THE HOLOCAUST: WE MUST REMEMBER
Roger Fredinburg – Host
30-Hour Series of Interviews broadcast on the Roger Fredinburg Radio Program
1-21-1998 Tenth Program in Series
Guest: Jutta Tragnitz, English version translator of Gerty Spies’ Autobiography:
MY YEARS IN THERESEINSTADT: How One Woman Survived the Holocaust
ISBN-10: 1573921416 and ISBN-13: 978-1573921411
Roger: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. We’re happy to be with you once again, happy to be continuing this series, The Holocaust: We Must Remember. It’s been a very interesting journey thus far, learning the many stories of man’s inhumanity to man, I guess, is the best way to put it. Brutality and murder! Starvation, disease, cold, the loss of dignity! Boy, it’s almost impossible to imagine that these stories are true stories that happened to people in their lives.
This evening we are going to be talking about Thereseinstadt, a little known concentration camp. You’re going to learn some interesting things here! We’re going to talk about the years spent there by a woman named Gerty Spies. It will be told by her translator, Jutta Tragnitz, who translated the book to English. I just want to bring her right up and introduce her! Jutta, welcome to the program!
Jutta T: Thank you, I’m delighted to be on your program!
Roger: I’m glad you’re her. You know, I talked to you earlier today and I’ve been looking forward to this because Thereseinstadt is one of those places we don’t know anything about.
Jutta T: That’s right.
Roger: So, what I would like you to do is first, tell us a little bit about yourself and how you ended up getting tied in with Gerty and doing this translation. Then tell us all about Thereseinstadt.
Jutta T: Okay! I speak German, I am German. A friend of mine at the University of Illinois, Esther Parada, she’s an artist and a professor of photography, asked me to take a look at this book because she was doing some research into German women. She said, “If there’s anything in there that is pertinent, why don’t you translate some of it for me.” I was so touched by it, that I decided to translate the whole book! Two reasons for that; one is, of course, is that Gerty Spies is a very special person. The tone, when you read the book, I try to capture it, is something you wouldn’t expect. She’s very gentle in the face of all these horrors that she’s experienced. Her faith in humanity never, ever waivered. There’s no bitterness, no malice, no cynicism. She has such dignity and goodness that you’re almost speechless that someone who went through all this did not come out raging — like I would– if I would have had to go throught this!
Roger: They would have shot me the first day! Ha, ha!
Jutta T: Yes, I think me too! The other thing, of course, is I think it’s about time that more books from women holocaust survivors get a voice. There are many books out; but, most at written by males. The genders were separated and the women did have a different experience. In the last 10 or 15 years, there have been more books by women and about women that went through the different camps. I thought Gerty Spies voice should really be heard.
Roger: Tell us about who Gerty was and how she ended up in Thereseinstadt, then tell us about Thereseinstadt.
Jutta T: Gerty was born in 1897 in Trier. That is a very small little town; but a very old town going back to Roman times on the River Rhine in Germany. Her ancestors had lived there for centuries. Her father was a businessman and he also wrote poetry in the Rhineland dialect. Her mother was a nurse. She had a brother. She married a gentile in 1920. They had two children and they divorced in 1927. She always made a point of saying that it was for personal, not political reasons. Apparently, they kept in touch during the war because he sent presents to the daughter in the 1940s. He was a chemist. I do not know what happened to him. I don’t know when he died. She was very reticent to talk much about the early days before the war. She really wanted to talk about her art after the war.
Because she was married to a gentile for awhile and had, what they called in those days, half-Jewish children of mixed-race, she was not persecuted right away. When the racial laws changed in 1941 she was also one of the people who was transported into one of the camps. The camp she went to was Thereseinstadt. She spent three years there, from 1942 to 1945. After the liberation she returned to Munich. She had moved to Munich with her daughter in 1929 to live with her mother. So she was actually deported from Munich to Thereseinstadt.
Roger: Now, we Americans think about the Jews who left Germany permanently; but, there were a lot of Jews who stayed in Germany after the war?
Jutta T: There were a lot of Jews, to give you an idea, there were about 450,000 Jews in Germany. By the 1980s there was something like 30,000. I don’t know how many did go back. I think the majority that did survive did not stay in Germany.
Roger: So, Gerty was unusual in going back?
