HERE IS THE COMPLETE TEXT OF ONE OF THE MOST AMAZING INTERVIEWS I'VE EVER DONE...
Pavel was the first of the survivors I met on the Making Light in Terezín journey. Born in 1921, Pavel was an only child. After the Nazi occupation of Prague in 1940, his father committed suicide. Then, his mother was sent to her death in a gas chamber in Treblinka.
At the age of twenty, Pavel was shipped to Terezín Ghetto in Prague.
In the face of such hardships, Pavel could well have been bitter, but when he speaks of his time in Terezín, he doesn't curse the Nazis. Instead, he focuses on how, as a twenty-year-old, he fell in love with his bride-to-be, Vera. His face always lights up as he tells of their great love.
I believe Pavel embodies the spirit and epitomizes the heart and soul of the whole experience of what these prisoners did at Terezín. Additionally, Pavel is the only remaining one of the cabaret's original writers—the last living link from that experience. It was a pivotal interview for this project, and it was a groundbreaking, amazing moment in my life to sit with him. Pavel Stránský captured my heart, and the responses I've heard from those who have seen the documentary mirror that sentiment.
We all long for love and connection. Pavel offers an attitude and message of hope that this can happen for anyone in any situation. And that's not a bad way to begin the story of Making Light in Terezín.
SURVIVOR STORY: PAVEL STRÁNSKÝ
Pavel Stránský: I am Pavel Stránský. I'm a survivor of the Holocaust.
Richard Krevolin: So you were in Terezín from when to when?
Pavel: I was in Terezín from December 1, '41 'til December 15-16, '43. So approximately two years. And then I was sent from Terezín, or from Theresienstadt— Terezín is the Czech name for Theresienstadt—I was sent to Auschwitz into the so-called "Czech Family Camp." The SS [Schutzstaffel, the elite corps of the Nazi Party] wanted to have also a camp to be able to show to a delegation of the International Red Cross. So they founded, in September '43, in Auschwitz—in Birkenau, which was an affiliated camp of Auschwitz—the so-called "Czech Family Camp," in which all families were together. Naturally, men and women and children in separate wooden blocks.
The SS wanted to send all still living from this camp—after their stay of six months—to extermination camps and bring new prisoners in order to be always able to show to a delegation of the International Red Cross that the prisoners were in a relatively normal health state. I was the only child, and my father committed suicide already in Prague, in 1940, after the Nazi occupation and after the assassination of Heydrich.
I don't know whether I should tell something about Heydrich. He was assassinated by two paratroopers. One was Czech and the other was Slovak. Toward the end of May '42, here in Prague—I was already in Theresienstadt at the time—the SS sent a punishment Jewish transport directly to the east of Poland . . . with my mother in this transport . . . about which I didn't know because I was already in Theresienstadt. And the whole transport perished in gas chambers, probably in Treblinka.
In Theresienstadt was also my fiancée. We knew each other from the time before the Holocaust—from the year '38. She was also the only child, like myself, and her father died in Theresienstadt. When I was put into a transport, directly to the east, not knowing that our destination was Auschwitz, better called Auschwitz-Birkenau, the two ladies [my fiancée and her mother] wanted to go with me on their free will on the same transport, and there was only one possibility how to do it: We married. Our honeymoon trip was to the largest extermination camp.
We stayed in this Czech Family Camp seven months, and then there was a selection. The SS have changed their minds. They didn't put all of us in gas chambers, only some. They selected . . . Dr. Mengele, you surely know who Dr. Mengele was, selected one thousand young men and one thousand young women able to labor, and we were sent to different concentration camps. And after more than one year, [we] came again together. So the mother of my fiancée—of my wife already—has been put in a gas chamber after our stay of seven months in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Then, we were selected to live . . . one thousand young men, one thousand young women. And after the war, after the end of World War II, we met again here in Prague. So from Auschwitz-Birkenau I was sent to a small camp in Germany called Schwarzheide, where we removed the ruins from a factory producing gas from lignite, bombarded many times by the allies. In April '45, we have already the approaching front, and on April 18th, '45, the SS Commander forced us to start a death march. So we marched from Schwarzheide again to Theresienstadt.
So I started my Holocaust story in Theresienstadt and ended in there as well. My wife was in many concentration camps all over Germany. Her last one was Bergen-Belsen, liberated by the British. So she came to Prague two months later than myself, on July 19, '45, on the happiest day of my life. So this is, in short, my Holocaust story.
Richard: So it's a love story. Pavel: It's a love story, yes.
Richard: And the beautiful woman on your book cover, that is her? Pavel: It's her.
