Feb 16, 2011 7:00 PM
Painful Echo of Time - Eva Sachs
Book reading and presentation with music accompaniment. Meeting with the author Eva Sachs. Letters of Eva Sachs written from the concentration camp Theresienstadt (Terezin).
Painful Echo of Time
As in the first year of the new millennium, after a walk on a spring day through Manhattans´ Central Park, I arrived, a year later, at the same time of the year, at the apartment of Eva Sachs on Fifth Avenue, where the same doorman recognized and greeted me with a friendly smile, not only then, but every time I visited her after, the last time being in December 2007, entering her door always filled me with increasing humility and awe.
That was the time when at the beginning by chance, like a magical fairy tale, at one New York dinner, I saw the slides of her compositions of tender flowers, drawings of nudes, semi-abstract paintings of the New York skyline and I discovered, that she was a painter of Czech origin and nobody knows her personally, as she is not in contact with the Czech community living in New York. This was a large part of my desire to get to know the author of these paintings full of strong, cheerful colors, and see her work with all it’s shades of color and it’s reality. I wanted to experience as well the reality of her brush stroke on the whole canvas and the nearly fauvistic palette of joy, which emanate from her watercolors.
At that time, beginning of the third millennium, I gave her a call. She graciously invited me for lunch, in Czech which she obviously had not used in a long time. Her husband George, is a very wise man and probably because of that, a very humble and quiet person. After some time he left the conversation to me and Eva: they left Prague in 1948, after all the horrors they lived through during the Holocaust, they escaped to freedom. They did not have the strength any more to live again under another oppression… At our first meeting Eva did not want to go outside, into the cold April weather, to have her picture taken. At our next New York meeting a year later she was already pleased to walk with me in sunny Central Park, which, by the way, she sees from her window, across the street, the best known street in New York, between the Metropolitan Museum and 59th Street. When we said good bye a second time, she handed over to me the bound letters to Blazi (that’s how she called her best friend Blazena), with the original watercolors and drawings. Eva translated the letters from the original Czech into English and she named them “Echoes of My Youth in Terezin”.
These letters and confessions of a young girl – letters so cruel and sad – she wrote from 1941 in the concentration camp Terezin. At that time, without any real hope they would someday reach her friend…
Meanwhile the time was passing faster than I wanted to acknowledge and I got to read Eva’s letters (which she wrote in secret in Terezin and hid them under a loose floor board) only a few months later. All of a sudden, for me the time stood still… Reading her frank confession in the middle of the quiet forest of South Bohemia, with the telephone off and walking among the murmuring of the trees – very often I had tears in my eyes – and all of a sudden I felt ashamed for the proclaimed “heroism” of my life, for which I was until now so proud. Am I worthy to write about her, to heap my words, suddenly so futile, about this special woman…? At that moment I understood why in New York she did not get in touch even with George Voskovec (I asked her about him, she knew about him, both were bound by their common ancestry). In 1977 Voskovec received me with kindness and revealed to me the soul of his Manhattan… And then I understood why Eva did not want to befriend anyone, who would bring back memories of the past, her life as a girl in Moravia, interrupted by the tragedy of living through the Holocaust!!!
I understood without any word this woman, deprived of her childhood and the love of her parents. Although it was not possible to reach her innermost feelings – I had all of a sudden a feeling of deep sorrow and of self-searching mainly moved by the last words of her English epilogue to the book about the Letters from Terezin… the smell of blooming linden trees in New York transports me straight back to Terezin. There all the trees were linden trees and when they bloomed, it meant another harsh winter was over… Even though I have survived the war I have never left Terezin. The past is with me every day – it is also my present and relentlessly my future as well… Some of these feelings have been passed on to my children. The train into the darkness of the Holocaust has not stopped, my journey is never ending.
Although these letters are extremely sad, they are poetic. Testimony to the feelings of a real hero, who only by chance escaped from being sent to Auschwitz and thereby to a certain death. Auschwitz – where her whole family perished.
