[ Charlotte Guthmann Opfermann survived the Theresienstadt Ghetto.
This is her story. ]
was born in Wiesbaden, Germany, and attended public school there
until the restrictive anti-Jewish legislation made this impossible.
father was a prominent Jewish attorney in this town of -then- 260,000,
my Uncle was a "Justizrat" (court counselor, a title conferred by
the Kaiser to deserving lawyers) and it was understood that my older
brother and I would study law and follow these footsteps. My father
was an elected member of the administrative board of the largest
(3000+ members in 1933) Jewish congregation and its elected secular
leader and spokesperson during the most difficult years, 1938-1943.
name of that particular synagogue was (using the street address)
the Michelsberg Synagogue of Wiesbaden. It was built in the middle
1800s forming a conspicuous triangle in the center of town with
a Protestant and an old Catholic church at the other two points--signifying
the equal/common spiritual orientation towards one G-d. There were
about 8 or more other, much smaller Jewish congregations in town,
but the Michelsberg group was the largest, the most affluent, and
its welfare program and educational efforts served and supported
all the others. After this large and imposing edifice was totally
destroyed during the November 10, 1938 murderous devastation known
as Kristallnacht, the various congregations combined into one. From
that time on, we worshipped at a smaller synagogue at a different
address. This Friedrichstrasse synagogue escaped burning (was looted
and desecrated, though), not out of any special consideration of
mercy or concern but because it stood cheek-by-jowl next to the
adjoining buildings on either side. They would certainly have gone
up in flames as well.
father was a prominent attorney in Wiesbaden from an assimilated
German Jewish family. I had an older brother -- killed at Mauthausen
in the Spring of 1945, just weeks before that camp complex was liberated
by the US Third Army, after he had earlier experienced years in
Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Sachsenhausen, [and] Buchenwald concentration
camps. My brother and my plans to study law and to follow my father's
and uncle's footsteps came to naught when all education for Jewish
children was canceled.
spent my teenage years as a prisoner of the Nazis. My father initially
declined opportunities to leave the country, stating that he had
to help his clients and the members of the congregation first. When
these efforts had been largely successful (more than half our membership
emigrated to freedom), the situation had become much more difficult.
In spite of extensive efforts and in spite of spending very large
sums of money, we were unable to leave the country and, in due course,
my entire family was sent to the concentration camps and ghettos
in the East and killed--Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Mauthausen, Lodz,
Riga, Theresienstadt and others.
the end of 1942 there were only three Jewish families left in town,
all others having been deported earlier. The local "Judenreferent"
(Jew specialist) at the Gestapo informed my father that all of us
would be deported to Frankfurt. We had a few days notice. We were
sent to a collection point in Frankfurt where to-be-deported Jews
were gathered prior to the actual transport.
was 17 years old when we were arrested and deported.
was terrified when we entered Theresienstadt. I knew a little bit
about this camp, because several weeks earlier when my grandfather
and all of our friends and my father's clients were deported there,
my father had sent a courageous Christian friend and colleague to
travel there and report back what he could observe from the outside
and, if possible, to make contact with prisoners. I also knew that
any concentration camp meant death. I did not know how we would
entire family was deported together, but we were not together for
long. My father and brother were re-deported to Auschwitz. My father
was killed upon arrival; my brother survived many subsequent death
march re-deportations. He was seen at KZ Buchenwald, listed on the
roster of KZ Oranienburg and, finally, killed at KZ Mauthausen just
before the liberation of that camp.
was not "protected." I knew some people who were and was quite envious.
life in the camp was one of desperation, hard work, hunger, disease,
[and] being eaten alive by vermin. Instead of plush toys, small
children played with live rats.
typical day: I'd wake up (then living with 6000 other women on the
unfinished, unheatable, vermin infested attic of one of the large
barracks for women, not counting additional thousands in the rooms
downstairs) from the noise and commotion of all the women around
me trying to get ready for work. I would go downstairs and stand
in line at the latrine or in front of one of the 6 or 8 toilet fixtures
(two or three such set-ups for many, many thousands of women). There
usually was no water for flushing or for washing. No separating,
privacy affording stalls. No toilet paper.
