By Liz Turner
Never think of 92 year old Holocaust survivor Zdenka Fantlova as a victim. It’s something she would repudiate with every breath of her body.
She emerged barely alive from Bergen-Belsen having been in a total of six concentration camps.
No longer a carefree 17-year-old Czechoslovakian schoolgirl, she lost more than 36 members of her family and her boyfriend all because of her Jewish heritage.
But she insists she never felt like a victim, explaining that to feel so would have required energy.
Speaking to a captivated audience at Lighthouse Poole, she showed no anger, no bitterness and no desire for revenge. She was not being punished because of what she had done – it was just something that happened to her.
Her mantra is ‘calmness is strength’ – the words her father said to her before being taken away by the Gestapo.
For over two hours this inspiring lady, who now lives in England, stood and talked about how she managed to keep alive until the end of the war.
She described her happy life before the war when Jewish people in Czechoslovakia were not segregated. She was a normal teenager who fell in love only to have her dreams and ambitions torn away.
When they were in Terezín camp, her boyfriend Arno gave her a tin ring which he had made and engraved with the date 13.6.1942. This was just before he was taken away and as she learnt many years later, shot. He told her it was an engagement ring for when they met after the war.
This ring she explained helped her survive.
“You must know why you want to survive. I was a teenager in love and this was my strength. I wanted to see Arno again and to marry him.
“This piece of metal became my saviour. It was why I wanted to survive. I would protect it to death. It was a symbol of love and hope.”
What she didn’t dwell on was the horrors of life in the camps. She spoke about the cultural side of life in Terezín where the cream of Czech’s musicians performed and theatre flourished. She became an actress and the performances were enjoyed by Jews and even the guards.
However she said just enough for the audience to piece together what life must have been like.
She described the horrific journey to Auschwitz-Birkenau and the treatment when they arrived. She explained that there was a smell of something burning but didn’t think much about it.
They were lined up and divided into two groups by Dr Josef Mengele.
Zdenka said: “The left meant instant death – right meant you might have a bit longer to survive. It was better to be young than old, healthy than ill, single than married with a family.”
She grabbed her younger sister away from her mother to make sure she joined her in going to the right.
She spoke of the indignity of having her head shaved, having all her belongings and clothes taken away and being searched to make sure everything had been taken.
This was the moment when Zdenka took a stand. She hid the tin ring under her tongue even though another girl had been beaten for doing the same thing. Fate took a hand and she was never asked to open her mouth.
This was just one of the miracles that she believes kept her alive.
An inner strength on two occasions ‘spoke’ to her urging her to survive. But it was learning English in the period before she was sent to a camp which mean she was one of the few to get out of Belsen-Bergen alive, when it was liberated in April1945.
Crammed in a room with bodies piled high, she managed to get to a Red Cross post where she was able to speak to a British solider, begging him to come back for her the next day or shoot her there and then. He broke the rules to get her out of the camp and to this day she has no idea who he was. She thinks he was a medical student but despite all her efforts, has been unable to trace him.
“The decision to learn English five years earlier saved my life,” she explained.
Zdenka went on to marry, have a daughter, has grandchildren and lived for many years in Australia.
She has always talked about her experiences and her book ‘The Tin Ring’ was published in 1996 initially in Czech. She has now told her story to thousands of people all over the world but she says that the country where people want to know most of all is Germany.
She said: “I do worry that people might forget but by speaking out I hope my memories should prevent anything like this happening again.
“Every day is a gift, value it as a gift and hope for another. I have had a bonus of 75 years.”
A victim she is not – an inspiration she is. And she still has Arno’s tin ring.