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HISTORY HAS COME TO LIFE

Returning to one's childhood is never easy. And when one's childhood itself is hard, it draws up even greater barriers. Buffeted by winds of a desire to forget—to move on—there remains the lingering gravity of unanswered (unanswerable) questions... simultaneously luring one back, and shoving one away. Returning, especially to a childhood riddled with trauma, demands courage.


Doris Schimmerling - Concentration Camp Survivor


That's why it's acutely inspiring when people like Doris Grozdanovičová, née Schimmerling, conscientiously return to their place of youth, in her case, the concentration camp Terezín (in German, Theresienstadt), where she lived between the ages of fifteen and nineteen.


Doris Schimmerling - Concentration Camp Survivor


It's always odd to see the vast impersonal weight of history vented through the personality of an individual, and perhaps this is even more acute when that individual is a child. When the Nazis invaded and formed the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia following the occupation on March 15, 1939, thirteen year old Doris was delighted: that day, at least, she didn't have to go to school!


Doris Schimmerling - Concentration Camp Survivor


Now, at 91, one of only 200-300 living survivors of Terezín, Doris sees the world differently, of course. Her mother died in the camp, after a botched surgery. Her father and brother were shipped to Auschwitz (where her father was promptly killed). But there was not only sorrow. Doris blushes slightly when she recalls that her friend, the writer Arnošt Lustig, used to tell her—at that time she was a bouncy, blonde and blue-eyed young woman—that she was the most beautiful girl in the camp... then Doris giggles: “But I'm sure Arnošt said that to every girl!”

(At 91, Doris remains bashful. At the start of our interview, I whipped out my camera and began shooting. “You can't photograph me,” she blurted. “I must,” I said. She brought a trembling hand up to her forehead to brush away a few loose strands of hair. “Ok, but not from this angle.”)


Doris Schimmerling - Concentration Camp Survivor


Her transport letter was U and her number was 59. “I hate the people who did it—but I don't hate the Germans,” she confidently asserts. Amidst the circle of her numerous friends all over the world—which includes Milan Kundera and the late Vaclav Havel—she even counts the son of Reinhard Heydrich, the third ranking general in Nazi Germany, known as the “Butcher of Prague” who was assassinated in 1942 by Czech members of a commando squad trained in Britain. “Heydrich's son, Heider, he was just a child. There's no reason for him to feel guilty.”

After the war, Doris became a prominent editor at a major press (Československý spisovatel) and was in charge of releasing numerous books. One book she was assigned to translate she found particularly challenging: the memoirs of Heydrich's widow. Overcome by some passages, Doris recalls sobbing in her room. Suddenly her son entered and said “Of course, mom. It's as if a mouse had to translate the book of a cat.”


Doris Schimmerling - Concentration Camp Survivor


While Terezín was not as heinous as Auschwitz, approximately 35,000 people perished there (and 88,000 were eventually sent on to death camps). There were also acts of acute barbarity. Once a select group of inmates were forced to dig a swimming pool using only cooking utensils. When we enter the museum, Doris is greeted by the staff as an old friend. After all, Doris has made more trips here than she can count, leading numerous groups, primarily youth, through the vast labyrinth of her personal story... one irrevocably enmeshed in the collective horror of what took place here.

Still, though willing to expose herself for the sake of educating others, she maintains necessary distances. When asked to pose outside her last place of residence (in her four years of internment, she moved five times—though she admits to only recalling three), Doris adamantly refuses. “It's not important to be fastened here,” she says.

“Every inmate had their own Terezín,” Doris insists. It's fascinating to discover that one's situation in the camp depended entirely upon what job one was assigned to perform. “I was in agriculture. Then I was assigned to care for animals. First with geese, then with sheep.” She holds up a book containing a photograph of herself as a shepherd. (Covertly snapped by a visiting Czech worker, Jaroslav Toman, the photo, hidden and kept safe till after the war, has become a significant historical relic.)


