From left: Czech Ambassador to Israel Veronika Kuchyňová Šmigolová, Holocaust survivor Ester Ringel and Jan Roubinek, director of the Terezin Memorial attend an event at the Czech embassy in Tel Aviv, June 2024. Credit: Courtesy.
From left: Czech Ambassador to Israel Veronika Kuchyňová Šmigolová, Holocaust survivor Ester Ringel and Jan Roubinek, director of the Terezin Memorial attend an event at the Czech embassy in Tel Aviv, June 2024. Credit: Courtesy.
featureHolocaust & Holocaust Survivors

Terezin Memorial director’s connection to Holocaust is deeply personal

For Jan Roubinek, who has remained in touch with his "Israeli family" through the years, his position is the closing of a circle.

The two teenage Jewish girls from the former Czechoslovakia lived just 60 miles apart in 1942, but in totally different worlds, the one speaking German and the other Czech.

They were both sent to the Theresienstadt Ghetto, established by the Nazis in Terezin in northwestern Czechoslovakia the year before as a transit camp for Jews en route to the extermination camps.

In 1943, the two girls, and their mothers, were also on the very same transport to Auschwitz, yet they never met on the cramped transport or at the death camp, in which they spent six months.

Nevertheless, the Holocaust would forge a lifelong bond between them. 

Red Cross visit

It was the Red Cross’s infamous visit to the ghetto 80 years ago this weekend which played a role in their intertwined family story.

“I came to Auschwitz with my mother and brother but I left alone,” recounted Theresienstadt survivor Ester Ringel, 94. She spoke at an event at the Czech Embassy in Tel Aviv this month ahead of the 80-year commemoration of the Red Cross visit. “On the way, I met a very lovely lady who saved me.”

That lady was Helena Polakova, the great-grandmother of the present-day Terezin Memorial director, Jan Roubinek. Like Ester and her mother, Polakova and her then-teenage daughter Eva, who was Ringel’s age, were incarcerated at Auschwitz in a special “family unit” of Czech Jews.

Instead of being immediately gassed or sent to hard labor like the rest of the inmates, their group had been kept in waiting ahead of the expected Red Cross visit to the transit camp on June 23, 1944, due to uncertainty regarding whether the Red Cross would ask to visit other camps as well.

“It was more than a failure, like it is today with the hostages being held in Gaza,” said Daniel Shek, chairman of the Association of Beit Terezin of the Red Cross’ history past and present. “It was collaboration and a charade. An organization like the Red Cross could not claim that they didn’t know what was going on; they played along.”

After the visit passed without incident and no additional requests were made by the Red Cross, the group of Czech Jews who had been kept in holding were in immediate danger of death. (Those who had participated in the staged propaganda skit put out by the Nazis at Theresienstadt were immediately sent to their deaths.) Ringel’s mother was gassed at Auschwitz, along with most of the members of an earlier transport of Czech Jews sent to the death camp.

In all, more than 150,000 Jews passed through Theresienstadt before it was liberated in May 1945; nearly 90,000 were deported and murdered and over 35,000 perished in the disease-ridden, squalid conditions of the ghetto.

“We never spoke about coming home,” Ester Ringel recounted. “We saw the smoke from the chimneys [of the gas chambers at Auschwitz] and never thought we would survive.”

Fate intervenes

As fate would have it, and with the Russians closing in from the East, Ester Ringel and the Polakovas were sent by train from Auschwitz to the Stutthof concentration camp, where the now orphaned Ringel would finally meet the Polakovas and be taken, along with some other parentless girls, under the care of Helena Polakova.

Surviving a death march, hunger and inclement weather, the family would survive the war, moving from camp to camp until their liberation by Russian soldiers in 1945, who the girls saw as angels.  

Ringel, who immigrated to Israel after the war in the footsteps of her brother, and Eva Polakova became best friends, and remained so until Eva’s death last year.

Ester Ringel and Eva Polakova in Israel in 2016. Credit: Courtesy.

Ringel recounted that a cousin had recommended that she immigrate to America but that it was Helena Polakova who encouraged her to come to Israel to be near her brother.

After nearly half a century, the two childhood friends were reunited in Israel in 1990 when Prague restored ties with Israel that had been cut off by the Communist regime in the wake of the 1967 Six-Day War. Eva Polakova had accompanied the presidential visit to the Jewish state.

Closing a circle

For Terezin Memorial Director Roubinek, who remained in touch with his “Israeli family” through the years, his position is the closing of a circle.

Ester Ringel and Jan Roubinek at the Czech embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel, June 2024. Credit: Courtesy.

“It is my dream job doing this for a living,” he told JNS, noting that his grandmother had been proud of him when he started working at the memorial camp just outside of Prague. “In the memory of all those who didn’t make it.”

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