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Švejk in the Terezín concentration camp

The Saga of Pepek Taussig

by Lena Makarova

Pepek Taussig described his family in a saga that started with his great-grandfather, the peddler. Grandpa wandered up and down the hills and valleys and through the villages of Českomoravska Vysočina, the heart of the Czech Lands and the source of inspiration of so many fairy tales and poems, with his basketful of goods. He would sell out his wares and return home tired. Eventually, the peddler built a textile manufacture. His garish painted scarves and handkerchiefs were selling well, and the family prospered.

Otto, the father, was a humorist rather than entrepreneur, so under his directorship, the pace of the commercial enterprise slowed down. However, there was still enough capital to enable him to cater to the family. In their house in a small town of Hlinsko, laughter never ceased. Otto was great at telling funny stories and pulling practical jokes on everybody.

The passion for practical joking passed to his sons, the older František (Franta) and the younger Josef (Pepek). A family story says that once Franta abandoned his studies in Prague and left for Paris. Making a living in Paris is not easy but spending is no problem at all. Franta spent all his cash and felt like going home, but had no money left to pay the fare. He had spent his last franc to feed his curiosity -- to see 'the fattest woman of the world', whose weight was alleged to be 420 kilograms.

Franta let himself be photographed at her side and sent the picture to his parents' home to Hlinsko, announcing his engagement and his intention to bring the bride. Father replied with a telegram and money for a return ticket. The whole town learned of the news, and a number of gawkers filled the platform, wanting to see the French diva. The people were terribly disappointed to see Franta without the bride. Having embraced the son, the father turned to the crowd and announced: "Sorry, people, it can't be helped. The bride wouldn't fit in the railroad car!"

According to Jarmila Janovská (Taussigová), Franta's widow, she had a hard time at first -- you could never tell a joke from the truth. A good half of the large Taussig library in Hlinsko was taken up by humor. The world classics were of course also there. "If you'd look through the library, you'd see where the brothers got their wit from", Jarmila said with a smile.

When Pepek got to Prague, he became enchanted by it. He studied at the Higher Commercial School and worked at Eskomptní banka, but this didn't interest him much. His gave himself over to art, photography, literature. He published his stories in magazines and photographed his beloved Prague. This was Pepek's most creative period. He worked passionately day and night and did not want to see the impending catastrophe.

"My dear, I am sending you the first half of my notes and remarks about Chaplin. You might not be amused by it, but it won't harm you. This, sadly, is what I've come to. At first, I wanted to follow humor from its first manifestations in history in all types of arts to the present. I wanted to learn where the highlights of contemporary comic art come from, how old comic elements merge with the new. After the loss of my files it is clear that I will probably never manage it: That is why I jumped into the present right away. Unfortunately I cannot rely on my own judgment too much (I do not know the history of clowns, and most of the movies I saw only once as a child). I should rely on people who sound plausible. This is just a shadow of what I wanted to achieve, but it is better than nothing. It has the advantage of being real." (From Pepek's letter to Olga Housková.)

In 1939, ignoring the danger became impossible. His love Stasa urged him to go to London. In Prague, they could not get married -- a Jew could no longer marry a non-Jew. Having received his consent, she left with his luggage for London.

It's like watching a movie where the hero is pursued by a gang of criminals, we innerly urging him on -- run, run, there are here, round the corner.

Now, what did Pepek do?

"He and I were walking along Petrín," Jarmila recalls. "He was finishing his book of photographs of Prague which appeared soon afterwards. He talked about photography, about what he was drawing and reading. 'I simply cannot leave', he finally declared. 'I would simply pine away for Prague and Hlinsko. She knows me, she'll understand. I cannot part with all this.'"

But he had to part with Prague very soon, and involuntarily at that. In 1940, he went to the countryside with a group of Jewish youth. These left-wingers, members of Mladá Kultura ('Young Culture') association, perhaps flattered themselves with the hope that there, working in the fields, they could ride the nightmare out. The only one of the family who managed to leave was Gerda, the daughter -- by marrying a British businessman. Bedriska, Otto's wife, was trying to convince the others to follow her, but in vain. Franta, editor of the communist paper Rudé Právo could never leave his country in trouble. The same with Pepek. And as regards Otto, he couldn't leave his beloved tombs.

On September 30th. 1941 the family received a terrible blow: Franta Taussig was shot by the Nazis. Jarmila, who was also involved in the resistance movement, was sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp. The Taussig couple was resettled to a smaller place. They lived for Pepek's visits from Prague and Gerda's letters.

"I remember I once spent the night at the Taussigs' in Hlinsko", recollects Olga Housková, a photographer and good friend of Pepek. In the drawing room where I slept, the wall-clock was ringing too loud, so I stopped the pendulum. Mrs. Taussig gave me a good dressing-down. 'How can we repair the clock now! We don't have time, we have a call up to the transport!' Then, two neighbor girls came to see them and started a discussion about whether to take a doll on the transport, whether it would take up too much space. I was surprised -- they were packing as if they were going on a vacation, not to a concentration camp."

