“We spent just six weeks in Theresienstadt, from November 21st to January 10th, 1942. We were the first ones to leave. Of course, we didn't know where we were going. My sister, the one who graduated from art school – she was an actress – was begging that commanding office, she was kneeling in front of him, so he wouldn't send us away. He told her that she could be happy that this was not a Vernichtungslager, that we were being sent to work. And so we went. Not knowing where we were going. We went in those cattle wagons all the way to Riga. And we came to this goods station of sorts. There the young ones were separated from the old ones. My mother was fifty years old, but she still looked quite good, so we weren't afraid that we would be separated. But my sister – who was a nurse – wanted to go with those old people. But an SS-Man slapped her and threw her back into our group.”
“In the morning, we came to this large barn where maybe a hundred Soviet and British prisoners of war had been put. We were sitting on the ground with horses all around us. And one of the horses had a miscarriage. And the women who were with us started eating it. Even today I feel sick as I recall that scene. I see all the blood and that miscarried creature from that little horsey or what. My mother told us: 'Don't you dare even touch it!' And we were obedient, so we didn't touch it. But we were hungry for sure.”
“In the factory we had been living in this enormous hall. We were sleeping on three tier bunk beds. So, we always make this spot for ourselves, like a family. And right across the gangway there were some people from Germany who managed to save their children. Two families with two little girls – maybe four-year-olds. And one day, SS-Men came for the children. That was quite a horrible experience, to see those mothers on their knees, bagging them so they could join them. So, they would take mothers as well, not just the kids. They knew that the children were going to meet their deaths.”
“I was young. On Sunday we had a day off, we didn't have to work. So, we would congregate. We found an old gramophone and some records in the attic, so we would be dancing and singing. We were young, so we indeed took this 'Carpe Diem' motto to our hearts. You know, the way to survive was not to worry much about anything. As those who worried didn't survive. And if you lived like 'today, I am alive, tomorrow I might be dead (…) you could manage to survive. We were young. And we were supporting our mother, calming her down in every situation. I kept telling her: 'We will survive everything. We will return home.' As I was sure I would survive, all those four years.
“We were not allowed to bring anything with us to the camp. And as it happened, they were searching people and they caught me with three packages of gauze. So they made me step aside. I remember how nervous I was, as there was this cemetery in the middle of the ghetto, and they would bring people there, the ones who did something, and they would shoot them. So I was standing there with several other inmates and we had no clue what would happen to us, whether they would take us to the cemetery or what. My sisters went to see that supervisor of ours and he went to speak with the commander and ask him to let me go. He said I was taking the gauze to the infirmary so they would have at least some. So I was released and I left with my head held high. And right behind the corner, where no one could see me, I just collapsed. As the stress was just immense. But I managed to survive.”
“We were assigned for work. Every morning, a soldier came to the dam and he led his group away. My sister, Zdeňka, was a nurse – they built some kind of an infirmary there. The other sister had been working in the harbour. And had been deployed in a medical supply factory. We were processing gauze on those machines, we would cut it, pack it and send it to the front line. Quite a clean work it was. Once a day we would get soup, and in the camp we would get this one hundred gram piece of bread, and that was it.”
“Her fiancé robbed us. Before our departure, Hanka told him that all the family jewelry had been deposited at an old friend’s place. She told him that if we didn’t return, he should see that friend and take the jewelry. She was living somewhere around Královice nearby Pilsen. That old lady later told us that he didn’t wait till the end of the war but came much earlier. He showed her a picture of Hanka and claimed the jewelry. That was so abominable! She told him that she wouldn’t give him everything and to come back after the end of the war. But she gave him a part of it. Hanka wanted to get it back. She said: ‘that’s mine, my dad was wearing this!’ She wanted to go to the police and report him. But my mom wouldn’t let her. She said: ‘look Hani, we’ve had such a hard time…”
“When it was over, the Russians told us to come out. In the courtyard, there were a lot of dead Germans and their carts, where they stacked their belongings in the hope that they’d be able to take them away. One of the Russians told us we could take anything we wanted from those carts. However, my mom said we would only take some bread, nothing else. There were pots full of lard and other foodstuff as well. We obeyed our mom and didn’t take anything from that. I remember that I was walking around the yard, stepping over the corpses of the Germans. I didn’t feel anything. I was just singing to myself. I’m not mad but at that time, I must have been.”
