Boy’s diary from Terezin expresses hope and despair

A Boy in Terezin

By Elaine K. Alexander, Special to the Jewish Light

“I have lost the desire for life, the desire for work, the desire to love, the desire to do anything that the mind of a boy can love,” wrote Pavel Weiner in the last diary entry he made at Theresienstadt, the Nazi concentration camp in Terezin, Czechoslovakia.

When he decided at age 12 to follow the example of another boy and start the diary, he had already been imprisoned for two years. Now nearly seven decades later, the diary has been published as a “Boy in Terezin: The Private Diary of Pavel Weiner, April 1944-April 1945” (Northwestern University Press, 249 pp. with index, $29.95).  

An intelligent introduction by Debórah Dwork, a scholar of the Shoah, provides historical background. Weiner himself translated the original Czech text into English before his death in 2010—when he was 78 and had been already living as Paul Weiner for a half century in New York City.

The United States Holocaust Museum estimates 9,000 Nazi sites in Europe were dedicated to the Final Solution. Theresienstadt (which was the fictionalized subject of “Way to Heaven,” recently staged here by the New Jewish Theater) rose from anonymity, because prior to the Allies’ victory, it was the only Holocaust camp entered by outsiders when, in June 1944, two Danes representing offices of state and the Swiss deputy-head of the International Red Cross made an investigative visit.

On June 22, Pavel describes the Vershönerung or “prettification” organized for the visit: “[It] reaches the highest point today. Each table has its own flowerpot. The sidewalks are washed and therefore we cannot walk on them.” He goes on to describe an unusually luxurious lunch, how Karl Rahm, the SS camp commandant, greets the visitors in civilian clothes and how, to foster the illusion that the children have been well-fed, they must yell when he passes, “Uncle Rahm, sardines again?” The chair of the Jewish council rides like a dignitary in his own car. Swings and a carousel have been installed expressly for the visit and the children are instructed to use them. “So many times” says Pavel, “ that I get dizzy.”  We now know that the delegation did not ask any piercing questions and that it was a successful charade.

Theresienstadt earned additional notoriety, because it was used as the set for a shameless propaganda film, “The Führer Gives the Jews a Town.” Twenty-three minutes have survived of a “whole cloth fabrication” about the “pretty town” in which by “Hitler’s generosity, [the Jews] enjoyed a separate but equal existence.”  In the footage, the director included a performance of “Brundibar” (a children’s opera which had premiered in Prague before the war and was performed in Terezin 55 times) and Pavel mentions having been cast as a spectator.

In the beginning, many journal entries are about Pavel’s primary passion: the education he fiercely desires. He continually reports on the program secretly administered by the Jewish Council, closely critiquing teachers and classes. His parents use food to compensate teachers for English and piano. He studies French with his mother, although getting a French book from the library takes some finagling. But he feels deprived of the education his well-to-do parents would have provided him in Prague and wails, “Two years of my life have been lost.”

The Jewish Council in Terezin had a Zionist bent. Care and education of the children was a priority and they grouped them by age and gender in barracks to help them learn about collective life. Nevertheless, Pavel sees his parents several times daily, when an adolescent madness takes over and he cannot keep from quarreling with them—about everything.

He cheers the Allies on their progress in defeating Hitler, thinking the end is near, even when it isn’t.

He writes about the misery of the transports to parts unknown. In September 1944, a large sweep of males 16-55 includes his father and an older brother (several months later, in a subcamp of Dachau, they died because of ill-treatment). But Pavel and his mother Valy would learn of it only after the war had ended and they had gone home to Prague to wait for them—in vain.)

Because of its scarcity, an overwhelming number of words are devoted to food. What was served that day at the children’s mess hall, what extra rations were given, what food Pavel’s parents had, what food he could purloin while working in the garden or in the bakery.

It was hard to wrest food for sustenance, let alone pen and paper for a diary. But somehow Pavel managed it and faithfully made consecutive daily entries of several hundred words. By most measurements, he was a child when he kept the diary. And he was less informed than we are in the current moment of the larger picture of which he was a fractional part. But readers will join Weiner’s daughter Karen in gratitude to her father for “foresight to eloquently document such a turbulent time in his life and the willingness to share that history with all of us.”