four prisoners died on that march.

Germany’s military force was collapsing. The allied forces were closing in on the concentration camps and liberating them. The Soviets approached from the east; the British, French and Americans from the west.

Weak from a lung infection, every breath Ilse took hurt. She was malnourished and limped as she walked. But she heard whispers from the back of the procession: “Keep going, the Russians are coming.”

“I kept thinking, ‘I don’t want to die,’” said Ilse. “And I kept thinking someday I would get out of this tunnel.”

But by the third day, she couldn’t move.

A female officer with red lipstick, shiny black boots and a whip noticed Ilse laboring. “We’ll take care of you,” she said as she pulled out a notebook and jotted down Ilse’s number.

That’s when Ilse knew she had to escape. She asked two older women to join her.

“One way, I am doomed,” she said of that fateful decision. “The other way, maybe, maybe I’ll be lucky.”

During a break in the march, Ilse and the two women ran off to a nearby farm and hid in a root cellar beneath a heap of potatoes covered with burlap bags.

Once it grew dark outside, Ilse and her friends, along with a couple dozen other prisoners, crawled out from their hiding places. Eventually, Ilse staggered toward the Czech border and collapsed. When she woke up, she was in a Red Cross van on her way to a hospital in Prague.

On Jan. 27, 1945, Auschwitz was liberated by Soviet troops. By then, nearly two out of every three European Jews were murdered as part of “The Final Solution,” the Nazi plan to kill all Jews in Europe; about 1.1 million of them died at Auschwitz. Among the estimated 6 million Jews killed were more than 1 million children.

Of the 15,000 children who passed through Terezin, only 132 are known to have survived.

Ilse was a survivor. But once again she was alone, an orphaned girl with no home. In the chaos of the war’s end, she never imagined that she would find home a continent away, in a country called America.

Continued next week in Personal Journeys.

How we got the story

AJC reporters are always looking for good stories for our readers. Last fall, Helena Oliviero attended an event at the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in Atlanta to watch her daughter perform a children’s opera. The piece, “Brundibar,” had special relevance for the center’s guest speaker that day. Ilse Reiner heard it performed as a child when she was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II in her native Czechoslovakia. Reiner was one of only a handful of children who survived the camp. And she lived in Sandy Springs.

Oliviero approached Reiner about telling her story for Personal Journeys. Oliviero spent several hours with Reiner in her Sandy Springs home. To report the rest of her story, Oliviero traveled to the Czech Republic to interview other Holocaust survivors, see the concentration camp in which she was held and visit the town from which she was taken.

Many of Reiner’s memories were too difficult for her to repeat. Recollections of her time at Auschwitz were culled from an interview Reiner gave in 1995 at the Shoah Visual History Foundation, a non-profit founded by director Steven Spielberg, which has collected the oral histories of Holocaust survivors. The Bremen Museum also provided help with Oliviero’s research. Reiner’s diary, written in Czech, was later translated in English.

The two-part story that begins today is the first major telling of Reiner’s story in the United States. It’s a powerful tale of the resiliency of the human spirit. Read past Personal Journeys at www.ajc.com/go/personaljourneys, and tell us yours at personaljourneys@ajc.com.

Ken Foskett,
assistant managing editor
personaljourneys@ajc.com

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: Part 2 of The Survivor: Ilse Reiner’s Holocaust experience touches children’s lives in Czech Republic.

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