cussing and telling us to hurry up. Then, if there was time, I would
rush to the food distribution center to fetch our assigned cup of
imitation coffee (made from grain and chestnuts) for my mother and
me. No other food was provided. If I had any bread left (usually
I didn't) I'd soak a dry slice of bread in this brew. Then I'd rush
to report for work and march off to wherever our "Hundertschaft"
was assigned to that day. In the evening, we would again line up
for food. Three times a week this evening meal consisted of the
same "coffee" with nothing else to accompany it.
times it was a ladle of barley. Or some undefinable, tasteless,
unflavored soup in which swam (if I was fortunate) a chunk of unpeeled,
dirty potato or a bit of carrot or a slice of turnip. If I was extremely
lucky (and/or if I knew the kitchen personnel, could persuade them
to scoop my ladle from the bottom of the container) even two or
all three of the above. That was heaven for an evening. We had an
hour to fetch food, run errands (visit family or friends). If there
was water, we'd try to find some to drink or even to wash. Again,
standing in line for the toilet. At 8 PM we had to turn lights out.
was a member of the hard labor groups called "Hundertschaft," because
we worked in units of 100. Mostly cleaning (with very little of
the standard equipment such as buckets, brooms, rags--and water
was usually turned off centrally as added torture by the sadistic
"Kommandant"). I was also assigned to work for the Czech farmers
in the surrounding area, marching out early and marching back into
the camp late. Always under Czech police guard. These farmers --who
supposedly, now,-- "knew nothing" of what was going on, had contracted
for our cheap labor with the SS commander. Then I was reassigned
to the Youth Labor Distribution administration. After a near-fatal
illness (diphtheria), friends arranged somewhat better housing for
me and a job as caregiver to sick and orphaned children.
had many illnesses: hepatitis, pneumonia, diphtheria, endless nose,
throat, ear infections, impetigo, edema, encephalitis. I have no
explanation how I survived them. In spite of the fact that (by nose
count) the number of doctors in the camp at times was one per 7
inmates, most of the doctors worked at hard labor, like everybody
else. We had no medication, other than some purple powder which
served all sorts of purposes - as a mouthwash-gargle agent (useless,
because our water supply was most often shut off). When I was diagnosed
with diphtheria, I was carted into an isolation barracks, not to
get well but to prevent that the 6000 women who "lived" (our own
personal space was no more than the size of a coffin) on the attic
of my barracks alone (not counting the rooms downstairs) would not
all get infected also.
[this] near-fatal illness- I worked as a youth care giver, nursing
sick children, participated in the sporadic and secret, because
it was forbidden, attempts at teaching the three R's. All children
had to work starting at age 10. My immediate superior in this program
was Rabbi Dr. Leo Baeck of Berlin, whom the Nazis referred to as
"The Pope of the Jews." I also wrote, directed and produced a theatrical
production "Die Schwarze Hand" ("The Black Hand") which was credited
with having helped keep a positive spirit among my charges.
had started to try and tell the children who were in my charge about
the outside world, about books I'd read. Many of these youngsters
had been confined for three and four years--half their lives, had
no idea what life could/might be like. All they knew was hunger,
work (they had to work starting at age 10), filth, deportations,
sickness, despair, how to steal food from other prisoners, scrounge
in the garbage for eatables. There was a now famous theatrical production
for Czech children prisoners being talked about "Brundibar." None
of us had an opportunity to see it. It would have been meaningless,
anyway, since it was done in Czech for Czech children. Very few
of my German and Austrian charges understood that language. I spoke
of the book by the German Jewish author E. Kaestner Emil and the
Detectives and another book Die Schwarze Hand about a similar situation
(Berlin street urchins doing unusual, heroic, courageous deeds and
being rewarded). I have not been able to rediscover this book or
remember the name of the author. The kids started to identify with
some of the characters in my story, many of them made up and invented
on the spur of the moment. It was our version of bedtime stories.
And we'd play-act a little bit in order to explain those strange
circumstances in the outside-free world. Finally, we said we'd improvise
a full blown performance for the other children in our barracks
and, afterwards, other friends. The manuscript and sketches I prepared
for and about this play were taken away by our Soviet liberators
at the end of the war. I hope to find it in the recently released
documents from the former USSR at the United States Holocaust Memorial
Museum archives in Washington DC.
