Michael Honey

If I Forget Thee…

Jews from Podkarpatska Rus in Auscwitz 1944
(from the book: "Mifgash Tarbuyot" - the story of the Jewry of
Czechoslovakia, The Diaspora Museum, Tel Aviv, 1990.

This article was published in SHEMOT, Journal of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain, Vol. 2, No. 1., January 1994 and posted here with permission of the JGSGB.

If I Forget Thee...

By: Michael Honey, (formerly Misa Honigwachs) January, 1994

My brother Shragga lived in Tivon in Israel. After the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in November 1990 we started visiting my home town Novy Jicin independently, he from Israel and I from England. My home town is in north-eastern Moravia. On 19th June 1992 my brother Shragga arranged a commemorative day in my home town with the main purpose to dedicate a plaque on the building of our erstwhile synagogue. There was a full programme for the whole day, at the high school (gymnasium), at the cemetery, at the synagogue building and in the evening at the town theatre.

My brother had to have a heart bypass operation earlier in the year and there were complications. At short notice I had to deputize for him as he was dangerously ill in hospital. Shragga is ten years older than me, he spent his formative youth in Novy Jicin. I was 9 in October 1938 when our family fled because the town became part of the German Reich since it was located in the Sudetenland, territory round the borders of Czechoslovakia which the Germans annexed. It turned out to be the prelude to the coming World War II.

Needless to say the remembrance of those in the family, among our Jewish neighbours and in the Jewish community makes for a solemn mood. The next morning I was still remembering, but around me life went on as if there had never been such a remembrance day by Jews who came to visit and then left for their various dispersions.

My family fled in 1938 some 15 km south to a small town which remained in Czechoslovakia named Valasske Mezirici. I regard this also as my home town as I was there until September 1942 when all the Jews from this town were deported to Theresienstadt.

After a visit to a commemoration in Theresienstadt in November 1991 I had met a second cousin of my wife whose original surname was Flach. This prompted me to talk to my father-in-law Dr. Kurt Flach. The family Flach was from Karvina and Cesky Tesin also in north east Moravia, but near the Polish border. In questioning him he told me about his cousin Anni Flach who married a JuDr. Heller, President of the Jewish Community in Valasske Mezirici. Dr. Flach knew there were two small girls of this marriage but he could not remember their names, nor could he remember the first name of JuDr. Heller. Now I had to tell my father-in-law that I had once been to the Heller home in 1942 as I will now describe.

First I must return to Novy Jicin and talk about just one aspect of my mother's personality. She was what is called in Yiddish; 'a gitte neshume' (a good soul). We seemed to have the poor on our doorstep and in particular we had Jewish poor making the rounds collecting. They used to come from Poland in the spring on the way south and return through Novy Jicin again toward the high holidays. My father used to say that you could tell the seasons by their way south and their return north. Our house was their kosher watering place on both occasions. Dad used to say that if one week in the spring none would stop by, my mother would go and look for them. I was fascinated by their kaftans and beards, by the way they prayed and by the way they ate. In the evening my father would talk with them 'a blatt gemoore' (a page of the Torah with commentaries).

From the autumn of 1940 a similar stream of visitors would pass by our house on the way south. Still from Poland, but they were different people. Arriving at night, none wore kaftans, all were young and all told these fantastic tales of dire happenings there, there in Poland. The Holocaust was just beginning. I now figure that when I then listened, I was 11 by this time, and I thought of these happenings as something that happens to other people. Like road accidents. At first, each of these fleeing Jews would stay one or two nights, my mother would feed them, give them some food for the journey, some money, perhaps help with some shoes or clothing. They always left at night. I could not understand the danger and thought that everyone's furtive behaviour was funny.

