Notes from the horror

By Pamela H. Sacks


As the Nazis stepped up their movement of Jews from a transit camp called Terezin to the death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Marianka Zadikow was given a precious gift: a stack of office paper.

Ms. Zadikow, 19 at the time, had been at Terezin for more than two years. She had survived slave labor and meager rations. She had suffered from a nearly fatal bout with an infection, cheating death only because of medication that had been smuggled into the camp.

The Nazis prohibited possessing paper or keeping records of any kind. But in September 1944, when a lawyer named Ernst Wald gave Ms. Zadikow the paper, she folded each piece four times to make four small pages. She then took her priceless possession to Emil Lowenstern, a bookbinder, and asked him to make her a book. To do such a thing was dangerous, but Lowenstern pilfered materials and made Ms. Zadikow a Poesiealbum, the European version of an autograph book.

Throughout the remainder of the war and for two arduous postwar years in Prague, Ms. Zadikow asked family, friends, co-workers, musicians and artists to contribute to her album. They left messages, wrote poetry and created wonderful artwork. Her mother, Hilda, who was an artist, wrote the first entry, quoting a German poet:

Respect the human being

And be mindful that, however deeply hidden,

Every morning

The germ for all that’s highest swells therein.

Ms. Zadikow eventually immigrated to the United States, her album carefully tucked away among her belongings. She married and had two daughters. She and her husband ran a chicken farm in upstate New York; later, she worked as a school custodian.

Now, the album has been published in book form, with an introduction and annotations by Holocaust historian Deborah Dwork. Ms. Zadikow, with the assistance of scholar Tatyana Macaulay, of the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University, translated the entries.

“The Terezin Album of Marianka Zadikow” was released earlier this year by the University of Chicago Press. Unfortunately, problems with warping have forced the recall of the first printing. Copies, at a cost of $35 each, are expected to be available later this year. But the glitch will not delay discussion of the album; Ms. Dwork will speak about the book at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Higgins University Center at Clark University.

Ms. Dwork, the Rose professor of Holocaust history and the director of the Strassler Center, was told about the album in 2000 by the daughter of a friend of Ms. Zadikow’s.

“I thought it might be something I’d want to do,” Ms. Dwork said while seated in her sunlit office at Clark. “When I met Marianka, it became something I wanted to do.”

Ms. Zadikow’s courage in creating the album was perhaps not surprising. Throughout her time at Terezin, she had demonstrated fortitude, ingenuity and spirit, as Ms. Dwork makes clear in the introduction.

Upon arrival at the camp, each new inmate had been required to perform 100 hours of the filthiest and most demeaning kind of labor. Ms. Zadikow did her own share and that of her mother, as well.

She had faced down danger by participating in the camp’s clandestine cultural life. Later, the Nazis permitted such activities to give the camp the appearance of a real village to the outside world. When Rafael Schachter, a fellow inmate who was the musical director, decided to mount a performance of Verdi’s “Requiem,” Ms. Zadikow, who adored music and came from an artistic family, joined the chorus. On three occasions, substantial parts of the group were shipped to death camps. Each time, new members joined.

“First, you had to do your full complement of labor, and then you did this,” Ms. Dwork said. “Full labor used up more than the daily intake of calories. Yet hundreds chose to expend more to educate themselves and educate each other.”

More than half a century later, Ms. Dwork was struck by Ms. Zadikow’s conviction that she was not a Holocaust survivor. Rather, she was a “`Requiem’ survivor.” The music, she told Ms. Dwork, saved her soul.

“That takes great insight, and it takes courage to say because she doesn’t credit what society would expect: God, her mother, her friends,” Ms. Dwork said.

Ms. Dwork’s purpose as a historian has been to weave a thread between the Holocaust and what goes on today. When she considered providing context for the album, she thought about the people she wanted to reach. She decided that connecting with high school students would be her goal, and she would draw them in by presenting the young Marianka in the perilous times in which she lived.

Ms. Zadikow, now 84 and still living in upstate New York, has children she adores and many friends throughout the world. Yet her story is not one of redemption. She had wanted to work in medicine, but she was never able to pursue an education and realize her potential.

“She recognizes the positive in life,” Ms. Dwork said, “but she refuses the dominant narrative: `I lived happily ever after.’ In my work as a historian, I, too, refuse the silver-lining narrative. I, too, follow the survivor throughout the postwar decades. It’s complex.”

After the war, Ms. Zadikow and her mother were refugees with no identification papers who had to scratch for a living. Finding a way to emigrate took all of their wits. Ms. Dwork noted that in the 21st century, we are surrounded by refugee crises in Iraq, Darfur and other locations around the world.

“There’s great impetus to move people from a dangerous place to a safe place,” Ms. Dwork said. “Yet our responsibility does not end there. As a society, it is our responsibility to help them find assistance.

“When we think about the life history of Marianka, it helps us understand our responsibility today,” she added. “That’s what it’s about to me. It helps us imagine the society we’d be proud of.”