As If It Were Life: A WWII Diary from the Theresienstadt Ghetto

As If It Were Life: A WWII Diary from the Theresienstadt Ghetto

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In 1942 German merchant Philipp Manes and his wife were ordered by the Nazis to leave their middle class neighborhood and go live in Theresienstadt, the only so-called "showpiece" ghetto of the Third Reich. This model ghetto was set up by the Nazis as a front to show the world that the Jews were being treated humanely. The ghetto was run by a council of Jewish elders, and organized like an idyllic socialist utopia with theatre groups and debating societies. All the while, this was just a holding post for Jews being shipped to forced labor and certain death at Auschwitz. Philipp Manes' intimate diary is filled with fascinating details of everyday life in the ghetto. Manes' voice brings us a step closer to understanding a little-known aspect of one of the most painful periods in the history of mankind.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780230103931
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/24/2009
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Philipp Manes (1875-1944) was a wealthy Berlin furrier before he and his wife were stripped of their possessions and transported to Theresienstadt in 1942. There, Manes kept careful diaries of daily life until he and his wife were transported to Auschwitz, where they were killed in October of 1944.

Philipp Manes (1875-1944) was a wealthy Berlin furrier before he and his wife were stripped of their possessions and transported to Theresienstadt in 1942.  There, Manes kept careful diaries of daily life until he and his wife were transported to Auschwitz, where they were killed in October of 1944.
Ben Barkow (editor) is the director of the Wiener Library, London and the author of Alfred Wiener and the Making of the Holocaust Library, editor of Testaments of the Holocaust, series 1 – 3 and co-editor of Novemberpogrom 1938: Die Augenzeugenberichte Der Wiener Library, London (with Raphael Gross and Michael Lenarz.) He lives in London.
Klaus Leist (editor) is an economist and former international business executive who worked in Britain, Belgium, the United States and Germany.  He is the author of  two articles about Philipp Manes and the chronicle one in the Journal of Holocaust Education and the other in Theresienstädter Studien und Dokumente. He lives in London with his wife.

Read an Excerpt

As If It Were Life

A WWII Diary from the Theresienstadt Ghetto

By Philipp Manes, Ben Barkow, Klaus Leist, Janet Foster

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2005 Ullstein Buchverlage GmbH
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-230-61328-7


Part 1


On July 23, Berlin transport I/29 arrived at Bauschowitz. The 100 passengers were lined up three abreast. Young people wearing stars carried the luggage for those who could not. The suitcases were loaded onto cars, as were, in the end, the disabled. Those of us who were fit enough to walk, slowly started down a street that led through a nice, clean neighborhood. There, for the first time, we saw Czech signs next to German ones. The residents paid no attention to the passersby; after several months, they were used to the sight. It was a hot day, and we soon felt the weight of our backpacks. Our hands were full holding our bags, and walking was increasingly laborious. The chain of people stretched out. Soon the guides urged us to hurry. "Look over there. The red roofs, rising over the dark green of the trees, are the barracks of Theresienstadt. We're almost there." But the road wound and snaked quite a lot, and every additional 100 meters of the unfamiliar walk was a torment. The Czech country police, in their neat uniforms, were indifferent to us, though they seemed to have sympathy for the plight of us older people. No angry word was uttered, despite our snail-like pace.

At last, like magic, we saw walls and ditches straight ahead. That such a fortress should still exist—almost 200 years old, well preserved, the masonry like new; the deep, wide ditches of the ramparts, lush green underneath! Then the walls came closer together, meeting above a narrow passage guarded by inhabited casemates, the Bauschowitz gate. We passed through, unsuspectingly. Now, Theresienstadt—the ghetto, our new home—took us in. As we walked, we saw well-dressed people, pretty young women, and happy children on the streets.

One could live here, we thought. It seemed that we had not been lied to in Berlin, when the community officials spoke of the "paradise of Theresienstadt" and congratulated us because we had been privileged to come here instead of being sent to Lublin.

The street went on forever.

Still no end to the torment. Dusk falls. Then our guides cried out—we have reached our destination: the Aussig barracks.

We hear the word: Schleuse.

