Ilsa Maier

* 1922  †︎ 2021

  • “I had almost no teenage age because I was seventeen in spring 1939. Then on August 15th 1939, Germans organized some celebration. And it was raining, so they began killing or kicking Jews in one café, where my father was at that time. He died there. Thus I became an adult overnight, I entirely skipped the period of youth. My mom was completely shattered by the event, so I actually became the head of the family. We then functioned nearly as siblings, rather than as a daughter and mom.”

  • (Markéta Nováková): “Since we were young women, it meant we had our periods. And in the place where they were issuing us clothes, there was a stack of cloth sanitary towels. At that time, cloth pads were used. Today they are made of cotton wool. And these cloth pads were just placed there, at disposal for those who had their period, but we were smart enough and we thought: ´It’s October now, it’s cold and we have nothing to cover our heads with.´ So we put this stuff on our heads. At least I did so.” (Ilsa Maier): “Well, I did, too.” (Markéta Nováková): “That’s the white thing on our heads.” (Interviewer): “And can you recognize somebody else in the picture?” (Markéta Nováková): “No.”

  • “We arrived to the barracks in Dresden and there was nothing at all, only a few straw mattresses on the floor….Within a very short time we could see that there were infants there, there were families with babies. Thus I began working there, I was taking care of thirty mothers and thirty babies. This was a very interesting job. It was easy with the babies, but it was terribly difficult with the mothers because they had separated them. The infants did not stay with the adults. I was working there for one year and then we had no other infants anymore, and thus I began working as a nurse. And it was very interesting for me because I have always wanted to study medicine. And there I was, completely untrained, or only with very little training, assisting with complicated operations. We were staying with the doctors, and we were not allowed to leave the building, so in the evenings they would sit there with us and talk to us. I could learn a lot from this. Thus at the beginning I was not unhappy at all, even though we were hungry because we did not know what was awaiting us. After some time I was then working with children, all the way till 1944.”

  • “And the way we met – I was passing through a market square in Brno and one woman tells me: ´What happened with your mom?´ And I said: ´What else would happen, well, she is dead.´ She replied: ´No, she was alive in April, and she was there and there.´ For this woman had also been there. So I went to Prague, and they had a record about her. And I found out that she was in Bergen-Belsen. My poor mom got typhus, and she still survived it. While people much younger.... My husband had a fiancée, who was my age, or even younger. And she was in Belsen, and she got typhus and she died, but my mother survived it! I have never thought she would be able to survive.”

  • (Interviewer) “How was the situation in Birkenau when you arrived there?” “I have something interesting I want to show you. One commander, Höss, was taking photographs of people who arrived to Birkenau. Obviously we did not know about it. And one day, my husband and I, while we were in New York, went to a bookstore there. And there we came across a book, called Commandant of Auschwitz – an autobiography of Rudolf Höss, who was the commander. (Rudolf Höss – Commandant of Auschwitz, by Laurence Reese, ed.´s note). And I found this picture there. I began shouting out loud in that bookstore because there we were in the picture, me and Margita.” (cousin Markéta Nováková, ed.´s note).

  • “Our grandmother survived Terezín. And my mom also survived, which is incredible because she was already in her forties. She passed through Auschwitz two years earlier than me, and at that time it had been a camp for families, and the conditions there had been different... Quite simply, it is unbelievable that she has survived it, that she has survived Bergen-Belsen and returned to Brno. And she had a brother in America, who happened to be on a business trip there when the Germans came, and he did not return from there. He wanted his mom, my grandmother, to come to America. And she would not go without my mom and my mom would not go without me. I also did not want to go without Franta. Thus all of us moved there. My husband did not like it at all. He could not speak English and he had no profession. And we actually thought that we would return to Czechoslovakia. But then the communists took over the country, and thus we decided to stay in America. So this is why all my family lives in America.”

  • “My name is Ilsa Maierová, I was born as Drexlerová, on May 15th 1922 in Brno…” (Interviewer) “And you are related to Mrs. Markéta (Nováková, ed.´s note)?” “Yes, we are double cousins – our fathers were brothers, and our mothers were sisters. So we are rather like sisters really. But we were brought up in a different way, for as a little girl she was living in Bratislava, and her parents then divorced, while our family was living in Brno. My father was a chief clerk in a plant – in a malt plant of my grandfather, the father of my mother’s, and he was working there all the time. But he was also a lawyer at the same time, but he was not working in a lawyer’s profession. My childhood and youth years were wonderful because I enjoyed everything I had to, so I enjoyed going to school and so on… I wanted to become a doctor.”

  • (Markéta Nováková): “These are the buildings of the former stables, where we slept on bunks. There were two separate camps, and there was a road between them. We walked this road till we came to the place where they wanted to accommodate us.” (Ilsa Maier): “And this is typical for me, if you asked me how I felt… I have this kind of protective reaction, I smile. I do this every time something does not feel right to me, then I smile without realizing it. I think it must be some kind of a shock that one is not aware of. I felt nothing at all.”

  • Full recordings
  • 1

    Praha, Benediktinská ul., byt paní Markéty Novákové, 31.08.2009

    duration: 52:23
    media recorded in project Stories of 20th Century
Full recordings are available only for logged users.

“At the beginning I was not unhappy at all in Terezín, even though we were hungry. Because we did not know what was awaiting us.”

Ilsa Maier during the interwiew - Prague, august 2009
Ilsa Maier during the interwiew - Prague, august 2009
photo: Mikuláš Kroupa

  Ilsa Maier was born May 15th 1922 in Brno as Ilsa Drexlerová in a well-to-do Jewish family. As she says, before she turned seventeen, her childhood had been very happy. Then, on August 15th 1939, a fanatical group of Nazis attacked Jews in one Brno café and Ilsa’s father did not survive the attack. The family’s attempt at escape to England was marred by the outbreak of WWII in September 1939. In spite of the increasing persecution of the Jewish population, Ilsa tried to keep leading a normal life for as long as possible. She was studying at grammar school, after that she was working in a Jewish kindergarten. However, at the end of 1941 she and her mother had to board one of the first transports to the Terezín ghetto. There she first worked as a nurse for infants, but due to a series of illnesses she had to quit her work in healthcare after some time. She then worked as a teacher for preschool children. When her then husband, whom she had married just before the transport to Terezín, was sent into an eastbound transport in 1944, she voluntarily asked to be included in the same transport as well. In Auschwitz-Birkenau Ilsa met her cousin Markéta (later Nováková) and after the selection process they were both sent for labour. Ilsa Maier and Markéta Nováková can be seen in a unique photograph, taken by an unknown photographer - by a Nazi overseer. Many years after, by coincidence Ilsa found this photograph in one bookshop in New York in a book about the Auschwitz commander Rudolf Höss. After six weeks in Birkenau, both cousins were transported to a little town in Silesia called Bad Kudowa (Lázně Chudoba in Czech, present-day Kudowa Zdroj in Poland) just a few kilometres from the Czech town Náchod. They were interned in a concentration camp, which was under the Gross Rosen camp’s administration, and they had to work under very difficult conditions in armament industry. It was also in Kudowa where they saw the liberation in May 1945. Ilsa found her mother and grandmother after the war, but her husband had died in Dachau. She began studying and she befriended her husband’s friend František Maier, whom she eventually married. Upon their uncle’s invitation in 1947 the whole family travelled to the USA. Their uncertainty about whether to stay in America or return became resolved by the communist putsch in February 1948. Ilsa and her family have been living in the USA till this time. She brought up two sons. Ilsa often returned to her native country, especially for visits to her cousin Markéta Nováková. Ilsa Maier died on 7 February 2021.