Alice Ehrmann was seventeen years old in the spring of 1945. She was living in the Nazi ghetto/concentration camp complex known as Theresienstadt. She had been sent to this place when she was sixteen because, according to Nazi race laws, she was classified as mischlinge (mixed race) of the first degree. Her father was Jewish, but her mother was not. In other words, the Nazis considered her to be half-Jewish. In reality, she had always thought of herself as Jewish, but her family was not observant, so she did not have a religious Jewish upbringing.
When Alice entered Theresienstadt, she met a young man named Ze’ev Shek. He was a few years older than she was and had a strong sense of Jewish identity that came from his involvement in a Zionist youth group in his teen years. Ze’ev continued his Zionist work in the ghetto on behalf of the Jewish Council’s youth welfare department. Mostly he taught Hebrew, but he also engaged in other activities, both openly and in secret, to help his people. Alice fell in love with Ze’ev and joined him in his work. Quickly, she became as dedicated and tireless a worker as anyone else. She needed all the zeal she could muster because Ze’ev was deported in October of 1944. Alice had to step up to assume new responsibilities and became a leader in her own right.
After Ze’ev was deported, Alice began keeping a diary. She wanted to record the events she experienced so that future generations would know about the Nazis’ crimes. Through her diary, we know much about what happened during the last seven months of Theresienstadt’s history. During these last months, Alice emerged as a capable leader. She was challenged by the enormous changes that came as the end of the war drew near. Surviving prisoners from other camps were dumped in large numbers into Theresienstadt so that they would not be liberated by the advancing Soviet army. Many of these prisoners were near death and needed immediate help. Alice through herself into this effort with all of her strength, but it was a nearly impossible task. As the war came down to its final days and liberation was imminent, Alice wavered on the edge of despair. She witnessed so much death and destruction that it threatened to overwhelm her. On April 30 she wrote, “We’ve been waiting for six endless, unbearable years for this moment. And now everything is so shabby and has lost the appearance of glory because everything has become so superfluous and pointless. Everything just goes around in circles.” She went on to explain, “…the worst thing that they [the Nazis] did to us was to rob us of reality. We know a tortured, horror-filled world of cruelty in which we are the object of events. And dreams. And between them lies the only thing capable of being reality and of being lived as such, darkness.”
At this point, in her exhaustion and despair, Alice could not think of liberation. It wasn’t because she didn’t know it was coming, but rather because she couldn’t see any meaning in it in the face of the terrible losses she had seen and experienced. In her words, “It is too late for everything.”
Alice Ehrmann’s experiences and her attitude prove that liberation was not always a joyous occasion. For many of the Jewish victims of the Nazis, it was just one more moment out of many that brought new challenges and hardships. Eventually, Alice and others like her were able to begin rebuilding their lives, but this was the work of long years, not the product of the moment of Nazi defeat.
You may read excerpts from Alice Ehrmann’s diary in by Alexandra Zapruder.
Click here to read more about Alice Ehrmann and Ze’ev Shek.
You may read more about the last days of Theresienstadt here.
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