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Memories from Theresienstadt
Birgit Krasnik Fischermann was among the Jewish children deported from Denmark to Theresienstadt in October 1943. As part of Humanity in Action Denmark's conference "Civil Society: Reactions to the Holocaust," she shared memories of her childhood at the Lutheran Church in Gilleleje, the Danish town from which many thousands of Jews fled to Sweden and others were arrested and deported to Theresienstadt. Fischermann now serves as chairperson of the Danish Theresienstadt Association in Copenhagen.
Today, 70 years have passed since the “action against the Danish Jews.” Seven thousand Danish citizens of Jewish background were rescued to Sweden by fishermen and other ordinary Danish citizens who wouldn't accept that Jewish co-citizens should be deported from Denmark. But for a small group of about 500, the rescue did not succeed—I was one of them. We were deported to Theresienstadt.
I never imagined telling my story in the church of Gilleleje, which wasn't part of my story 70 years ago. My story started late September when my father suddenly disappeared. It had never happened before, so my mother worried. She asked for him at a police station, where she was told that they couldn't help if he was taken—arrested—by the Gestapo. “Ask for him at Dagmarhus, the occupation headquarters,” they said.
It was one of the Jewish New Year holy days, but my grandfather agreed—“Go to Dagmarhus and ask for him; since he never participated in any illegal activities, no one would harm, would they?"
So off she went. And at Dagmarhus they told my mother to come back the following day, “Bring your daughter, Birgit,” they said. I still do not understand why my mother didn't wonder how they knew my name.
Anyway, the following day, we went to Dagmarhus again to pick up my father. We were received by a German officer who told us to wait in a dark room. I started screaming, so the officer came back, opened the door and told us to go upstairs to wait for my father in another room. When he opened this door, we could see a whole number of people we knew—my mum grabbed for my arm. She was suddenly quite pale and told me to be quiet. Later we understood that the others also had been told to pick up relatives who had disappeared for days. All the grown-ups looked at each other, and I understood—they were afraid of what was going to happen.
After a long time we suddenly heard boots approaching—the door was kicked open, and German soldiers with guns ordered us down the stairs with beatings and kicks. I am quite sure that I would have found it interesting or even amusing if I hadn't seen the fearful faces around me. Even a 5-year-old child could feel that this wasn’t for fun. We were taken in closed police vans through Copenhagen to the harbor where we were brutally dragged out.
I remember it was a very cold and windy evening—the night between the 1st and 2nd of October 1943. It was totally dark. I was waiting on the quay, my mother and a friend of my parents held my hands. I only had a light jacket—I had forgotten my cap. An older girl offer me her hat, it was blue with red dots. I was very surprised—I couldn’t help thinking that now she would freeze.
I will never forget the sound of German soldiers with their rifles; they told us to remain silent, which we did for very long with our faces towards the sea—only then I realized we were standing in front of a huge ship. Quite exhausted I started crying. I was so afraid.
After a long wait we were ordered to board the ship, “the Whateland.” We were told to take our places in the bottom of the ship on the floor—very dirty. I fell asleep.
When I woke up, my father had arrived. He looked strange, I didn’t understand right away that he hadn’t been able to wash or shave for days—he had been to Vester Foengsel, the Grand Prison of Copenhagen. He had been arrested at the home where he had hoped to arrange an Ashingboat transportation to Sweden. Instead, they were all arrested. Although they were all beaten, no one—as far as I know—told the Gestapo how they knew of the fisherman.
I remember my grandmother and grandfather coming down the stairs of “the Whateland.” Grandmother carried some colorful blankets. My Granddad had his prayer books. My aunts and uncles were also on board. My Grandmother told that they were picked up by two 17-year-old German soldiers who cried and told them to wear warm clothes for a long journey.
We started sailing–at one stage the soldiers reached for the lifebelts. They told us we were entering an area filled with sea mines. I hardly need to say that there were only safety belts for the soldiers.
When we arrived at Swinemiinde, we had to walk down a steep ladder. My mother was pregnant and felt terribly ill—we hadn't had anything to eat or drink for hours. On the quay an old white-haired woman in a nightgown was chained to a madrass; she was screaming and screaming. The soldiers used their dogs to make sure that we were all pushed into livestock wagons. The doors were closed behind us.