We now lived in a single room. Our single room was overcrowded with furniture from our time when we were quite a comfortable family in Novy Jicin. There were two beds in diagonally opposite corners of the room, one whole corner was taken up by our grand piano which my mother would not give up. Under beds and under the piano were stored books and our other possessions brought from our home in Novy Jicin There was room for just one wardrobe in the corner by the entrance door. When there were no visitors my elder brother Milush and I shared a bed and my mother slept in the other bed. If the person arriving was male, Milush would share the bed with him and I would sleep with my mother. If it was a female then the two women would sleep in one bed and me and Milush in the other one. Someone must have been sending these visitors because we always had only one person, never two. There just would not have been room for two. It was refugees giving refuge.

This went on for more than a year, but I could not help noticing that we were getting short of money. I was being sent round the town with letters asking for money required for our visitors. Then we were notified that we would be interned in Theresienstadt. This happened a few weeks before our actual internment, we left Valasske Mezirici on 15th September 1942. Zlata was the last of our visitors. She had just come as we received the news of internment. She had no papers and no money. She was a buxom largish woman, very jolly, about 25 years old. My brother Milush was head over heels in love with her, he was just 16. As there was no money Zlata stayed and my mother and her talked in whispers late into the night. I woke up once and heard my mother telling Zlata about her abortion, I was my mothers sixth son and she told how she was pregnant yet again to have a seventh child. It appeared that the doctor advised she could no longer give birth and a Rabbi in Ostrau gave my mother a hechsher (permission) to have an abortion.

Quite suddenly, I do not know how it was done, Zlata had Czech papers and some money and left for a journey. She was gone nearly a week. Now of all our visitors she was the only one to have left and then come back again. All the others before her left and were not seen by us ever again. On Zlata's return my mother wrote a letter. She gave me the letter sealed in an envelope. She sent me to a villa on the hill where the president of the Jewish community lived. Since doing the research on the family Flach I knew that his name was Dr. Heller. I knew him by sight, had never spoken to him, certainly never visited his home. I went on this errand on a late afternoon. It was hot and just at the beginning of September. I found the address and saw a gardener wrapping the rosebushes which were fronting the garden in straw. I had never seen this done. In the back of the garden two little girls were playing on a swing. I asked for Dr. Heller. In the last 50 years I had forgotten the name and was reminded of it by my father-in-law through the coincidence that I too married a Flach.

The gardener pointed me toward the open front door. Inside, I met the lady of the house Mrs. Heller, and I now know that this was Anni Flach my wife's cousin once removed. She was making lemonade. I said I had a letter for Dr. Heller and she said I could leave it for him. By now I was used to the furtive way of behaving and I said that I was told to give the letter to him. She then said that her husband is expected home from the office any minute and that I could wait. I was thirsty and looked at the lemonade jug, she saw my glance and poured out a glass for me. I drank it in one go and she said I could take the tray to her two little girls in the garden. I took the lemonade out to the garden and poured out the glasses. While the girls were drinking I played on the swing. We then took turns on the swing and I was pushing them, they were both still too little to manage the back and forth movement of the legs which makes a swing go. After a while I got bored and went back to the gardener. I started handing him bundles of straw and helped him bind the string with which the straw was fastened to the rosebushes. I asked him why he was doing this. He replied that the master and mistress are going on a journey over the winter and that, for the winter, the rosebushes have to be protected against frost. Soon afterwards Dr. Heller arrived, I gave him the letter and left.

About ten days later the Jewish community of Valasske Mezirici had to report at night to the railway. Remarkably Zlata was also making preparations to leave with us. The Germans had declared a curfew, there was nobody in the streets as we made our way to the railway junction. Not the station, but a siding behind a park. The intent quite obviously was that we should depart as unobtrusively as possible. Each could bring with them only what they could carry in a rucksack. We were taken first to Ostrau where we waited a few days for other arrivals from surrounding towns. My mum and Zlata were busy looking after old people who were unwell one way or another. Eventually at night again and during yet another curfew we were marched, now about a thousand people also from other towns in the region across the city and boarded a train.

