(C) 2017 Thomas O. Lenda
Towards the end of the war there was something new for us to see almost every day. However, one of the events impressed forever on my mind was an encounter with a death march. It was one of those “Come and look!” events. As usual, the word would spread around, and then somebody would say we should go and see.
It was at the main incoming road from outside the ghetto, right on the street along the main square near the SS Commandature. There was a wall of onlookers: Terezin prisoners of all ages. They were mostly silent, just standing and watching. It was a scene hard to believe and hard to forget. A group of about fifty people, dressed in dirty uniforms with blue and white horizontal stripes, were drifting slowly along the street. Some of them were falling down as they went. There was a cordon of Terezin prisoners holding hands and walking alongside the drifting people to separate them from the onlookers. The fallen people were picked up by other Terezin prisoners, placed on stretchers, and carried away. Suddenly one of the onlookers threw a little piece of Terezin cake, a pound cake, into the midst of the drifting people. Those who were close to the fallen piece of yellow cake grabbed it from the road, and those who did not get it tried to take it away from them. It was like a chicken fight at feeding time. They had forgotten any sense of human dignity, or any other feelings, long before. All that remained was a living creature’s sense of survival. But most of the people kept on drifting along, with the apathy of drifters who just keep doing what they had been doing a little while ago. It was the only thing they could do without thinking about their next move. Just drifting along, pushed by an effort to survive.
We were told these poor people were mostly Polish Jews from concentration camps in the East, survivors like us, but in much worse shape. They were placed into isolated housing, quarantine, because they were sick, mostly with typhus. Should we see them on the street, we should avoid contact with them. Indeed, several days later we met some of them who seemed to be more industrious than the others. Apparently they had broken out of the quarantine and started to walk the streets, wearing the civilian clothes they had been given in place of the dirty stripped prison uniforms. They would approach us and ask for food, mostly in Polish, with some German and fragments of Czech. We did not avoid them, because we were very curious as to who those people were. However, our intention to communicate with them was always interrupted by some local adults. Mostly they would tell those people that they should be ashamed to do that, as they were spreading their disease to the last few surviving children of Terezin. (In fact, the typhus spread anyway. Terezin was isolated from the rest of the outside world when the war ended. Nobody was allowed to leave the camp.)
It was probably at that time that my mother made a promise to God. She would not leave the hospital, even if she could, and stay and take care of the patients, if only my father returned to us safely after the war.