Jutta T: She was unusual in going back to Germany, yes. She became very active in associations to further the dialogue between Jews and non-Jews in Germany. She eventually even became the honorary president of one of the organizations and she received a medal from the German government. She said that many times at lectures where she would read her poetry or where they were sitting around discussing political situations, she was asked, “Why did you come back?” She said it took her a long time to find out why she did come back because at first she’d just think, “where else could I have gone?” But, she did have other options because her mother had emigrated to America in 1933. She came back in 1953 to live with her until she died. Her daughter went to America in 1948. She died in America in 1963. So, Gerty could have emigrated.
As a writer, and this (German ed.) was her language, she said, first of all, there is the language. Second, she considered Germany her home! She said, “Why don’t they ask the communists or the socialists or the homosexuals that were also in camps and came why they didn’t leave? I’m as German as they were!” So, she had a different attitude. I think that’s part of her whole attitude. She said, “To forgive; but, not to forget; but, not to have any hate in your heart. Get the dialogue going so these things can never happen again.” I think that was her message and her mission to stay in Germany.
Roger: Well, they sure needed people to help them through, to work and talk. There’s no question there!
Jutta T: Right, right!
Roger: So, Thereseinstadt? What was it? It was certain not Auschwitz!
Jutta T: No; but, it was a step towards Auschwitz, unfortunately. Thereseinstadt, to go back to it’s history was built in the end of the 18th century. It was close to the German-Czechoslovakian border, the old Bohemia that was part of the Hapsburg Empire. It was built by the Emperor, Joseph II, as a garrison to hold about 7,000 soldiers and their families. He named it after his mother, The Empress Maria Theresa. That was the small little town at the German-Czech border.
When the Nazis took over in 1939 when they went into Czechoslovakia, they called it The Protectorate. They decided by the 1940s that they had to do something with the prominent European Jews, Jews that were very well-known across the country, across the world. They couldn’t just ship them out somewhere so they had to do something with them. They decided that, as part of their “solution”, to say that Thereseinstadt would be a resettlement for prominent Jews to sit out the war.
You probably know that in most German cities that had a substantial amount of Jewish people, they would go to the prominent people in the cities and formed a Council of Jews (Jewish Elders) “The Judenrat” as they were called. The Nazis sold it to them saying, “Give us lists of the people that are here and they are going to sit out the war in Thereseinstadt.”
Apparently, they did such a good job that some of the people got off the trains and said, “I’m going to have an apartment with a balcony because of the mountain views around here.” They had no idea that once they stepped off, they came to this over-crowded space; dirty attics, underground rooms that were over-packed with people, no blankets, no stoves in the rooms, no medical care. It was pretty grim!
This was a gathering point for the transports to the east. Most of the meaning of “to the east” means Auschwitz. They called it a sluice, a “schleuze”! This was a word everybody feared every waking minute because they knew they could be called upon to get ready by tomorrow morning a get on a train to be transported further on to the east. They didn’t realize at that point; but…..
Roger: So, the Germans essentially got the elite, the leadership, to believe that they’d be going off to this country club environment….
Jutta T: Right!
Roger: …and all they needed to do was give them a list of the other Jewish people around and they could go off to Thereseinstadt and…
Jutta T: There is a little controversy on this! They don’t know how much the elite, these Jewish elders, knew what was happening; but, they certainly kept the rest of the people uninformed because they were afraid there would be chaos or whatever. So, many of the people who went there knew it wasn’t going to be nice, but they had no idea it was going to be this bad! In fact, Thereseinstadt apparently had a better reputation…. if you “go east” and reach peace, Thereseinstadt is not too bad, there are worse ones.
Of course, the other thing to remember is it was only Jews in Thereseinstadt. There were also practicing Christians as Gerty Spies points out. They were converted Jews or people from mixed-marriages, people who had married a Jewish spouse and decided to go with them when they were transported. According to Spies, they even had Christmas celebrations there. I don’t have any figures on that. It was probably a very small percentage; but, there were other religions in Thereseinstadt.