We didn't understand. We were received into a semicircle of casemates, from which sloping passages led upwards. They broadened out into impressive, wide, long rooms with walls that seemed to be a meter thick. Tables: on one side the gendarmes; on the other, us. Now the Schleuse began. We understood quickly what it meant, and watched, shuddering, as the experienced hands searched every bag, backpack, and basket, taking away every valuable item. Medicine; scissors; blade sharpeners; and, to our horror, carefully filled thermos flasks—cognac, the last strengthening reserve; chocolate; and cookies—all disappeared in a flash.

With fearful hearts we sat on the few narrow benches, waiting to see where our exhausted, broken bodies could finally come to rest. If only we could lie down, stretch out, and sleep! No feelings of hunger or thirst, just sleep. Suddenly again, a command: "Take your things. Now, into your quarters."

So we marched again. This is how it must be, we are prisoners. We have no choice but to obey. Everyone got ready, painfully slowly; our luggage, now lighter, was picked up, and in the last gray of a day that was so long and painful for us, we stumbled outside into the street. We saw low, single-story houses; mighty squares of barracks; a beautiful church set on an open square; and, again, houses—but no other people. Then, we stood in front of the gate of one of the barracks. We passed through it with the happy thought that perhaps we had reached our destination, finally, finally. We saw nothing more. We were shown to a first-floor room with some wooden bark stacked against the walls: our quarters for the night.

We did not question, we said nothing. We lay down immediately, still in our clothes, using our backpacks as pillows, covering ourselves with our coats. Lie down, don't think, sleep.

But the long-awaited sleep did not come quickly. We still trembled with the emotions of our difficult farewells. We had been separated from everything on which our life had been built. Ownership of property and money, to the last penny, had been put in the hands of strangers; we had gone abroad without so much as one coin left in our purses. The clever ones, however, had stashed bills in secure places so that later they could buy ghetto bread and artificial honey to improve the monotonous diet, as well as the hotly desired cigarettes (everything had its price, depending on the supply).

An electric bulb weakly illuminated the room, which had been whitewashed to create an impression of cleanliness. A refreshing breeze wafted in through the open windows as 50 of us slept fast and soundly. We did not feel the harshness of the accommodation, we lay there, left to our own thoughts that drifted ever further away, to our children ... Oh! If they only knew that their old parents were stretched out here on the floor, covered by their coats, possessing nothing more than what they had carried with them! But then sleep, the great restorer, finally came and took me up into the great army of those who, for the first time, slept on the hard floor in a 200-year-old barracks, sunk into dreamless nonexistence.

* * *

In July, daybreak comes early. Despite our exhaustion, the room stirred as soon as the dull light filled it. The natural needs of the body made themselves felt, demanding that we go out. Going outside was a journey of discovery—to find that quiet and secluded cell. Many gates opened onto the vast courtyard, and people of both sexes, drunk with sleep, seemed to know only one destination. I joined them and arrived at the latrines.

Lasciate ogni speranza ...

It was perhaps especially trying for the womenfolk to acclimatize, torn from their Berlin apartments and suddenly faced with the conditions in these barracks, which were perhaps modern in Maria Theresa's time. We men are familiar with this from our time in the military, and it doesn't put us out to be constantly in public, etc. The esthete, however, finds it difficult to stomach and endure, and wanders around despairingly. That does not help him. He must line up and wait his turn.

The sun had risen. We looked around the room. The older people were still lying in rows by the wall, and the middle of the room was filled with people lying down. We had been placed in a stable—this was clear from the mangers and hayracks that were built in at intervals and the iron rings for fastening the horses. And so the stable was now our home. It remained our home for the following week, which passed very quickly.

The camp routine began. The first difficulty: the morning wash. A few lucky people were in possession of a bowl, and those who managed to borrow one could wash at the fountain. We men were not embarrassed. We bared our chests and washed off the dust and sweat of the past three days, which had been such a great torment. A colorful life unfolded. Over on the other side there were approximately six stables, full of people who had been here for a longer period and had received their luggage. They aired their bedding upstairs in the arcades—it made a lively, many-colored picture, reminiscent of Italy.

We were told to get hot coffee from the kitchen counter, and, standing in line, this first offering of the ghetto proceeded quickly. We still had bread from Berlin, and so we breakfasted in the cool, fresh air, sitting comfortably on planks.

At nine o'clock, the bureaucratic machinery began turning. Lists were prepared in order to distribute ration cards and to send our personal data upstairs.

