Little Bella Rosenthal hadn’t had the chance to celebrate her first birthday when she and her mother were taken from their home in Berlin and sent to a Nazi concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. Leader reporter Sue Smart caught up with Bella when she visited a North Wales school to educate young people about the Holocaust, in which six million people died. There was no trace on the face of this gentle grandmother that told of the horror she had been born into. Her harrowing story laid a blanket of shock and silence over more than 100 high school pupils from Bryn Alyn School, Gwersyllt, near Wrexham.
They sat quietly and still as the story, illustrated with black and white photographs, unfolded. Young faces full of innocence looked back at them from the large screen without any idea of the nightmares that were to come.
The testimony of Holocaust survivor, Bella, who was adopted after the war and had her name changed to Joanna Millan, was riveting. She told the pupils and guests it was a very scary time once the war started and her parents knew what was going to happen to them. As single people, they did not want to be alone, they wanted the support of each other and so they married in 1941.
Nine months later, in August, 1942, Bella Rosenthal was born but their family life was short-lived. At the end of February, 1943, Bella said the Nazis decided to kill all the Jews in Berlin and that one day her father did not come home. He had been “rounded-up” and sent to Auschwitz and as he was not selected to work in the camp, he was sent to the gas chambers, just as her grandmother had been. Bella’s mother was then forced to work for a company, which still exists today, that helped to build the concentration camps. She said to this day, the company will not allow people to look at its records. “In June, 1943 the Nazis broke the lock on our apartment”, said Bella, and they took her mother and herself away to a holding place where her mother was made to sign many documents.
One of those documents included signing away all of their possessions which were sold or given, as Bella explained, to non-Jewish people who knew the Jews were not coming back and would not claim back their valuables. Her mother was also forced to pay for their flat to be cleaned for Nazi sympathisers to move in and had to pay for the broken lock and ironically, for the train fare to the concentration camp.
The name of the camp was Theresienstadt, which was only 50 miles outside Prague, and where only Jews were sent – yet the Nazis pretended nothing was going on there. Bella told the audience the number of Jews sent to Theresienstadt was 140,936 and at times, there was up to seven times more people living there than it was designed for. One in four people at the camp died from overwork and sickness, such as gastroenteritis, pneumonia, tuberculosis and starvation. Bella suffered from hepatitis and scarlet fever, but said: “I was tough and I managed to recover.” Many Jews died as a result of executions – “the Nazis didn’t need a reason to kill the Jews,” Bella said quietly, and the Nazis in the camp also used dogs to kill people. “The dogs were very, very vicious indeed.” They were Alsatians that had been trained by Jews who were forced to do it.
Bella’s mother died of tuberculosis early in 1944 and her body was cremated in the crematorium, with her ashes kept on a shelf in the crematorium with just her number on it.
At the time, Bella was not even two-years-old. The pupils heard how 15,000 children under the age of 16 were sent to Theresienstadt, yet at the end of the war, less than 100 were still alive. Bella was one of them. Any child over the age of 10 was put to work, she said, and they were much more likely to survive if they did work. The children were kept in separate houses according to age and some children were given secret lessons but the little ones were kept separated and had nothing – no toys, and no one to care for them. There were six young orphans in the concentration camp, three boys and three girls. Bella was one of them and she was there for two years. “Women in the kitchens took it in turns to bring us food, whatever they could, to keep us alive,” said Bella. One woman in particular, Litska Shallinger, knowing that the food in the camp would be contaminated, would go into the vegetable patch and hide clean, fresh vegetables under her clothes and some of those she would give to Bella. “I think this food saved my life,” said Bella, still amazed at the woman’s kindness. At the end of the war Litska wanted to take Bella home but she was not allowed as the authorities did not think she had the means to care for a child.
“People were amazed six of us could survive without proper care and food,” she said, adding Anna Freud made a study about how they survived – how children of the same age could help each other as a family unit. On May 3, 1945, the Red Cross took control of the camp and five days later the Red Army passed through on its way to Prague, bringing doctors and nurses. Bella was then quarantined for two weeks and spent time in Prague with other children while they tried to locate any members of her family. “For most of us, nobody claimed us,” she said matter-of-factly.
The British government allowed up to 1,000 children to be brought to the UK on temporary visas. Bella and the five other orphans were among the children and when they arrived they were kept together in an orphanage for a while but eventually they were separated. Bella did not see any of them again until opportunities arose over the past 15 years. She said once they were in the UK, the children learned to be children.
They learned to eat with a knife and fork, to play with toys and to speak English as they were not allowed to speak German or Czech. Bella was adopted by a wealthy Jewish couple in London who had no other children and changed her name from Bella to Joanna. She was told not to tell anyone she was German or Jewish or even adopted. Bella said her saving grace was that she was good at sport and could fit in, but she acknowledges: “Growing up was not easy, but one does.”
She later married a Jewish man and together they had three children and eight grandchildren before her husband’s death five years ago. Bella has been working for the past 15 years with the Holocaust Educational Trust’s extensive outreach programme, which visits schools across the UK as Holocaust studies are part of the national curriculum.
She hopes to motivate children and make them understand that if genocides are happening, they can take an active part in preventing it. “I feel strongly that it’s part of my heritage. I don’t want to push it under the carpet. It’s part of who I am. “Genocide is awful. Each genocide is unique and terrible for those involved. The Jews wanted to live side by side in peace and take a full part in society,” she said to the pupils. But the Nazis used the most cold-blooded industrialised way of getting rid of Jews.
Jewish people were taken out of their homes, offices and schools, kicking and screaming and they disappeared. Bella said people asked: “What could we have done?” But people chose to not care. Like having one bully in your class – if you don’t get together and say you’re not putting up with it, it will continue. Bella said people in Europe did nothing and because they did not care enough, six million people died. “They could have done something about it,” she said, looking straight at the pupils.
Bella concluded by saying she hoped people would not just stand by and say “it’s those people, it’s not us”. The gentle survivor said: “It does matter what happens to other people. We should take responsibility.”
Personally, I believe a woman so strong, as to live under a new identity, aware of the danger she was in as a Jew, is an influential heroin. The utter respect she gained during the cause of her adult-hood, working to prevent such abolishment happening against is credible and if anyone, for assistance and astounding bravery, deserves and honour, it is OBE Bella Rosenthal – Joanna Millan. It is a world of possibilities…