Doris Schimmerling - Concentration Camp Survivor


When asked how she survived while so many didn't—there was the ever-present threat of transports to worse camps, like Auschwitz, further east—she replies “I think it was luck. I still don't know why some were taken, some were not. There is no key.” Doris recalls that it was precisely the capriciousness of their situation, the lack of logic, that kept everyone teetering on the edge.


Doris Schimmerling - Concentration Camp Survivor


Doris's mother's sister was in England. Prior to the war, as the noose of anti-Semitism tightened, Doris's parents were desperately trying to arrange for their children's immigration, but their valiant efforts were thwarted by a toxic and opaque bureaucracy. Doris is clear, however: “I'm happy I didn't go. Because if I had gone, I would always be wondering whether—had I stayed—I could have somehow saved my parents. Now I know I couldn't save them.”

The inmates of Terezín famously managed—in the midst of turmoil—to produce a prolific amount of art. Poems, plays, paintings, symphonies, operas... many of them now exhibited and/or performed around the world.


Doris Schimmerling - Concentration Camp Survivor


Doris Schimmerling - Concentration Camp Survivor


Doris Schimmerling - Concentration Camp Survivor


When asked if creativity in the camp was a means of escapism, simply a way of distracting oneself from one's predicament, Doris blushes angrily. “No! They did them for the people. The people here were not so selfish.”


Doris Schimmerling - Concentration Camp Survivor


When asked how her experience in the camp affected her subsequent adulthood, Doris insists “It was very, very important for all of my life. Because of it, I'm more modest, more... earnest. I had another youth.”

After the war, a gendarme she met offered to adopt her. The couple had lost their only daughter, to illness, just a few years previously. Had she lived, their daughter would have been approximately the same age as Doris. The orphaned Doris couldn't quite believe her luck, and reluctantly agreed to accompany her new father to Kostelec nad Orlicí. Papers for formal adoption were filed—then, out of nowhere, her brother “came back from the dead” and together with him, she left behind her prospective new parents, and the reunited siblings returned to Brno. (Her brother, Hanus, five years her elder, Doris emphasizes, is responsible for everything positive in her subsequent development.) Nevertheless, a lifelong friendship with her prospective parents ensued, and to this day she regularly corresponds with and pays visits to the surviving family members, now several generations of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. “The two-year old nephew I first met clinging to the leg of my new father is now himself a great-grandfather! There are so many new faces, I'm simply lost,” she says, smiling.


Doris Schimmerling - Concentration Camp Survivor


After the war, Doris married, but “happily divorced.” When asked why 'happily', Doris asserts “Because if I wasn't divorced, I wouldn't be here. If one is not satisfied, one should never stay in a relationship.” (One short play performed in Terezín consisted solely of one side of a phone call, a woman saying goodbye to her lover.) Doris was a contented single mother, singlehandedly raising her son, who now lives in England.

As previously mentioned, Doris conducts numerous groups through the site of her youth. On our visit, we pass a large group of visiting Spaniards. Realizing that, turning from the displayed relics, they have a bonafide survivor in their midst, the air crackles with attention, a cocktail of awe and glee. The visitors are shy and respectful, but one or two approach and politely ask to be photographed with Doris.


Doris Schimmerling - Concentration Camp Survivor


Doris Schimmerling - Concentration Camp Survivor


I understand their admiration. History has come to life.


Doris Schimmerling - Concentration Camp Survivor


Author: Lucien Zell

About The Author

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Lucien Zell is an American poet and photographer based in Prague.

Hailed by Alan Levy of The Prague Post as a "21st Century Troubadour," Lucien Zell was born in LA and raised in Seattle where as a teenager he started writing and performing in cafés, clubs and festivals. Upon turning 19, Zell dropped out of college and left for Europe where he drifted through many European cities.

Since 1998, he's been based in Prague, where he founded the rock band The Wavemen, and where five books (four poetry collections and one novel) have been published by independent Czech and Russian presses. As a lyricist and composer, Zell's songs have been released by Warner, Sony, and Universal Music.

Category: Arts and Cultures Viewed: 1228 times
Username: PraguePoet Listing Ref: 486610637
Date of Listing: 03 January 2018, 22:48:47

CZECH-THIS PERSON OUT






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