“I began to wonder whether I could ever adjust to normal life. I had been robbed of my youth, as well as my family, my friends, my town and its Jewish population. I had survived through inhuman conditions. I knew that it would take me a long time to leave behind everything that I had experienced as a young boy.”
Agnes Tomasov (first row, third from the right) and her friend Magda (first row, far right) with their graduating high school class. Bardejov, Slovakia, 1948. Agnes and Magda were the only Jewish girls in the class. Azrieli Foundation, courtesy of Agnes Tomasov.
Once the war was over, survivors were free, but the pre-war world they had known was in ruins. Once-thriving Jewish communities had been destroyed and families torn apart.
Against this backdrop, many young people tried to return to the regular rhythms of life, which included going to school.
What was it like for them to attempt to move on from the tragedies they had experienced and simply live their lives?
Adjusting to Freedom
“After living in barracks, incarcerated behind barbed wire fences, living in a private home was beyond comprehension. I could go out and come back at any time and do as I wished. Looking out of the fourth-floor window over the red-tiled roofs and at the horizon beyond gave me a sense of limitless possibilities. I knew how to organize things in an abnormal world but how would I function in a world of freedom, law and endless opportunities without an education? I lived an aimless existence. It became clear that my first priority would be to get an education….
In 1939, my future was bright and hopeful; I looked forward to finishing school and getting a trade. My whole life had been ahead of me. At this moment, it seemed that all was lost. I had no education, nowhere to go; now I was left praying to God that my mother and sister were alive.”
Walking Through the Ruins
“It was the first time in my life that I attended school….
Even though it was a difficult first day, I knew that an exciting new world was opening up for me. I soon felt very comfortable at the school, being with other Jewish children and being able to use my Jewish name, Rachel. But the horror of the world I had known in the ghetto and the bunker still lived inside me….
Every day on the way to school I passed the reminders of war. Ruins of bombed-out buildings. Bullet-ridden walls in the buildings that remained standing. Tombstones. Too many memories flooded my mind.”
Behind at School
“I’m two years behind the other kids my age…. I’m working seriously, as I promised. But it’s discouraging being among the last in the class and instead of being eight like my classmates, I’m ten. I need my father to help me catch up. No, I’m not happy. ‘Things won’t be as they were before,’ says my mother, ‘You’ll have to resign yourself to it.’”
Healing Through Education
“The director of the school was a German gentleman called Paulus Geheeb….
Our experiences as children from twelve different countries were so diverse and so unique that I think Paulus had chosen, deliberately, to create an environment of normalcy as much as possible…we attended to our day-to-day living and did everything for ourselves. In a way, I think it was somewhat of a healing process….
He really believed in the important role of work in bringing up young people. Physical work allowed us to be a functional unit, without any help. We learned how to do things, how to share, how to negotiate with other children in terms of how much each of us would do and then have the reward that physical work and its results can give you.”
Organizing a School in Romania
“Unfortunately, there was no high school in Dorna. I knew so many people my age who wanted to go to high school, so I decided to organize one. I discovered an empty building in town and, with some money and workers from the city authorities, I managed to have it repaired…
I got the permit, but, sadly, when I came back to Dorna, not one window was left in the building. Everything had been stolen – handles and doors, mattresses and kitchen equipment, even light bulbs. Nothing remained. In one week, the unsupervised building had been plundered. There was no way we could have a school now.”
A Life of her Own
Kitty Salsberg (with her sister, Ellen) knew she could not achieve her dreams without leaving Hungary.
Dreams of Studying
“By then, in my twenty-fifth year, I knew that if I didn’t go back to school soon, I never would. I’d never yet seen the outside of a university, let alone the inside. And I’d always dreamed of studying something, of being somebody someday. Here I was. After twenty-five years, my greatest achievement was surviving the war.”