To give you some statistics, according to Hans Gunther Adler who wrote the definitive book (he was in Thereseinstadt, his wife died there), there were approximately 141,000 people that went through Thereseinstadt. Of these 141,000, there were 88,000 shipped out, mostly to Auschwitz and mostly to their death. 33,000 died in Thereseinstadt. They did not have gas chambers there. They died of disease and malnutrition. A lot of them were elderly and susceptible to diseases that came through like pneumonia, dysentery and typhus. They had a very high percentage of Jewish doctors; but, the doctors had no medication. It was wartime and what medication there was went to the war effort, not to the camps. So they had 33,000 people that died. Adler said there were 10,000 children theat went to Auschwitz. Most of them died. There was one transport out to Switzerland in late 1944 or early 1945 with maybe 1,000 children on board. When the liberation came in May, 1945, there were only 17,000 people left. Out of that 17,000 people there were fewer than 100 children! That’s a pretty grim statistic.
Roger: Yes! Oh, boy!
Jutta T: Spies herself, lost seven relatives in Thereseinstadt. She talks about a couple of her uncles that died there.
Roger: What was life like…. the average day in the life of someone in Thereseinstadt?
Jutta: First of all, let me tell you a little bit about the administration. Again, the Nazis set up a Council of Elders in 1942. This meant these Jewish Elders were supposed to do the administration of Thereseinstadt. Of course, there was a German kommandant in charge and they had to go to him. He got his orders from Berlin, so this was just one of those layers what was supposed to make it look better. The power of these elders was very limited; but, they had the offensive task of selecting people for transport. If the Nazis said they wanted 1,000 people to go tomorrow, the elders had to make up the list. Spies, in her normal, gentle tone, says very little of it. Adler called them a, “hostile, divided triumvirate.” He said there was a lot of tension going on. Every so often, they’d send elders to Auschwitz and have a new Council of Elders put in place. Nobody was safe!
Even though the Council made the decisions for awhile, suddenly the rug was pulled from underneath them and somebody else was put in their place.
In the day to day activities the inmates had very little to do with the Nazis. Food was given out by other Jewish people. They had a whole Potemkin village set up; they had a post office, they had a bank, they had their own currency with supposedly Moses printed on one side with Tablets of Law printed on it to signify it was Jewish currency. They had a library. Apparently the library was really a great thing for those who were not too exhausted. Spies said that although they were only allowed to bring so many pounds of luggage with them, almost everybody that came had a book or two, which were confiscated right away. Eventually they set up a library with over 60,000 books. Spies talks about going to the library and taking out books. A lot of times she could just barely start reading it and, you know, they all had to work long days and long hours on very little food, so they were very exhausted to read.
The interesting thing about Thereseinstadt that really makes it different is the cultural leisure or leisure time activities that we have now heard about a lot Probably you have heard about anything, that’s what you know about it. Because there were so many prominent highly educated people there from the arts, the professions and business, medicine, industry; they realized very quickly that they needed some intellectual activity. It was essential to their survival, not just physical survival but also their mental survival. Supposedly, men started talking about their expertise. If somebody knew about history, they talked about history. If somebody was in medicine, they talked about medicine or talked about travel or whatever. In the arts, they talked about literature. In the beginning, it was very casual, just a couple of them talking together, then eventually they started giving lectures. Because, they were separated in different barracks, the women were not able to attend the mens’ lectures. So, the women started doing the same thing. Eventually, that broke down and they all went to each other’s lectures. That was the beginning for what they called the Committee for Free Time Activities. Supposedly, they had to clear that with the Council of Elders who had to clear it with the kommandant. Much of it, according to Spies, was very impromptu. They went there and somebody gave a lecture. Nothing was every written down. They didn’t have paper or anything like that. It was very casual.
On the other hand, they could perform plays or operas from memory, and they did! There were plays performed and recitals given. There were no visual arts allowed. The Nazis wanted to be sure there were no paintings left. One of the books I researched said the painters had a hard time. They tried to hide their work behind walls. Somebody went back ten years later and found some of the works he had hidden. There was documentation that he had painted it while he was Thereseinstadt.
