“They called it Tea” …Overcoming Indifference that Enables Hate to Flourish
January 27, 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. This year’s United Nations Holocaust Memorial Day theme “Liberty, Life, and the Legacy of the Holocaust Survivors,” reminds me of the importance of recording the words of the few remaining Holocaust survivors alive today.
Over the past seven years, as an author I’ve delved into a family past scarred by the Holocaust. On my paternal side, in the Holzer family line, we lost forty-four relatives in the Holocaust. Through my communication outreach for my debut book, Adventurers Against Their Will, I’ve connected with many people who choose to share their timeless words as eyewitnesses to this horrific period of history. Their only hope is to transform memory into action to overcome the indifference that enables the hate to flourish. In honor of Holocaust Memorial Day, 27th January 2015, I’d like to share the story of John Freund, Toronto, Canada.
My virtual relationship with John Freund began on April 28, 2014 after I sent a mass email through the electronic mail service tied to my author website. The assembled email list is from various sources that show interest in my book or its subject matter. The title of that day’s missive: “How can we make peace in our world? One hopeful idea.” Soon after it took wings, I received John’s first note.
My name is John Freund; I am a Holocaust survivor. My hometown was C.Budejovice (Budweis) in Czechoslovakia.
My earliest “girlfriend” was Rita Holzer. If you happen to be related to the Holzer family of my hometown, let me know and I will send you a book (The Underground Reporters) that has several photos of the Holzer daughters.
John Freund in Toronto.
I responded to John with information that I had not thus far identified a relative with the name “Rita Holzer” nor a family link to the village Budweis. I included extensive family tree information that I’d compiled on Geni.com.
John responded with a list of Holzer’s in his hometown, but none of the names seemed to connect us. He told me all of them had perished in the Holocaust. John pointed out there was a Chief Fireman named Leo Holzer in Terezin, (Theresienstadt), the Nazi concentration camp in northeast Bohemia where in early WWII, as a child John was held captive. It was where most of my Holzer relatives had been sent, including my grandparents and great-grandmother. My grandmother died there. The rest of the forty-three relatives had been sent on to the ‘east’ to Poland, where they perished in one of the Nazi’s concentration or death camps. My great uncle Leo Holzer was at Terezin at the identical time as the Leo Holzer that John mentioned, but he was not the same person.
Through that connection we determined John was at Terezin at the same time as my great Uncle Leo’s son, Hanus Holzer. John remembered that he and Hanus were in different rooms in the Terezin “skola” (school). As life would have it, these two ‘boys’ would meet again in 2014 in Prague, after watching a documentary by Czech schoolboy filmmaker Matouš Bičák about Holocaust survivor Toman Brod.
As our Florida to Canada email relationship blossomed, we wrote each other several emails talking about our backgrounds and my growing awareness of 1930’s and 40’s life in the Czech lands. I was very intrigued to learn about what happened to Holocaust survivors as they recreated their lives post-WWII.
August 20, 2014:
Thanks for your lovely letter. I did not mean to insult you by the religious bit. I also grew up, like your father in an agnostic (or very liberal) Jewish family in Czechoslovakia.
I wish that my father (a Medical Doctor) was as smart as yours. Instead, we (four in our family, I was the youngest) ended in hell. I was the only one that survived (not fifteen yet).
I also wrote about my “adventures” in Terezin, Auschwitz and death marches.
I also understand that some survivors wanted to hide their religion. I did not and I met a lovely Jewish girl, born in Czechoslovakia. We now have three daughters and ten grandchildren.
Your life story is different.
In late 2014, John sent me the book he wrote, “Spring’s End” Then, in early January 2015 after one of my mass emails sharing book progress news, John sent me a note. He pointed out that when I referred to my father as a refugee in the email, I had not used the word Jewish to describe his plight. Clearly, it was because of that reason – declared an undesirable by Hitler – Dad was by mid-1939 in Shanghai, China seeking refuge.
