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Dec 2011 Journal

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Letter from Israel

Some time ago I was given a small book, ‘Jeder Tag in Theresin ist ein Geschenk’. Die Theresienstädter Tagebücher einer Hamburger Jüdin 1943-1945 (‘Every Day in Theresienstadt is a Gift’: The Theresienstadt Diary of a Hamburg Jewess, 1943-1945’) by Martha Glass, published in 1996 by the Hamburg Department for Political Education with an introduction by Barbara Müller-Wesemann. Martha Glass, a relatively well-off woman from Hamburg, was deported to Theresienstadt at the age of 63 and kept a diary during her imprisonment, or ‘exile’, as she called it.

Although no one had asked me to do so, I resolved to translate it into English, regarding it as an important and authentic account of a period that must not be allowed to slip into the mists of oblivion or dismissed as hearsay, exaggeration or fabrication. In contrast with my own grandmother, Regina van Son, who was sent there at roughly the same age and from the same city, Martha Glass survived Theresienstadt. I resolved to take the book abroad with me in the summer and make it my ‘holiday task’, not forgetting to take a pocket German-English dictionary with me.

Thus it was that as I sat ensconced in comfortable surroundings in the beautiful French countryside, eating wonderful food and drinking good wine, I found myself preoccupied with the hardships of life in Theresienstadt – the diseases, the periodic de-lousing sessions, the crowded and cramped quarters, the deprivation and misery, and, above all, the constant hunger. The threat of further deportation to the east hung over all the inmates of Theresienstadt at all times, and many thousands of them were sent to their certain deaths. Yes, I know that conditions in the other concentration camps were far worse but, at the time Martha Glass was keeping her diary, the grim reality of daily life was her main concern. It became mine, too, as I laboured over the translation.

However, there were some consolations in Theresienstadt, it seems. There was a form of self-government and, because many outstanding Jewish artists and musicians had been incarcerated there, it was possible to conduct something approaching a cultural life. Martha Glass writes on various occasions about having attended a piano recital or a theatrical or musical performance and about the uplifting effect these events had on the audience. She marvels at the ability of the performers to rise above their hunger and misery in order to bring pleasure to others, and also probably to meet their own artistic needs.

Another consolation was provided by the fellowship among the inmates, and Martha refers to her room-mates as ‘ghetto-sisters’. They marked one another’s birthdays by writing little poems to each other or collecting paltry items of food – a potato, a piece of bread – and bestowing them upon the ‘birthday child’. Most of these ‘sisters’ did not live to see Theresienstadt liberated.

Martha Glass had another element in her favour. One of her two daughters was married to a non-Jew and managed somehow to survive in Berlin, together with her husband and daughter. It was from that address that small packages containing items of food were sent to Martha every few months, and these obviously played a role in her survival. She also notes in her diary that she shared some of her food with her room-mates.

Although the experience of delving into the sombre world of Theresienstadt while on holiday in Europe was surreal - to say the least - I feel enriched by having been able to view that world through Martha Glass’s eyes. It gave me an insight into something of what countless others – including my own grandmother – must have gone through. Now all that remains is to see that this important book gets published.

Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

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