Personal Reflections - Theresienstadt
Vera Meisels


Translation from the original Hebrew by Riva Rubin
Read Vera Meisels' biography  or excerpts of her poetry.

Valeria arrived home laden with baskets and climbed the eighty-two steps to her attic apartment. The straps of the baskets cut into her fingers and, not having a free hand, she couldn't lean on the rail. On the third floor, no more air in her lungs, she had to stop and set down the baskets for a short rest. When she entered her apartment the children greeted her joyfully, "Mommy!! That's nice! You're home early. Now you'll take down your dominoes for us, won't you? We've done our homework and we've even tidied our room." "You can go and check," said Liat, the eldest. Valeria could hardly breathe; she didn't know what to do first. "Children, help me to put away the groceries. Liat, you make me a cup of coffee, please, and I promise that after the coffee I'll have the strength to take down the domino set." She knew that this was a bribe, but still she took advantage of their good-hearted nature to get a little of the attention she so sadly lacked.

Valeria was not lavish with embraces. Today, however, she pulled Liat to her bosom and gave her a hug and a kiss. Naturally, Dror joined them. Afterwards, as was her habit, Valeria lit a cigarette and sank into her memories, staring into space. Dror's voice, "Mommy, your ash will fall," brought her back to reality.

"Children, a promise is a promise, I'll get the dominoes. But on condition that you wash your hands well with soap." She dragged a chair to the closet in the bedroom, adding height with some thick books to enable her to reach the place where she had hidden the dominos. She had a moment of fright when she thought they were gone, until her fingers touched the edge of the wooden box protected in the folds of bed linen. The box looked like those wooden pencil cases that preceded the coming of plastic. There was a name on the box, but it was hard to decipher. The domino tablets had been carved in wood by an amateurish hand. The dots were part of charming animal drawings, for example, the two dots were owl eyes and the six were spaced on the back of a ladybird. The colours had begun to peel and fade, but Valeria didn't dare to repair the drawings or reinforce vanishing dots. In the past, she thought that perhaps it was worth covering them with transparent lacquer, at least to protect what there was, but in the end she gave up the idea so as not to detract from the authenticity of the dominoes.

Meanwhile, the children had come running with fragrant hands outstretched and the domino set was given to them. Liat and Dror rushed to their room with their treasure. Through the thin wall she heard Dror ask Liat, "Tell me what is it with Mommy and the dominos, why does she hide them from us so carefully?" But Liat couldn't answer him beyond, "Leave it alone, what do you care, I think even Daddy doesn't know what it's all about." Indeed, her children's father wasn't party to the secret of the dominos, even in their good years he had never wanted to know anything about subjects that troubled her. In fact, there was no communication between them. When she heard that the children were curious about her and the domino set, she was almost tempted to tell them how it had come into her hands. She knew that if she told them there would be consequences she would regret, so she preferred to postpone the decision and went to the kitchen to start cooking, as if this everyday occupation would subdue and calm the tension that had overcome her. The children's request to play with the dominoes filled her with uncertainty. When and how to talk to them about the game and the ghetto? She knew it was too soon to involve them, heaven forbid, in the "second generation syndrome." Valeria regretted that her parents, who had died before her marriage and within six months of each other, had never spoken to her directly about their experiences in the Holocaust.

Actually, Valeria had always tried to raise their spirits and instill a love of life in them. Her mother barely functioned, immersed in her memories as if trying to calculate what she had lost. Mostly, she would sit knitting in front of the radio tensely awaiting the daily "Searching for Relatives" program, pencil and paper lying idle on top of the radio. Her father, on the other hand, was a master at camouflaging his emotions. Always smiling, he had a round, small-nosed face like the Good Soldier Svejk, and was usually playing the clown. To this day, Valerie doesn't know the significance of the deep scar on her father's forehead. When he came back to her, from "over there," she was still small enough to sit on his lap, stroking the scar. On weekends, there was time for her to comb the clump of bristling hair on top of his balding head to form a coxcomb and to brush the fringe on his brow. Father had great patience with her, allowing her to play barber with him.

