Suzan Herben, poet
On August 9, 1940, a little girl was born to a Jewish mother and a politically active journalist father in Prague, in what is now the Czech Republic. At that time, this was the "Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia," after Hitler annexed the Czechoslovak Republic to the German "Third Reich" in 1939. Now it seems inconceivable that two intelligent people, such as her parents, would at this time bring into the world a child who, as a Jew, would be regarded a member of a race designated for extinction by the Nazi regime.
When the child was three years old, something occurred that initiated a series of events that marred her early formative years: The Gestapo liked to make its arrests in the hours just before dawn. Awake before anyone else, as most children are, she heard the knock on the door and opened it to the men who had come to take her father away. This moment is imprinted in her mind like a photograph, clear, detailed, and unchanged year after year to this day.
Following her father's arrest she lived with her paternal grandmother in a room only as wide as the dining room table under which she slept. When the planes flew overhead and the sirens blasted their air raid warning, her grandmother rushed her to the cellar "shelter." Her world was sunless and gray...
Shortly after her fourth birthday, she and her mother were taken to the Theresienstadt (Terezin, in Czech) ghetto/concentration camp, which also served as the collection point for those who would be directed to the death camps in German-occupied Poland and Germany. The child and mother arrived just after the ghetto was visited and "inspected" by the International Red Cross and after all the prisoners, including the children, who had been forced to participate in the Potemkin-like charade of the visit, were transported East for annihilation.
She has few memories of the camp; only the day a lady gave her en egg, a rarest of treats, when she was sick, and the red ribbon someone tied into her hair when the camp was liberated, which only accentuated her chickenpox scars. Her most enduring and important memories after war's end, are of the garden at her great-aunt's farm, where she was sent to recover.
Her parents divorced then, and she went to live with her father, now a prominent journalist in the restored Czechoslovak Republic, and his mother. From that time she remembers the big black bookcase, which seemed to have followed them from the apartment before the war, where it was full of books and now stood empty except for the shiny shelves support holes where she hid her baby teeth. She also remembers the story her father told her at one time of the shoes in many sizes, which he had made for her before the war but which were lost. She does not remember her mother, who remarried and emigrated to Africa.
Early in 1948 her father accepted a transfer to the United Nations in New York. Now eight years old, she recalls vividly being introduced to Eleanor Roosevelt, who she admires to this day. In protest of the Communist takeover of the Czechoslovak government, her father resigned his position. Unprepared for life in the USA and unable to find a job, he was forced to allow his daughter be brought up by a series of foster families. She dreamed of her father coming to get her to live with him, never again to be sent away, a dream so vivid that it haunts her to this day. When eleven years old, she was finally reunited with her father, after he accepted a teaching position in Monterey in California.
That is also where she first met a colleague of her father, her future husband. They have three children, all grown now. Family, and the joys and struggles of life seemed to have pushed all these early memories into the background. In 1998 their son, who lived with them, brought home a friend, a single mother with two children, in need of a shelter. Both she and her husband fell in love with the children, and she and the eight month old baby girl became inseparable. She took care of the children as her own while their mother was trying to sort out her life. Suzan and the little girl became totally attached to each other, until a year later, when there was another knock at the door. Again she opened the door to the police, this time looking for the children's mother on a drummed up charge. They called the Social Services who took away the children. A year of legal battles failed to return them. They were later adopted by a family in another state.
This traumatic experience brought back the memories of the Gestapo's knock on the door and forced Suzan to start a journey to understand the past, of which her father had been silent, to search for her Jewish roots, her relatives, even for her lost and forgotten birth certificate. The most profound discovery was the that she was one of only 132 known surviving children out of more than 15,000 who came to be interned in the Terezin Ghetto. Her maternal grandparents and her father's brother who had been sent to death camps, did not survive. Two of her grandmother's sisters were taken off such a transport into a forest and shot. These revelations, memories, experiences and emotions take shape in her poetry...
I lived and wrote the words above; I am the poet Suzan Herben who created what follows, a poet trying to "connect the dots" of life.
Editor: Dr. Karin Doerr
Copyright Suzan Herben, 2003.