Terezin's Bread Teller

Autor: Egon Löbner
Zdroj: archiv rodiny Loebnerových

Terezin's Bread Teller



On January 18, 1942, Emilek L. became ghettoized in Terezin. He was the 7,771st Jew from the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia to be imprisoned in this three quarter square mile, walled in garrisoned town which had became an involuntary "Jewish Ghetto" on November 24, 1941.


Unbeknown to the Czech Jews setting up the Ghetto at that time, Deputy Protector SS Obergruppenfuehrer Reinhard Heydrich (chief of all but the municipal police in the Third Reich, as well as chief of its Foreign and Domestic Intelligence) had met on October 10, 1941, with his SS subordinates at the Prague Castle to establish the so called Ghetto Terezin (also known as Theresienstadt) as a temporary concentration camp for central and west European Jews before their shipment to the conquered eastern territories where they would face mass extinction. According to the records of Heydrich's October 10 meeting in Prague, Terezin would eventually become a model settlement for Germans. Indeed nearly 87,000 Czech, German, Austrian and Dutch Jews were deported between January 9, 1942, and October 28, 1944 from Terezin "to the East." Of these, less than 3,000 survived the end of World War II. The number of prisoners who died in Terezin itself was recorded on August 31, 1944, to be 32,647. These plain figures belie the Nazi claim for Terezin to be a "ghetto paradise" and "spa," even though a majority of the prisoners died in bed. They succumbed to digestive disorders, malnutrition and respiratory diseases and unlike prisoners in other camps, were privileged to receive a decent burial. Their individual and mass graves are there today.


At the time of his arrival Emilek was 44 years old. He was accompanied by his wife of eighteen years and their seventeen-year old son. Each of them brought with them the allowed 110 pounds of belongings, most of which consisted of a month's supply of food. The rest of their belongings were left in their home in Pilsen. Each piece of furniture, clothing, tableware, knick knack, utensil, tool and every piece of property such as shares, life insurance policies and bank books had to be listed on forms which were turned in to a gun wielding SS officer upon arrival at the Rifle Association Clubhouse, which was the collection point of the to be deported Pilsen Jews. Under the watchful eye of the officer all the listed belongings were signed over to the Jewish Resettlement Administration, an SS owned bureau which financed the destruction of European Jewry. Emilek, a prominent and well regarded businessman, knew better. Instead of turning over his cashable valuables, he burned them. But prior to their destruction he deposited all of their serial numbers with his non Jewish attorney. It worked. The SS never found out.


When, way before the deportation, Jews were deprived of white bread, meat, egg, dairy, poultry and coal rations, Emilek sold his car to a Czech butcher, and his wife sold her piano to a coal merchant. These below the table deals provided them with rationless meat and fuel for many months. They joked that they ate the car and burned the piano. On the day that Emilek left his home he showed his defiance by placing a night pot full of urine in the middle of the living room, carefully locked up the apartment, and an hour later handed the keys to the SS officer at the Rifle Association Clubhouse.


Upon arrival in Terezin the men were separated from the women and children, to be housed in separate military barracks. For many months most of the families were not able other, except for those who were reunited prior to the dreaded to see each deportation "Eastward."


A few weeks after arrival in Terezin the food supplements brought from home became exhausted and an irritating and aching hunger set in. It drove some to steal. Many women of all ages succumbed to prostitution with men on work details in women's barracks. Fear and uncertainty also intensified the sex drive when cohabitation was forbidden and punishable.


There was a scramble for work and positions which would protect one and one's family from further deportation "Eastward" and/or provide opportunities for supplementing one's starvation diet. The struggle for survival took on many forms. Thus jobs in the kitchens and bakeries provided additional food by misappropriation. The word stealing was only used when prisoners deprived each other of their meager possessions. This happened very seldom. Other types of illegal appropriation were called "sluicing." This euphemism derived from the German designation of the place where incoming transports were searched and many of their belongings taken from them. It was called "Schleusse" in German, a metaphor for the passage of human beings from civilian to prison life. While sluicing from the kitchen or bakery deprived other prisoners of their full measure of provisions, it was accepted as a way of life in a camp where the strong took advantage of the weak in a callous and desperate attempt to prolong life and avoid starvation.


There was a second way of sluicing that did not deprive fellow prisoners of their allotted rations. This was stealing from the SS. It was very dangerous, and severe punishments were meted out to those who were caught. Those who were not caught by either the Czech gendarmes or the SS guards were considered heroes by their co prisoners. Examples of such stolen goods were tomatoes and potatoes taken by those who were privileged to work in the fields outside the Ghetto that supplied vegetables and fruit for the SS kitchen.


The other kind of jobs that were highly desired were those that were designated essential and that provided a protection from being included in the next transport "Eastward" (called nach Osten in German). Such jobs were those of certain needed skills in carpentry, engineering and also assignments close to the top echelons of the Jewish Council of Elders which administered the camp in strict obedience to the orders of the SS Commandant. Many high placed appointees within the administration exercised de facto powers of life and death over the other camp inmates.