Richard: Do you think that having your wife, being in love, helped you survive?
Richard: Can you talk about the role of love in your ability to survive?
Pavel: I've written a book about my Holocaust story, and I lecture regularly—in Germany, Austria, Finland, California. And when I lecture in schools or in some churches, as well, in some Jewish communities, I always begin my story talking to the children to make it easier for them. That my Holocaust story is also laughter.
Richard: The fact that you survived . . . some of that seemed like God . . . how do you determine why some people lived and some people didn't?
Pavel: I don't know . . . I don't know. It's coincidence. I am not a believer.
Richard: You don't believe in God? Pavel: No. Not after the Holocaust.
Richard: But yet you identify yourself very strongly as being Jewish.
Pavel: I am Jewish. Of course, of course. I was born Jewish. I will die Jewish. But I am not a believer. The second thing which helped me to survive . . . in this Czech Family Camp there was the so-called "Children's Block," which is something which existed only in this camp. All the day there were children, and I was one of the teachers of the children, so it helped me because I had no hard labor, only for Sunday, for the first days after our arrival.
Richard: That was in Auschwitz?
Pavel: This was in Birkenau, which was [an] affiliated camp of Auschwitz.
Richard: Did you ever have any contact with [Josef] Mengele? Pavel: I saw him every Wednesday. Richard: Wow.
Pavel: In this Children's Block, we organized competitions of creativity for children. They wrote little poems and drew little pictures on scraps of paper they had found in dust bins in the morning. They wrote with some pieces of wood, burnt on the end, because there were no pencils in the camp, and we teachers taught our group of children some little poems or some little recitals. Every Wednesday there was a competition of creativity, and Mengele came to see it with other officers. And imagine, [he] took little children on his knees, carried their hats, and told them, "Call me uncle." Then, the "nice uncle" sent all of them to gas chambers without hesitating a split of a second. It's unbelievable, but it's true.
Richard: I'd love for you to talk about cabaret and theater and culture in Terezín, and your role in it and what role it played.
Pavel: I've written a book about it. I can show it to you. So this is what I wrote—about love . . .
Richard: Oh, is that you?
Pavel: Yes, me and my wife.
Richard: I love that picture. Beautiful.
Pavel: So, you see, art is mental resistance. Art helps, helps to survive.
Richard: Was there any fear that the work you were doing might lead to problems with the Nazis?
Pavel: It was, but not in Theresienstadt.
In Theresienstadt, it was tolerated by the Nazis because they wanted to show the place like a spa, like a town given to the Jews by Hitler. So it was not only tolerated, it was modulated by them. They wanted art to be in Theresienstadt.
I don't know whether you know the story of Theresienstadt or how much you know about the story. I am a guide to Theresienstadt. I go many times with American tourists—not only, but mostly. Also with German children and Finnish children and so on. And so I say always, there are two quite different periods of the Theresienstadt ghetto. In the first one, the Jewish prisoners lived only in evacuated barracks, because after the Nazi occupation, soldiers were immediately dismissed and sent home. Civilians stayed in the town, so Jewish prisoners lived only in evacuated barracks, and in this first period, almost everything was prohibited. So there was not one cultural event.
Then, the number of the prisoners was . . . has so increased that it was no more possible to accommodate all of them in evacuated barracks. So the SS ordered civilian inhabitants to move out from the town, and then Jewish prisoners lived in the whole town. Then art developed much more than in the rest of the country, because in the ghetto there assembled outstanding personalities from the fields of culture, science, and political life. So the art was great in the second period.
Richard: So talk about the cabaret that we love so much. How much do you remember writing that?
Pavel: I do not remember enough, you see, because what happened after Theresienstadt was so horrible that I wanted to forget, and I forgot many things. I had forgotten about the cabaret. I didn't know about it. Then, I met Lisa [Dr. Lisa Peschel, who discovered the "lost" cabaret created in Terezín, for which Pavel wrote the lyrics], and she remembered me and brought me the text. I have totally forgotten. When she phoned me for the first time, she asked me whether I remembered. I did not. Then she brought me the text, and I know now.
Richard: The song—you wrote some of the words?
Pavel: I wrote the lyrics. I wrote the lyrics, yes. We were good friends with Dr. Porges (Dr. Felix Prokeš, née Porges) who wrote . . . who composed the music.
Richard: Do you have any memory of the performance in the attic?
Pavel: I have a bit, of course, but I really, for a long time, I have totally forgotten. Because I wanted to forget . . . which is not possible.
Richard: Hmmm . . .
Pavel: I don't know whether happily or unhappily enough.
