You stand in the darkness of the main Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. The massive rock walls were designed to hang oppressively over the flickering eternal lights that light the words "Auschwitz, Dachau, Buchenwald, Treblinka, Sobibor, Birkenau . . . ." One name is unfamiliar . . . Theresienstadt.
The Nazis made a model camp of Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia to show foreigners and Red Cross personnel how well they were treating the conquered. But in reality Theresienstadt was a stopping-off place before deportation further east to Auschwitz and death. Fifteen hundred children below the age of 14 passed through the gates of Theresienstadt. One hundred came back.Hilda Morganstern Parker was born in Brno, Czechoslovakia to an upper-middle-class family. Her father was director of a textile factory and held rank in the Austrian army. When the shadow of the Third Reich fell over the Sudentenland, Bohemia and Moravia, Hilda's father insisted that his family would be untouched.
But Czechoslovakia became a puppet state of the Reich, and Hilda Parker told her daughter Nina what it was like to live under that occupation. "There was a slow deprivation of rights. First, Jews were banned from movies, then schools . . . . The process was slow and gradual." Nina Parker-Cohen recalled her mother's story from the married-student housing at the University of Utah where she has been finishing classes to obtain a license to practice clinical psychology. Nina Parker-Cohen has a doctorate in psychology and comes from a family of scholars, a family of achievers.
Her grandfather Morganstern's optimism about his safety in Brno was unfounded. The family was taken to Theresienstadt and ultimately to Auschwitz. But Hilda Morganstern Parker's two brothers were distrustful and fled to Russia before the Nazi grip tightened.
"My mother is a most remarkable woman, and the most unique thing about hearing her story is that she has almost a positive perspective about her experiences," Parker-Cohen said. "While at Theresienstadt, a Jewish cultural underground flourished. There was an orchestra; art and poety were taught; lectures were given. Mother said she benefited from that atmosphere, and while in the concentration camps she found a strong sense of identification with her heritage. She said she would not buy the Nazi idea of Judaism, she would not be ashamed. Mother became an active member of a Zionist group at the camp."
Some of the children's art from the underground at Theresienstadt survived the war and has been published in a book titled " . . . I Never Saw Another Butterfly." Nina gave a copy of the book to her mother. The children saw beauty around them even behind barbed wire, but they sensed something to come.
A little garden,
Fragrant and full of roses.
The path is narrow
And a little boy walks along it.
A little boy, a sweet boy,
Like that growing blossom.
When the blossom comes to bloom,
The little boy will be no more.
Franta Bass wrote this poem at Theresienstadtwhen she was 12. She died at Auschwitz on October 28, 1944.
In December 1944, the Nazis shipped Hilda's father out on a train with 5,000 other men. Her mother volunteered to leave with the next group to be near her husband. Hilda Morganstern would not let her mother go alone. Their destination was Auschwitz.
Because Hilda Morganstern was young and strong, she found ways to stay alive. Her parents were almost certainly gassed soon after their arrival. "My mother had her head shaved, wore a shapeless striped dress, but for some reason her arm was not tattooed with the usual number," recalled Nina Parker-Cohen. "Mother found the opportunity to later escape with two friends, one of whom was ill with typhoid. Mother helped carry her through the woods. The war was winding down rapidly, and she made her way to Prague. There were centers where people could sign in and hope to find family members still alive. Her brother found her; he was a member of the Russian liberating army. The other brother was dead," Parker-Cohen said.
"Mother's Zionist feelings were strong, but a close friend did go to Israel and was killed in an ambush by Arabs. She just could not be around any more killing. She had received a letter from her father's brother in New York so that's where she went.
"Since the Nazis had thrown her out of school in Brno, mother didn't have the training for a job, so she applied for a job as a seamstress. She didn't even know how to sew on a button," recalled her daughter, "but she lasted three hours and learned enough to get a second job where she learned some more before she was fired. By the third job, she could sew well enough to do the work," Parker-Cohen said.
Morganstern finished her high school education at night and met her future husband at a summer camp where she was a counselor. After their marriage, Hilda Parker worked as a waitress at Cornell while her husband got his doctorate in anthropology. She would get into intellectual discussions with customers to be able to keep up with her husband in theory, but her education was put on hold. She eventually obtained her degree at the University of Pennsylvania; and when her second daughter was born, her husband said, "Congratulations! You have another daughter and you've been accepted into graduate school at Bryn Mawr," Nina Parker-Cohen said. At the age of 55 Hilda Parker went back to school for her doctoral degree.
"My mother took me to Theresienstadt, Czechoslovakia, when I was 16, about the age she had been. There is not a bitter bone in her body but she was incensed that there was only a tiny memorial at the camp," her daughter said. "I have a close relationship with her and I was very aware of how she was feeling, but the woman does not know how to hold a grudge. The only thing I noticed was, when we passed people her age she would ask quietly, `Where were you? What were you doing in 1944?' " Parker-Cohen said.
"How do I feel about what happened to my family? I feel a kind of indignation. It's a hurt spot for me. How could they do this to the people I love?" explained Parker-Cohen. "When I was in 6th grade, I did a report on Czechoslovakia, and in high school I wrote about what it was like to be in a camp as a young girl.
"From my training as a psychologist, I know it was not just something in the German character that enabled the Holocaust to happen. While there were cultural things that laid the groundwork, any people can be capable of this," said Parker-Cohen. "America's saving grace is in the hope that our ethnically diverse country won't focus on a small ethnic group that becomes scapegoated. We are somewhat protected by our diversity.
"I am horrified by the charges that the Holocaust was fabricated. We just can't forget not to dwell on it in a morbid manner but as a historical lesson so we don't let it happen again," Parker-Cohen said.
Hilda Morganstern Parker has an Israeli son-in-law, David Cohen, who has a doctoral degree in engineering, and two grandchildren, Daniel Benjamin and Tamar Ariella. Her love for life, beauty and education are now touching a third generation. And her witness of Hitler's Final Solution speaks for those whose ashes lie sifting across the fields of Auschwitz.
On a Sunny Evening
The sun has made a veil of gold
So lovely that my body aches.
Above, the heavens shriek with blue
Convinced I've smiled by some mistake.
The world's abloom and seems to smile.
I want to fly but where, how high?
If in barbed wire, things can bloom
Why couldn't I? I will not die!
Written by the children in Barracks L 318 and L 417 Theresienstadt