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Ten Heroes in Search of their Best Battlefield

By Charlotte Guthmann Opfermann

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© 1998 Charlotte Guthmann Opfermann - all rights reserved

"Beware of Answered Prayers"

A report of the June 1944 Inspection of the Concentration Camp Terezin by representatives of the International Red Cross

The following paper "Beware of Answered Prayers " was read at the 1995 Silver Anniversary Conference "The Holocaust and the Churches" at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah by the author. Dr Maurice Roessel, head of the Geneva, Switzerland, office of the International Red Cross wrote a glowing report upon his return to his office in June 1944. The report and pictures have recently (1992) been released by the International Red Cross and are in the archives of the Pamatnik Terezin-Gedenkstaette Theresienstadt.

Many of the original responsibilities of the Church have been taken on by other humanitarian institutions over the years, the International Red Cross being just one of these. The care and concern for prisoners of war and political prisoners fall into this domain.

Word of the massacre of Jews at the hand of the Germans during World War II had reached the outside world almost from the very beginning, when the Wannsee Conference outlined plans in January 1942 for the Final Solution. But little was done with this knowledge.

It took the initiative of the Danish King Christian X, the cooperation of the president of the German Red Cross, SS Brigadefuehrer Dr. med. Ernst Grawitz (who, himself was personally responsible for many of the medical experiments performed on concentration camp prisoners), Reichsfuehrer SS Heinrich Himmler, SS Sturmbannfuehrer Adolf Eichmann and other major players in the drama to make an inspection of just one camp possible.

And the result of this display of interest was by no means an improvement of the conditions in this camp. On the contrary, 18,406 prisoners were killed in an effort to prepare the camp for a second such inspection. A documentary film of the camp Theresienstadt, which had been in the planning stages for some time, was completed at about the same time.

Our conference topic ‘The Holocaust and the Churches’ does not allow for the customary opening jokes, so please bear with me while I share a recent experience with you -- maybe it will amuse you:
Last Fall I was in the former concentration camp Theresienstadt, as guest of the Prague Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, the Berlin Topografie des Terrors office, the Prague Terezin Initiative and the Wiesbaden Förderkreis Museum (Wiesbaden is my birthplace) with whom I have worked for a dozen years or so, doing seminars, study groups, Holocaust history lessons, collaborating on books, articles, textbooks, as well as producing movies, audio and video presentations, radio and TV programs and other such.

The purpose and agenda of the seminar in Theresienstadt, a former Imperial Austrian garrison town, was educational. During the war years 1941 to 1945 this place had been a concentration camp. Most of the attendants at our conference were curators from other former concentration camp sites. Many had worked with one another before, attended other conferences together, knew each other for years.

It was an interesting time, to be sure. Very emotional for me, because nearly fifty years earlier I had been at the same site as a prisoner, housed --if you want to call it that-- in the airless and unlit attic of a 200-year-old military barracks building, together with 6000-plus other female prisoners on this attic alone,1 without much food, most of the time without water, to drink or for the most basic needs of hygiene, and a long walk to the nearest latrine. We were dimly aware of the fact that we had been brought here to die...eventually almost all of us did.

Last October, by contrast, I was housed in the former SS officer's club house [wasn't that a switch]. This building is now officially a government guest house. Geographically it is located within the garrison ramparts, but during my earlier confinement here it had been barricaded off and was well outside the confines of the camp. This time we were served reasonably good food, in adequate quantities. We ate in a pleasant communal dining room, at long tables with cheerful bouquets of field flowers in the center of each table, next to honest-to-goodness salt and pepper shakers. We had paper napkins, table cloths. Plates, cups and saucers, glasses for water and plenty of it. The waiters and waitresses were young recruits of the Czech army -- the garrison serves again its military purpose. This time I was permitted to come and go as I deemed fit, at any time of day or night, anywhere on and off the grounds. All this took some getting used to. As you can imagine, I suffered a severe case of disorientation. Culture shock.

The gracious program planners even offered an evening of social gathering, in a rather formal setting, the SS Club's formal dining/ball room, with several important honored guests in attendance. This time our waiter/waitress/servers were picturesquely attired in some Rosenkavalier-operetta-style cooks and waitresses costume. It was a bit disconcerting to see them anxiously watch every bite we ate and every glass of wine we drank...I learned only much later that they had been promised the left-overs from the feast for their own consumption.

While you may think this funny, my biggest laugh (or shock, if you will) came later in the evening when one of the fellow seminar attendees approached me and introduced herself as Frau Kypke, the widow of a wartime SS guard from Auschwitz. And she was not even very drunk. How and why she had ever found her way into this particular gathering was and is a mystery to me. Clearly, it was not a sack-and-ashes pilgrimage for her. At that moment I knew for a fact that I had again landed in some forecourt of Dante's Inferno. For the second time. I am obviously a slow learner. And it was to get worse.

