Watch for the new, Tenth Edition of “Children on Death Row,”
Watch for the new, Tenth Edition of “Children on Death Row,”
(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.
Tom Lenda was born Tomas Lustig on May 25, 1936 in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic). Tom’s father, Pavel (Paul) Lustig, was born in Domazlice, Czechoslovakia in 1904. The Lustig family moved to Pilsen shortly after Paul was born. Tom’s mother, Irene Spitz, was born in Austria in 1909. Her family later moved to Decin, a city north of Prague. All of these places were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at that time. This changed in 1918 after the First World War when Czechoslovakia was established.
The Lustig family was warm, loving, and hard working. Tom’s father Paul was educated in commerce and also attended a textile college in England. His mother worked as a certified nurse in a hospital until her marriage. Paul was an established textile manufacturers’ representative at the time when Tom was born.
The Lustig family was part of a close-knit family clan that was well established within the Czech community; they considered themselves proud Czechoslovakian citizens of the Jewish religion. Involved in the local Pilsen Jewish community, Paul was known for his anti-Nazi feelings.
The Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia became a reality for the Lustig family on March 15, 1939. Little Tommy was almost three years old at that time. Paul escaped the same day to the east, to the suburbs of Prague. Irene and Tom followed two weeks later. On September 12, 1942, three years later, they were sent to the Terezin Concentration Camp some 40 miles north of Prague. Paul’s brother Fred escaped to Slovakia where he joined the anti-Nazi underground and later the Czechoslovakian army. Paul’s youngest brother Otto escaped to Shanghai and settled in Canada after the war. Irene’s two brothers and mother had been sent to Terezin earlier, though only one of the brothers was still in the camp when the Lustigs arrived. Irene’s mother and other brother had been sent on to extermination camps in the East.
Lustig family was separated shortly after their arrival at Terezin. Tom was placed into a “Heim” (home) with otheThe r little boys and girls. Irene started work as a nurse in the camp hospital, also her living quarters. Paul was assigned to a Transportleitung (transportation) group and was sent to Auschwitz concentration camp in fall of 1944. Toward the end of the War, when the Red Army approached the camp, he escaped with a little group and joined the Czechoslovakian army. He did not know that his brother Fred had also joined. Paul met Fred later and learned that he routinely changed his name to avoid difficulties for other members of the family should he be caught by the Nazis.
Paul and Fred took part in the liberation fights. They both received medals for their courage and efforts. Paul came back to Terezin to retrieve his family on May 25th, 1945. Tom was just nine years old on that day. They traveled to Prague together. Irene returned to Terezin to continue her duties as a nurse in the hospital to help the victims of the typhoid epidemic. This was in accordance with her promise to God, should her husband return unharmed. Tom traveled with Paul to his army unit and started to attend a regular school. The family united again one month later.
Tom’s writing and presentation is primarily about his experience as a little boy living in Terezin. He has been telling his story to students and community members for about five years with the Holocaust Education Center’s Speakers Bureau. Tom has written a book, Children on Death Row, available on Amazon Kindle.