The Girls of Room 28: Friendship, Hope, and Survival in Theresienstadt , Hannalore Brenner

girls2Orphaned girls, some as young as 11, who lived in the barracks at Theresienstadt and suffered the brutality of World War II, survived to find each other after the Iron Curtain was thrown open. They managed to hold yearly reunions, feeling the camaraderie of sisters whenever they got together. This is their story.

Fifteen female survivors of Room 28, tell the story of how their little community was created in this supposed, model prison camp. It became a “home” which enabled them to mature and make lasting friendships. Yes, conditions in Theresienstadt were better than in most concentration camps, but they were all prisoners, nevertheless, victims of barbarians, awaiting death in horrible ways. They did have the benefit of being allowed to keep their luggage and belongings, few as they were, but they all eventually became hardened to the deprivation and began to appreciate the simplest of things as they watched their numbers dwindle.

In the “home”, there was the usual rivalry of “siblings” living in close quarters, but it was quickly conquered as the situation inspired loyalty, and in most cases they swore allegiance to each other vowing never to do anything that would betray any of them. They witnessed horrific scenes, were always hungry, had no creature comforts, but it was better than the situation in the “death” camps. The numbers of children that were lost during this time is unimaginable. It is really hard to understand the inhumanity of these people who perpetrated this travesty of justice upon an innocent population.

The adults in Theresienstadt were determined to educate the young children and to give them as much of a normal life as they could, although it became more and more difficult. Counselors welcomed new inmates; classes were held, volunteers taught religious education; holidays were celebrated, and on some occasions, gifts were exchanged; food was shared and plays and operas were put on and performed by the children. The counselors seemed to be quasi-guardians for these orphans, some of whom came to this “model prison” alone, without friend or family member.

Although there were too many unrecognizable names to remember and too many excessive descriptions to keep track of, the amazing resilience and courage of all the “inmates” comes through in each of the stories relating their memories. The diaries and notebooks recovered provide an inside look into the horrors of that era and are invaluable. They tell of suicides, escape attempts, and the tragedy of watching loved ones murdered without being able to do anything. It speaks to the courage of those who joined their friends and family who were condemned, rather than go on with their lives without them. They speak of the tender awakening of the girls as some suddenly became aware of, and began to take an interest in, the opposite sex, even in such a place. The romances were often painful because the young lovers were quickly separated and never heard from again. Some took their own lives in the face of the hopelessness.

The children and adults in Theresienstadt were kept largely ignorant of the outside world. They had little idea of what was happening except for whispered rumors. They were all united in the hope that the Germans would be defeated so they could be free to pursue normal lives with dreams of homes, an education, good jobs and families of their own. Though they tried hard to keep up their spirits, they often wondered how such a thing could be happening to them; they could not understand what they had done to deserve such treatment. They didn’t understand how The Red Cross and other representatives turned a blind eye to what they would have seen if only they had looked closer when they came to inspect the camp.

As the war progressed, conditions worsened. It was harder to keep everything clean; bed bugs and fleas, lice and filth were often problems. These were children who were forced to deal with problems adults might find insurmountable, and yet, they rose to the task. There were constant transports and the fear of losing friends and family was always present. When friends and family were forced to board trains, they were never heard from again. They were shipped to places like Treblinka, Auschwitz, Bergen Belson and, ultimately, the gas showers and the crematoria. They were subjected to inhuman conditions, sadistic human beings, torture and cold blooded murder.

When the war finally ended, some survivors were then trapped behind the Iron Curtain, once again prisoners. Some survivors were mere shadows of their former selves, barely able to stand, their bodies broken and their minds lost. Few returned to normal life, few found survivors to reunite with, and few remained in, or were welcomed back to, their own home towns. It is really sad that the world and politics forced some of these miraculous survivors to go from one situation of captivity to another where their freedom was stolen once again.

Eventually, some survivors emigrated to Israel, some to America, some to other countries that welcomed them. They were resilient and strong after having survived the nightmare they were forced to live. Their stories tell of miraculous escapes from death, lucky moments of occasional kindness from a German or a soldier that kept them alive. These moments were all too rare. The victims were blamed for the way they were being treated, as if they had brought it on themselves with their “troubling” behavior. Their enemies were cruel and unforgiving and they robbed the world of some of the most talented and brilliant minds.

This book is a brief primer about the rise and fall of the Third Reich, the people who brought it about and the people who suffered through it. As the stories are told, the history is brought to life. It is a necessary read. The horror of the Holocaust must never be allowed to disappear from memory, even though years pass and those who experienced it die off. We must learn from the lessons of the past.

The children’s opera Brundibar, plays a large role in the book. It was written by Hans Krása who was also a prisoner in Theresienstadt. The opera performances and the plays, inspired the children and adults and gave them all a sense of hope and a few moments when they could forget their despair. Often, storylines held hidden messages for them, which were secret codes of defiance. The book is filled with quotes from operas and plays they performed and from entries in the diaries and notebooks that were preserved. They tell of forced marches, sometimes to nowhere and back, of never knowing from day to day if they would be called for a transport, of not knowing, but soon suspecting, what awaited those called away. Thousands were moved at once, packed like sardines without hygiene or food or fresh air or light. Thousands died from the deprivation and torture. They were starved and died in huge numbers without proper care or nutrition, without the medicine or comfort of loved ones around them.

Parents had abandoned their children in orphanages for Jewish children, assuming escape was too dangerous for them, assuming they would reunite with them, send for them, once they were safe. There were special laws for children for awhile, but then, the laws were changed and parents and children were cut off from each other without being able to reunite. In spite of the horrors and hardships, they dreamt of a future and prayed for the war’s end.

Because of the excessive detail as the story is told from more than a dozen points of view, it often became repetitive. However, it is a story that must be read so no one will forget the diabolical nature of the perpetrators, so no one forgets how cruelty can exist and grow if unchecked by good people everywhere, if greed and envy flourish rather than kindness and appreciation for the accomplishment of others.

The mixing of emotional anecdotal stories with historic facts sometimes became overwhelming. The book would be suitable for a classroom, for middle graders or high school students, too. With the guidance of a trained teacher, this could prove to be an invaluable teaching tool and learning experience.

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About omasvoice

Who am I? I am you. I am everyone out there who loves to read and discuss and voice an opinion!
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