“My name is Eva Zelená, my maiden name was Reichová. Except for those two and a half years I’ve lived for all of my life in Česká Skalice. My father was born in Skalice and my grandfather was from Skalice as well. My mother came from Prague and moved to Skalice after the marriage. I had a sister who was three and a half years younger then me. Thanks to my parents I had a wonderful childhood. My mother had university education and spoke three foreign languages fluently. She spent a lot of time with us and cared for us very well. I often think of her until today. I remember all the walks we did, her beautiful stories and all the time she devoted to us. She was also teaching us, especially during the war, when we weren’t allowed to go to school anymore. She taught us English and German. She was giving us English classes only for a short while so I wasn’t really able to speak English but I spoke very good German. I went to school from 1934 to 1940 and then I wasn’t allowed to go to school anymore. According to the Nuremberg race-purity laws our family was found to be 100% Jewish as far back as five generations. And then everything was subordinated to the Nuremberg laws – the number of restrictions on the personal freedom of Jews was ever growing. It all culminated with the deportation to Theresienstadt. The transfers of Jews began in 1941 when the first six transports went to Łódź in Poland. Then a ghetto was set up in Theresienstadt and the Jews from the Protectorate were transferred there. Then the transports of Jews from Germany, Austria, Denmark and Holland followed. So Theresienstadt became a truly international camp. Theresienstadt was a garrison built in the times of Maria Theresa. In the times of the First Czechoslovak Republic (1918 – 1938 – note by the translator) the Theresienstadt population including the garrison troops was some 7.000. The Germans managed to cram as many as 60.000 Jews into the Theresienstadt ghetto, so it was more more busy there then the Vencelslav Square. There was no privacy at all because people were everywhere. Every basement, every attic and every corner was turned into housing for the masses of Jews coming to Theresienstadt. The young people were betted disposed to cope with the harsh conditions but it was hard for older people to, for example, climb up a ladder to an attic. The mortality-rate in Theresienstadt was pretty high. As many as 150 people would die every day, that has already been proven. And in order to make space for the new-arrivals, they would send a thousand Jews from Theresienstadt to the east every now and then. At that time nobody knew what was gonna happen to them. It was only after the war that people realized what had been going on in the camps in Poland”
“The children got a bit more to improve their situation. Especially the children because there was this saying: “The nation lives eternally in its children”. And the elderly people were kind of conciliated with the idea that they won’t make it out alive. But actually neither the old, nor the young made it out alive. Those children that stayed in Theresienstadt had some chances of surviving but those transported to a camp, especially to Auschwitz, didn’t survive. It’s terrible when a mother has to see her hungry child suffering and starving to death and can do nothing about it. When the little she has isn’t enough to feed the child. When a five-year old kid tells you: “Are we gonna go to the chimney as well?” These children didn’t even know what fate was awaiting them. However, you could somehow smell that fate in the grim atmosphere of the camp. There was a dark-brown cloud covering the camp permanently. It was from the smoke that came from the chimneys. It smelled awfully of the burned flesh, bones, hair and whatever it was what they burned in these crematories. And these children had to live in this place as well! And this nervousness stemming from the uncertainty of the future spread from the parents among the children as well. The uncertainty of what tomorrow will bring, whether there even will be a tomorrow. Nobody was even thinking in terms of what will happen ina week. People were uncertain about the very next moment. When an SS man appeared at the main gate it sufficed to send a stir through the entire camp. Why is he coming? What’s it gonna mean for us? What’s gonna happen again? The whole camp was abounding with insecurity and uncertainty about the future. This uncertainty produced incredible stress. When you’re alone and don’t have responsibility for anyone else you cope with it in a different way. I was alone, so what, I’m alone. But the parents were responsible for their children and where did this responsibility stay when there was nothing they could do for them? I know today what it is like to be responsible for your children because I have my own children and grandchildren as well. You know it’s almost impossible to imagine under the normal conditions of today’s life what kind of suffering the parents in the camps must have experienced.”
