Learning and instruction during the war and in concentration camps

October 26, 1998

Learning and instruction during the war and in concentration camps

Before the war, I lived and went to school in Prague, today the capital of the Czech Republic. After March 15th 1939, and the occupation of Prague by nazi Germany, the education of Jewish children was prohibited. Attempted circumvention was punished severely by the German Authorities. I shall record here some of my recollections about my education and learning during the war.

After the expulsion from public and private schools, Jewish parents tried to organize private educational networks for their children. This proved to be a dangerous venture, and the Gestapo, the German secret police, quickly stopped these attempts with their usual brutality. Parents provided education, occasionally children were taught in a most informal way by friends or family.

Between the fall of 1938 and the seizure of the “Sudetenland”, and the eventual Nazi occupation of the rest of Bohemia and Prague in 1939, the educational system fell under the influence of Nazi political power and ideology. Jewish teachers were dismissed, and replaced by Nazi sympathizers. Jewish students had to sit in the back of the classroom, the “Judenbankerl”, the Jew’s bench. I was then a student of a “Staatsrealgymnasium”, the equivalent of a lower high school. We were nine Jews in a class of about 35. We made it our task to excel in our studies, to know more than the rest of the class. It did not make us too popular with our new teachers, but made us feel good.

After March 1939, then 15 years old, I as all other Jewish children, was forbidden to continue school. Since even informal classes proved to be too dangerous my father found friends of his to talk to me. It was the most thorough teaching I ever experienced. Jewish adults were dismissed from their jobs, were not allowed to continue in their profession, or had their businesses confiscated. Informal teaching was a welcome distraction from their gnawing worries of how to cope with a steadily worsening oppression. Thus I continued learning mathematics from a structural engineer, who me practical problems to solve, learned French from a translator, chemistry and biology from a pharmacist and I learned bookkeeping and commercial law. My father’s hobby was sociology and philosophy. I had always enjoyed reading about history and far-away places. This became a rigorous study of history and geography.

In 1940, my father got me false papers, and arranged for me to work on a huge farm as an assistant to the manager. There I learned about agriculture. This attempt to hide with false papers came to an abrupt end. Since this is an account about learning I shall omit details.

In 1941, then not quite 18 years old, I was taken to my first camp called in German Linden bei Deutsch-Brod. In Czech it was called Lipa. It was a labor camp established on a large estate, and run by the Gestapo of Prague. It was a small camp, about 300 men, mostly former college students, one, “the old man”, was 35 years old. We were slave labor, doing farm and forestry work, road building, and construction. It was hard work with little food, but in a relative way it was a “good” camp. Nobody was killed there, though all inmates eventually wound up in the Ghetto Theresienstadt, and from there inevitably were shipped to Auschwitz. We were acutely aware of the fact that our education had stopped. A system developed rather spontaneously: “Teach me what you know, and I’ll teach you what I know”. There were books to learn from, and we had to depend on memory. We knew that there had been civilizations at functioned on oral history alone, without a written record. We managed to acquire paper and writing utensils. I learned, e.g., differential calculus, some basic English, and music theory. I in turn taught geography, history, and sociology. The main problem was finding time and energy within the camp system.

In March 1943, all inmates of Lipa were shipped to Ghetto Theresienstadt, in Czech called Terezin. Today there are many books about Terezin, well-researched studies, and detailed records about the effort to educate children there.

In an earlier set of notes, I mentioned that upon arriving in Terzin I found my father there. To the extent possible, he continued to teach me. I was about 20 years old then. We talked about ethics and well ordered society, justice and law, about his ideas, and his philosophy. It was on long discussion lasting nearly one year and a half. My physical survival of the war is a statistical accident; my spiritual survival is due to my father’s teaching. While in Terezin, I attended all lectures I could find time for. I remember quite well the lectures of Rabbi Leo Baeck about ancient philosophy. I sought conversation with people who could teach me something, anything. It was a rare person who would refuse my questions. Many inmates of Terezin had been honored and important in their fields, and they willingly talked about their expertise.

In the fall of 1944, a number of transports shipped most the remaining inmates of Terezin to Auschwitz. I was in one of them. On arrival in Auschwitz, I was one of the few of our transport that were picked for slave labor. All the others were gassed. The eastern frontn line was getting closer, and Auschwitz was being evacuated. There were a few more selections in the “Aigeunerlager”, the part of Auschwitz/Birkenau I was in. Men still in tolerable physical condition were herded into freight cars. After several days, without water or food, and barely enough air to breathe, the train stopped. Survivors of the train ride were herded into an enclosue that was called Kaufering 4, sub-camp of Dachau.

The Kaufering camps in southern Bavaria were a cluster of camps close to a huge construction site for underground factories. Upon their completion they were to be assembly plants for German fighter planes. We, remnants of Jewish communities from Lithuania to Amsterdam to Saloniki, were the slaves to build them. In the winter of 1944/1945, there was no doubt about the early end of Nazi Germany. Allied armies had pushed deep into German territory, German defeat, and our liberation were a certainty. This did not deter the Nazis from forcing us to work twelve-hour shifts day and nights, seven days a week, with one slice of moldy bread, and a bowl of thin cabbage soup a day. Kaufering was the worst camp I experienced. The camp guards were particularly brutal and violent. If they did not kill us, hunger and exhaustion would do it for them in a short time.

We were thinking about he future, the need to function after the war. We talked in small groups, learning this or that from each other. I remember a diminutive man froma small town somewhere in Poland, who was a young mathematics teacher. He taught some of us analytic geometry without even a scrap of paper, patiently repeating points on an imaginary graph, connecting them into a line, and going over formulas again and again. He was a true genius, and a dedicated teacher. I learned about glass manufacturing from a man who had owned a factory in Bohemia. I taught as much as my energy would allow. By then, I knew that the need for learning was an acknowledgment of life after concentration camps, that teaching and learning were instruments of survival.

Only a few of us lived to see our liberation. Looking back over the many years of the war, the years spent in concentration camps, I know that learning made us look towards the future, even though we were not aware of it at first. Learning gave us strength to look beyond the horror of the moment to a new life.

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