Susan, the daughter of Ernst and Freidl Eckstein, was born in 1922 in Vienna. Like all little girls, Susan grew up with many dreams for her life and hopes for her future. While Freidl passed on her incredible intelligence and audacious (although late to bloom) spirit to her daughter, it was her father who gave her a love for the arts, especially dance. At an early age, Susan was lacing up toe shoes with the intention and dedication of a prima ballerina. In 1929, the Ecksteins moved to Berlin, where Susan had the opportunity to attend ballet school. There were only two other Jewish girls in her class, Hanni and Ruth. At the tender young age of 11 years old, Susan would witness first-hand why her father always said “to be equal as a Jew we have to be better.”
“Ruth was the best gymnast in our class, better than any of the blonde valkyries. When they had to eliminate her from competition, because she was Jewish, the team did not win any more prizes as they had when Ruth was in the group. I can only imagine that this happened because the school did not want to have a Jewish-looking athlete in the competition. After all, Jews were not supposed to be athletes, according to the German propaganda.”
Back to Vienna
While most Jews in Germany were standing in line to emigrate overseas, much to Susan’s dismay, the Ecksteins invested good money to move back to Vienna to renovate her grandmother’s apartment. This decision in Susan’s words, would prove to be the fait accompli . . .playing right into the Nazi’s hands and Austria’s complicit role in Hitler’s take over. While Susan was going about the business of being a teenager – studying , experiencing her first “french” kiss and attending her first ball – the mood as well as the scenery, was changing daily in Austria. Her parents worked hard to shield her from the growing anti-semitic displays. For the most part, she only heard about the despicable behavior because her mother did not allow her to go into town where most of the incidents occurred.
“Contrary to revised post-war history, not only did the Austrians receive the Nazis with great joy and enthusiasm, they also went to work on anti-Semitic excesses with a fervor that had not been seen in the Reich itself since the Nazis took power in 1933. – The gleeful anti-Semitism displayed by the population found its outlet in vicious delights, such as making Jews scrub the sidewalks, which had been covered with Schuschnigg propaganda . . .they would stop anyone who even in the least looked Jewish, without asking for identification, and force him or her to do these demeaning activities. They would stop men with beards if they looked Jewish, and would cut, or even rip, the beards off them in the street.”
While Susan’s father was taking care of business in Prague, the Gestapo came to their apartment. It was the last time that they would see their belongings. Susan and her mother were both issued exit visas and put on the next flight to Prague, with only two little suitcases in hand.
Refugees in Prague
An hour after boarding the flight, Susan and her mother were greeted by her father at the airport and taken into the city by taxi. The taxi stopped in front of their new apartment house. Their neighbors were Austrian and German refugees who had all left their former homes and everything in them behind. Knowing that it could have been much worse, they were all grateful for the shelter of their small flats. Over the next few years while sharing a small space with her mother and father, and eventually with other families, Susan blossomed into a young woman. She fell in love for the first time and experienced a somewhat normal life, as normal as it could be for a refugee living in fear of what might be coming around the next corner. Sensing the pending doom, Susan’s father made arrangements illegally for the family to cross the Polish-Czech border, but due to her mother’s insistence it would be too dangerous for all of them to go, he left alone with the intention of providing safe passages for her and her mother in the near future. That day never came.
In April of 1942, Freidl and Susan Eckstein received their transportation notice. As though hell itself had printed out a guest list, they were informed, in writing, that they would be escorted to the fairgrounds.
“And thus it was that Mother and I received a very polite card informing us that were going on transport on May 7; that we could take 50 kg of luggage, a bedroll and food for two days, and that we had to leave all our other property in place.”
May 9, 1942, mother and daughter arrived in Theresienstadt. They were sent to the Hohenelbe barracks, part of the hospital compound for the so-called quarantine, which later Susan would come to understand was actually a guise for the “selection” process.
“It was only the administrative and professional hierarchy of Thereseinstadt that came to examine every new transport, and “selected” who was to stay and who was to go on to the “East.” At the time no one knew what “the East” meant. But those who did go “East” . . . .were never heard from again.”
. . .to be continued, Watch for Part 3 in the following week