As If It Were Life: A World War II Diary from the There­sien­stadt Ghetto

Philipp Manes
  • Review
By – August 25, 2011

Phillipp Manes, a proud Berlin­er who had­served and been dec­o­rat­ed with the Iron Cross in the Kaiser’s war of 1914, was as Ger­man as Ger­man could be — the son of a fam­i­ly that had lived in the Rhineland since the 18th cen­tu­ry. Dur­ing the years of the Weimar Repub­lic, he was active in var­i­ous asso­ci­a­tions relat­ed to the fam­i­ly busi­ness, fur-trad­ing. All of this came to an end on Kristall­nacht, and by the out­break of war in 1939, all four of his chil­dren had left Germany.

His health dete­ri­o­rat­ing, he took solace in keep­ing a diary, con­tin­u­ing to doc­u­ment his life dur­ing his three years in There­sien­stadt, which is why we now have this com­pre­hen­sive his­to­ry of that ghetto’s intel­lec­tu­al and tal­ent­ed inhab­i­tants and the remark­able amount of cul­ture they and Manes pro­vid­ed. Upset as Manes was that he and his wife had to leave their home and for­mer life in 1942, after the ini­tial shock of the There­sien­stadt Ghet­to in Czecho­slo­va­kia wore off, Manes saw its pos­si­bil­i­ties. He grad­u­al­ly trans­formed the Ori­en­ta­tion Ser­vice to which he had been assigned into a mix­ture of police sta­tion, the­atri­cal per­for­mance venue, adult edu­ca­tion cen­ter and con­cert agency.” Manes need­ed a dis­trac­tion; he observed the ghet­to being emp­tied by trans­ports to the East and knew that even­tu­al­ly he and his wife’s time would come, although he did not envi­sion killing centers.

His diary affords us the record of his activ­i­ties, activ­i­ties that pro­vid­ed him with a sem­blance of nor­mal­i­ty, includ­ing the per­vert­ed beau­ti­fi­ca­tion” of the ghet­to to impress the Red Cross inspec­tors, and the film­ing of its results by the famous direc­tor Kurt Gerron.

He writes about the pre­sen­ta­tion of Mendelssohn’s Eli­jah” under the direc­tion of Karl Fis­ch­er, which was the largest artis­tic event under his watch. Manes also writes about tak­ing solace in the music of Schu­bert, and in Lieder” sung by Edith Wein­baum, as well as a poet­ry com­pe­ti­tion, and the beau­ty of flow­ers emerg­ing in the spring. He nev­er aban­doned his hope of lib­er­a­tion and tried to keep the hope alive in his fel­low pris­on­ers. It took courage to write what he did, because if it were found, the pun­ish­ment would have been severe, per­haps dead­ly. He repeat­ed­ly refers to the library in the ghet­to and to books that he con­sult­ed in rela­tion to the lec­tures and cul­tur­al events he pro­duced. Ulti­mate­ly, he was respon­si­ble for 500 intel­lec­tu­al lec­tures and musi­cal presentation.

Mar­cia W. Pos­ner, Ph.D., of the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al and Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau Coun­ty, is the library and pro­gram direc­tor. An author and play­wright her­self, she loves review­ing for JBW and read­ing all the oth­er reviews and arti­cles in this mar­velous periodical.

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