The journey took more than a day with frequent stops on sidings outside towns or villages. We arrived at a village called Bohusovice and had to walk to Theresienstadt. I will never forget the enormous rucksack on my back. These various walks to the train, from the train and to Theresienstadt were difficult enough for a boy, by now thirteen. How was it for my mother? Or how was it for the other old people, you could not help, you were struggling to put one foot carefully after another. Milush was always saying that it can't be much farther. I could see that he too was worried about me and our mum. This is not a story about the ghetto, there is a lot to describe, but I must keep to the essentials.

Theresienstadt was a Jewish city, everything was run by Jews and you did not see any Germans. All functions in the ghetto were run through a system which was called Proteczia. You got a job in the kitchen; who gave you the Proteczia? My eldest brother Leo came to the ghetto with the first two transports. He was also a doctor at one of the hospitals of the town. He had the Proteczia to find us and to take us from the reception area into the ghetto. He explained that the people in the transport were to stay in the reception area and proceed for the east where there were apparently other ghettos. Mother said to him that Zlata was with us and that he should arrange for her also to stay in Theresienstadt. My mum said that she would not leave for the ghetto without Zlata. Now there were Milush and I to be considered and Leo promised that he would try, but that his Proteczia was only for immediate members of his family. After a lot of quarrelling Leo made my mum leave with the two of us leaving Zlata in the reception area. Now Leo could actually not do anything as Zlata was not at all related to us and there was nothing could be done. He kept saying to my mother that he did not run the city, he was dependent on Proteczia as much as anybody. The law of Proteczia was something which my mum could not fathom.

In the ghetto we met as a family every evening. We each lived in different places and we met at the hospital where my brother Leo was quartered with other medical staff. I always took my mum to her quarters nearby where she was helping other old ladies. My own quarters were in L417, a school which was a Jugendheim (home for boys). This building now happens to be the Ghetto Theresienstadt museum. My brother Leo worked in a hospital in the Dresdner Barracks. It so happened that the road just east of my building remained a public road slicing through the ghetto. The road is still the main road from a town called Litomerice south across the river Ohre toward Prague. This road was fenced off on both sides and out of bounds to Jews in the ghetto.

The Jewish Ghettowache (ghetto police) manned one crossing point from the west side of the ghetto to the east side. The crossing point was closed after 9 p.m., but the Ghettowache would let a boy run across when no one was about if the boy said that he went to see his mother. During one of these evenings, before I left for this crossing point, mum told me that Zlata had been to Litomerice at her behest just before our departure from Valasske Mezirici. She arranged to travel with a farm cart through this public road. After going through several times she stopped and talked across the fence with some people in the ghetto. They told her that in the ghetto there were no beatings and no killings. Mum sighed, as she explained that she let Dr. Heller, the president of the community know that we would be safe in Theresienstadt. Not only that; Zlata had gone to the Gestapo in Valasske Mezirici and asked to be put on the list for internment with us. What Zlata did not find out was that only part of the people arriving stayed in the ghetto and that most just went straight on to ghettos in the east. My poor mother muddled into this mistake in intelligence because of her goodness.

We stayed in Theresienstadt one year and three months and then came to Auschwitz in December 1943. As an exception the Germans had established in one of the compounds a Familienlager of 10,000 Czech Jews. The old and the children were not gassed, not immediately that is. It was very cold and frosty and I was reminded of the roses that were wrapped up in Valasske Mezirici for the winter of a year ago. Other prisoners now made it clear about the fate of those who arrived at the Birkenau junction next to the crematoria. It occurs to me that the roses probably made it through that first winter of 1942/43.

To come back to the near past and our commemoration in Novy Jicin in 1992. I had earlier stayed with friends in Valasske Mezirici and I told them that in Valasske Mezirici no one remembers us. The whole Jewish community is as if it did not exist. And I told them the story I remembered of the two little girls, daughters of the family Heller. My old school friend talked with a neighbour who was a preacher at one of the churches in the town and sits on the committee which administers the Krasno cemetery. This is a Mr. Zilinsky, he remembered Dr. Heller and said that he was a lawyer not a medical doctor. He went on that JuDr. Heller sorted out his inheritance of a cottage in a village called Policna which is also near Valaske Mezirici. He came back a few minutes later with a letter from JuDr Karel Heller dated 11th November, 1931 fixing an appointment about the inheritance matter. The letterhead showed that the office was shared with JuDr Salomon Heller. Now I knew the president's first and last names.

