Hana and Arnošt Lustig

30.09.2014 | 00:00
Hana and Arnošt Lustig

The siblings
Hana was born to Mr. and Mrs. Lustig on 20th June 1924. Her brother Arnošt was born on 21st December 1926 at 428/137 Královská Avenue (today Sokolovská), on the border of Vysočany and Libeň in Prague. They were an ordinary Jewish family – the father ran a small drapery shop and the mother helped him there in order to learn Czech because she came from an old deeply religious Löwy family from Moravská Třebová where only German was spoken. The father really wanted the children to speak Czech. “Our parents, and our dad in particular brought us up to respect and love the Czech country which he considered the promised land,” said Arnošt.

“I can remember”, adds Arnošt, “that when I was fi ve, I and my friends jumped off a bridge into the Vltava river or in winter, we floated on ice fl oes on the Vltava river.” And Hanka adds that “He would always be scared to death in case mom would fi nd out”. “I liked school too,” recalls Arnošt, “which I found wonderful. It was warm, orderly, and clean and the teachers told us interesting things, provided we paid attention.” Zdeněk Mahler, a childhood friend of Arnošt remembers going to the Svět and Olympia cinemas to see westerns for 1 crown and that their boyhood games corresponded to the film genre when they set out on a mission against “Indians” past the hill of Hrdlořezy or Žižkov. Arnošt and Zdeněk were passionate football players, Arnošt played for Meteor 8 and Zdeněk for Meteor Vysočany.
Hanka and Arnošt went to an elementary school where the girls’ entrance was from Hejdukova Street and the boys’ entrance was from Pod Palmovkou Street. Hanka adds that “Arnošt started going to school as early as fi ve because their mother hoped that the teachers would discipline him”. When she was eleven in 1935, Hanka started going to grammar school which she had to leave in the fifth form as a result of the Nazi occupation and anti-Jew regulations. Similarly, Arnošt forcedly had to stop going to the secondary school in his third form. Hanka recalls when in November 1942 she, Arnošt, their mom and cousin Věrka received summons for the transport. Their father was exempt from deportations at that time as he was building a sports fi eld for the SS in Smíchov. When their father accompanied them to the assembly area which was in the deportation centre in wooden houses in Rádiotrh, the children saw him cry for the fi rst time in their lives. After three days spent in the horrible conditions of quarantine, they got on the train that took them to Bohušovice from where they walked to the Terezín ghetto.
Terezín, originally a military fortress, was intended for approximately a fi ve thousand-strong military garrison but in 1942, the Hitler’s men managed to squeeze in nearly 60 000 prisoners. Arnošt worked on the construction of the barracks where he was joined by his father in April 1943 who was then also deported there. Their work kept them from further transports bound east. Hana recalls: “Arnošt was living in the children’s home (heim) for boys because he was younger than me. I was past he age to be with children and that’s why I was living with the grown ups in the Hamburg barracks. I was there with my mom and Věrka who, after losing her parents, attached herself to our mom (Věrka’s parents had been arrested and most likely taken directly to the east). We slept on triple bunk beds, I on my own, and my mom with Věrka. I worked in commando ‘hundertschaft’ which pushed funeral carts laden with clothing, bread or tools, and later in the joinery workshop where I was making ammunition boxes, and in the end I sewed winter mittens. Terezín, compared to other camps I have been to, was unparalleled. In 1942, the Germans allowed cultural events and so I saw Brundibár (Bumblebee), Prodaná nevěsta (The Bartered Bride) but it wasn’t easy to get tickets.”
In autumn 1943, Arnošt and Hanka were for the fi rst time placed on a transport whose passengers, as they later found out, all ended up in the gas chambers. Today, Hanka is still grateful to her brother who just because he did not speak good German misunderstood the warden’s call for those who had a serious reason not to go on the transport to step aside. Surprisingly, he was put out and so was I at his tip-off . I owe him my life.
In autumn 1944, several transports bound east were dispatched from Terezín. “I was the only one from our family to go on the second transport,” details Arnošt, “but with a friend of mine Jirka Picek who volunteered. As he was 14 years old, Jirka went straight to the gas chamber. The arrival at Auschwitz was like arriving in hell where we got after three days without food and drink. They drove us out of the wagons and ordered us to leave everything on the platform.
This is the end of the world, they told us. It was an extermination camp where they killed people as though it was a factory. Hunger, thirst, fear of the future. Zyklon B and the worthlessness of human life came.” His father came to Auschwitz on the fi rst transport and because he did not take his glasses off at the selection he went straight to the gas chamber. His mom and the fourteen-year-old Věrka were put on the third transport. Hanka did not want to stay in Terezín on her own and so she volunteered for the transport as well. “I can remember that an SS-man sent us to ‘the right side’ at the selection in Auschwitz and put our mom who showed a lot of courage by saying that these were her children with us. It might have been because she came across as a strong, healthy woman even though her hair had grown completely grey in Terezín. I don’t remember precisely which camp we were in Birkenau, perhaps in the women’s camp. Arnošt spent probably a few weeks in the men’s camp.”
Arnošt spoke about the extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau very graphically. The best ones who wrote books about Auschwitz committed suicide because describing Auschwitz is impossible, incommunicable since broaching the scale of evil is so deep that we can’t even comprehend it. “What the Jews experienced during World War II was universal experience that could happen to everybody – Slavs, Muslims… It is necessary to talk about it but not in order to regret the dead, that won’t resurrect them but because it will make us stronger. This shared experience makes people stronger. They will get stronger with what they know. In knowing there is strength.”