As far as Gerty Spies is concerned, she made a conscious decision to turn to the arts. She said, “I have to do something to get my mind off this horrid deprivation. I’ve got to do something else! Why not write poetry?” She knew her father had written poetry and she thought she’d try. That’s how she started to write poetry. She said again and again, that if it hadn’t been for highly focusing on something else, she would not have been able to survive. That really helped her survive. It wasn’t easy to just decide to write poetry. First of all, you have to write it down. Secondly, you were not allowed to do that type of activity. So, she goes into a long explanation of all the travesties she had to go through. For example, she volunteered to become a stoker, to heat the stove, in the barracks where the women had to go to work in the morning. That meant she had to get up even a couple of hours earlier; but, she knew she could then have access to a place where they had paper to light a fire, so she could steal some of that paper. It was like brown packing paper.
Roger: Jutta, I’ve got to take a break here. We’ll pick up as soon as we come back. Ladies and gentlemen, Jutta Tragnitz is our guest and we’re talking about the book, “My Years in Thereseinstadt” written by Gerty Spies. Very interesting, quite different from the other concentration camps.
Roger: Welcome back, ladies and gentlemen. We’re continuing our discussion with Jutta Tragnitz about Gerty Spies book that she translated, “My Years in Thereseinstadt: How One Woman Survived the Holocaust.”
All right, Jutta, we’re back! Gerty is stealing paper from the fireplaces or something?
Jutta T: Right! As I said, she volunteered to be the heating woman, so to speak. It was very difficult — she goes through this in the book– not only to find paper; but, to find wood. They were allowed to burn, but, they were not allowed to go around and find it. She found the paper but in order to write it down she needed an opportunity, she needed privacy. She was not supposed to have things like that on you and if it was written down, you couldn’t leave it in your rooms because there were inspections. People came through looking for all kinds of stuff. The slightest infraction of the rules meant you could be put on the transport.
So, she explains that sometimes she would struggle for a word, she would think of a line and she would have the line in her mind. She would go to the next line and go through the same thing again, repeat the first line and the second line and go on and on. Sometimes it took days before she had the time to write it down. But, she felt by focusing in on something like this, everything else was not there for her, she was in a mental state that transcended all this hunger and all the other things that camp life presented.
She eventually wrote some of them down and then started carrying them around with her! She had some kind of backpack and kept them there. As I said, there were Jewish people watching the people coming and going and working. The overseers were Jewish and they would sometimes ask, “What do you have in your backpack?” She’d say, “Oh, really nothing.” And they’d look in and say, “Why do you carry this around? You know, if you’re found you might be sent out!” And she’d say, “It means so much to me, I want to keep it.” This split in her life, that she had this terrible physical deprivation; but, she had this wonderful psychological and intellectual life. It’s really nicely expressed in one of the poems. Would you mind if I read one?
Roger: Absolutely! Go ahead!
Jutta T: This is about the heating stoves. It’s called,
“As a Stoker Woman”
One woman saws and chops the wood
And splits it into pieces.
The other withdraws,
Quiet and proud from the day’s noise.
One woman feeds the stoves,
Cleans away both cinder and soot
She hammers coals in smaller pieces
And subdues the embers and flames.
The other woman, in search of the spirit,
Breaks through invisible barriers.
She dreams and listens to nature,
Creates songs out of thoughts.
From time to time the two
Embrace each other with bright laughter.
Out of their kiss my being ascends,
A child of dreaming and waking.
I think she really caught her double life, so to speak, very nicely in that poem.
Roger: I think what we’ve done, we’ve probably painted too glossy a picture of Thereseinstadt. We need to remember these folks barely had enough food to survive, if that. They had literally no heat….
Jutta T: No heat! Over-crowded, over-crowed which was very, very hard on them! She describes how when they were in these barracks they had bunk beds, three women to a bed! That means you didn’t sleep head-to-foot, you slept crosswise, three women sharing one bed. Sometimes the worked in shifts, but apparently there was a curfew when everybody had to be inside.
She talks about the horrible noise, when you’re all closed in and afraid to move. You can’t get up to go to the bathroom at night. Hunger was always with them. They got a little bread in the morning and they had to ration it out through the day. If you ate it all in the morning, you had nothing to eat later when your neighbor was eating. And there was the deprivation of just not having enough sleep, of working on nothing— they had to stand half an hour to get watery soup during the day that sometimes had to be discarded because the smell was so rotten to begin with! They ended up subsisting on bread.
I’m not meaning to paint a rosy picture at all!. But, I am trying to say that Spies was always emphasizing that because she was able to go to her inner strength, to her inner resources, she was able to turn that part as much as she could. On the other hand, she always volunteered. She volunteered for the mica factory work. Do you know what I’m talking about?
