“Because it was forbidden, we liked to learn…”

Last Friday my Czech culture class greeted Mrs. Vidláková, a Jewish woman who came to tell us about her childhood in the Terezín ghetto and concentration camp. In 1942, her family was moved to Terezín in northern Czechoslovakia. This post is somewhat grim, but hang with me. Mrs. Vidláková found her silver lining, so maybe we all should, too.

While I had anticipated learning about the strife of living in a concentration camp, the most unpalatable detail in her story was the ostracization her family experienced in Prague. Jews were only allowed to shop between 3 and 5 in the afternoon, and by then all the fresh bread and produce was gone–not that they were allowed to buy it anyway. Jews were forbidden from purchasing dairy, white bread, fresh or canned fruits and vegetables, sweets, or even textiles for clothes.

At the age of six, she was not allowed to go see Snow White in theaters with her Czech friends. She was banned from the city pool, from parks, and even from playing with non-Jewish friends after school. Mrs. Vidláková wasn’t allowed to start first grade, because Jews were forbidden from going to school in the fall of 1942–But it wouldn’t have mattered, because her family was forced to leave Prague anyway.

While I could ramble on all day about the impact of Mrs. Vidláková’s presentation, I cannot express the feeling I had upon meeting someone who actually went through all the horrors of the Holocaust we started learning about in 8th grade. I can try to put it into perspective: Imagine someone telling you that their mother was a middle school teacher. Three years after the war, only one out of thirty students from the class of 1941 remained alive…What do you say?

However, Mrs. Vidláková and her parents were lucky in Terezín–despite her father being a factory worker, he convinced the Nazis he could work as a carpenter. His wife and daughter were allowed to stay. Others in the family were sent “East.”

Mrs. Vidláková missed out on first grade that fall, but over the next three years she received an education from other prisoners–many of whom were scholars in their own right. She was a student of art teacher Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. Terezín was a holding camp for many well-educated Jews, or those talented in music, literature, science, or other specialized fields. For this reason, she tested at the level of a fourth grader when Terezín was liberated in 1945. With a narrow smile, Mrs. Vidláková told us, “Because it was forbidden, we liked to learn.”

In Mrs. Vidláková’s own words, “I was not so unhappy as you would think in the children’s home.” Upon hearing this, I was reminded of Japanese Internment camps in the USA which existed at the same time as Jewish gathering camps. Conditions in the internment camps were horrible, and people were imprisoned for no reason other than their race. But people who lived there as children claimed that they were hardly too unhappy, because of the sacrifices made by others.

Although there was abundant illness and never enough food in Terezín, the children survived due to to sacrifices of the elderly, who often gave up their own food so the children had enough. 

A family portrait with a red X over those who were murdered by Nazis showed all the people Mrs. Vidláková lost as a child: Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends. 33,000 people died while in Terezín due to subpar living conditions. 88,000 were deported to Auschwitz, including almost everyone she loved. Upon seeing the misty-eyed audience at the end of her presentation, Mrs. Vidláková delivered the most unexpected sentiment:

“Please do not feel sorrow for me. I have had a happy life. I have a family. I have an education. And I am free.”

If you wish to hear more about Mrs. Vidláková’s journey and survival, I found this fantastic interview.

Featured Photo courtesy of the Terezín Memorial National Cultural Monument


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