David Cesarani reviews Zdenka Fantlova's autobiography.
The Tin Ring: How I Cheated Death
ISBN 978 1904794509
As survivors of Nazi persecution age and their experiences slip into history, many seem compelled to revisit the places of their youth and to write about the events that ruptured their lives. Zdenka Fantlová was born in Czechoslovakia in 1923 into an assimilated Czech-Jewish family. It was a return visit in the 1980s to the town where she grew up that inspired her to write this memoir and answer the question: how did it happen?
The first third of the book describes her childhood, youth and family. She emerges as a feisty, intelligent young woman with an appetite for life. Her energy and optimism helped sustain her through three years in the Terezin ghetto-camp. Her father was arrested early in the war and she was deported to Terezin with her brother, sister, mother and various elderly relatives. Her boyfriend was soon sent on a transport ‘to the East’. Others followed. She evaded the transports until autumn 1944 when she was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau along with her mother and sister.
Zdenka had the presence of mind to save her younger sister at the ‘selection’ on the ramp at Birkenau, but their mother was sent to the gas chamber. After a few weeks they were transferred to the Kurzbach labour camp in Silesia where they endured the winter of 1944-45. In January they were evacuated to Gross Rosen concentration camp, then to Mauthausen and finally Bergen-Belsen. During this nightmarish odyssey most of her friends died. Typhus claimed her sister in Belsen.
Fantlová survived because she dragged herself from a hut of dead and dying women to a British first aid post where, astonishingly, she was given just a jug of water before being locked out until daybreak. It is hard to understand her gratitude to the British soldier who saved her – and to whom the book is dedicated – after this ambiguous gesture. Yet the book is largely free of rancour. She has hardly a bad word to say, even about the Germans.
Her account of the ‘death march’ and the last weeks of Belsen add to the existing memoir literature, while her description of life in Terezin and the cultural activities of the doomed inhabitants makes this book a valuable source for historians.
David Cesarani is the author of Major Farran's Hat: Murder, Scandal and Britain's War Against Jewish Terrorism 1945-1948 (Vintage, 2010).