Mr. Zilinsky explained that the Jewish and Christian cemeteries used to be next to each other. He told me that when the Jewish cemetery in Krasno/Valasske Mezirici was liquidated in communist times the Jewish graves were cleared and the area was absorbed into the Christian cemetery. The committee chose the best gravestones of the Jewish cemetery and relocated them under a clump of trees out of the way in order to preserve the graves from thieves. People actually stole old gravestones from Jewish cemeteries recut them and sold them again to the families of the new dead. The people who administered the cemetery in Krasno preserved the gravestones surreptitiously. In order to show that these were stones from Jewish graves they are laid out in the shape of a star of David. A message in code to the Almighty.

I asked if he could show me where these gravestones are, and we hopped into a car and were there in about three minutes. Bracken and blackberries have overgrown the gravestones, you would not be able to find them if you did not know they were there. We cleared some of the bracken and found that one of the gravestones belonged to JuDr. Salomon Heller and that he died in 1932. From the letter and letterhead which Mr. Zilinsky gave me I knew that JuDr. Salomon Heller was the father of JuDr. Karel Heller. To my surprise I was looking at words which someone had arranged to carve into the plinth of the gravestone of the father JuDr. Salomon Heller. Here were the remembrance data of the individuals of the Karel Heller family who were killed. Now I knew that the little girls names were Mira and Jana.

In reporting our commemoration in Novy Jicin we contacted Mr. Jiri Fiedler who is in charge of the Department of Monuments, The Federation of Jewish Communities in The Czech Republic, Maiselova 18, 11001 Prague, Stare Mesto. He provided me with copies of a card index showing data on my brothers and my mother as well as me. This is a listing of all Czech Jews who were deported through Theresienstadt. A copy of these cards is held also at Bet Terezin in Givat Chaim Ichud in Israel. The Pinchus Synagogue walls were marked listing all these names. But the plaster had to be removed due to rising damp. That problem has been overcome and I believe that the work has started to reinstate the 90,000 names onto the walls of this ancient synagogue dedicated by the family Horowitz in 1535. I asked Mr. Fiedler if he could kindly furnish me with the copies of the cards for this Heller Family.

The data is as follows;

JuDr Karel Heller, born 22nd October, 1894, president of Jewish Community, killed at age 48, at the beginning of October 1942, residing at Kralova 157, Valasske Mezirici.

Son of Salomon Heller 1855/1932

Married to Anni Flach born Karvina 21st November 1910, killed at age 32 at the begin of October 1942, daughter of Victor Flach from Karvina, cousin of my father-in-law Dr. Kurt Flach of Haifa

Mira Heller born Valasske Mezirici 19th November, 1935
Hana (Jana) Heller born Valasske Mezirici 7th May, 1937
Both the children were killed with their parents at the beginning of October, in 1942 in the extermination camp, Auschwitz, Birkenau. Mira was not quite 7 (her name means peace). Hana was 5½, I met them only once about a month before their deaths. The roses which Mrs. Heller had arranged to be wrapped up in straw for the winter of 1942/43 before our arrest had probably made it through that winter.

The puzzle was:
"Who had come to Valasske Mezirici between the years 1945 and 1948 to have carved the remembrance data of this family into the plinth of the father's gravestone?"

This was solved by the analysis of the genealogy of the Flach family. For the only one to have returned to Czechoslovakia to have this intimate knowledge and who also was the nearest relative was Dr. Arthur Flach who was Anni Flach's brother and was serving as a medical doctor with the Czech forces in England through world war II. I had never met him, but I know that he returned to Prague in 1945 and was for many years working as a doctor in the military hospital in Prague.

Reprinted from: SHEMOT, Journal of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain, Vol. 2, No. 1., January 1994

Contact Michael Honey: (email: mhoney "at" 013.net replace "at" by @ to avoid spam)

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