“Doctor Mengele was present at every selection. He was a handsome man, he cycled around the camp and as far as I know he never looked the prisoners in their eyes. He had his brigadier cap mounted in such a way that it covered his forehead. But he had the say – he made the final decision at the selections. There was simply nothing you could do against his verdict. We were walking naked in goose-step in front of him and some other SS-men while they were scrutinizing us. He revealed with his look whether you were able or unable of further life, whether you’ll go to the left or to the right. As I was passing him he grabbed my arm and asked how old I was. I said I was sixteen but he was wondering: “What, sixteen years old?” I walked on and tried to get out of his sight because it always bode ill if an SS man looked at you for too long. Well, that was doctor Mengele. He didn’t miss a single selection. And he did experiments with twins or triplets and with midgets – you know that’s these people of low stature. He had them accommodated separately and did his experiments with them. When one of the twins died the other had to die as well so that he could compare how their bodies had evolved and whether they had any defects. So that’s what he did - he was comparing the two, whether they were equally evolved. It was horrible. Well, we only experienced the selection on our arrival and when we went to work. I haven’t experienced more selections. But some of the inmates from the other camps have experienced several selections. When there were no transports coming from outside of the camp they had to fill their gas chambers and crematories somehow.”
“My mother started to work very early on. She worked in the… in German they called it a “Kleiderkammer”.It was simply a storehouse for clothes that they had stolen from the people that had died. What was of superior quality was sent to Germany as help to those in the bombed cities. What was of inferior quality was sold in shops in Theresienstadt. You could buy it then in a shop… but that was only later, when a delegation of the Red Cross was allowed to inspect the ghetto. The Germans wanted to demonstrate to the world that they treated the Jews humanely. Therefore they had set up these shops. Well, there wasn’t much you could buy in these shops anyway. There was a shop with clothes, a shop with shoes, and most important to the people, a grocery. They were supposed to sell some food but there wasn’t much on offer there. They sold an interesting food paste, however. This paste burned a hole into the jar we were keeping it in! After three days it corroded the metal, only if it was made from aluminum, in that case not! It must have had an extraordinarily high nutritional value!”
“When we arrived in Auschwitz the door opened and we had to get out the car as fast as we could. This was accompanied by the shouts and screams of the SS men and the barking of their dogs. We had to leave everything in the cattle car and when somebody tried to take a piece of his luggage with him they ripped it out of his hands and threw it back into the car. So in order to take as many clothes as they could, people would wear several layers of clothing. So for example, they’d wear several layers of underwear and two or three pairs of trousers, several shirts, sweaters, jackets etc. But during the day it could get very hot and so they would strip it down and leave it in their bunks. Then they’d go to the Appelplatz and when they came back, it was all gone. So in the end they were left with only what they wore on them anyway. Everything else was stolen or disappeared immediately! It is a mystery anyway, how we were able to survive this. I ask myself this question every day. When I think of these terrible conditions, I ask myself how we could have survived it. Today, if I didn’t shower and wash myself in the evening, I’d think that I die by the morning but in the camp I couldn’t wash for six weeks! I didn’t change my clothes for six weeks! And you know, there were people who couldn’t wash for half a year! In Theresienstadt the conditions were much better. We could wash there. You didn’t have any privacy but still you could wash fairly often. When we wanted to wash we went to the barracks where they had these bathrooms. There were these long washing cradles and above them were the showers. In the summer we soaped ourselves and laid down into the cradle. Every now and then we were given vouchers for a warm-water shower. You were only allowed to stay there for ten minutes. They let you in, you had to get undressed, two persons shared one shower and the warm water only lasted for a short while, long enough only to get wet. Then they turned it off and we lathed ourselves. Then they turned it on again for us to wash away the soap. After a few moments the water turned cold again. And that was it – no longer then 10 minutes. But that was only occasionally. It wasn’t like once a week or once in two weeks. I mean it’s no wonder if you consider how many people there were. Well, that’s how it was, you know. It was like this!”