The only light came from a small window near the ceiling; there were two buckets in the wagon, one for marmalade, one to relieve ourselves. One of our fellow passengers went out of his mind. He was screaming and screaming. I told my mother that I would wait until we arrived at a proper toilet, but my mother looked at me and said that we might not arrive at a toilet at all. I wonder if any of you can imagine how a 5-year-old child would understand that?
We were about 50 people on the floor, I have no idea for how long. When we finally arrived and were told to leave the train, we lined up in a long queue. We had to leave all we had. I had to give them a small bracelet with small hearts. In return we all had a yellow star with one word: "Jude". If we didn’t wear it, the most dreadful things could happen.
There were other Danish children of my age, some older ones as well, and a lot from other countries. Some of them had a father or mother; some of them had no relatives. I was playing with a girl who got lice. I felt sorry for her—they had shaved her head totally. So I gave her the blue hat with red dots. She even slept with the hat. Then, one day, she disappeared. No one would tell me where she was gone.
We starved for several months—we only had bread, sugar and some margarine in small portions—we had to stand in queues with small army-colored bags—for potatoes—most of them rotten. My favorite dish at the time was very black bread with potatoes and sennep. You could also have a soup-like thing.
When we arrived at Theresienstadt my mother was seen by a doctor who asked when she was expecting to give birth - they told her it wasn't the best place to give birth and suggested an abortion - my parents told them that she was seven months into her pregnancy. When she was overdue, they asked her what happened. She told them that in Denmark women would carry the baby for 11 months.
My brother was born in Theresienstadt in February 1944. My father lived in another barrack. We usually saw him once a day when we were waiting for “dinner.”
One cold morning there was a panic; they thought I had disappeared. I had made my way through the barrier and found a piece of wood, and it had taken several hours to carry the wood home for my mother to put in the oven so my little brother wouldn’t freeze. At first I was hugged and kissed—then I was scolded severely.
The first food parcels from Denmark arrived in January or February 1944. If we hadn’t received them, we would most probably have starved to death. My brother was often ill. My mother couldn't breastfeed him, so a Czech woman did it on her behalf.
There were many rumors of transportations. Once, several thousand children were sent away. (Actually from 1942-45 more than 15,000 children were sent from Theresienstadt to the gas chambers.) My parents were nervous when they heard of these transportations.
My father one day picked me up—he showed me a white bus with a red cross—“Birgit, we are going home—to Denmark. The white bus will take us back,” he said.
I hardly believed him. Maybe this was just another “transport” like those I had heard of. I got terribly ill the same night, but it was true—the buses took us out of Theresienstadt. It was terrible to leave people behind.
In Padborg, in southern Jutland, people were receiving us with “hurrahs.” They were throwing sweets into the buses—and when we reached Copenhagen a lot of people lined up along the roads wishing us “welcome home”—but, as you know, the war wasn't over, so we were sailed to Sweden.
We lived in a kind of summer camp for a couple of months. We got terribly ill, at first from measles, then chickenpox. I remember an older girl who put cucumber on the chickenpox on our faces. I hadn't seen cucumber for a long time. When she left I ate them; they tasted wonderful.
In June, we returned to Denmark. My father went first—to find that our apartment in Copenhagen was rented by someone else.
My father died at 50—his heart never recovered after our 18 months in Theresienstadt. My mother must have been made from some other material. She lived until 101; we kept talking about things we experienced in the camp.
Today I am the chairperson of the Danish Theresienstadt Association and on the board of other former prisoner associations for people who one way or another have been traumatized by the years of the war.
I thank you for listening. I would like you to know that 152,000 Jews were deported to Theresienstadt—88,000 of those were transported to death camps.
In Theresienstadt itself some 35,000 people died from starvation and health problems. Only 19,500 survived.
I think you should know as well that 10,500 children beyond 15 years were sent to Theresienstadt. Most of them—7,650—were sent to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Only 250 survived.
Among the 500 Danish Jews deported to Theresienstadt, there were 46 children. Five children were born in Theresienstadt. Two of them died.
My little brother survived. The first years back in Denmark he was always hiding himself under a coat when our parents received some guests. Only when the guests had left, he reappeared. His first word was “Iuftalarm”—or “air alarm.”
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