From 1942 to 1944, twelve thousand children passed through the Theresienstadt
internment camp on their way to Auschwitz. Only a few hundred of them survived
the war. In The Girls of Room 28, ten of these children– mothers and
grandmothers today in their seventies–tell us how they did it.
The Jews deported to Theresienstadt from countries all over Europe were aware of the fate that awaited them, and they decided that it was the young people who had the best chance to survive. Keeping these adolescents alive, keeping them whole in body, mind, and spirit, became the priority. They were housed separately, in dormitory-like barracks, where they had a greater chance of staying healthy and better access to food, and where counselors (young men and women who had been teachers and youth workers) created a disciplined environment despite the surrounding horrors. The counselors also made available to the young people the talents of an amazing array of world-class artists, musicians, and playwrights–European Jews who were also on their way to Auschwitz. Under their instruction, the children produced art, poetry, and music, and they performed in theatrical productions, most notably Brundibar, the legendary “children’s opera” that celebrates the triumph of good over evil.
In the mid-1990s, German journalist Hannelore Brenner met ten of these child survivors–women in their late-seventies today, who reunite every year at a resort in the Czech Republic. Weaving her interviews with the women together with excerpts from diaries that were kept secretly during the war and samples of the art, music, and poetry created atTheresienstadt, Brenner gives us an unprecedented picture of daily life there, and of the extraordinary strength, sacrifice, and indomitable will that combined–in the girls and in their caretakers–to make survival possible.
Brenner, a Berlin-based journalist, focuses on 10 former child survivors, women in their late 70s, who went through the Theresienstadt concentration camp during the Holocaust. She notes that 12,000 children entered the camp from 1942 to 1944, but only a few hundred survived to war's end, and a handful of women of Room 28 in the camp's Girls' Home, now scattered around the world, reunited for the first time in 1991. The insights of the survivors and stories of the camp's victims are unforgettable and full of poignant humanity, conveyed through letters, photos, diaries and remembrances. Forced into exile and almost certain death under the Nazi regime, the children confronted hunger, cold, terror and the soul's endurance as many of the girls of Room 28 were slowly eliminated; the small band of survivors is committed to keeping their memory alive. Well-detailed and inspiring, Brenner's book, especially her heartfelt epilogue, pays glowing tribute to these heroic survivors. B&w photos.
Anna Flach : A Caged Bird Who Sang Anyway
The second woman from Room 28 I have chosen to profile is the singer,
pianist and professor Anna Flach. During her days in Terezin, she was given
the nickname Flaska, meaning “little bottle.” Many of the girls in Room 28
were known by whimsical nicknames while in Terezin, a tradition that
children in other homes participated in as well. By all accounts, Flaska was
outgoing, compassionate and imaginative, and a very talented singer. Her
musical talents were cultivated in Terezin, where she participated in many
In the cellar of her Girls’ Home, the famous composer Rafael (Rafik) Schacter often rehearsed with his choir and Flaska would slip down to the cellar to listen. She auditioned for a Mozart opera and was thrilled when she was selected to perform. Things didn’t go as planned, however, as Rafik had incredibly high standards and the young singers struggled to meet his expectations. After two weeks of rehearsal, Rafik decided to present it as a concert with adult singers, and Flaska and the other children were dismissed.
Though disappointed, Flaska did not give up on her dreams of being a singer. She continued to perform with the girls’ choir, and with two other girls as a musical trio. The three girls would sometimes go to the quarters where the elderly lived to sing for them and to assist them in any way they could. This arrangement was set up by a Terezin youth organization called Yad Tomechet (helping hand). The elderly were often neglected, struggled to get enough water and food, and many could not get to the washrooms. In these wretched conditions, many lost the will to live and some even committed suicide. The youth group was created as a way to help these older people. Flaska and the other girls helped to bring meals to the elderly, accompany them to toilets, bathed them, cleaned their rooms. They also helped in any other little ways they could, such as singing to them, and bringing small gifts for birthdays.
Even as a young girl, Flaska was compassionate and desired to help others. Serving others was a value that was instilled by her mother and Flaska’s own experiences in Terezin further sensitized her to the suffering of others. She wrote about her great happiness when she was released from the hospital and was able to visit her father and brother bearing a gift for them – a piece of bread she had managed to save. She strongly desired harmony with others and tried to be on good terms with all the girls in her barrack.
Flaska was one of four girls of Room 28 who were spared the transports to Auschwitz. She and some of the other girls would sneak to the Hamburg barracks, where people waited to board the cattle cars. There, the girls tried their best to comfort them. This action was certainly risky, since it could have easily resulted in Flaska being placed on a transport, but she undertook it anyway. Her compassion and bravery in such circumstances is a real testament to her character. I can only hope I would be able to act like Flaska if I were in her place.
After the transports, the room was empty with only four girls remaining. They took down a flag that the girls had made for their home and divided it into four pieces, promising each other that they would meet again after the war to sew it back together as a symbol of their friendship.
Anna Flach, her parents and her siblings survived the Holocaust but most of her other relatives did not. She and her family returned to Brno, their hometown, and she later became a singer, pianist and professor of music at the Brno Conservatory. She married an oboist named Vitselav Hanus and together they performed in many concerts all over the world. Their son Tomas is an esteemed conductor of the Prague Chamber Orchestra and Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra. Anna remains an educator and advocate for music and is committed to preserving the memory of the Terezin composers. She feels it is her responsibility to speak out about their experiences to preserve the memories, especially since there are those who still deny the Holocaust.