A few days later we all split up into several study groups. I attended a seminar covering, specifically, those of my former fellow prisoners who had --prior to their arrest for being Jewish-- achieved fame in the fields of literature and the arts. This seemed appropriate because I had become acquainted with several of these, even befriended some of them during my first stay. My friend Irma Semecka and I had, even, hidden papers and manuscripts belonging to her friend Gideon Klein (the taletnted Czech composer), as well as an oil portrait Charlotte Buresova had painted of this handsome young man.

Unfortunately, the leader of this particular seminar spoke only Czech. And after almost fifty years of non-use, the Czech I had learned during the camp years was a bit rusty. The translation was not high-tech-simultaneous as it had been at some of the other sessions during other gatherings, because the room we were using this time was not equipped to handle such an installation.

My SS-guard-wife/widow-friend Kypke was a member of the audience and took it all in with a benign smile as the various speakers held forth at length, name dropping their way through the program, citing writers, musicians, politicians, painters, soldiers, journalists, dancers, tenors, sopranos and other greats with much to offer to the world if only they had been permitted to live.

Being naturally tactful about the painful reality of our topic, the speakers touched infrequently, en passant and very sotto voce with a casual aside on the fact that all these people died of hunger, neglect, typhoid fever, encephalitis, tuberculosis, hepatitis, dysentery and other diseases. Or that they were re-deported to other extermination camps. Some were beaten to death, shot or hanged. Out of some 170,000 inmates a few had been singled out for specialized treatment (i.e. killing) at the nearby penal colony Kleine Festung . Dr. Paul Eppstein from Berlin comes to mind, a one time Theresienstadt elder, chief of the Judenrat, the internal administrative body. He was brought to the penal colony and shot in a small potato field just outside the walls.

My little friend listened and smiled politely through it all. At one point she raised her right hand like a good student and asked for specific details of the writers' work while in the camp. "What papers," she wanted to know, "in the outside world did they write for while incarcerated here? Was any of this work preserved?"

I am sorry to admit, that I lost my cool at that point. I had known all along that I wanted to kill that lady. And with her a whole lot of other people who are likewise afflicted with selective amnesia, who are deaf, dumb, blind or all of the above. And her late husband and his SS guard colleagues. Or even those who claimed ignorance --then and now-- denying the facts as I knew them all too well.

With the a nod toward the head of the table I cut in, in German --to make sure she'd understand-- "My dear lady, we did not have toilet paper for the two years while I was here. We certainly did not have any paper for manuscripts. We were here to die and to be killed. Period." With that I sat down. Enormously relieved but also very much ashamed of my lack of self control. I could sense that everyone around me was embarrassed as you may well be too, now. Fifty years of stiff upper lip practice had suddenly proven to have been in vain. Yet, considering the circumstances, maybe this had been a restrained performance.

My point is and was that, in spite of what we all see and hear and do and write and tell, many people do not get it. Did not get it. Haven't a clue of what happened. Not then. Not now. Or say so. And want us to believe them. This brings me to an important point: There is a certain obscenity in this type of voluntary ignorance. If you are literate, and according to the officical statistics most of us are, there is no excuse.

Just a few weeks ago I filled in for a friend who teaches Contemporary History at a reputable Texas high school. She has an advanced degree from a well known institution. The school where she works is surrounded by homes in the $350,000+ category. With two, three or more cars in the driveway. Occasionally also a boat. Jetskis. Snowskis. Motorcycles. Jacuzzis. Swimming pools. Nothing shabby here.

The job was said to be a snap. I was 'only to give a test'. Everything had been prepared. Nothing to do, really. Just hand out the prepared papers. Make sure no one cheats.

The subject was World War Two. And the word 'Holocaust' was misspelled, as was the name 'Auschwitz'. On the same page. These students were lucky that my teacher friend had a death in the family and was too broken up to get back to her classes for the rest of that week. Because the very next day I brought some recent photographs with me of crematoria, of the gallows next to the children's barracks. And a sketch drawn by a ten-year-old girl prisoner. The scene: Three condemned prisoners hanging from the gallows by their necks [for some minor infraction such as hiding their yellow 'Jew' star badge or, stealing a raw turnip while working without pay in a nearby field for one of the Czech farmers. The prisoner population standing at attention watching this scene. Including the little girl who had drawn the picture.

I filled them in how the builders of brewing machinery and crematoria in Thuringia, had designed and perfected the gas chambers and the multiple-corpse incinerators. And how they are now suing for reparations from the German government because the firm and its owners 'suffered grave financial losses' when they 'had to leave' Erfurth, fleeing, just barely ahead of the all-conquering Soviet Army. The Russians were known to shoot first and ask questions later. Sometimes. This firm later settled in Wiesbaden. In the American zone. Americans are known to be more tolerant. The firm's loss, if you will, was really due to the outcome of the War. If Germany had won, their business would have continued to prosper. Not necessarily in the beer brewing machinery end of it.

To find out more about 'Ten Heroes in Search of their Best Battlefield', please contact Charlotte.

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