Joanna Millan was born Bela Rosenthal in Berlin in August 1942, in the midst of the holocaust. At less than a year old her father was sent to Auschwitz and murdered on arrival, a few months later her and her mother were sent to Theresienstadt in Prague, and before Bela was eighteen months old, her mother contracted tuberculosis and died there, leaving her orphaned and alone, in a camp where it was believed ‘there was no way out, except in death.’
At Theresienstadt, anyone over the age of ten was made labour like an adult, carrying out brutal work for hours on end, surviving on as many calories a day as we consume now through one McDonalds cheeseburger. They did everything from hard labour to laundry, all for the benefit of the Nazis around them who lived in comparative luxury.
This work came before the almost certain fate of death. Joanna insists places like Theresienstadt were killing factories, and were always growing and developing as such. In the gas chambers, ‘it took twenty minutes to die. Throughout the years the Nazis tried to invent a gas that would kill people faster, not out of mercy, but to speed up the process.’
Joanna managed to survive Theresienstadt alongside five other infant orphans, thanks in no small part to Litska Shallinger, a woman who worked in the vegetable patch and would bring the orphans fresh, clean vegetables hidden under her clothes. That she was let do this was not an act of mercy by the guards. Rather, Joanna says, ‘it was fortunate that the soldiers never noticed that Litska would go into the vegetable garden thin and come out fat.’
In the outside world, rumours circulated of the horrific conditions of Theresienstadt and camps like it. Pressure forced those in charge to allow a visit from the Red Cross in 1944, but in preparation for it the horrors of the camp were hidden. Grass, tress and flower beds were planted; showers and a playgrounds were built; a café was opened, and money printed. There was even a graveyard built, complete with fake gravestones inscribed with fake names, while in reality the ashes that had been gathering in the crematorium, including those of Joanna’s mother, were thrown into the river.
[edgtf_blockquote text=”Joanna says when the Red Cross came in ‘we didn’t know if they were good guys or bad guys, they were just more men in uniforms.’” title_tag=”h2″ width=””]
It was therefore not until 1945, when the Red Cross finally took over the camp, that the hell of Theresienstadt began to end. Again, the Nazis acted in preparation for this, and attempted to build an underground chamber, with the idea that the Jewish people would be led in, the chamber sealed up, gas put in, and everyone killed. This didn’t materialise in time, and on the 5th may the last German SS men left, throwing grenades as they went, a final attempt at destruction.
Joanna’s memories of this time, when she was so young, are as limited as one might expect, but her explanation as to why gives a unique insight into the extent of the holocaust. A child growing up is only likely to remember something unusual, something traumatic, and ironically, for this reason, Joanna doesn’t remember much of Theresienstadt. The camp was what she was used to, so being taken away is what she remembers. She says when the Red Cross came in ‘we didn’t know if they were good guys or bad guys, they were just more men in uniforms.’
Following this, the six orphans were kept together for a number of months while it was checked to see if any of them had any family. ‘We often had nightmares, but we never went to the adults for help. We cared for each other like we had in the camp. We checked that we were all still alive at night because we were used to the sight of dead bodies. Once, when I was told off and made stand in the corner, the others stood with me.’
Ultimately, it was decided that Joanna would be adopted, and when she was her new parents changed her name, pretended she was their natural child, and ignored her past. Since then she has led a mainly normal life. She has three children and eight grandchildren. But Joanna explains that the early part of her life has never left her. ‘A survivor is part of who I am, as much as my adopted family tried to hide it. It’s like putting on a coat; I have a Joanna coat and a Bela coat.’
[edgtf_blockquote text=”Joanna’s story is certainly more powerful than any fictionalised version, and she reiterates that her experiences must be heard as more than just a story from history, and taken as a warning for the future. ” title_tag=”h2″ width=””]
Joanna understands that stories and research like hers are not the only window we have into the holocaust, but believes they are the most accurate. She insists the way the holocaust is treated in popular art can often be damaging, and although we’ve seen prominent films such as Schindler’s list and, more recently, The Boy in the Stripped Pyjamas, she believes these are not true insights, and that the holocaust, as a back drop for storytelling, ‘should be totally off limits.’
She may well be right, because the notably profound effect Joanna’s story has on the students she shares it with supports the idea that many people today have never fully grasped the scale of the holocaust, one of the greatest human tragedies in history.
Joanna’s story is certainly more powerful than any fictionalised version, and she reiterates that her experiences must be heard as more than just a story from history, and taken as a warning for the future. For Joanna, the holocaust shouldn’t be seen as an event the like of which could never happen again. Instead, she echoes what the Holocaust Memorial Day is all about: ‘learning lessons from the past to create a safer, better future.’