Eva wrote these desperate letters in secret to her only friend Blazi till the year 1943. In the last one dated Terezin, May 10, 1943, she writes: “The rays of the sun, sharp arrows piercing my eyes, bring the fragrance of white lilac into this white room. I open my eyes and see the sky as blue as the veil of the night fairy, caught on the tips of the blooming chestnut trees… The exquisite day filled with the perfume of sun and spring, penetrates with its heavy fragrance the hospital room, not gently but like a cloud of thunder, threatening the critically ill prisoners… For all of us sick people, a spring day as shiny and beautiful as happiness itself, changes in these white halls into the most horrible torture… Spring… your happiness does not have the power to reach us in here!!
After that she did not have the strength anymore – she just tried to survive from day to day. In front of her eyes they deported her dying father, (who died during the transport in the locked cattle car, everybody without food or water, which Eva found out after liberation), and her mother, who refused to leave him and in this way voluntarily went to her death and left her hopeless daughter behind. To this day she has a hard time coming to terms with this fact. Eva tried to join her parents voluntarily, to push herself into the death transport (it did not seem to make any sense to be left as the only member of the family – she writes after fifty years), but the SS did not allow it, so she used a fake number of a person already in the transport – in Terezin she naturally had no name, not quite a human being, her identification was her number, G 206. – The SS found out the deception, and as a punishment they did not send her to Auschwitz, as was usual – even they were shocked by her action. On the contrary, she had to stay behind. The last of her family, she alone survived, she was actually condemned to survive. Could it not be compared to the famous novel by William Styrone Sofie´s Choice? Even though there the choice is the opposite, from a human point of view, just as drastic.
Eva Sachs, after more than fifty years found the inner strength to write a commentary to the letters, which survived. I have copies of the original, Eva entrusted me even with the most secret one, the one with feelings of hopelessness, where her aversion to live is clear – from March 3, 1944. These words I am reading from her writing, still a very childish handwriting, notes of feelings written after surviving an operation.
Lying strapped to the operating table like Prometheus on his rock – I am waiting for my eagle, who in the form of shiny instruments is supposed to carve out, not my liver, but my appendix. The operating table is bathed in the glare of one large reflector and the sharp light is reflected in the mirrors on the wall. I recognize only Dr. Eisner, who stands nearby in his mask and with his eyes tries to tell me not to be upset. The penetrating eyes of Mephisto, but nevertheless calming. A mask is put over my face and I feel a soft rain falling – in my ears is the sound of a waterfall, the voices of the doctors and nurses reach me from a great distance – I am falling – into what? How can I describe the emptiness, this nothing, which I am suddenly beginning to enter? If I would believe in the existence of a soul I would have to say I felt the exact moment it left my body. Then comes a feeling of deeper and deeper emptiness, a nothingness, until I wake again at night in my hospital bed. I believe I could easily become addicted to the ether of the anesthetic. I cannot find words to describe the feeling of joy and peace I experienced at the moment of losing my consciousness.
Her entire family was deported to Terezin in 1941. The train was stopped on the way for a few days… in the introduction to her letters. which Eva found the courage to privately publish in the USA (she translated her letters into English and added to them from her memory, watercolors and drawings to complete the letters), and she writes “I was seventeen years old and the year was 1941 when my name was included in the transport to the concentration camp Terezin…From the beginning starting with the day I was included in the transport to be deported, I felt the need to find a way to share my thoughts and feelings in an attempt to hold on to my humanity. How best to do it but through letters and who else to write to but to my best friend Blazi? This is how these letters came into being… In 1943 my mental and physical condition had deteriorated to such a degree, that I did not have enough strength any more to continue this act of pretense and defiance”.
Through writing these letters she kept up the feeling that she was still a human being and that the Germans had not broken her – not yet… She could never assume that she would ever see her friend Blazi again (Blazi died two years ago), whose parents regarded Eva as a member of their family, even at the time when she had to wear the yellow star with Jude written on it. They even took her with them, against all prohibitions, on vacation, took off her star and introduced her as one of their own… Only after the war did Eva realize how great their risk was.
After my liberation in 1945 I decided to return to the town I was deported from – Brno – to Blazi’s house. I retrieved the letters from their hiding place, loose floorboards in a room in the barracks and brought them to Blazi – a gift from Terezin…
In the year 1993 after the fall of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia I invited Blazi to spend some time with me in Vienna. She brought the letters, which she had kept all these years, and handed them over to me. It was the future Blazi was thinking of and in her opinion it was more important that my children and grandchildren knew about my thoughts and feelings during the years of my imprisonment, rather than she holding onto these letters.