Roger: Not exactly.
Jutta T: Everybody had to work and they had what they called mica-slate. Mica was a substance used in the aircraft industry. It’s something like asbestos that came in huge blocks that were broken up somewhere else and brought into the barracks in flat sheets. Women were given special knives and they had to split it paper thin. It was piecework and they had to do as much as possible. Apparently, it had a glare to it and was very hard on the eyes, made them start watering and after a couple of hours you couldn’t see anything, you had to work by feel. In fact, Spies said there were even blind women doing that. They did that for about 12 hours a day! In between they had maybe a half hour lunch to get that think potato soup or whatever it was. At night they had to walk with all the rest of the people back to the barracks exhausted.
In the meantime, she was trying to think about, “I can’t think about this any longer, I have to think about my poetry to get away from all this!” She felt that because she had something else to hold on to…..
Roger: She created a reason to live!
Jutta T: Yes, it gave meaning to her life, even in those circumstances.
Roger: Was her daughter or anyone there with her?
Jutta T: No, her daughter was half-Jewish. Her daughter stayed in Munich. Spies said she stayed there because she was allowed to finish school. Then when Spies came back, her daughter in the meantime had a little child, so she had a grandchild! Eventually the daughter and her husband took the child and emigrated to America.
Roger: Wow! So, she was all alone out there?
Jutta T: She was all alone. In fact, she does not have any contact, as far as I could tell, with her granddaughter. There is supposed to be a granddaughter over here. But, there’s no contact with her. Spies died just this past October, 1997. She was almost 101 years old.
Roger: Oh, my! She lived a long time!
Jutta T: She lived a long time; but, her mother lived until she was 98 also. There was something in the genes for a long life.
Roger: Did she make any friends at Thereseinstadt?
Jutta T: Yes, she talks about people, like for example, Elsa Bernstein who was a well-know writer in Germany before she was sent to Thereseinstadt. She kept up correspondence with her and helped very much with the poetry. Gerty really did not have any training, so she talked to other writers and poets. They talked about poetry and theory. There was a lot of this type of thing going on, just to get their minds off everyday life.
Roger: Clearly 33,000 people died at Thereseinstadt. She saw her share of death!
Jutta T: Oh, yes! There must have been over 100 a day!
Roger: Was she aware of what was going on in the other camps?
Jutta T: She claims that towards the end…. She said she…. I’m a little confused about how much exactly she knew. According to the book she wrote, she wasn’t totally sure. No! They had heard rumors towards the end that wherever they were going, that it would be the end. In the beginning they weren’t sure. I guess they just thought it was another camp that might be worse; but, eventually they were aware it was more or less death.
Roger: Do you know how she able to avoid transport to Auschwitz?
Jutta T: She claimed that anybody working in the mica factory for the war effort, anyone working for the war industry was pretty much safe because that need to be done.
Roger: Was there confusion after the war about people who had been in Thereseinstadt being people who had sold out their own?
Jutta T: Not that I know of, certainly not from Spies because she just was so gentle about all these things. In this whole book she has just one line about one of her… I think it was her uncle who was old and sick. Somebody made him work and she said, “ That should not have happened, and it has to be said, too!” That’s all she said about it! She said it was terrible and they had to take it; but, they couldn’t help it. They were all in the same boat and there was nothing they could do about it. She never talks about anybody that made bad decisions. She always speaks on the goodness of the people. She talks about people who would get a package and share the food.
Roger: Wow! To come through that and have that kind of spirit! What an amazing woman!
Jutta T: Absolutely amazing!
Roger: Hang on, Jutta! We’ve got to take a break. Folks, if you’d like to ask a question, we’ll take calls after the break.
Roger: Welcome back, ladies and gentlemen! Jutta Tragnitz is with us. We’re talking about her translation of , “My Years in Thereseinstadt: How One Woman’s Survived the Holocaust”, the story about Gerty Spies and her triumphant recovery from the Holocaust, how she never lost her spirit and always kept her attitude up. Boy, I don’t know how she did it!
Jutta, are you there?
