Monday, January 5, 2009

Thelma Gruenbaum: Nesarim: Child Survivors of Terezin

Out of approximately ten thousand children who were imprisoned in, or passed through, the concentration camp Theresienstadt (Terezin) only one thousand six hundred survived. Located sixty kilometres north of Prague, the camp served predominantly as a transit camp where Jewish prisoners were held before being transported to extermination or labour camps further east, such as Auschwitz. Terezin also served as a ‘model’ camp where the Nazis could show Red Cross officials what the camps were (supposedly) like. Thus inmates received slightly more food than those in other types of camps, and cultural activities and sports were allowed. Many children also attended classes during much of their internment, albeit secretly, as educational activities were prohibited. Over 33,000 prisoners died from disease, malnutrition or mistreatment while in Terezin.

For roughly two years, a group of forty boys aged ten to twelve when they began their internment, lived in one room at Terezin together with their team leader, a young man of twenty years named Franta. Franta had completed a two-month teacher training course in Prague, and had a couple of years’ experience running an orphanage. The nine survivors of Room 7 who were interviewed for this book all credit Franta for building them into a cohesive unit known as “the Eagles” (Nesarim) that was envied by the other boys, and for giving them the moral strength and will-power to survive. The ten survivors (including Franta) all eventually left Czechoslovakia and were scattered around the world, but kept in touch with each other sporadically.

In the early ‘90’s, with increasing age and the fall of the iron curtain, the Nesarim began organising reunions that include their wives (some of whom are also survivors) and children. They have returned to Prague and to Terezin to visit the places where they once lived.

One might imagine that reading these memoirs would be depressing, but it isn’t. If you want to know the meaning of life, here it is. If you want to better understand how children survive under conditions of extreme hardship, this book gives indicators. And if you want to know how people who’ve been given a second chance at life choose to live, you’ll find answers to your questions here.

The Holocaust, like the Rwandan Genocide, must never be forgotten. This book adds further insight into those terrible years. For anyone looking for more detail about life in the camps, the books of Primo Levi are also indispensable reading.