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Section below transcribed by: Vanessa Arnaud
Introduction of Interviewers
My name is Margaret Ann. I'm Christine Fairless. I'm Shirley Taylor. My name is Rudine Wright. I'm Mike Robertson. I'm Linden Van Wert. We're here today to interview Zdena Berger. Today is July 29, 2009. We're in Bodega Bay, California and we're here under the auspices of Telling Their Stories, the Oral History Archives Project from the Urban School in San Francisco.
Ms. Berger. As you know, we are here to record our conversation with you with the intention of publishing your story as part of the Urban School of San Francisco's Telling their Stories: Oral History Archives Project. We are recording video of this interview and intend to publish it on the project website which is www.tellingstories.org along with a written transcript. This means your story will be available once published to anyone via an Internet connection. If you agree, please say your name, the date and if you agree allowing us to publish your story.
My name is Zdena Berger. This is July 29, 2009 in Bodega Bay, and I am giving permission to publish my story.
Ms. Berger. Good afternoon and thank you for coming and agreeing to let us tell your story. We would like to begin with your birthplace and the early years, if you could, with regard to your life.
I was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia. I grew up in Prague, went to school until I was sixteen years old at which point my family and I we were sent to Theresienstadt, and from there to Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen.
Could you go back to before the deportation, and give us more background to your family structure, brothers or sisters, and what was life like before?
I grew up in a middle class family. My father was a businessman. I had a brother and a mother. I went to school, went to the gymnasium—I suppose you call the lyceum—until I was fifteen, and continued then in private homes because Jews were no longer allowed to attend public schools. So my education went on in private schools—in private homes—with Jewish teachers until the age of 16.
Did you have any brothers or sisters?
Yes, I had a brother.
Was he younger or older?
Older. Two years older.
Could you give us your very earliest childhood memory?
There are so many. I suppose vacation times come to mind. We spent wonderful times in Italy, for example, in Grado, which I always thought was a mythical place, I couldn't believe it really existed until not too long ago, I looked it up on a map, and there is Grado on the Adriatic Sea which is a small sea—fishing village. Some summers we spent in Austria on a lake, called Moon Lake. It all sounds very magical somehow, and I suppose it was. Does that answer your question?
What was your home like in Prague?
We lived in an apartment. In Prague most—the majority of people rented apartments. We moved a number of times depending on the economic situation at that time, through Depression time, and so forth. But we had a good life. I feel I grew up in a very protected and loving family. I don't know how much do you want me to go into the historical perspective, but we did not have enough—we didn't take any clues from what was happening somewhere else. Austria was occupied. We thought all of this was very temporary. A majority of the Jews stayed in Prague, and looking back I wonder why didn't more people, my family included, leave. Looking back it seems incomprehensible, but we didn't know then what we know now, obviously. They just waited and that feeling of "this is all temporary, it will change, it will be alright," is what remains in my thought. That was the prevalent feeling.
What I hear you saying is that there was no preparation and there was no preconceived notion that you had to prepare yourself. Is that what you are saying?
Yes, I'm saying that. And part of it was probably denial. How do you uproot your family and go where?
Ms. Berger. I'm going to stop you for just a second. We'll get to that. But can you take us back to your childhood and give us a little bit more background information. What did your parents do? What were their occupations?
My father was a business man. First he had a small shoe factory and then a shoe store.
missing segment 12-23
Section below transcribed by: David
This too shall pass, this is just some time. This was a very historical time I think, but, this will pass, we will go back to normal, we will go back to normal was prevailing as a theme in my family. Even after my brother was taken and sent to a labor, I mean a real, it was not a concentration camp. it was in the Bohemian countryside. It was a work place, work camp, but it was not a concentration camp, and even then we thought oh well they need young people to do the farm, farming work, and he indeed came back.
Upon his return though did you stop thinking about the fact that this would pass? Did you stop being in that state?
Well, when he returned, he returned actually into the first, into the ghetto to Theresienstadt. He never came back to Prague and we were already there.
So can you elaborate on when you left your home to the first camp? How did you transition from your home to the camp and then your brother being there?
Could we hold that question? I'm gonna go back to the school, and what, how old were you when you started school.
You mean altogether? When I was six years old.
And did you have friends at school who were not Jewish?
Yes, I had some. Majority were Jewish, but I did form friendships with girls that were not Jewish. It was not segregated in any way.
Whenever you said that you found out that there was something different about you was it because of the way that your friends or friend treated you, or was it things you heard your parents talking about.
It was just in the air. Of course it was the star that brought that clearly home. The wearing of the star. We were a family and the other families happened to be Jewish that we made friends. There were friendships. You tended to turn to other Jewish people, friends. It just felt in someway comfortable, and I cannot say that I felt prejudiced against... I don't remember there must have been some signs. I don't remember them.
So how many years did you spend at your first school before you were split into two schools, before you were sent to the private homes?
Well, I started the Gymnasium when I was fourteen, and during the next two years that's when the change started.
Is that when you started wearing the star as well?
So how did you hear it?
I have that in the book, a chapter on that. It was clearly...it made you feel separate. Now it was an official marking you as the other. You were not like everybody else. You got used to it like you get used to everything. In a way there was a feeling sometimes of comradeship. You would walk on the street or be in a shop and there would be somebody else with the star. It was...there was a friendliness to it among those who wore the star because now we had that in common officially. I don't know if this answers your question.
Did you have one star that had to get transferred to all the different things?
Yes, I had a separate number of them, and I talk about that actually in the book that there came a time when I thought "we should get more of the stars" because it starts to get frayed and has to be transferred from one coast to another. So it became part of you. That's what you did.
So then that feeling that you had that this would pass continued even with wearing the star? When that was a clear sign that you were...
Yes, the Germans were there but they're going to eventually leave and we will go right back to our old lives.
When did you feel that we weren't going back to our old lives.
When we got our tickets to... you know.
What was that like, what was that day like? When you got the ticket? Who gave you the ticket?
I don't remember. I think it came in the mail. I don't remember that specific day. I know that there was one day when all the Jews had to go register, and I remember that day because you stood for hours and hours and hours and you put your name down and then you left. Thinking back that probably was the crucial moment. What would have happened if we did not register?
What do you think would have happened?
They probably would have found us anyway because we were in the archives anyway, but it would have postponed I think, rather than dutifully give, this is where we live, and there are four of us and...
Did you go down to register with you whole family? Your mother and your father.
Yes, but my brother was already in the labor camp.