Introducing Chava Pressburger

15-02-2005

Many of you will have heard of Petr Ginz, the young talented Jewish boy from Prague who came to be known to the world almost sixty years after he perished at Auschwitz. A copy of his painting "Moon Landscape" was on board the Columbia space shuttle when it exploded in 2003. In the Czech Republic, Petr Ginz was honoured last month with a special stamp released by the Czech Postal Service. His younger sister Chava Pressburger, now 75, is a painter and lives in Israel. This year, she published "The Diary of my Brother" featuring recently discovered diaries that Petr had written at the age of fourteen in Prague. Chava, born Eva Ginz, is our guest today in One on One:

Chava PressburgerChava Pressburger "We lived in Tesnov in Prague, opposite a railway station that doesn't exist anymore. It was called 'Denisovo Nadrazi' or Denis Railway Station. It was a very beautiful building that was torn down in the Communist era...but our house that we lived in is still standing on Starkova Street as well as all the other houses that surrounded it."

Your parents met at an Esperanto conference. Was Esperanto ever spoken in your home?

"Yes, always. It was a language that was very modern when my mother and father were young. It is true that they met at an Esperanto congress, got married, and were both very active Esperantists. They spoke to each other in Esperanto most of the time and we children didn't learn it systematically but understood everything and knew the language.

"We had a very happy childhood in Prague because our parents were situated quite well and there were no financial problems. We lived a very comfortable and happy life with our parents but unfortunately these happy memories are very short. The Nazi occupation occurred in 1939 but the situation was already very tense two years earlier and we children often heard the adults discussing the political situation...we didn't really understand what was happening but knew about the events in Germany and in Austria."

What was life like here in Prague after 1938? We always hear about what life was like in the concentration camp in Terezin but hear little about life for the Jews who remained in Prague at the time...

"I have heard an expression, which describes it and calls it 'the ghetto without walls'. Life was very difficult and I remember it very well. First of all, they threw my father out of his job, leaving him without any means of income. There were many things that were forbidden for us Jews. We weren't allowed to go where we wanted to go - the parks, cinemas, public places, and even libraries. We were accustomed to go to the library very often to exchange books but it was closed to us.

"In the trams, we could only ride in the second compartment and could only sit down when all the Czechs and Germans had their seats, which meant that we stood most of the time. We were also thrown out of trams. The food was rationed for everyone but for the Jews, it was very limited. We got no meat, no milk, no butter, no eggs, no fruit...I don't even remember what we were allowed to have..."

So how did you survive?

"My mother often went to the country and because money had no value, she took our best things like her furs, our best shoes, and she exchanged them with villagers for food. It was strictly forbidden to make such a 'monkey business' as they called it at the time...it was punished with the death sentence. But she had no choice."

How did you find out that the war was really over?

"My brother Peter, who was fourteen in 1942, was taken to Theresienstadt [Terezin ghetto] and from there to Auschwitz, where he disappeared. I was also taken to Terezin one year before the end of the war and stayed there until it ended. We heard some shooting outside and were afraid that the Germans were shooting. I was living with other girls and we hid under our beds. Then we heard some joyous cries outside and so we dared to come to the window and saw Russian tanks and lorries coming towards us. Everybody came outside and kissed them...it was a great joy. My father and I went to Prague in a Russian car. We lived on the fourth floor and we gave my mother a signal. We whistled downstairs. My mother opened the window and saw my father and me and the first thing she asked was 'where is Peter?'.

"I stayed in Prague and studied hard for an exam to be able to go to high school. I took it in the summer and almost finished high school. The Communists came to power in Czechoslovakia and I felt no freedom would come out of this and that a new terror was coming. At the last moment before the borders were closed, I left with a passport that had a different name and photograph but managed it somehow. I left with my boyfriend, who later became my husband and remains my husband to this day. We went to Vienna and after that to France, where we stayed for almost a year. After that, we immigrated to Israel."

Both you and your brother are talented in literature and in art...tell us about your work...

Chava Pressburger with 'The Diary of my Brother', photo: CTKChava Pressburger with 'The Diary of my Brother', photo: CTK "Yes, my occupation always involved art. I have held exhibitions in Israel, Europe and four times in the United States. I had five solo exhibitions in Prague. My style has changed over the years. I started with more realistic paintings, then turned to abstract art, and now it's a mix of styles."

Anything to do with the past? What do you feature in your paintings?

"I don't always feature the past but sometimes I do. I have several serials dedicated to my memories."

Now that you've been back to the Czech Republic, many years later, how do you feel about this country?

"I feel nostalgic about Prague but it's not my home anymore. My home is Israel now. My children were born there. But I like the Czech Republic very much and I see great progress after they freed themselves from the Communist regime and it makes me feel satisfied to see how they have repaired their buildings and have so many cars and beautiful things in shops. So, I feel good."

15-02-2005