I have, since that time, written a play about that play and the
performances, for and with my American students. It has been read
and performed, though not yet officially published. It was very
difficult to go through with the actual performance (in 1944-45),
because another group of adult
had recently tried to stage the -now- famous "Emperor of Atlantis,"
also written in the camp, and they were discovered by the SS guards.
All the members of that theatrical effort were deported and killed.
The "Atlantis" opera was never performed until after the War. I
did not wish to risk such an outcome for us. Rabbi Dr. Leo Baeck
(from the internal Council of Elders) had heard about my work with
this project. He summoned me to see him and I had to give him a
complete description. He worried that I was putting myself and the
children in harm's way, because our barracks was just a few paces
away from the main SS administrative offices. There were frequent
inspections, control visits of our premises. He finally approved
and even came to attend our first performance.
the end of the War things were almost worse. There were 18,000 recently
arrived deathmarch victims from other camps in our midst, badly
in need of help and care. These people were even worse off than
we, having been brought on foot and --some-- by cattle car to our
camp - most often without food or water. One evening I helped unload
one of these cars - there were more dead than alive people "on board."
And the few living were very ill. Our housing and food supply situation
was inadequate to the task. We did not have nurses or care givers.
There was an outbreak of typhus.
the war,] I returned to my home town in hopes that my father and
brother might have survived. They hadn't.
father, brother, grandfathers were killed, also many uncles, aunts,
cousins, friends, neighbors; my grandmother elected suicide rather
than face deportation. Interesting vignette: during one scholarly
conference in this country, a couple of years ago, a very knowledgeable
rabbi and Holocaust scholar made a categorical statement "Jews don't
commit suicide." Maybe it is against scripture--but, as a matter
of actual fact: fully half the graves at my home town's Jewish cemetery
from 1938 (i.e. Kristallnacht) until the end of the WWII are those
of suicide victims. My Mother survived the camp, but she was never
well again and died some years later.
Mother, ... with enormous effort and help from friends and the occupation
U.S. Military Government authorities, managed to restore and refurbish
the community hall adjoining this [Friedrichstrasse] synagogue after
the war. She reassembled the surviving Jews and we enjoyed our first
post WWII holy days services in the fall of 1945, together with
hundreds of American soldiers stationed in the area. Chaplain/Captain
George Vida rededicated our little facility and led the service.
was re-patriated to Germany and worked for the Betreuungsstelle
in Wiesbaden, (assisting former KZ inmates to re-start normal lives)
and tried to continue my education, but could not re-establish an
emotionally stable life in post-War Germany. I went to the United
States on a troupe carrier in 1946, the second such boat which ferried
refugees, charging a large sum of money for the privilege. In 1951,
I returned briefly to Germany to marry a half-Jewish childhood friend.
the 1960s and 1970s my former husband's work involved mergers and
acquisitions of European industrial firms on behalf of several large
American firms and we lived in Paris, London, Geneva and Düsseldorf
and traveled much throughout Europe and North Africa. In addition
to raising our two daughters and assisting my husband in his work
as the corporate wife and official hostess, I helped with many of
the negotiations, since I speak several languages with native fluency.
since divorced, I am now teaching (college and high school), writing,
assisting with Holocaust research in the United States and in Germany.
I return to Germany several times a year for teach-ins (have been
there three times this year alone), have made a series of educational
movies, written the script and acted as narrator in a nationally
aired (May 1995) television production "Menschen im Abseits," written
a book in German, co-authored books, am currently translating "Erziehung
im National-sozialismus" ("Education under the Swastika"), written
a play "Lambs at Play...for Time," a short story with the same theme
"The Children of L414" [which] was runner up for the 1995 Heekin
Prize. I am working with Robert Warren on a book "Twilight" about
the Holocaust experience in Germany.
writing and lecturing about the Holocaust, initially, was done for
German readers and audiences, out of a sense of frustration and
in an attempt to find closure. For the last two or three years I
have done the same in this country.