The Soviet Army was standing about 100 km from Auschwitz for about eight months, but the Germans were killing Jews until the very last moment. Arnošt, however, did not see liberation there – he was transported to the camp Buchenwald. “I was lucky to have been chosen as a steel worker, otherwise I would have gone to the gas chamber in a day.” He and six other Czechs worked in the town of Meuselwitz at a HASAG (Hanseatische Sachwert Gesellschaft). They were supposed to be sent from Buchenwald to the camp in Dachau, but somewhere near Kraslice, the train was attacked by an American pilot. During the bombing and subsequent chaos, Arnošt and his friend Jirka Justic managed to jump off . Later, Jiří said about his life-long friend Arnošt: “Sometimes, he was so easy-going that it was terrible. He would tell the Germans bare-faced lies.” Soon after, the boys were caught, nevertheless, and sentenced to death by a drumhead court-martial. Eventually, it was decided, perhaps due to the lack of propellants, that they would not be transported to be executed but on the contrary, they would be executed on the spot. The execution squad composed of the militia old men (“volkssturm”) took the poor boys to the woods where they did not execute them in the end, perhaps they did not want to dirty their hands by executing two boys at the very end of the war. Moreover, they were sure that frost and the woods covered with snow would take care of them. But the boys survived and miraculously got by train from Kraslice to Prague. In Prague, they were helped by Jirka’s family friend who provided them civilian clothes. Then they reported to the authorities that they had been bombed out and so they also obtained replacement documents, a job at ČKD and thus ration cards too. This way, both of them lived to see the Prague Uprising in which Arnošt actively participated.
“After about two weeks in Birkeanu, I, my mother and Věrka were transported to Saxon Freiberg where we worked in a factory fixing aircrafts wings,” recalls Hanka. “We saw liberation in Mauthausen; where we got to coincidently on a death transport travelling through Czech lands.” During the journey, the train often stopped and once, it stopped at the Czech border because it could not go any further, only to Austria and Mauthausen. Before the train started moving again, the door stayed open and Hanka’s friend Zdeňka suggested jumping out and running away together. But Hanka did not want to leave mum and Věrka alone. Zdeňka jumped out alone and after liberation, she met with Arnošt in Prague and told him that the transport with Hanka,˝whis mum and Věrka had been heading to Mauthausen. It was 19th May 1945 and Arnošt heard on the radio that women from Mauthausen were coming back by train. He went looking for his family in the crowd of pitiful women and indeed, he found them in the last carriage. Hanka, still even now recalls this moment with tears in her eyes when a shiver ran down her spine at this reunion. They had not believed at all that Arnošt, a lanky boy could have survived all the atrocities fate had had in store for them. But he survived, unlike his father, a sturdy man in his fi fties, who, they believed, had had much better chances of surviving.
In the end, it transpired that lucky fate chose only those four out of the whole numerous family. They never saw the others again. They could not go back to the pre-war fl at as it was taken by a Czech family. By coincidence, Arnošt had been on the death transport with a friend Milan Oppenheimer whose legs had been frost-bitten in such a way during the journey that they had to be amputated. Milan suff ering excruciating pain had begged Arnošt to seek his parents in Prague to tell them not to wait for him. Arnošt fulfi lled his friend’s wish. Mr. Oppenheimer asked Arnošt whether he was alone and whether he had a place to stay. Arnošt replied that only four of them had come back but his mum was in a women’s refuge in The Graf Hotel and his sister Hanka was in hospital with hepatitis that she had contracted in Mauthausen. One word led to another and they found a two-room fl at on Truhlářská Street where Hanka has lived ever since.
Hanka passed her fi nal exams at the grammar school at the end of September 1945 and her mum wanted her to study medicine. But that was not possible because mother had a pension of 490 crowns and both Věrka and Arnošt were studying. Hanka therefore did a shorthand course and a typing course and started working for an export company as a foreign correspondent. She was faithful to admin work for the rest of her working life. In 1956 she got married to Vladimír Hnát but they lost their fi rst child. But thanks to the then unknown gynecologist Antonín Doležal, the couple managed to have two children in the end. At the age of ninety, she is well, considering her age and abounds in unusual energy. Věrka graduated from the business academy (which Arnošt did not fi nish) and later, from university.
Arnošt left the academy after a year and enrolled on the University of Political and Economic Sciences. He threw himself to his new life with unprecedented gusto. In 1948 and 1949, he worked as a journalist in Israel where he got married on 24th July 1949. His second homecoming was not easy. The initially friendly attitude of socialist Czechoslovakia towards Israel began to change dramatically. Arnošt worked as a radio reporter. The invasion in August 1968 saw Arnošt and his family on holiday in Italy and they decided to stay in exile. After short stays in Israel and in Yugoslavia, they relocated to the USA where from 1972 to 2004 Arnošt taught creative writing and the history of film focusing on World War II. He became a regular scholar at the American University in Washington and the Professor ‘Honoris Causa’ of many others. The PEN club awarded him the Karel Čapek Prize, he also received the Franz Kafka Prize, and many other awards. Although his work almost never left the theme of holocaust, his books belong to the second wave of war fi ction which focuses more on the psyche and the relationship of the individual with that period itself, unlike the fact-focused authors of the fi rst wave. Arnošt Lustig died in Prague on 26th February 2011 at the age of 84. A year later, the Arnošt Lustig Prize was introduced by The Czech-Israeli Trade Chamber, and it is given to fi gures that have a combination of qualities such as “courage and bravery, humanity and justice.”

For Památník Terezín Luděk Sládek


Arnošt with mother (1926) Hana with mother (1924) Siblings Lustig The siblings before the war together closely before their transportation to Terezín ghetto 1942 with their parents Hana with Arnošt (Prague 1945) Siblings Lustig after returning from concentration camps (1945)

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