On October 22 1944, Alice Ehrmann confided in her diary about a problem that afflicts many people during times of crisis. The problem she faced was how to keep hope alive in a hopeless situation.
Alice wrote her diary entry on this day as if she was addressing her words to her beloved; a young man named Ze’ev Shek. Ze’ev had been a constant presence in Alice’s life since she arrived in Theresienstadt, also known as the Terezin Ghetto. He had helped her to endure the loneliness due to her separation from her parents. He had also involved her in meaningful work to help the younger Jewish prisoners. Unfortunately, Ze’ev was now gone. He was deported to Auschwitz at the beginning of the month – one of thousands to suffer that fate. Alice was forced to carry on without him.
The nature of the work that Alice carried out threatened to overwhelm her. The tremendous flow of people into and out of the ghetto created an environment of utter chaos. New prisoners arriving in Terezin were often in such desperate condition that it was impossible to meet their needs. The worst cases were those when the new arrivals consisted mainly of children. Their circumstances were heartbreaking. Alice wrote, “The sluice gate _[collection point for the deportees]: _Swarms of six to seven year-old children alone on the transport. Sick children. Professor Lieben has tuberculosis. Hans Steckelmacher, completely lamed; enteritis. There are no uniforms. It is hopeless.”
In order to keep up her spirits, Alice tried to imagine that Ze’ev was still with her, working at her side. She wrote, “I long for you, and you gradually become unattainable, your present existence too foreign. I start to gnaw at the certainty of our reunion. I have terrible fears for you. Please – stay healthy.” Although thoughts of Ze’ev were her lifeline, Alice found it harder and harder to keep these in her mind. Fear and exhaustion conspired to drive pleasant thoughts away. The worst, though, was the sheer impossibility of meeting the needs of so many destitute arrivals. Alice summed up the futility that engulfed her, “All belief in purpose disappears in the Apocalypse of the sluice-gate.”
Excerpts from Alice Ehrmann’s diary may be found in by Alexandra Zapruder.
You may read more about Theresienstadt online here. The section entitled “Arrival” describes the place that Alice wrote about in her October 22, 1944 diary entry.
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