At ten o'clock, we were told to assemble; the block elder wanted to greet us and tell us the rules of conduct. A young, very handsome, well-dressed man introduced himself as Fritz Janowitz and spoke to us, as we listened earnestly. He described the ghetto, its institutions and authorities, the duties that awaited us, and what we could expect. He spoke to us with warm heartfelt words to give us courage—we should face all difficulties with some sense of humor to bring some lighter tones to the oppressive gray of our surroundings. Above all, we must have patience, patience, and more patience. The unfamiliar must be accepted. Unpleasantness, which could arise at any moment, could be overcome by arming oneself with indifference and assuming the proverbial thick skin.

The first rule for staying healthy, Mr. Janowitz advised, was to not drink water from the fountain, but to save some morning coffee instead. For the time being, we were confined to the barracks. We were not allowed to go out, but the courtyard offered plenty of space. And now, we should use the next few days to settle in. We had full board, and everything we received was gratis, so there was nothing to worry about.

And with that, he said, "God bless you."

This speech was repeated in each of the four stables. Afterwards, groups of people stood around everywhere, animatedly discussing and analyzing what we had just heard. [...] The inhabitants of the stables across the way, all old people who had formerly been residents of Stettin, Kassel, and Hamburg, came to make the acquaintance of their new neighbors, to ask for news of the outside world, and to tell us about how things worked in the ghetto.

Sitting in the warm sun was very pleasant. Sitting peacefully for the first time, one could finally be alone to gather and organize one's thoughts and try to arrive at clarity, and get a glimpse into the future. One had to remind oneself that it would be days before the authorities registered and filed everything, because allegedly there were [ ...] people in the ghetto. It was, therefore, understandable that we would have to wait quietly until we were moved to the old people's homes. Then we would see.

The morning crept by slowly, like the shadows on the buildings across the courtyard. The atmosphere was lively; the narrow staircases were full of people carrying their briefcases importantly, who had business in the offices upstairs. The two small neighboring courtyards had nothing special to offer, and did not entice one to stay. Where to sit? There were no benches or chairs anywhere—only woodpiles afforded an uncomfortable opportunity to rest. If they were all occupied, one had to wander about, waiting for a chance to sit. People tried to squeeze into the small area around the two trees, which were each approximately 30 meters tall. Men and women were still lined up, waiting to complete their morning toilette. This was the one opportunity several hundred people had to wash themselves; hence, the business took until lunchtime. Oh, delicious word: lunchtime.

Yesterday, we had waited in vain for a hot meal at the station in Dresden, expecting it to be served by the [Jewish] community as usual, but we were unlucky—there was nobody in sight. The deserted platform was patrolled by an armed guard, who walked gravely up and down. We could see down Pragerstrasse, Dresden's main shopping street, where I had so often walked in the past decade. Every house seemed to wave at us like an old friend, and the Hotel de l'Europe seemed to ask, "So, why don't you come back to me?"

It was lunchtime. Our stomachs had already rumbled for a while. Being outdoors in the fresh air makes one hungry and full of anticipation. We lined up on the second floor, which was equipped with two pots, one for soup and one for a stew. It was 20 minutes before we were all served. We moved forward with the steaming bowls, went back to our woodpiles, and, under the lovely sun, ate our first meal in the ghetto.

We could not claim that we were sated, but we still had bread from Berlin and we ate that for "dessert." In the cool stables people took a comfortable afternoon nap—of course, the flies were a mighty nuisance, and it was never really quiet because it was so crowded, but the coolness of the thick, stone walls made the hour's rest feel quite refreshing.

In the afternoon we received our ghetto transport number, the importance of which we only realized much later. The numbers given to us in Berlin were canceled and replaced by the Roman numerals I–XXIX. We would live and die under this designation from now on. No document was without the main number and our personal identification number. Mine was 2215, i.e., the number of people who had arrived in the ghetto from Berlin.


Our luggage and identity cards had to be re-labeled. After this formality, we were full-fledged ghetto inmates.

The afternoon went by quickly. We received three days' worth of bread rations and thought about what the safest way to store it might be. We had nothing; our backpacks were the only possible place we could store something. At night they served as hard pillows, although that would change since we were supposed to get our luggage the next day, affording us a little more "comfort," and reminding us of home when we would fall asleep and could slip under the blanket that had given us its protection since our wedding. The "evening meal" consisted of coffee, with which we ate bread.