The next day John sent me a speech he’d just delivered about his Holocaust experience.
On use for this 2015 day of Remembrance for those who perished in the Holocaust, John gave me permission to share his speech and a family photo from the 1930s and John’s 2014 photo:
Speech by John Freund in Toronto, January 11, 2015, Holy Blossom Temple (a Reform Jewish Synagogue)
They Named it Tea
“I was born in 1930 in a small town named Ceske Budejovice in Czechoslovakia. It is better known by its German name, Budweis, because of the famous Budweiser Beer. The town is just about 50 km from Austria, which had been occupied by the aggressive German forces, led by one of the greatest dictators in history-Adolf Hitler. His crazy claim to conquer all Europe and wipe out all the Jews and other undesirables was clearly expressed in his public policy.
In Budweis, the entire population of fifty thousand included about one thousand Jews. They spoke Czech and many also spoke German. They lived in the town, like all citizens, according to their economic position.
In March 1939, German forces invaded our country and instituted the Nuremberg anti-Jewish laws. In September of the same year, they invaded Poland and the Second World War began. I was nine years old.
It was in April 1942 that the one thousand Jewish people were taken by train from our home town to a town, named Terezin. This fortress town built in the eighteenth century by the Austrian Emperor was intended as a military establishment; it was named after his mother Empress Maria Teresa. In German it is called Theresienstadt.
I was then not yet twelve years old.
The Jewish population of the Czech lands (Bohemia and Moravia) were to spend the war years in the large barracks and small homes in this town used as a Ghetto. Like everything else the German Nazis did it was a false mirage.
We were happy to be near our home towns; Terezin was just about 100 km north of Prague, the Capital of the country.
Soon, however the Nazi lie became apparent.
I was thirteen years old in Terezin and had a short Bar Mitzvah there. The 12 to 14-year-old boys lived together in a converted school and were able to meet their parents for about an hour each week.
The worst of the life in Terezin was the fear of transportation north east by train to Poland and beyond. There were about two thousand people at a time in each such transport. They included children, old people, the sick and complete families crowded into a cattle train for the trip.
No news ever was heard from those deported. They were either killed on arrival or put into some terrible concentration camp, where they died from starvation or illness.
My father was a children’s doctor and that kept us in Terezin a few months longer. But our time came in December 1943. Two cattle trains full of people with only a small container for the toilet duties were dispatched to the unknown. The journey lasted eighteen hours with many stops-no one could leave the train on the way.
We were dislodged late at night in a place surrounded by armed SS men in their green uniforms. Dogs were howling and threatening anyone stepping out of line. Barbed wire fences, electrically charged, enclosed the large town full of wooden barracks.
Inmates wearing pajama like clothing told us that we were in Auschwitz Concentration Camp. To us this was like a summons to death.
Exhausted, hungry and filthy, we were led into a barrack where we were told to undress, go under a cold shower and drop all our possessions. Thus I lost the lovely Bar Mitzvah gifts from my parents: A pendant watch and fountain pen. We were then tattooed, by a number on the left forearm and given very thin clothing. Then we were led-men separately from women into a large wooden barrack that was filled with three tier bunk beds. Six people were on each bed, just enough room for our bodies. I was thirteen and a half and was bedded with my father and three year older brother.
Up at 5:30, AM, early morning we were told to line up in rows of five for counting. Those who had died, and there were many old people there, were collected for burning.
This was done every day. Then we were given a pot of warm water; they named it tea. At noon we were given a pot of soup and a slice of black bread. In the evening again a tea and nothing else.
During the day, we were required to walk around in the cold weather and the stronger men were paving the narrow road between the thirty two wooden barracks.
There was a similar camp on the left side of our camp and another on the right side. But no others had women and men in the same camp, nor any children. Only our camp had families.
