“CALMNESS is strength.”
The last words spoken to 17-year-old Zdenka Fantlova by her father as he was led off by the Gestapo.
It was this advice, the inspiration to learn English gleaned from a Frank Sinatra record and a tin ring gifted by her lover in the Ghetto of Terezín, that she credits her survival through history’s most notorious crime against humanity.
The Holocaust survivor, now 91, stood for the best part of two hours telling her harrowing story, which took the audience from her “idyllic” family life in what is now the Czech Republic to the horrifyingly infamous camps of Auschwitzand Bergen-Belsen, and her liberation by the British Army.
But what is odd is now, looking back, I realise I felt anything but harrowed as I sat and listened to her speak in the packed auditorium at The Custom’s House in South Shields.
Zdenka’s story is not one of suffering and sadness, or human cruelty – though the barbaric acts of the Nazis are far from glossed over, and her whole family was killed.
It is a story of bravery, acceptance, wisdom and adaptability that saw her survive the horrors, and live an unhaunted life afterwards.
“I was not a victim, I never felt a victim,” she told the audience. “The minute you feel a victim, you become one.”
Zdenka said she has always talked about her experiences, which has helped her cope with the memories of horrendous events few of us could even comprehend.
“Some survivors put all the ingredients in a pressure cooker, and end up with nightmares. Not me,” she said.
The Jewish woman lost her whole family in the Holocaust, as well the lover Arno she vowed one day to marry.
It was this betrothal that kept her going, with the hastily-made tin engagement ring he presented to her before on the eve of his removal from Terezín a symbol of her strength.
Zdenka recalled how she smuggled the ring past the camp guards at Auschwitz, despite witnessing a fellow inmate being brutally beaten and taken away to an uncertain end for the very same crime.
“I thought ‘if I throw away this ring, I will lose the ground beneath my feet’,” she said.
Zdenka learned after the war that Arno had been shot not long after leaving the ghetto on a “punishment transport” following the assassination of prominent Nazi official Reinhard Heydrich.
The ring gives its name to her book, The Tin Ring, which has now been adapted into a stage play.
If you are ever fortunate to get another chance to see this woman speak, you most go. If not, buy her book. Hers is a story you must be told.