Zdenka Fantlova - Part 1

11-12-2006

Zdenka Fantlova is a truly remarkable woman. Now in her 80s, this charming lady is still busy travelling and lecturing about her life experience. Meeting her, you would never guess she has been through hell. Coming from a Czech Jewish family, at the age of 18 she was transported to the Terezin concentration camp in Bohemia. Other camps followed: Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen and Mauthausen.

She was finally liberated from Bergen-Belsen, only to find out that none of her family members had survived the Holocaust. In this, the first part of our interview with Zdenka Fantlova she recalls what followed immediately after the Second World War broke out.

"Well it all started with the German occupation and it came overnight, as a shock. None of us in [Czechoslovakia] expected what followed...In front of us was darkness, because we had no idea what would happen. And it developed day by day - new laws, new restrictions, expulsions for school...and transports."

How old were you then?

"I was eighteen at that time. I was in 'gymnasium', or high school. I was evicted and my schoolmates said: 'This is nonsense. You will see they will change their mind.' And well, it was nonsense but they didn't change their minds. And I was out.

"But because I was young and I didn't want to sit at home and darn my socks, as my mother wanted to, I entered the English Institute here in Prague for a year, at the British Council, simply because I had heard Fred Astaire singing a song from an American musical, a Broadway melody, 'You are My Lucky Star'. And I was so fascinated that I though I'd have to learn this language. I was learning the song word by word and had no idea what I was singing. And that saved my life.

"Little did I know that five years later in Bergen-Belsen I would be able to communicate in English with a member of the British Army who saved my life in the nick of time, the last minute before my death. So, you see there are little things in life which determine... I sort of feel that we have a blueprint, we work on a blueprint. Maybe we think we have free will - maybe we have.

"But somehow I feel it is like skiing slalom from stick to stick and you decide I'm not going to do this stick. But it doesn't matter. You have the start, you have the finish. And that's fate. And nobody will talk me out of it."

First of all you went to Terezin, is that right?

"Yes, we went to Terezin which wasn't frightening. It was still on our territory, there were Czech gendarmes, the language was Czech, and we had no idea what was going on. Of course nobody knew what was ahead of us.

"And because there was such a concentration of talent, and the Czech culture which was brought in from...pre-war, into Terezin, in theatre and music and so on...I joined a theatre and it was the happiest time of my life. I would never, ever have had a chance - not only to meet these people, let along to work with them.

"So the two and a half years in Terezin passed almost happily, I'm sorry to say. Because we did not expect and didn't know what was happening. Only the Germans knew what was ahead of us, that we were actually sentenced to death.

"They thought, oh well, let them sing and play - the smile will soon be wiped off their faces. So we were sort of happily dancing under the gallows. Because we thought soon the war will have to finish.

"But it didn't. Instead of that we went to Auschwitz. That was a shock, because you suddenly landed in a place which was unreal. You were not prepared for that, you had no idea what this place is...And from then on your survival depends on your instinct.

"You do things in your immediate vicinity, you have no wish to see the whole...history of what's happening in front of you, no...You have an invisible circle around your feet, where you look where to step, where are the guards, where is water, where is the next ration of bread. And that's all you care about.

"I do a lot of lectures in German schools and they always ask me, how did you survive? Well, it's not a simple recipe. It's a very complicated and complex process.

"First of all you have to lucky, that they don't push you into the gas chambers because then it doesn't help whether you're brave or not. Secondly you have to be young rather than old, healthy rather than sick, and preferably not married but in love. That's what I was.

"Love is such a power that we have no idea how much strength we can draw from it. Because you want to survive - for him, to be together again. And there is nothing in your way. You will survive, you will overcome, whatever happens.

"I feel that we humans don't even know who we are, what's in us, what kind of power we have. Because it's never put to a test - until there is a crisis and then it shows...what you are capable of.

"This I only recognised after the war - the inmates in the camp were really divided into two groups. Those who felt like victims...and if you feel like a victim you become a victim, and you react like a victim...and it takes all your strength away.

"And you might even die as a victim. Even if you survive as a victim you're not happy, because you feel that you have lost and you have suffered - it's a negative kind of attitude.

"The other half...or not half, small part...are mostly artists, they are observers. I was an observer, I wasn't a victim...It didn't weaken me. And that cannot be bought.

"That's why I'm saying, we have something inside us which I call a survival kit, a survival kit which we never use. In the survival kit is something which I call not 'first' aid, but 'last' aid. These are medications or bandages - these are orders. That voice in that survival kit tells you what to do, and you do it, you don't think. It doesn't come from your intellect, from your brain, you just act instinctively. And either you are a survivor or not."

In the second part of the interview next week, Zdenka Fantlova will be talking about the power of love that can overcome death.

11-12-2006