“Then the battlefront came really close and we weren’t given anything to eat or drink for three days. After they had liberated the camp the English gave us these pork-meat cans. The camp was so well hidden that the English hadn’t known it even existed. They didn’t expect that they’d come across it. That’s why the liberation took so long. They didn’t want to march through the camp and increase the casualties; that’s why they went around it. Nobody knew what the Germans were hiding in the camp, not even the mayor of the nearest city. At least he claimed he didn’t know what was happening on there. The English commanding officer later said that he’d seen a lot of horrors during the campaign in Europe and Germany, but what he saw in Bergen-Belsen, he hadn’t seen anywhere else. It’s impossible to… You know, the worst thing about it is that the dying actually didn’t stop with the last shot but continued for a few more weeks and months. We were in quarantine because of the risk of disease; they couldn’t let us go home immediately. I fell ill during the quarantine and they were putting me back together for three months before they finally considered me strong enough for the transport. I only came back home in August 1945. It was a sad homecoming because there was actually nobody there to welcome me. A lot of people wondered how I was able to survive it. They didn’t expect me to ever return. They didn’t greet me as a heroine. One Comrade even said that I wrecked their plans because I returned. What was I supposed to do when I survived?”
“But then we came to Bergen-Belsen and there, it wasn’t us who had lice – it was the lice who had us! That was a cabaret. There’s no way how to get rid of them as you don’t have any means for that – you can’t even wash or change your clothes, neither do you have soap. So in the morning after we got up we took off our clothes and did our “morning hygiene”. We simply scratched them of and squashed them. But they were so many and it was so hard to see them that the next day it was already the same as the day before. So the lice kept us entertained. As we didn’t work there and had nothing to do at least we could keep ourselves busy in this way. Oh my god – Bergen-Belsen was the worst camp! When we came there the house was completely empty, there wasn’t a single chair or anything there. The floor was like those old-style black slag pavements. And when you looked at it closely, you could see something white, light grey – that were the colonies of lice teeming on the floor. They gave the order to sit down on the floor so sat down, pulled in our legs, knees under the chin and so we sat next to each other endlessly until they called us to the Appelplatz. In the beginning they also ordered us to carry packages from the storehouse to the trains. There were some storehouses in Bergen-Belsen with military equipment like uniforms and the like. There weren’t any weapons in these storehouses, or if there were any weapons, they had been kept out of our reach. They were loading it onto trains but it was unclear to us where they wanted to take it as the battlefront was approaching very quickly by that time already. And we had to carry these heavy packages – surely a good way how to drain the rest of our energies. So we were carrying packages for three days and those of us who weren’t able to go on anymore had to die. Not voluntarily, of course, but by a German shot. Because of the frequent shootings the road was dotted by bodies on both sides. They didn’t even bother to bury the dead. The camp was in a forest and that’s why the Americans didn’t take notice of it – they didn’t have it in their maps. So when the English liberated the camp – not the Americans but the English – the English commanding officer said that he’d seen a lot of horrors in other camps in Germany, but what he saw in Bergen-Belsen, he hadn’t seen anywhere else. I tell you they piled the bodies in the same way you pile trees that you fell in a forest. It must have been at least one meter high and several meters long. Of course, the bodies were naked because textile was precious and could be put to use somewhere. They were lying everywhere the dead from the camp – naked haggard corpses. Here and there they dashed a shovel of lime on the bodies. As the battlefront was drawing closer they wanted to bury the bodies so again they used the inmates from the camp. Those who could still stand on their feet were hurled into the forest and had to drag the dead to the mass graves that had been dug. Some of the corpses were already decomposing so chunks of flesh were falling off from the body… Well, I can’t, I can’t!”
“I don’t know who had picked me but I was assigned to a group that was responsible for de-lousing children. So we were checking their hair for lice and when we found that they had lice we cut the hair. Boys had their hair cut altogether and girls had it trimmed very short so that the lice could not parasite on them. Two weeks later I was reassigned to another group and I became an assistant baby sitter on a block that was designated for mothers with their babies. So I worked with children. The children were sorted by their sex and age. We tried to play with them as best as we could under the circumstances. When the weather allowed for it we played outside. So we’d go for a “walk” along the Lagerstrasse or we were at the Appelplatz. For example, we’d sit there and tell them stories or fairytales. When we found a stick we’d carve something with it into the ground. We had no books, no pencils and almost no paper so it was very, very sad. It was really pathetic because we were telling them stories and fairytales but these little children hadn’t seen a cat or a chicken in their life. So it’s really hard to tell a kid something about cats, chickens or cows when it’s got no idea of how such an animal looks like. They kind of knew what a dog looked like because the SS men had dogs. But what about other animals? To tell them about forests? They hadn’t seen them either.”