Richard: And have you been involved with the arts since then?
Pavel: No, no . . . well, in a certain way, yes. I've translated books, also.
I worked in a great publishing company, and I was the business director. So I had always something to do with culture, with books, but not with theater. I only loved theater.
Richard: Even if you don't remember specifically, can you talk about the
theater in Terezín? How people would go every . . . once a week? . . . How would that work?
Pavel: It was not a rule. There was in Terezín—it was like a small state, but not a normal one because it was a prison or a camp. It was officially [a] ghetto, but in reality, a transit concentration camp. It was not the tickets— they were free of charge—but it was not enough for everybody, so one had to have some connection to get a ticket. So I performed in this cabaret, but only once I was in another cabaret because I had not the connections. You must imagine that in Terezín the highest number of prisoners [at any one time] was almost 60,000 in a town for 7,000. It's unbelievable.
Richard: And so about 150,000 Jews came through? And how many perished while there?
Pavel: 35,000 perished in Terezín, and 87,000 were sent from Theresienstadt to extermination camps, successively.
Richard: Of those 35,000, how many of them perished by natural causes? Pavel: Many. The so-called natural case . . . old age, starvation, epidemics. . . From Germany came mostly old people, and they perished prematurely.
They would have lived longer, of course. It was not enough to eat, of course, and the living conditions were horrible. It was no privacy. Health care was limited, of course.
(Numbers from the Beit Terezín website indicate that Terezín's military barracks and civilian houses could normally accommodate 7,000 people. At the time of the worst overcrowding, the Nazis imprisoned 58,491 prisoners in the Terezín ghetto. Out of 160,000 prisoners from Czechoslovakia, Germany, Austria, Holland, Denmark, and other countries who passed through Theresienstadt between 1941 and 1945, 35,409 died there from hunger or disease and 88,129 were deported from Terezín to extermination camps. Out of those sent to extermination camps, 4,136 survived. Of the 12,171 Jewish children born between 1928 and 1945 and sent to Ghetto Theresienstadt, 9,001 were deported to extermination camps in the east, of
which 325 survived.)
Richard: I've been watching the film The Fuhrer Gives the Jews a City, several times. Do you remember them coming in to film that? Was that done while you were there?
Pavel: I was already in Auschwitz. When the delegation from the International Red Cross came to Terezín, I was already in Auschwitz. They came in '44, and I came to Auschwitz in December '43.
Richard: That film is very upsetting to see. . . .2
Pavel: And do you know that Maurice Rossel, who was the head of the delegation, the International Red Cross delegation, a young Swiss physician, he wrote . . . The delegation consisted of three: The head of the delegation was Maurice Rossel, this young Swiss physician, and the two other members were Danes. They stayed only one day and [spent] most of the day eating a big lunch. And then they saw the performance of the children's opera Brundibár and Mozart's Requiem and wrote a fifteen- page-long report in French. I have translated it some years ago already, and I always say they saw what they wanted to see. They wrote three big lies in this report. They wrote that every prisoner in Theresienstadt is being paid by ghetto money—they issue ghetto money. This was the first lie. Then came the second lie: Every prisoner has an account in the ghetto bank. Then came the truth: Ghetto money is a very stable currency. It always equaled nil, but it was stable. Maurice Rossel has been interviewed some years ago after the Holocaust, and he was quoted to say he didn't want to lose his faith. So he insisted he still believes that everything they were presented with was true . . . that Theresienstadt was a VIP ghetto.
Richard: The biggest worry I have with this documentary, because we're focusing on the cabaret and the cultural life, is that people who don't want to believe in the horror of the Holocaust will look at it and say, "Oh, look, they laughed . . . they did theater. It must have been a nice life." I want to make sure they don't misinterpret that. So perhaps you can talk about the role of theater . . . but that the truth of living in Terezín wasn't laughter and theater. I don't want to write words for you, but if you could talk about the truth of existence there and the role of theater within that.
Pavel: You see, I came to Terezín when I was twenty and my wife, my fiancée at that time, was nineteen. So we were young people and we believed in love. We loved each other. It was mine and her first love, and we lived then together many years. Hope dies last. We always hoped to survive, and it was possible to survive in Theresienstadt for young people, for young and healthy people. For older and ill people, it was not so easy; it was rather not possible to survive.
Richard: So, when people see the theater that . . . you talk about the role within the larger Terezín, the role that comedy, laughter, and theater played in the life . . .
Pavel: Art helped to survive . . . helped to live and helped to survive.
Richard: The research I've done shows that you did very little tragedies, mostly comedies. That makes sense, obviously, but can you talk about that?
