Surviving Theresienstadt

Photo archivist Judith Cohen describes how a scrapbook and memory book from Holocaust survivor Michael Gruenbaum provide a rare view into life in the Theresienstadt camp-ghetto.

Transcript (Text)

My name is Judith Cohen. I'm the director of the Museum's photo archive. Today, I'd like to discuss a remarkable collection donated by Michael Gruenbaum, a child survivor of Terezin also known as Theresienstadt.

The collection consists of two documents. One is a large scrapbook that his mother compiled after the war, containing almost every piece of paper that had been given to her during the course of their incarceration in Terezin. The second is a child's memory book with autographs from all of his closest friends in the ghetto.

This collection is particularly important for two reasons. One is that the Nazis used Theresienstadt as their model ghetto for propaganda purposes. Most of the photographs that survived from Theresienstadt are propaganda photographs created to deceive. Therefore, any original material that shows the truth of what was going on has particular significance.

Secondly, the mortality rates in Theresienstadt were horrendous. About 88% of the population was killed. And about 90% of the children were killed. However, Michael, his mother, and sister survived.

Michael was the child of wealthy Jews from Prague. His father was a very successful lawyer. He had one sister. In 1939, Germany invaded Czechoslovakia. At that point, his father was out of the country in England but voluntarily came back in order to be with his family to protect them. Unfortunately, in 1941, his father was arrested by the Gestapo and executed the following year. The mother and her two children were deported to Terezin.

What is remarkable about the scrapbook is how complete it is. Because his mother was able to save every piece of paper that she had received, we have a very complete picture of work assignments, ration cards, and most extraordinary, how it survived.

This is one of the earliest pages of the scrapbook. The three documents with the numbers on the bottom—977, 978, 979—are the deportation orders for Margaret, Michael, and Marietta to go to Terezin. The two stars, which are held down by Scotch tape, something that our conservators have since removed and cleaned up a bit, were the stars that they had to wear in Prague before they were sent to the camp. And then, Margaret also included a postcard that she collected after the war that shows what the camp looked like.

At one point, the sister-in-law of Margaret, who was with her in Terezin, was sent on a deportation train. They had a prearranged system that, if it was possible to get news back, she should send something in code. If the words were slanted up, the location was fine, everything was going to be OK.

If the words were slanted down, it meant trouble. If you look at this document over here, you'll see a very slight slanting down and that was a symbol to Margaret that she had to do everything possible to avoid getting on a deportation train together with her children.

In the ghetto, mother Margaret and her two children had to do slave labor. Margaret's job was to work in the toy workshop. One of her assignments was to make teddy bears that she was sending back to the Reich for Christmas. In the fall of 1944, Margaret, along with her two children, Marietta and Michael, were put on a deportation train to Auschwitz. She went over to her supervisor and said, you know, if I'm on the train, we won't finish the order and the toys will never be made.

Her supervisor, at that point, said, OK, you can get off the train. She said, well, you know I have two children. And he said, it's OK, I'll take your children off the train as well. But don't dare ask for anyone else. And one of the documents in the scrapbook is both their order to go to Auschwitz and also the letter taking them off the train. After the order was completed, there were no more deportations to Auschwitz. And that is how the Gruenbaum family managed to survive until the very end.

The scrapbook documents the sacrifices a mother made for her children in Terezin. But Michael was also part of another family, a really extraordinary children's home that was called Room 7 or, by the Hebrew name, Nesarim, meaning the Eagles.

It was a group of 40 boys that was organized by a very charismatic teacher who did his best to keep the spirits of the children up throughout their years in the ghetto. All the survivors from this home testified afterwards that it was stressed to them that they had to become independent and strong. This determination to survive the war is evident in this page.

The translation reads, "Further and further, always further. The battle for life pierces the armor. Don't worry about thunder. To accept blows and not give in, continuously come closer and closer." And that was really the view of the teacher and the boys in the home.

An even more remarkable document, perhaps, is this other drawing that shows how these young boys were very aware of what waited them if they were deported. If you look very carefully, the sign at the top, where the train is leaving says Terezin.

The track is headed down where a policeman with a gun is waiting for them. The sign on the bottom reads "Birkenau, the killing center of Auschwitz." It's dated December 1943. And the inscription reads, "remember me, your friend Koko." Koko, in fact, was transported to Auschwitz less than a year later on October 14, 1944, where he was killed.

One of the problems we have is trying to reconstruct the past. Can we ever really understand what people experienced? Misha's mother, Margaret, was worried about that immediately after liberation. In May of 1945, right after she was freed, she wrote to her best friend who had survived the war outside of Nazi occupation.

And she writes, "this is my first letter in which the threatening indiscreet eyes of the censors do not know my thoughts. I do not know where to begin in order to describe to you without leaving anything out everything we lived through during the years since we last saw each other.

"Each card, each package from all of you was a bit of warmth, a bit of the happy surroundings that we have lost. We do not know yet how the future will shape up for us. None of our old friends are alive anymore. We don't know where we're going to live. But somewhere in the world, there's still sun, mountains, the oceans, books, small, clean apartments, and, perhaps, the rebuilding of a new life."

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