Enormously large factory buildings- there were four of those- on the side of the entire camp clearly visible by all. To our surprise, we found in our camp, people who were sent from Ghetto Terezin here a few months earlier. They spoke Czech, just like we did. They told us that we were in the Family Camp for Czech Jews deported from Terezin.
“What are these large buildings; do they produce bricks or are they large bakeries? “
Constant dark smoke was coming out of the very large chimneys. Day and night transports from all over Europe were arriving and right at the station selections by SS men chose only the strong to work in German factories and mines. The rest, all the older people, children and the sick were then killed.
To our disbelief, those were “gas chambers”. Most people – all Jews and some Gypsies were killed there and their bodies were burnt in the crematoria; that’s the black smoke.
Only those in the Family Camp were exempted from such a treatment.
Only later we founded why.
I was in that camp for 7 months from December 1943 to July 1944.
In March 1944- all those still alive in the Family Camp who had come on the transport in September 1943- were killed in the gas chambers. Just the day before that terrible murder, everyone in the camp was handed a post card which we were to address to our family or friends in Terezin or our friends in our home towns. The message, strictly censored was “we are well and healthy and with our family”. The return address was “Birkenau bei (on) Beroun”. NO SUCH ADDRESS could be found on any atlas or map.
The Birkenau camp was a section of Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Approximately one and a half million Jews were killed there in the Gas chambers.
Why the different treatment in the Family Camp?
In June 1944 an order came from Berlin to liquidate the Family Camp.
Selections for strong men and women were begun who were then sent to do hard work in Germany. The rest of those in the Family Camp and that included my mother, my 85 year grandmother, an aunt and all the children with their mothers, sick people —all together three thousand people—were killed by gas in the middle of July 1944..
Only a few of those sent to work survived the hard work and the death marches. Neither my seventeen-year-old brother, nor my forty-five year old father survived.
Where was I? Expecting the inevitable………..and then, on July 6th , one month after my 14th birthday, all fourteen to sixteen year old boys in the Family Camp were ordered to line up, in the nude for the Dr. Mengele who played God by choosing who shall live and who shall die.
Ninety boys out of the few hundred were selected for life. The rest were gassed with the rest of the camp.
Of the ninety boys of July 6th, only about one half lived till the end of the war.
Now, what was the reason for the creation by the murderous Nazis of the one and only Family Camp?
Back in Ghetto Terezin, where I had spent 18 months before being sent to Auschwitz- Birkenau, the Germans agreed to a single visit by the Danish Red Cross and possibly another visit to a “labour camp”.
The Family Camp was created for the possibility of a further visit. Of course that would not be to Auschwitz Birkenau, where the gas chambers were so clearly visible, but the inmates of this camp could be located in many other places.
The other lie was the mailing of postcards to family members and friends … with the lie: We are healthy and with our family.
In October 1944, an armed revolt by the Jewish workers in the gas chambers took place.
This ended by the death of most of those who took up arms in the revolt. Those that survived the massacre were then commanded to take down, brick by brick, the installation of the gas chambers and the crematoria.
Gun battles now raged near the Auschwitz camps. The Russian were battling the German forces.
On January 17th 1945, almost exactly seventy years ago today the camps were liberated by the Russians. But I was no longer there.
The Nazis did not want to allow survivors. And so between December 1944 and April 1945, I was on death marches, transports in roofless coal trains and another Concentration Camp.
Struggling every day for four months, I survived till being liberated by the American forces in eastern Germany.
As I suspected no one in my family was alive in May 1945, the end of the Second World War.
Of the one thousand Jewish people in my hometown, only 28 were alive and I was the youngest, not yet fifteen years old.
In March of 1948 I came to Canada.”
Sadly, this day of Holocaust remembrance also coincides with the 20th anniversary of the Genocide in Srebrenica, Bosnia – one of many genocides brought on by hate. Regardless of our differences, without distinction of any kind such as race, ethnicity, religion or other status, will we ever realize we are one? What kind of world will future generations inherit if we don’t remember our shared past and take action to ensure a better future?