“The life there was manifold, you know? But working in the garden allowed you to get out of the ghetto and to relax for a while. The garden was an oasis of peace and calmness. You never saw a German there except when they were driving on the road to Litoměřice, because the garden was next to that road. So every now and then you could see them driving on that road but besides that it was calm and nobody bothered us there because who would crawl up that little hillock from the road to the garden right? It was peaceful there and we were really enjoying it. At least for a while, you almost felt like being back in the times when you led a civilian life. The work was fine and you could see the results of your labor. Well, it was work for the Germans but at least you could improve your poor diet because they didn’t count the vegetables and the fruits. And you had a spare piece of bread that you could exchange for much-needed medicaments or something of the sort. You know, bread was almost like a currency in the ghetto. You could get anything for bread. You had to see that you got something in addition to the bread in order to satisfy your belly at least for a moment. People were called to the kitchen to peel potatoes. They sometimes were able to take away a few potatoes or at least the peels. Because it was made by hand and a bit of the potato flesh remained on that peel. For some time the bread they gave us was terribly bitter, it was crumbling and it caused digestion problems. It helped when you baked it a bit to make it harder. Then it was better. It was more digestible. Well, there were all sorts of moments like that.”
“Well, when we arrived there we first inquired whether there were some relatives or acquaintances. Because on every transport from Theresienstadt to the east, there was somebody from your family or somebody you might have known. In this way we learned about the fate of the transport of September 1943. That was the first transport that got to this family camp and also the first was in the special category of “Sonderbehandlung”. That meant some special kind of treatment or something of the sort. They were supposed to be in some special six-month quarantine. Nobody knew what that really meant because no preceding transports or transports to other camps were in this category. We found out what it means in fact on March 7/8, 1944, when they loaded the people from the September transport on a truck and took them to the gas chambers. The news spread by word of mouth across the entire camp, even though the Germans were trying to keep it secret. So it was out in the open and we knew what lay ahead of us. So next was the December transport whose six-month “quarantine” was ending in June. So everybody waited for things to come. However, by the end of June they announced that they are looking for labor forces. All males of the age of 16 – 50 were obliged to sign up and women as well. They did a selection under the supervision of doctor Mengele. The men’s selection was first and after the selection we waited to see where they’d take them. Because no one could know for sure that they wouldn’t simply gas them. We had been told far too many lies by the Germans. We didn’t trust them a single word. What they had told us was a lie after lie. When we were instructed to write letters, for example, the address was Arbeitslager Birkenau bei Neu Berun (Labor camp Birkenau in New Berun). But we didn’t work at all there. So when the men marched away we closely watched whether they’d turn left or right – to the crematories or to the train station. But they actually went to the train station so there was a certain hope that at least some of us might be saved. Two days later they did the selection for the women. Women of the age of 16 – 50 were eligible. But they showed their true face again as there was a condition – women who had children could enroll but had to leave the kids in the camp. So almost none, or just a few of these women actually enrolled for the labor assignment. Those of us who had passed the selection, about 1500 women, were herded in a cattle car and dispatched to Hamburg a few days after the selection.”
I was supposed to die in 1945 When I got to the hospital the doctor who received me said it’s gonna be over in two or three hours But it wasn’t!
Eva Zelená was born on June 15, 1928, in Trutnov. Since her birth she‘s been living in Česká Skalice. On December 14, 1942, she, her parents and her sister went from Česká Skalice via Hradec Králové to Theresienstadt, where they arrived three days later on December 17. On May 18, 1944, they arrived in Auschwitz. At the end of June 1944 she was transferred from Auschwitz to Hamburg for forced labor. Her mother and sister were transported for forced labor to Stutthof nearby Danzig. Her mother died shortly afterwards of pneumonia and her sister Věra died of typhoid fever in January 1945, about two weeks before the camp was liberated. Her father stayed in Auschwitz and was gassed in June 1944. From Hamburg Eva went to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. After the liberation of the camp she became seriously sick and had to remain in medical treatment for three months. In November 1951 she got married and gave birth to two children. She celebrated her 80th birthday in June 2008.