Pavel: I think to live you must have an idea—a hope. You must eat, you must drink, you must love . . . and you must laugh, as well. Without love, the life would be so sad. The life is limited. When one is young, one doesn't think about the death. I'm ninety. I am thinking about dying, of course. But I know that it is normal. It is the end of the life, but until . . . you must not only eat and drink but also do something, so have an inner-life as well.
Richard: Did SS ever show up at the theater to see what the shows were like?
Pavel: I was only once in this cabaret. I am sure there were no SS. But in Birkenau, in the affiliated camp of Auschwitz, came SS officers to the performances of the children because they had nothing to do in the camp, either violence . . . so they looked for art, for something, something different, not only for drinking.
Richard: What have your experiences been now when you lecture to people? What do they ask? How has that been for you, to talk all over the world?
Pavel: For many years, my wife never talked about it. She couldn't. She belonged to the people who are not able to talk about it. For many years, I didn't. And then a Jewish professor from Germany came to Prague—it was in 1997—and I interpreted his lectures here. I had at the time only a long article about the Holocaust, written in Czech and in German, and he read it and told me, "I like this article. It is well-written. Just add something before the war and something after the war." So I sat down and wrote this book in German—so it was written first in German—and sent it to him, and he published it. He found a publisher and published it.
He was a great friend, an excellent man, but not a good businessman. I began to guide at that time, and I told him: "If you want, send the rest of the edition to me, and I shall try to sell it." And I have sold it. Then he made a second edition, and I sold the second edition for him, as well.
Then, he didn't want to make the third one. And I have written him:
"Hello, I would like to make the third edition myself, because I didn't get anything for the edition." He said: "Yes, you can do it." So I did it, and I have already published ten German editions. I have both German and English editions.
In 1999, I guided an American family to Theresienstadt with their son, and he was around twenty and studied German in Germany. I've shown them the German edition, and they bought one copy and asked me, "Can our son make the English translation as his diploma work?" He studied in Heidelberg in Germany. And I said, "Yes, he can." I liked the translation
and paid him his fee, which was he wanted to have fifty books free of charge, which is good for him and for me, as well. This edition is the tenth one, as well. So I've published already twice—ten editions of German and English.
Richard: Do you want to talk about that poem, "Nights in Andalucia," you wrote in the cabaret?
Pavel: It was very romantic, you see, and I always liked the Spanish language. It was so romantic. It was so . . . something about love. They always talk about love--amor, amor. I was a young man, much in love. Love over my ears . . . so . . .
Richard: It's wonderful.
Pavel: Now, it's a bit . . . I can laugh about it. Without love, you can't live.
When I end my lecture in Germany, I always ask about questions and they ask many questions. And then, if they have no more questions, so I tell the children: "Can I have also a question to you? What is in your opinion is the most important in life?" And then they begin to say "family," "health," "good eating," "much money" . . . and then somebody says "love," and this is the word I'm waiting for. Then, I read from my book a sentence about love, and this is always a very nice end of the lecture.
Richard: That's nice.
Derrick Sims: Were you twenty when you were married?
Pavel: When we married—I was . . . born '21, and we married in '43—so
I was twenty-two. My wife was twenty-one. She was one year and one week younger than myself. I was born on the wedding day of her parents, which is interesting.
Richard: What's it like to give tours there today, in Terezín?
Pavel: Well, I tell them part of my story, and I talk about this children's block. I show them the photo of the man who persuaded Mengele to allow this children's block—Fredy Hirsch. Have you seen the ghetto museum? Have you been? So there is a photo of him and there are the two big maps. So close to the maps is his photo.
The name of Fredy Hirsch is inseparably connected with the education of children and young people in the Terezín ghetto and, finally, in the family camp at Birkenau. In particular, the children's block, established on Hirsch's initiative in the BIIb section of the Birkenau camp, was a remarkable attempt to create a small oasis within the death camp. Its main purpose was to ensure that Auschwitz's youngest prisoners had, at least for a short while, a more tolerable environment in which they would be isolated from the tragic reality around them.
Richard: Is there anything else you just want to make sure the world knows . . . that you want to share?
Pavel: I think that the sentence I wrote into the book can be the end of my interview, if you prefer. I make it now so that I ask somebody of the children to be as kind as to read it to the other. Because this is better if a young boy or a young girl does it with other. So the sentence I think is quite good:
"The most important thing in life is love. It has as many appearances as there are facets on an artistically shaped diamond. Without love— love between men and women, parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren, love of God—one only vegetates. The faces of love also include friendship, understanding, tolerance, self-denial, self-sacrifice, and many others."