As she worked in the kitchen, she began to wish for the "stolen pleasure" of eating sardines, which the domino game had aroused in her even though she was not at all hungry. Secure in the knowledge that she would not be disturbed, she spread a newspaper on the kitchen table, placed the open tin of sardines on it and gobbled the fish as if someone would come and snatch them from her. Afterwards, she wrapped the empty tin in the sheet of newspaper, folding more paper around it to conceal the smell and oil stains. No, they would not again take away the slice of bread adorned with sardines that she had been given to hold to fraudulently demonstrate to the Red Cross delegation how abundant the food was in the Theresienstadt ghetto. They had brought the children out of the Children's House, having dressed them in party clothes and lined them up, all nicely combed. Valerie looked at the slice of bread and planned where to take the first bite after the guests had left and they would be allowed to eat. What a wonderful smell the slices of white bread had, all decorated with sardines and slices of hard boiled egg on top of a sort of red moon of gumbo. At the end of the Red Cross visit, the slices of bread were quickly collected and the children were ordered to remove the party clothes since the show for the Red Cross people was over. When they returned to the children's hut in their tattered clothes, their empty bellies rumbling, they were made to lie on the bunks. Some of the children sobbed and asked why the bread had been taken away: "... we were such good children, we stood so nicely and smiled at the visitors…"

Valeria was ashamed of this hasty, compulsive eating without plate, fork or knife. Luckily for her, the children were in their room, absorbed in their game of dominoes. Slowly, she finished what she was doing in the kitchen. "Children, sausage or yellow cheese on your sandwiches?" she shouted to the children, who answered, "Whatever you like."

Dror appeared, wheedling: "And for supper, make some falafel, like Daddy sometimes makes for us, O.K?" "All right," said Valerie, adding, "and now, put away the dominoes, take a shower and by the time you finish there'll be a surprise waiting for you - instead of a sandwich, I'll make blintzes for lunch!" Dror was delighted.

Years later, Valerie was at an executive staff meeting, when she was urgently called to take Liat home from school. Naturally, she closed the meeting and ordered a taxi to take her to the school and wait for her at the gate, so that she and Liat could get to the clinic quickly.

Luckily, there was no line at the clinic. The diagnosis was 'flu', and the doctor wrote out the usual prescription. Valerie decided to take a few days leave from work. Liat dropped down on her bed, still in her clothes, and fell asleep almost immediately. Valeria loved the silence. Dror was still at school and she didn't have to put up with the noisy music he listened to from the minute he came home. She went to lie down, taking a book with her.

Dror arrived and asked, "What are you doing home so early?" When he heard that Liat had the flu he said, "Our teacher is also sick and there's no homework." It was rare for all of them to be home for lunch on a weekday and he liked the idea. After the meal, he was in his room when he heard his mother's angry voice calling, "May I inquire how long these moldy sandwiches have been in your school bag?"

"Mom, you're the one who says we must never throw food away!" Valeria was shocked at his impertinence and his interpretation of wasting food.

"So what do you eat during the break?" Dror, who had learned that it was better not to lie, answered honestly, "We eat humus in pita at Moshiko's kiosk."

"And where does the money come from?" Abashed and hanging his head a bit, Dror admitted that his father gave it to him when they met.

"Dror, you could have told me and I would have made humus in pita for you and you could have kept your money to spend on other things."

Liat didn't like the argument and got out of bed when she heard him saying defensively, "Listen, Mom, I'm sorry, don't be offended, but you've no idea what fun it is at Moshiko's. One day I'll invite you to eat there at my expense." Liat joined in, "Mom, let him be, everyone slips out to the kiosk during the break, why should our Dror be different?" No, she didn't want them to be different. She agreed to stop badgering them about sandwiches and offered to raise their allowance. She liked Liat's concern for her brother. She also enjoyed listening to Liat scolding him when they had closed themselves in her room. "Dror, I don't understand why you're such a fool. You could have gotten rid of the sandwiches like I do, instead of hoarding them in your bag. You know how sensitive Mom is about wasting food."

Liat still had a slight fever two days later and Valeria started cleaning out closet shelves and sorting clothes. Now and then she would go to Liat to ask if she wanted to keep this or that garment. On one of these occasions, she came in with the domino set and suggested that the two of them play. Rather rudely, Liat answered, "What, do you think I'm a child? What's the matter with you? Would you mind telling me what makes those dominoes so sacred to you?" Valeria didn't respond immediately. She went to her room and lay down next to the piles of clothing with the domino box in her hand, the memories coming in waves as she made an effort in the midst of the turmoil to condense the history of how the dominoes had reached her. She felt a pressure in her chest and a spinning, heady sensation. She took a tranquilizer and, when she had calmed down, opened Liat's door to tell her about the dominoes. She had barely managed to step into the room, when Liat said, without looking up from her book, "Mom, please, I need some quiet. Let me finish reading; I'm at a very suspenseful part and I promised Osnat she could have the book tomorrow. By the way, she's coming tomorrow to bring me the homework and to take the book." Valeria curled up like a snail and gently closed the door. She went on tiptoe to conceal the domino box-and herself, if possible-in the usual hiding place.

