Pictures of defiance in Prague
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Pictures of defiance in Prague

BBC News journalist Hannah Gelbart travels with a group of Shoah survivors to Prague, where they were liberated, to recollect and to celebrate families that weren't meant to exist

Hannah with Arek and Sam in Theresienstadt
Hannah with Arek and Sam in Theresienstadt

A group of Holocaust survivors, their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are gathered in Prague’s Old Town square. They embrace, they sing, they cheer. There’s joy in their expressions, and determination. The families standing in that square were never meant to exist.

Seven men and women are in the front row. They’re the oldest members of the crowd and they’ve been here before – when they were children, freed after years in Nazi concentration camps.

A camera sails over the crowd on a high pole. It flashes. The sky darkens with the promise of rain and umbrellas bloom. The photo they’ve just taken is a replica of a black and white photograph taken in 1945.

The old photo shows a group of orphaned Jewish children, who had all survived the camps. My grandfather, David Herman, was one of the children who survived. He died 10 years ago and I wish I could have asked him more about his story.

I’m in the new photo, along with 12 members of my family – but I’m also there as a journalist making a documentary for BBC News about the stories behind it. 

Survivors and their families in Prague’s Old Town Square, seven of whom are also in the picture of orphaned children taken at the same spot in 1945

As I rehearse my piece to camera in the square, I think that this is surely the most important story I will ever tell. It’s a privilege to be able to work on a project so close to my heart and show it to millions of people around the world.

One day, I’d like to share it with the youngest members of my family, those who never knew my grandpa.

I’m interviewing three survivors for the film. They were all in Prague in 1945 and have returned here in May 2019.

Sam Laskier is 91. He pulls back his sleeve and shows me the tattoo on his arm, its green letters and numbers burnt into the soft papery folds of his skin: B-2413.

He tells me the facts, but the emotions lie deeper. As we look through photos together, he says he still has nightmares about the camps.

“How did it feel to be a teenager in a Nazi concentration camp?” I ask.

The feelings are difficult to put into words. The only one that comes up over and again is hunger. A gaping pain in your stomach. Living without knowing when your next meal will be.

“We were traumatised all the time,” says Ike Alterman, also 91. “We were worried where the next piece of bread was going to come from because we were hungry. We were starving.”

Sam’s tattoo

He opens an old cardboard box and lays sepia photos out on the dining table.

“This is the moment that we found out that the guards had disappeared and we were told we were free. That’s me, the one waving his cap,” he says, pointing to a wagon full of emaciated bodies.

“We were supposed to be gassed the following morning, because they couldn’t take us anywhere else and they knew there was a crematorium at Theresienstadt.”

Ike speaks slowly, with pauses between each word. In the depths of his eyes, I see a 13-year-old boy, moving from camp to camp, transported in cattle trucks along railway lines, to freedom. Freedom. Sam’s face lights up. “Prague brings back nice memories,” he says, “because that’s where I was liberated, so we weren’t beaten up or shouted at.”

The Russians were kind to the children. They shared bread with them, gave them chocolate and let them ride on their tanks. They also gave them 24 hours to do whatever they wanted, even take revenge on Germans.

But few, if any of the freed prisoners, wanted blood on their hands; all they were interested in was filling their stomachs after years of starvation. Some ate so much that their gaunt bodies couldn’t cope and they needed hospital treatment. Others died from indigestion.

Together we visit Theresienstadt, the former ghetto and Nazi camp where most of this group was liberated. Around 40 miles from Prague along rolling country roads, nowadays it’s a normal town and a memorial. An elderly woman pushes a shopping trolley.

Terezin

Tourists flock around in groups, visiting the former barracks, crematorium and ghetto museum. 

We head to the Jewish cemetery and I share a moment with Arek Hersh, who was imprisoned here for eight days before the liberation. He describes the space around us when he first arrived: pile upon pile of corpses, and sick bays containing living skeletons.

Later I see those faces – the anguish, the defiance – as I trawl through reels of archive to piece my film together. Snapshots of death etched into my mind.

Now, the mass graves at Theresienstadt are marked by an expanse of tombstones. 

They say that birds don’t sing on the sites of concentration camps, but it’s the only sound we hear. A memorial service is held, the air swelling with the cantor’s prayer; a minute’s silence to remember the dead. 

Survivors at Terezin

But we’re in Prague to celebrate the survivors, the ones who got out of the camps alive, my grandpa among them.

He was one of more than 700 children brought to the UK after 1945. They grew up together, like brothers and sisters, built successful new lives and had children of their own. Their families became part of my extended family. 

More than 200 of us have come to Prague to see where our parents and grandparents stood after they were liberated. We sing and cheer as the bells of the famous astronomical clock chime on the hour, determination etched on every face: determination to remember the Holocaust, to tell the stories of those who lived through it and those who did not.

Hannah’s documentary The Families Who Weren’t Meant To Live, first aired on BBC News last June, is available to watch on BBC iPlayer and YouTube

 

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