Jutta T: You talk about here survival after all these horrors. She mentions at the end, these things never really left her, obviously. In her goodness of character, she tried not to really talk about it so much or let it bother her as much; but, she said in the book (pg 98), “Often when the nights are long or when I open myself to music, when the breath of Spring obliterates the boundaries between here and there, when the first stars emerge in the evening sky, I often feel as if all those who were so close to me did not die. Then it seems as if they still walk next to me, as if they touch my cheek….I pass through these days like a stranger, and it seems as if a spirit puts a pen in my hand, so that the bridge between our world and the world of our dead will not collapse under the storms of our times.”
She puts very nicely that this is always with her. There’s no way that she could ever not think about that.
Roger: In the book, she talks about the concept, “forgive, but do not forget.’
Jutta T: Right!
Roger: Can you explain what she meant by that?
Jutta T: I think what she means by that is you have to go on, you cannot let hate and feelings of revenge stay with you, as she says in her own words. Because they will block out all of your dignity, your humanity. So, you should “forgive” but you should not “forget”. You should keep your heart pure of hate and revenge. Her leit motif is “ to understand and to love.”
Roger: I’ve had some writers from that holocaust era say that those who say “forgive and forget” have nothing to forgive and forget.
Jutta T: Yes, but, she doesn’t say “forget”. She says “forgive” but “DO NOT FORGET”!
Roger: But, there are people in the world that say, “forgive and forget”! It’s 50 years ago! It’s over! Forgive and forget! So, I’ve read in numerous accounts that those people who say “forgive and forget” have nothing to “forgive or forget”. What Gerty is saying is DON’T FORGET!
Jutta T: That’s right! Because you don’t want to have it happen again, so you have to talk about it. That’s why she was very active in these other organizations where she wanted to keep the dialogue going between the Jews and the Germans, at least with the non-Jews was the way she put it; but, I assume she meant the Germans. So, you’re aware of what happened and that it doesn’t happen again, that from the personal experience, one-to-one, face-to-face, you see that we’re all just humans, no different.
Roger: Does she write about many of her experiences after she returned to Munich?
Jutta T: She wrote more poetry. She wrote a book called, “The Black Dress,” where she uses the black dress as a metaphor, how it gets passed on when somebody dies and the next person has it and somebody steals it, the vagaries of what happens to that dress. It’s like a person being handed on, how that person is treated.
Then she wrote a book about the youth during the war years; some of them were German and some were German-Jewish and their experience. It was printed about a year ago. It’s interesting that she had written it in the 1950s but nobody thought it would sell, so it wasn’t published. She had it published in 1997 just before she died.
Roger: Wow! Now if people want to get the book that you translated, “My Years in Thereseinstadt: How One Woman Survived the Holocaust,” how would they go about getting the book?
Jutta T: You can go to Barnes & Noble or Borders. If they don’t have it on the shelf they can order it for you in a day or two, or you could call the publisher, Prometheus, directly.
Their number is 1-800-421-0351.
Roger: Would it be under your name?
Jutta T: It could be under my name and also under Spies name.
Roger: You’ve gotten to know her and now she’s passed away. You’ve done an excellent job, in my view, of translating the book. Is it hard to translate from German?
Jutta T: Very difficult! Because you want to keep the tone. That was so important! It wasn’t just to get the storyline across; but, you want to keep the tone. Yes, it was very difficult; but, I had a lot of people I could talk to and discuss it with.
Roger: Yes, because words mean something and if you use the wrong word, you lose the meaning!
Jutta T: Right!
Roger: It seems like it would be very difficult to me.
Jutta T: You have to be very careful.
Roger: Is there much of a market for translated books?
Jutta T: Probably not; but, I think it’s enough just to have it out and for people that are interested, they can now go and have one woman’s point of view. Each holocaust survivor will have a different point of view because they had a different experience. I think it’s important to have a woman’s point of view, a saintly woman’s point out there! That’s all I can say!
Roger: Well, it’s a wonderful book! You’ve done a wonderful job and I want to thank you for being here tonight. It was a pleasure to meet you.
Jutta T: Thank you very much for having me.
Roger: God bless and keep up the good work! Good night!
(Transcription is from MP3 file converted from original cassette with minimal editing by Chey Simonton.
Errors, if any, may be due to unintelligible sections of original 1997 audio technology. Unknown/unintelligible words are spelled phonetically.)