Interview with a Survivor: Charlotte Guthmann Opfermann

An interview with Charlotte Guthmann Opfermann, a survivor of the Theresienstadt Ghetto.

I was born in Wiesbaden, Germany, and attended public school there until the restrictive anti-Jewish legislation made this impossible.

My 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.

The 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.

My 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.

I 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.

By 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.

I was 17 years old when we were arrested and deported.

I 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 die, however.

Our 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.

I was not "protected." I knew some people who were and was quite envious.

My 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.

A 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. Everybody 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. Other 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.

I 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.

I 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.

After [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.

I 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.

But 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 performers 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.

At 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.

[After the war,] I returned to my home town in hopes that my father and brother might have survived. They hadn't.

My 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.

My 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.

I 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.

During 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.

Long 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.

My 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.