Two years passed and Liat was now in the twelfth grade.

"Mom, the teacher asked the class if anyone has uncles, aunts, or grandparents willing to tell what happened to them in the Holocaust. I said that my mother might agree. I hope you aren't angry that I suggested you. Do you think you'd have a problem with it?" Valeria understood that although she had hardly ever spoken directly to the children about the Holocaust, apparently they knew, anyway. "Liat, I'll be pleased to come. Are you sure it won't embarrass you?" Confidently, Liat answered, "Mom, I'm sure, otherwise I wouldn't have suggested it. You know, the kids said there's nothing about you to show you were there. O.K. Tomorrow the teacher will call you to arrange the details."

"Hello, is that Valeria, Liat's mother?" said the voice on the telephone. "Yes," she confirmed and the teacher, Hemda, pressed on with her monologue. "I want to update you on the arrangements for the lecture you agreed to give to the class on Holocaust Day. You must first come to the teachers' room, where I'll be waiting for you. The lesson will be forty-five minutes. So, we've fixed for 9 a.m. in the teachers' room. Thanks, be seeing you." Hemda hung up without waiting for any response or question. The abrupt ending to the phone call after Hemda said her piece irritated Valeria. She had had different expectations regarding the planning of the "lesson". It disturbed her that Hemda defined her presence, before the pupils on Holocaust Day, as a "lesson." Anyway, her commanding tone seemed out of place, since she was talking to a volunteer. Valeria also felt that she deserved a minimum of interest on the part of the teacher and maybe even some curiosity as to what she planned to say to the class. Naively, she had thought that they would meet first to crystallize the contents of Valeria's talk. Nevertheless, since she had responded to Liat's invitation, she was guided by the need to avoid disappointing her. She was uncertain about how to approach the class in order to hold their interest and prevent disturbances that would hurt her feelings.

She had over ten days for preparation before Holocaust Day. She found a map of Europe marking all the extermination and work camps, as well as the ghettoes. She made enough copies for the whole class and highlighted the Theresienstadt and Sered concentration camps in yellow. She slept little on the night before the meeting with the pupils, preparing a list of the points she considered important enough to tell them. Then she worried about what to wear. She rejected the possibility of wearing black although she liked black blouses as a rule. It was important to her not to arouse pity or look pathetic. In the end she chose a khaki skirt and a white blouse and donned earrings and makeup for the encounter. She was a few minutes early. Hemda, on the other hand, came late, explaining that there was a traffic jam. There was no time for coffee, but Hemda told her the class monitors had been instructed to put water on the table. Silence reigned when they entered the classroom. Valeria didn't know whether this was out of fear of Hemda or respect for the guest. Hemda introduced Valeria and relinquished her place on the platform to go and stand by the door in all her impressive height. Her presence at the door left Valeria with the impression of a sentry on duty in case the pupils escaped.

Valeria handed out the maps, returned to the platform, and looked at the pupils, who seemed hypnotized by her. Suddenly weak in the knees, she gripped the table and asked the class if it would be all right if she sat down. They were somewhat surprised at the prosaic question and chorused, "Yes, sure." The list she had made remained in her pocket. Whatever she had written now seemed superfluous, since she had decided that she would prefer a conversation with them and not a formal lecture.

She started, "I've come here thanks to Liat. I'm not a professional lecturer or teacher on the subject of the Holocaust. I can only tell you about the sudden changes that happened to me before I was six-during the Passover holidays with my grandmother in the village. My sister was in the fourth grade already and I was still in kindergarten. We lived with our parents in a city in Slovakia and spent our holidays with grandmother. That year, in 1942, at the height of the preparations for the Seder meal, men came with lists and ordered us to pack about five kilograms and report to the railway station. Maybe the grownups understood what was going on-I didn't, of course.

Grandmother's maid told them that we children were certainly not on the list and she promised she would be responsible for returning us to our parents, so that we could be deported with them. Marishka, the maid, was a Christian; so they agreed. Actually, she saved the lives of my sister and myself. I didn't know that the war had begun three years before. Whatever I tell is from the viewpoint of a little girl. Maybe it will seem strange to you, but from the moment the panic and fear appeared in my grandparents' eyes, all memory of my serene childhood was wiped out. I don't remember the house we had; I remember neither teddy bear nor doll-nothing. On the other hand, memories never leave me in peace ever since they spoiled my Pesach eve and my big family vanished.