Emilek was very fortunate to secure for himself a very special job. He was appointed by Mr. Schliesser, one of the elders, to a low ranking job of Terezin's Bread Teller. Since not all the bread could be baked in the Terezin bakery, somebody very trustworthy had to be responsible to receive and certify delivery of bread that was shipped by truck into Terezin from Czech bakeries in the nearby Czech village of Bohushovitse. That became Emilek's job only a few days after his arrival in Terezin. The Bread Teller's job consisted of counting every loaf of bread that was unloaded from the truck and received by the storehouse manager in the half a dozen warehouses scattered throughout the town of Terezin. The Teller signed the shipping papers for the bread truck driver and in turn received a receipt from the warehouse manager.


Emilek, who was of short stature, less than five and a half feet, found it difficult to climb into the truck. As a Jew with a yellow Star of David on his coat, he was not allowed to ride in the cab. Only the Czech gendarme sat there. Emilek could not leave his post for a moment. He was fully responsible for the proper delivery of most of the bread to the Ghetto. His life depended on the proper count.


Why was Emilek so fortunate to get such a unique job? The first 1,300 men who set up the Ghetto were volunteers. Nearly all of the Ghetto builder leaders, approved by SS Sturmbannfuehrer Adolf Eichmann (then head of the SS Jewish Emigration Post), were prominent leaders of the Prague General Zionist Organization. This included Mr. Gora Schliesser, who became the Elder in charge of the Administration's Economy and Supply Department. Emilek was among the Zionist leaders of the provincial city of Pilsen. Mr. Schliesser knew him well as an ardent Zionist and trustworthy businessman. That is why he appointed him to the job of Bread Teller.


Bread was the gold of Terezin. Besides its life sustaining function it was also the medium of exchange. One could purchase almost anything for a loaf of bread. It was, together with the illegal cigarettes, the currency standard in the Ghetto. Each third day the inmates received their bread rations. Workers received half a loaf, nonworkers a third and old people a quarter. No wonder that Emilek's job of being a Bread Teller resembled the job of bank teller, and bread delivery vehicles were treated as armored cars. During unloading of the bread, Emilek was obligated to count aloud each loaf. The counting took place in the Czech language so that the Czech gendarme could follow and check the total count when the unloading was completed.


Over a period of several weeks Emilek succeeded to work out a system by which the actual number of delivered loaves exceeded by about six the official count to be delivered by the Czech baker to the Ghetto. When the truck arrived, the driver whispered into Emilek's right ear (Emilek was deaf in his left ear) the number of excess loaves he was bringing that day into Terezin. Emilek then carefully watched the gendarme. When he thought that the gendarme became inattentive to the monotonous droning of the long count, he miscounted. He would repeat the same number twice or even three times. Thus he would count 43, 44, 45, 46, 46, 47, 48, 49, 49, 50 and so on until the correct number of excess loaves passed onto him by the truck driver became unloaded. In this way additional breads, which did not have to be accounted for, reached the warehouses of the concentration camp. The excess breads, which this resourceful teller undercounted into the Terezin Ghetto, were then divided between the warehouse manager and Emilek, who came later, usually when all was quiet during the noon break, to collect his share.


The most remarkable part of this true story is that Emilek did not use his windfall of bread riches for personal profit. Naturally he kept his wife and son from slow starvation. But the greatest portion of this undercount windfall was given free and without obligation to needy friends and strangers alike. Emilek became a one man social agency that kept over a dozen people alive for a very long time. One of Emilek's "clients" who received a regular bread supplement was his 80 year old high school professor, Vlastimil Kraus. After the war, Kraus, an ordained Rabbi who gave up his pulpit to become a teacher, returned to Pilsen where he died a free man a few months later. He told me that besides Emilek's bread gifts, what kept him alive was a strong desire to outlive Hitler. Emilek would "adopt" a young mother from Berlin and bring milk to her sick baby lying in the attic on a little bit of straw. And there were many others who received sustenance for months and years. They were known only to Emilek. Some may have survived but most, I am sure, did not. Neither did Emilek.


A train carrying 2,499 men, comprising transport EK, left Terezin on September 28, 1944. In one of the cattle cars were Emilek and his son. "Destination unknown" turned out to be Auschwitz. Even though he knew he had to undergo the rigors of a long and unpleasant journey, Emilek fasted the whole day of Yom Kippur, which preceded by one day his departure. In the cattle car, Emilek volunteered to sit underneath the excretion filled pail. As the train negotiated curves, the contents of the pail kept spilling on him.


After a few days the train reached Auschwitz. Emilek, who was only 47 years old, looked sick, exhausted and very aged. As the men became arrayed in rows of five they saw an eerie surrealistic scene. Prisoners dressed in striped pajamas were unloading the luggage left on the train. Their posture and movements were cat like and not human. They seemed like the tiger in Kipling's stories of the jungle. Not far was a building with a chimney whose exhaust flamed just as the burning exhaust from a refinery. There was a terrible stench in the air. Emilek's son turned to an SS guard, pointed to the building and asked in German: "What is that?" The guard replied without hesitation: "A candle factory."


Something was happening in front. An SS officer was sending the men in two directions. Emilek turned to his son and said: "I will go this way and you will go the other way." The son understood. His father often quoted the Bible when he explained why he divided his family rather than keeping it together in times of danger. It was Jacob, who, fearing the wrath of his heavily armed brother Esau, divided his family and belongings into two camps. When their turn came, there was no choice. The SS man, now known the world over as the notorious Dr. Mengele, separated Emilek from his son. I am that son.


Löbner Egon (24.02.1924 - 30.12.1989)