Already in the first letter before the deportation from Brno, December 1, 1941, Eva writes: Dearest, it is very hard to justify and to explain the writing of these letters, knowing that they will never reach you and will never be read by you… Where shall I begin? Our first prison… A huge black building, a former high school… opens its gates on a foggy morning to let thousands of unhappy people enter. The classrooms very quickly fill up – not with the happy noise of students – but with the sound of grownups, confused and distraught, and with the cries of small children as well. This is the night of our departure… the outside world seems to be closed for me forever… half an hour after midnight! Three abreast we descend toward the back entrance of the school into the yard… The moon enveloped us in its deadly light… our numbers are checked and then the iron gates of our first prison open and we are on the way. This is our last trip through our town. Again we are lined up by three, our numbers hanging around our neck. Slowly we enter the train station. 1. 2. 3… a thousand… counts the black uniform. Tears can be seen on the cheeks of men and women alike. Outcasts… exiles…
The first letter from Terezin is dated December 4, 1941… two days spent in the locked train, it was burning hell, filled with inhumanity and brutality… hell. There is a creaking sound of brakes and the train comes slowly to a stop… women on one side, men on the other… the column starts to move. The frozen snow shatters under our feet… my feet keep sliding on the frozen road… we turn a corner and ahead of us looms a menacing large dark building – the barracks. A sudden blinding snowstorm descends on us, the order is to line up, finally the large iron gate opens, the dark night is swallowing one prisoner after another – the gates noisily clang shut. We walk on narrow threadbare steps. You ask, Blazi, what awaits us there? A cold, wet stone floor, 500 exhausted women, shivering in the frigid air. A child’s cry is heard. Cold, smoke and the cry of children – that is my first night in my new home.
There are 25 letters in all. Tragic documents not only of these times, but of one fate of a young girl with a great talent for fine art - her friend Blazi, an outstanding pianist - a sad story of a broken young friendship. Perhaps the worst, even after 66 years, is the short comment from Terezin dated January 1, 1942, - The New Year - du
ring this night nine young men were shot!!!! And like a helpless cry into the darkness of hopelessness is the verse: “Dully we watch together
As they put out heads
On the block”
The remark from January 15, 1942 is even more laconic. “At noon of this day in the twentieth century, the event of the New Year’s night was repeated.”
And the letters are continue, each one more sadder than the previous one. And after them a definite silence, which Eva found the courage to break, only after more than half a century, from her New York and her new country of her choice. One has to mention the letter, where Eva, although reluctantly, mentions her age. But she will forgive me. This letter was among the more cheerful ones. Its poetic writing is dated Terezin January 30, 1943. “Soft clouds of grey fog descent on the town where the day is slowly preparing for a sleep. Raindrops chased by the wind, carry the evening through the narrow streets. Thin bands of light from the house across the street illuminates the dark room and the red glow of the stove produces a wild dance on the ceiling. You see, dear Blazi, only a feeling of doom and sadness on my 19th birthday. Dearest Blazi, I think of you all day to-day and how very much I miss you!!!! Where will I be on my next birthday. Still in the concentration camp?”
What else is there to say? That Eva’s stay in Terezin lasted another 2 years and that I realized I am not worthy to write my pathetic lines about this rare woman and at the same time I appreciate it is me who can write about her. About a woman, who actually survived through a miracle…? and be helpful in making public her still young letters, which are most touching in her condemnation of the horrors of the time. I cannot think of a sentence to end this introduction and so I am ending by quoting Steven Spielberg, who, discussing his life project - interviews with thousands upon thousands of witnesses, conducted by his Shoah Foundation, - said: “...the Holocaust, the darkest event not only of the last century but also of the history of mankind, and even our children have to learn that our own history is a history of intolerance and that nothing has as yet changed...”.
The book Painful Echo of Time is being published just before Eva’s 85th birthday and I am happy that this book especially will be christened in Fall of 2008 in Prague, at the vernissage of her modern, colorful and so incredibly cheerful and joyful work.
President - European R. M. Rilke Foundation
Prague, September 2008
321 East 73rd Street
NY 10021 New York
Feb 16, 2011 7:00 PM