Marishka hid us in a cellar until she heard that the deportations had stopped. Then she brought us to my parents, who had luckily been saved from the transports. There was a pause in the deportations and we drifted from place to place. But we were turned into sub-humans. We had to wear a yellow patch in the shape of a Star of David, Jews were forbidden to go to school, to have pets, or to sit in parks." Valerie paused, took a sip of water and looked at the pupils; some were sitting with their chins on their hands, the girls leaning on one another. They were totally attentive. Valeria was afraid that she was over-burdening them and decided to be as brief as possible.

"We hid in forests in the snow until we froze and the food we'd brought was finished. In the last days, we tried to hang on by drinking snow melted with a candle, and eating cubes of sugar and the last bit of sausage. The Germans and their tracking dogs were searching for partisans and Jews, and I remember hearing them really close by, as we lay dug into the snow, stifling our coughs, keeping absolutely silent. Luckily, the dogs didn't pick up our scent. Finally, when we came down from the forest in September 1944, the Germans caught us. They took us to a concentration and work camp called Sered; you can find it on the map." The children looked at the map and there was a pause till they found it.

Valeria continued, "I must admit that I was very glad when we arrived at Sered. We were put into huts, we weren't cold any more and there were a lot of children. I thought the food at that camp was very good; we were given soup, bread and jam. I hadn't had a toy for ages, because we'd run to the forest so fast, carrying only food and warm clothing. But at Sered there were children who had games and I enjoyed playing with them. All this "pleasure" didn't last very long, because one fine day everyone was taken out of the huts for what they called the Selection. My father was put among the men and my mother, my sister and I were put on one side with the old people. We were conveyed to a station platform-without father, to my great distress-and shoved into boxcars meant for cattle. After five days in the cold of a European December, we came to Theresienstadt. I was very sick, burning with fever and unable to swallow, barely able to breathe. I don't want to dwell on what happened to us inside the boxcars, because you've most likely heard or read about it. The others were marched into the ghetto from the train, but I was taken on a cart to the ghetto hospital. The best doctors were in the hospital. I remember caresses, smiles, and soothing words. They didn't have an operating room with anesthetics or medicines. Speaking kindly, they strapped me into a chair. They explained that they had to remove my tonsils, but if I sat still and behaved myself I'd get a prize. I was eight years old by then and, believe it or not, I was enjoying all the warm attention I was getting. I didn't make a murmur and didn't cry for my mother and sister. After the nightmarish journey in the boxcars without food and water I had reached nice people who were taking care of me. I don't even remember any pain, just the warm, clean hospital bed and the nurse who brought me the prize-a domino set. Afterwards, my mother and sister came to see me and I was completely satisfied. It only became clear to me many years later that the dominos belonged to a boy who had been sent to Auschwitz. Actual drawing by Vera when she was a child in Theresienstadt.

Some days later I was transferred to the Children's House to be with my sister. My mother was in the female workers' hut. Luckily, she was sent to work in the kitchen and visited us with "candies" improvised from potatoes and jam. In the Children's House, we were shown how to create drawings and handwork out of all sorts of scrap material collected by our youth instructors. Lessons were forbidden, therefore all teaching was done in secret and they told us stories from memory. I knew only how to print my name and I was really excited to find one of my drawings, signed in print, in a museum after the war. I remembered the drawing clearly.

"On the 8th of May, 1945, the war ended and the gates of the ghetto opened on freedom."

Valeria rose from her chair, steadied her legs and checked the list she had prepared, to see if she had missed any of the points she considered important. The class was still attentive and she could hear the rustle of maps and some whispering. There were still some ten minutes before the bell, so she asked, "Do you have any questions?" They responded with surprising alacrity and Hemda came over to the board and began writing down the names of those with their hands raised.

Yaron: "We heard that your ghetto was actually easy, a show place, so what did you suffer from?"

Valeria answered, "Yes, on the surface that ghetto was good to the Jews, but in fact it was a vile fraud. There was shameful hunger and over-crowding devoid of sanitary conditions. The old people died of hunger. We were festering with lice and infected with all sorts of disease without any medicines. The few mattresses were allocated to the children, to ease their suffering. I clearly remember the hunger. It's a fact that when liberation came, those who survived to see it, were skin and bones. A great deal of time was required for physical and mental recovery, naturally without much success."

