The Survivor Part 1
During World War II, Hitler’s army ordered a young Jewish girl named Ilse Eichner Reiner to the Terezin concentration camp near Prague before transferring her to Auschwitz Birkenau. Of the 15,000 children sent to Terezin, Reiner is one of only 132 known to have survived. Today, Reiner lives in Sandy Springs near her daughter. This is her journey.
Ilse Eichner Reiner surrounds herself with flowers. Yellow carnations, pink lilies, peach roses fill her kitchen, her living room, her study. The 83 year old grandmother has rendered countless paintings of flowers in acrylics, every petal awash in vivid co ugg uk lors. She has hung dozens of them on her walls. They remind her of the fields in Czechoslovakia where she played as a child and picked flowers for her mother on holidays. Ilse Eichner smil ugg uk ed at her mother, Charlotte, as she hung sheets on a clothesline.
Ilse closed her eyes, inhaled the scent of freshly cut grass and honeysuckle in the soft breeze and thought about how well she would sleep in those sun dried sheets.
But a sharp cry from her mother jolted Ilse from her daydream. When she opene ugg uk d her eyes she saw two men in suits and fedoras approaching. They flipped over their lapels to flash swastikas at the Jewish mother and child, and Ilse’s mom turned pale.
Ilse’s small town in Czechoslovakia along with the entire country and beyond had been taken over by Nazis.
She considered reading her book, but couldn’t focus, so she looked out at a countryside now under Nazi control. Despite the darkness that lay over the land, she couldn’t help noticing the fields were dotted with daisies, buttercups and her favorite crimson poppies.
Ilse had lived with a family friend after her mother was taken away. But by order of a German court, she was now on her way to a Jewish orphanage, 170 miles away. Ilse took only what few items she could carry on the train, but her memories were many. She could still feel her mother’s presence, and she remembered her mother’s words: “Be strong.” “Hold onto hope.” “Keep your cheerful disposition.” They were words that would give her strength when she needed it most.
Although she was at the mercy of others, Ilse was not without fortitude. She decided to give herself a nickname that would remind her of her mother and their life together.
She settled on a name that would carry her into a place where people were identified by numbers, not names.
From now on, she decided, she would be known as “Miluska.” It means “to be loved by someone.”
That ability to find daylight in darkness would help Ilse survive and ultimately define her life.
The conductor walked into her car and announced they would arrive in Prague in 30 minutes. Her body stiffened. Ilse combed her hair, grabbed her suitcases and took a deep breath.
2. Dear diary
At the Jewish orphanage in Prague, Ilse did what many 11 year old girls do: She started writing in a diary about her daily life the meals served, games played, friendships formed. Housed in an 1800s era building on a street lined with rose bushes, the orphanage didn’t feel like a stony institution. It was a place where children read in the courtyard, exercised in a gym, played instruments in music rooms. They went to school, voted for class president. Ilse adorned the drab brown cover of her diary with red and violet flowers and a curvy border.
In one entry she wrote about having to wear a Star of David identifying her as Jewish. She confided that she secretly removed it to enter a store that barred Jews so she could buy ice cream for herself and other children.
“Yes,” she told her diary. “I took my chances, more than once.”
Time after time, she seized on the good and found ways to lift her spirits.
June 17, 1942
We aired out our bedding in the morning and after breakfast, cleaned up the dining hall. Then we had to concentrate on our homework. Prior to noon time, we had to hurry and set the tables. We had soup and big dumplings with a tomato sauce. We kept laughing the entire afternoon, aggravating the teachersThen Lana and I went to wash our socks. With luck, we had warm water, so we were also able to take a bath. I was telling jokes and kidding around and both of us kept laughing. Finally we said goodnight and went to sleep.
But memories of her mother were never far away. One day she received a postcard from a relative that showed the house where she lived with her mother, and she was reminded of their happy life. She recalled how the two of them hiked in the meadows collecting pine cones in the winter and berries in the summer. She remembered her birthdays when her mother would fill up a miniature tea set with hot chocolate.
And she remembered when it all changed. It was March 1939 when the Germans arrived in her hometown of Vsetin. She recalled the red flags with swastikas draped from their car windows and how they goosestepped to the town square. Ilse and her parents were fingerprinted and forced to live in the attic of their villa while Germans took control of their house. A couple days later, the Gestapo took Ilse’s father, Max Eichner, into custody. He was released about six weeks later, but because Ilse’s parents were in the process of divorcing, he went to live with a brother after his release.
Ilse and her mother moved to the nearby village of Ruzdka and rented a one room apartment. Ilse continued to go to school until the day she received a report card stamped “Israelite,” and she was no longer permitted to attend. Her piano teacher told her she could no longer give her lessons.