“Once at night the commandant ordered us to line up and to march on. He said that the enemy troops had come closer. We weren’t sure exactly what they were planning to do with us because they led us into a nearby forest and lined us up there. The Germans lined up against us with their rifles in their hands. You have no idea what’s going on in your mind at moments like these. I kept repeating to myself that I must not fall to the ground before they start firing. By the time they aimed their rifles at us the commandant said: ‘Weiter gehen! (Move on)’.“
“I was wrapping the gauze on a machine. We were then cutting it into bandages. It was clean work. In the ghetto, everyone acted according to the creed: ‘what you don’t steal, you don’t have for yourself’. It sounds terrible now to say it but it was the common way of behavior there. So I was smuggling the gauze out of the factory and my sister, who worked at the harbor, was stealing flour. We wouldn’t be able to survive on a daily diet consisting of 100 grams of bread. All of this was, of course, strictly illegal and sanctioned by the death penalty.”
“A great many people starved to death there. They were dying right before your eyes. One of our acquaintances once came to us and wanted to trade his daily ration of bread for a cigarette. My mom told him to keep his bread and eat it. Instead he swapped it for a cigarette with someone else and the next day, he was dead.”
“We arrived in the Riga ghetto and we later found out, that they had made a pogrom in that ghetto and shot just about every Latvian woman and child just a few days before our arrival. There remained just around 300 men in the productive age. They probably wanted to make space for us, I don’t know.”
“The Gestapo arrested my dad in 1940 and said that the official reason was that he objected to the Aryanization of the company. He worked for the company Oskar Polák that was located at Ponávka, which is a part of Brno. He was the director. They were making equipment for central heating. At first, the Germans asked him if he could explain to them the operation of the company. He was ‘wirtschaftlich wichtig’ as they used to say, meaning he was important for the economy. After a year, they didn’t need him anymore and so they installed a German girl in the company as his assistant. That girl put a picture of Hitler on the wall and my dad told her that there will be no picture of Hitler on the wall in his office. The next day the Gestapo came to arrest him.”
I was sure that I would survive. As it matters a lot in your life, whether there’s something that you long for
Irena Racková, born Popper, was born on July 23rd, 1925 in Jičn where she was living with her parents and her two sisters till 1933. After that, her family moved to Brno. After the dissolution of the 2nd Republic, she had to leave grammar school due to the Nuremberg Laws. She started working in a toy factory. In 1940, her father, a director of a factory producing central heating systems, had been arrested by the Gestapo. Before that, he opposed ‘Aryanization’ of the company. After spending a year in prison, he was transported to Auschwitz where he was murdered. In 1941, the mother with her three daughters were taken to Theresienstadt and after several weeks they were transported to the Riga ghetto. They had been living in constant fear, as people were routinely executed for various minor offenses. Fortunately, Irena Racková got an easy job – she was making gauze needed for surgical dressing. In Riga, she had her first love affair with a young man from Latvia who had been cooperating with partisans in planning an insurrection. After they were denounced, all Latvian men were shot by the Germans who started liquidating the ghetto. As Soviet troops were getting close to Riga in 1944, evacuation started. They headed for a concentration camp in Stutthof. Her elder sister, Zdeňka, got a job there and she left the family to be never seen again. She died of typhus. Irena, with her mother and remaining sister, embarked on a hundred and twenty kilometre death march with the rest of the people from the camp. She had to lead her mother all the way with the help of her sister. They helped build barracks in Sofienwald. After that, they were transported to Lauenburg (today Lebork) in Pomerania. When marching even further, a group of prisoners separated from the main group and went into hiding in a barn in a nearby village. In that barn, Irena and her mother were liberated by the Red Army. They were protected by Soviet officers in the nearby village of Chinow. In May 1945, they went on a perilous journey to their home in Brno. With her mother and her sister, Hana, they decided to find a flat where her sister’s fiancé was supposed to be living during the war. They found out that he was already married and that he stole their family’s jewellery. Yet, they managed to get their flat back in the end. In 1949, Irena married a career officer, Milan Racek, and gave birth to their first son in 1953. Her husband’s family opposed the marriage and ceased to support him. In Brno, Irena had been working at a Youth’s Union secretariat at the Mladá Fronta publishing house and at a health insurance company. In 1958, the family moved to Prague. Irena started working at OPBH, after sixteen years, she went to work at the local National Committee’s housing department. Only after her husband died in 1991, she started seeing her only relative who survived the war. She had a post at an auditing committee at the Jewish Community.