When he was trapped behind barbed wire, the anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany confining him to a concentration camp, some of Robert Behr’s only happy moments were looking at the birds flying overhead.
“The only nice thing you see is the sky above you. You enjoy the birds because they are free and can fly,” he told the crowd at Conway High School Monday evening. “It gave me great joy that there were creatures who were free.”
Behr, his mother and his stepfather were three of the millions of Jews held in Nazi concentration camps around Europe during World War II. They were deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1942 after his mother helped a friend escape to Switzerland. Behr was 20 years old, and his first job at the camp was collecting dead bodies for burial.
Before Adolf Hitler came to power, Behr’s parents were patriotic citizens who lived in Berlin. When he was a child, Behr’s parents divorced and Behr lived with his mother and stepfather, a Jewish doctor who — like Behr’s biological father — had fought for Germany in World War I.
“We were German first, German second, German third and Jewish fourth,” he said.
When Behr was six or seven years old, he heard the radio news show his father was listening to refer to the “Jewish conspiracy.” He went to his mother to ask what they meant by “Jewish conspiracy,” but she told him not to worry about it.
“When your mother said don’t worry about it, what do you do? You don’t worry about it,” he said.
But things changed on Jan. 30, 1933. Hitler became chancellor, and actions began to follow the words Behr heard.
“Suddenly, the guy who was yelling on the radio about the bad Jews had the power to do what he threatened to do,” Behr said.
Behr’s family met with fellow Jews, and members of the group fell into one of two thoughts. The first was that they needed to leave now. The other was that the Germans were too smart to let Hitler’s dreams come true. Behr’s parents aligned with the second group.
Then, the changes started rolling out. Signs started appearing in shops and around town saying “No Jews.” Behr’s father was no longer allowed to call himself a doctor. They had to turn in their radios and telephones. In the park across from their apartment, someone painted one of the four benches yellow, designating it as the only bench Jews could sit on.
“Life became really ugly,” Behr said.
When Behr was a teenager, the propaganda pieces infiltrated his own home. A newspaper dedicated to spreading lies about the Jewish people published an article around Passover stating that the Jews used the blood of Christian children to bake the special bread for Passover. Behr’s nanny — who had raised him since he was six months old — asked him if it was true.
Behr said he was baffled at the question. This woman had known him his whole life. His family was loyal to Germany and would never kill a child.
“‘But,’ she said to me, ‘They wouldn’t publish it if it wouldn’t be true,’” he said.
In 1935, Behr and his family were no longer German citizens. Despite people like his father and stepfather who were German World War I veterans, German Jews were stripped of their citizenship. Behr was kicked out of school for being Jewish. Classes always started with a specific greeting that was illegal for Jews to use, so Behr was kicked out. It was another way to marginalize the Jewish children.
“Under these conditions, what keeps you going? It’s one word: Hope,” he said. “It’s the strength you need to survive the terror.”
In 1938, his biological father was arrested and sent to a concentration camp. Behr never saw him again.
Behr tried to leave. He went to the United States embassy that year and told them his story. He wanted to go to America but he could not secure an affidavit — a sponsor who lived in the United States who would vouch for him — and his request was denied.
Later that year, Behr’s mother got a letter from the apartment building they were living in. They were instructed to leave their apartment within 14 days. According to the letter, “the Christian people who live in this building no longer want to be associated with Jews.” The family had to find an apartment already occupied by a Jewish person willing to share their living space.
When the Germans invaded Poland and sparked World War II, Behr’s family saw it as a light at the end of the tunnel. Surely the German military would be crushed and things would go back to the way they were.
“But they won everything,” he said of the German troops. “They got stronger.”
The family lived in the shared apartment — doing heavy labor six days a week — until July 20, 1942, when the Gestapo arrested Behr’s mother and stepfather for helping a friend escape into Switzerland. A postcard from the friend gave them away when she wrote, “Without you, I wouldn’t be here.”
Behr was arrested two days later and the family was sent to Theresienstadt.
The concentration camp occupied what used to be a Czech town. There were 4,000 inhabitants when it was a free town, but 60,000 people were crammed into the space when the Nazis took over.
The camp quickly became overcrowded, and the Nazi answer was to deport the Jews east to Auschwitz. Behr said the Jewish people in Theresienstadt knew what it meant to get on one of those trains. When the Czech guards came back with empty trains and told their Jewish friends not to get on, news spread that the trains led to gas chambers.
In 1944, Behr volunteered to work on the new SS headquarters at Wulkow. American and British pilots had destroyed Hitler’s headquarters in Berlin, and the Jews at Theresienstadt were told their relatives would be safe from the gas chambers if they volunteered to help build the new headquarters.
“So I did,” Behr said.
During his time at Wulkow, Behr said he completely lost hope for the first time.
“My own life became so bad that I wanted to die,” he said. “It was the first time I had ever felt that way.”
But then hope came back in an unexpected vessel: German troops.
Standing at the fence of the work camp, Behr saw a track of German soldiers traveling from east to west. They looked terrible, he said, and the westward movement meant the Soviet Army was beating them back.
“That’s when I decided I would try to live,” he said.
In early 1945, Behr returned to Theresienstadt where he was reunited with his parents. He worked in the camp kitchen for a few months while his will to live continued on.
On May 5, 1945, Behr’s nightmare known as Theresienstadt came to an end. The Soviet Army had made its way to the camp, Behr said, and liberated the people.
“And we were free.”
(Staff writer Angela Spencer can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 505-1212. To comment on this and other stories in the Log Cabin, log on to www.thecabin.net. Send us your news at www.thecabin.net/submit)