Osnat: "Your father, where was he sent to? I hope he returned to you."

"Father was sent to Sachsenhausen; luckily he was a healthy, strong and optimistic man and was saved by luck and by having the wisdom to exchange his shirt with the yellow triangle that marked the Jews, for that of a political prisoner who died next to him. He survived because of the preferential treatment given to political prisoners. We waited three months until he gathered the strength to get back to us."

Anat asked how many of her family perished, a question Valeria could not answer. Perhaps the correct answer was almost all of them.

Ohad: "From what you say, we hear that you actually had no childhood. You say that the whole period before the age of six was erased and you had to grow up quickly. We know that grownups long for their childhood and compare photographs of themselves and their children at the same age. What do you long for and what remains for you?"

Valeria was surprised at the level of this intelligent question. She considered before answering, and then said, "Ohad, that's a surprising question! I wasn't ready for it. I don't know what I could long for. What remains of my childhood?" There was an embarrassed silence as they waited for the answer.

"I've found something that remains!" She raised her voice. "The dominos that..." The strident ringing of the bell announcing the break startled her.

Hemda briskly stepped onto the platform, interrupting Valeria in mid-sentence to thank her on behalf of the class, and left the room.

Only a few of the pupils followed her out. Liat leaped towards her mother and hugged her without embarrassment, whispering in her ear, "Mom, I'm so proud of you!" Others gathered around, showering Valeria with questions. In a corner at the back of the room, a girl sat crying with her head on the desk. Valeria went over to comfort her, and she said, "Now I understand my grandfather who is always so sad."

Liat told her mother about the surprise she had prepared: Hemda had given her permission to miss the lessons following the break and she wanted to take her mother to a cafe for ice cream or anything she wanted. The treat was on Liat, who had saved her allowance for the purpose.

In the cafe, there was no limit to Valeria's happiness to be sitting with Liat and to hear that Liat and the whole class had been entranced by the story of what she had experienced, and that now she specially understood Valeria's weakness for dominoes.

"I love you, Mother."

Copyright Vera Meisels, Israel, 2001.

Vera Meisels' Brief Biography In Her Own Words
Return to beginning of story

I was born in Czechoslovakia, on June 11, 1936.

Up to 1942 we had a normal life. Then, nearly all my family members on both sides of my parents were deported to death camps. My father and his brother Marci (Moritz) had a workshop to affix horseshoes to the hoofs of the horses. This was a very much needed service in those days; therefore, we had a special permit from the local authorities (in collaboration with the Germans) to stay on and thus avoided deportation-for a while. However, in August 1944, even this permit became worthless. We had to escape and hide in the forest in sleet and snow. After two months our food supply was finished and we had no choice but to leave our hiding place voluntarily; we looked worse than scarecrows.

After we left the forest, we were arrested by the Germans and taken to Sered, a Slovak Internment Camp. From there, after a Selection, my Father and uncle Marci were deported to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Germany. In December 1944, my mother, sister Aliska, and I were taken to Theresienstadt, via Auschwitz. We spent five days in the cattle cars without water and food. When we arrived at Auschwitz, there was total chaos because some of the five crematoriums and gas chambers had been destroyed through sabotage.

The Germans did not even open the railway wagons and sent us to Ghetto Theresienstadt, back to Czechoslovakia.

Shortly after, we learned of the death marches, which the prisoners had to endure, from Auschwitz to Theresienstadt. They were given the name Muselman (emaciated, half-dead human beings) because that is how they looked by the time they arrived. This impression must have been the source of creation for my sculpture Muselman. Vera's Family

All four of us survived the Holocaust. Father came home four months later. His brother, Marci, and his Aunt had perished in the camps. The family, now together, started life anew-till 1949. My father created a good business out of nothing and made money. My parents, unfortunately, were very much affected by their ordeals both mentally and emotionally; mother more so than father.

In February 1949, my sister left for Israel with a Hashomer Hatzair (Zionist) group. In April 1949, I also arrived in Israel under the auspices of Aliyat Noar (Youth Emigration organized by the Zionist Sochnut) and lived on a Kibbutz. There I stayed for seven years, including my service in the army. Shortly after, I left for Tel Aviv to study art and also embarked on a career at a bank. Eventually, I became a branch vice-president. My parents came in 1950 and settled in Naharia.

Minor edits by Dr. Karin Doerr


© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
All rights reserved.