Already, we had a worrying grievance—the bread was not dry enough because producing it for such a huge number of people did not allow enough time for it to settle. It became moldy. When it was cut open, green flecks of mold, reaching deep inside the bread, were revealed. True, the moldy bread could be exchanged, but that involved a lot of running around and endless waiting. And you would not receive the right quantity.

The Berlin bread donated from the [Old People's Home on Grosse] Hamburger Strasse was finished. Now we had to be careful with our ration and try not to consume it according to our appetite, for it was only every three days that we got our beloved bread.


The bread ration was increased automatically once one started working and then again if one were promoted to the category of "hard laborer." But this privilege was only for the young, not for us, who for the most part were over 65 years old. Also, the other allocations increased accordingly for the laborers.

The sun went down in a cloudless sky, turning the day pleasantly cool. There were many groups in the courtyard, eagerly discussing the news of the day. The right side could go out freely, and they heard all kinds of things about the outside world from new transports who had just arrived. Reshaped by the go-betweens, the news came in, more or less distorted, depending on the temperament of the narrator. But it was nevertheless a lifting of the curtain, a chink in the wall that separated us and cut us off [from the outside world]. Let us first really settle in, and then we will also have rights, after all, we are in the ghetto, in the Jewish city, that is intended to be an old people's home for us.

Every day brings newcomers; they all want to be initiated—impress upon yourselves the word from the morning speech: patience.

One gets tired from doing nothing. The old people were already asleep inside the stables. A nurse made the rounds, asking if anyone was in need of help, and administered longed-for sleeping powder, valerian drops, and, where necessary, a consoling word. And that, especially, did a lot of good.

The moon rose over the high and mighty roof of the barracks and brightly lit the square. No more light anywhere before the vast expanse. Here and there, a stable inmate strayed to the second courtyard, obeying an urge and not his own will. Inside, in a corner, a conversation was under way. I stretched out next to my wife. A squeeze of her hand, a goodnight kiss—these things convinced me that we still slept together.

I woke up at 4:30 A.M. I was used to getting up at this exact time in Berlin, on the dot, and to be alert, in order to be in the changing room of the F. Butzke factory at ten minutes to six, ready to change into the blue overalls. [...] I sprang up, horrified. Had I overslept? Would I be late?

A glance at my surroundings told me that I could calm down and lie down again, which I did more than gladly—in Berlin, unfortunately, I didn't get enough sleep for months at a time, even if I went to bed at 8 P.M. on the dot.


I couldn't rest for more than an hour—I was grateful for that much— because the room became active. Two very old women who had spent the night on the floor, completely helpless, called out for help. They were 82 and 86 years old and mentally sound, but it was only with assistance and effort that they were able to get out into the open to sit in the sun for a few hours.

The first job on getting up was to get hold of a washbowl, for the necessary cleansing. For eight days we had gone without our usual bath—when would we be able to climb into a bathtub here? How long would we have to loaf around in the courtyard, which had already become too small for us, with nothing to do, counting the arcades, conducting useless conversations? When, how, and would we ever find our way back to a civilized life?

In the midst of these musings, the seventh hour drew near, when people would make their pilgrimage to the second floor, where the steam of the mighty kettle wafted out of the windows in thick clouds, announcing, "The coffee is hot."

* * *

Again, a hot day. Really, the weather stayed the same for months. It never rained. No thunderstorms brought a much-needed freshening of the air, but we were tormented by endless clouds of dust. The courtyard, which was paved only at the edges, not in the middle, remained the wind's playground. It came from on high to lead its swirling dance and often seemed to carry the dust of hell. When food was given out, there was nothing pleasant about any of this.

The kitchen was up on the second floor. The food was distributed at six improvised booths. Two strong young men brought the soup down in huge buckets—potatoes, noodles, barley in wooden troughs—whatever was on the menu.


Excerpted from As If It Were Life by Philipp Manes, Ben Barkow, Klaus Leist, Janet Foster. Copyright © 2005 Ullstein Buchverlage GmbH. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Editor's Introduction * Prologue * Book 1: 1942 * Book 2: 1943 * Book 3: 1944 January-July * Epilogue

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