“I remember one day there was a Russian soldier riding along us on a horse, and we waved to him and he came near us. And when he realized what children we are, he came and took one child after another on the horse’s saddle and rode with us around the meadow.” For nine-year-old Michaela Vidlakova, near-starved and weak from typhoid, the short trot around the meadow was life-giving. “I think it was the first time I realized, really, the colourful world. The green meadow, the blue skies and the blooming trees in the middle,” she says. This was the first experience of liberation for Dr. Michaela Vidláková. Over four decades later Michaela would again feel the rush of freedom when she called her friends in Berlin in West Germany, asking if she could stay for a weekend trip. Just to know what it would feel like, to take her new passport and freely leave post- revolution Czechoslovakia. “For the first time I tasted what it means to be free. But in my life I really appreciate it,” she says. Two seemingly simple events, a horseback ride and planning a weekend away, mark two defining moments in Vidláková’s life because they represent freedom.
Vidláková describes her country’s history, and why freedom has such a significant impact on her life. “Because you must understand I lived most of my life in a country that wasn’t free,” she starts. “I was born in 1936. I was two years old when our country was occupied by the Germans. I am a holocaust survivor, which means that I was as a child in the concentration camp [Terezin]. Afterwards we were liberated. But the freedom, the so-called freedom, it was not really because we already knew we belonged to the Soviet part of the world. So these three years, were more or less free, but then the next forty years I lived in a country where I really didn’t feel free.”
Ten days before her sixth birthday, Vidláková and her father and mother were taken to Terezin, an internment camp about sixty-five kilometres outside of Prague. Vidlakova recalls her mother pointing to a concrete elephant outside the train’s window, “Look, this elephant says goodbye to you, and when we come back he will tell you, ‘welcome.’” Vidlakova took with her only what could fit into a small backpack—a change of clothes, a spare pair of shoes, slippers, a book, crayons, and her beloved wooden toy, Pluto. Pluto would end up being their family’s lucky ticket into the transit camp in December 1942, saving them instead from immediate transport to Auschwitz-Birkenau and almost certain extermination.
According to the Terezin Memorial, starting in November 1941, Jewish citizens in the occupied territories of Bohemia and Moravia were identified and deported to Terezin. Over the next four years 140,000 human beings were interned at the camp. From October 1942, transports began to leave Terezin to the eastern death camps. In total, sixty-three transports carrying more than 87,000 individuals would leave Terezin, the majority heading for Auschwitz-Birkenau. Only 3,800 would survive to see liberation. Of the 7,590 children deported from Terezin, only 142 lived until liberation. On liberation day (May 7, 1945), Terezin held over 1,600 children, fifteen-years-old or younger. Vidláková explains, “Prague before the war had about 50,000 Jews, it was a flourishing community. Not speaking about a couple hundred s small communities in the Czech region and Slovakia as well, Prague itself had about 50,000. And after the war, only about 5-10% of the Jews remained.”
Inside the concentration camp over 60,000 people were crammed into an area originally designed to hold 6,000 soldiers and 2,000 civilians. Without a spare bunk, Vidláková first slept uneasily on two benches pushed together within the children’s home—kept awake by a baby, born on the transport, crying through the night. Vidláková became ill with typhoid, scarlet fever, and measles all together. She was moved to a small hospital, where she would remain for a year. The hospital had little medical facilities, but provided one advantage, a single bed. By chance she was placed there during a time when the sick were not placed in the transports. However, upon being released back into the masses, the beautification campaign began in order to make the International Commission of the Red Cross believe the Nazi propaganda that the camp was an actual work camp and that inmates were treated humanely. Transports of ill and elderly individuals were sent to the east, including the children from the hospital.
Vidláková father was lucky to escape the final transports of September and October of 1944. On the day he was scheduled to leave, a storm had damaged the roof of a building. The SS ordered immediate repair work, however the last of the building yardmen were already on transports. Volunteering for the repair job saved Vidlakova’s father’s life. As Vidláková describes, “Because if he, with tuberculosis, thin, thick glasses and bald head stepped in front of Mengele, [at Auschwitz-berkenau] he would then have sent him directly to the gas chambers.”
Vidláková recalls the death marches entering the camp, “Those were terribly emaciated ruins of men. They were just skin and bones, were shaven heads and wore striped ribbons.” The death marches meant the Soviets were approaching. Long before Liberation, the SS abandoned the camp allowing the Red Cross to take over. It was there just outside the camp walls in the meadow that Vidláková experienced freedom for the first time. After three weeks of quarantine Vidláková and her family were able to return to Prague in June 1945.
Vidláková describes the Jewish Community after the war, “Many of them were either half-Jewish of those who remained. Or married to a non-Jewish partner. Or came back from abroad where they were during the war. Some part of the Jewish population came from the Carparthian mountain ranges, the Ukraine which was after the war added to the Soviet union, and there were Jews who claimed themselves Czech nationality before the war. So this was the Jewish community after the war. But everyone who was here was just small remnants of big families, so they looked for their relatives in the United States, in other countries, and many of the them emigrated after the war.”
In 1948 the communist took control. In 1948, Jews were allowed to emigrate to Israel because the communists believed that Israel would become the socialist beacon of the Arab world. This caused a large exodus of Jewish community members, however, “after the communists realized Israel wouldn’t be a satellite of Soviet Union,” the emigration was halted, “so then we really were stuck behind the iron curtain,” says Vidlakova.
“In 1968 the world seemed to start to be free here, the Prague spring, you know. So at this time again many people left after the Russians came, again a lot of young people fled. Many people married non-Jewish people, so again they may have been still the members but their children no more.”
Under the communist regime, it was stated that religion was free to practice. “But in fact it was quite different,” says Vidláková, “There was really no teaching of religion, not Jewish religion.” There were only elderly rabbis left, who were unable to teach. So without religious teachers, the community continued to weaken. If an individual wanted to become a leader for the community, they exposed themselves to the supervision of the authorities often having to sign to the state police. “But this enabled the community to exist,” Vidláková says. “It was not really very easy, they were often taken to interrogation by the state police. It was like skating between glass, you know,” says Vidlakova.
During this time there were dissidents who disagreed with the ethical sacrifices the leaders were making in order to keep the religious community alive. Vidláková explains, “So this was a conflict during the 80s, and it went on until the 90s, until after the Velvet Revolution. Because then the dissidents were strong, the appreciated ones, and they just didn’t have a good word for those who lead the community under the communists.”
1989 marked the end of the communist era, as a non-violent revolution shook the country free from the communist regime. Vidláková concludes, “So I must say for the Jewish community the Velvet Revolution meant very, very much. Because this was a burst, the bursting of the new life. Some young people who had Jewish roots, in grandmothers, grandfathers, came back. First just to see what was the Jewish origin. But then some of them really started being religious, they had to learn. They had to make it official.”
After all of her experiences, Michaela Vidláková maintains a positive philosophy about life. the most important thing, she says, “is not to become a fanatic. The important thing is to stay a human being regardless whether you a religious or not. The important is tolerance of other religions by other nations and tolerance of other people thinking in another way. The first step to become enemies is to make difference between black or white, between Jewish and not Jewish, between Christian and not religious. Just we are all the people all the same. Those who believe in God, there is only one go regardless how we call him. I think this is the most important message to stay friends or become friends if possible.”
Production and story by Kelly McIlvenny for the ARGUS