The 5th of December, 1942, when the Taussigs arrived in Theresienstadt, can be considered as a next to last chapter of the 'Taussig Family Saga.' Pepek was working as a dispatcher, shipping goods. After ten-hours' work, he managed to see his parents, discuss with Karel Svenk, his bosom friend, his new show The Last Bicyclist, insisting upon a more serious treatment of the text, write a note to Nora Fryd saying that he should translate Tyl Eulenspiegel anew, since it was going to be staged. Pepek was in a hurry, he cut down words; his handwriting, while writing theatrical reviews, pitched and rolled. He also wrote for the children's magazine Vedem. He was overwhelmed by fatigue, hunger and too little sleep but, what is most important, he wrote a major piece that he had begun in Prague about the character of Czech humor. This he also covered at lectures to the youth in the library, and in Salus Group meetings.

At the Theresienstadt readings of Jaroslav Hašek, Pepek was acknowledged as a Doctor of Good Soldier Švejk's Sciences.

"In his lectures, he frequently quoted Švejk-- the classic book about Czech resistance to militarism, force, and bureaucratic idiocy", Nora Fryd recalls. It was Pepek's plan to write a new Švejk. He was working on the manuscript. It was to be the story of an innocent Prague citizen who got into the wrong line when he went to pay his dog tax at the municipal offices, had a J. (for Jew) stamped on his identity card. From then on, he had to swim along in the stream of Jews through all the misadventures in the Theresienstadt ghetto... "

In Theresienstadt, Pepek set the record for the shortest lecture. In the day the news arrived that Germans were beaten at Stalingrad, he had to lecture on Good Soldier Švejk. "As many of you know", he began, "on page . Švejksays: 'It's easy to get in, but so hard to get out. That's real military art.'" Everybody got the joke at once, there was a roar of laughter, and the lecture was over.

From the Children's Magazine 'Vedem':
Cultural Report

"There were two lectures last week: Hanus Weil on The History of Chess and Pepek Taussig and Nora Fryd on Gogol. The first lecture was extremely well prepared and little Weil delivered it faultlessly from memory. But I'm afraid it wasn't very original.

"The second lecture was one of the best ever given in the Home. But I must still take Pepek Taussig to task over something. I am sure you noticed that whenever he got stuck he reached for a joke as though it were a life preserver. Mass-produced jokes and anecdotes are like ready-wrapped presents with the inscription: 'Wishing you all the very best...' Whenever he was stuck, Pepek managed to shake one out of his sleeve.

"Pepek's lecture was most instructive. He told us a lot not only about Gogol, but also about the era that contributed to Gogol's formation. I would criticize Nora for overacting while reading his excerpts. A little less gesticulation would not have hurt either. But the conclusion of his lecture was impressive and fiery... On the whole it was successful. We are greatly looking forward to the lecture cycle on Russian writers."
 -nz (Petr Ginz)

The last chapter of Taussig's family saga begins on October 28th. 1944, the day of the transport from Theresienstadt to the Auschwitz extermination camp. This was the very last transport from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz. Pepek's parents were ordered to go. Pepek went with them. As the author of family saga, he did not even consider letting them go alone.

Pepek passed the selection, survived Auschwitz.

Květa Medřická recalls: "In 1944, we 'celebrated' the New Year in Auschwitz with Pepek. During Christmas, Pepek had washed the blocks, and found the book of Rilke in one of them. Through the fence barrier between the male and female camp, he read 'The Song of Love and Death' from this book."

 Pepek survived the march of death and arrived in Flossenburg. But nature cheated him. He was dehydrated, his body needed special care.

In a movie, a person should suddenly appear with a plate of a hot soup for our hero to recover. But nobody appeared for Pepek. The hands of prisoner Mutin from Ostrava held Pepek's body until he died, three days before Flossenburg was liberated.

Epilogue

Olga Housková told me in the early '90 that a girl by name Miluska Boemlova had come to her after the war and told her that Pepek had buried a manuscript in Terezin. The two girls went to the indicated place and dug out a box with half-molded sheets. They gave the manuscript to Jarmila, widow of Franta Taussig.

I found Jarmila in Brno. The box doesn't exist anymore, she said. Jarmila had worked in Slánský's office and gotten arrested with him during the Stalinist purges of 1950-2. When her place was searched, all written matter was taken by the secret police, including Taussig's pre-war manuscript 'The Saga of the Taussig Family,' a long text about Hašek, and Pepek's book Borek, postrach Pokřikova, published under the pseudonym Josef Krk. Everything was destroyed by the investigators.

Jarmila was not very nice to me, which was natural after such a past. Unwillingly, she revealed that she was writing stories. When I started to read them, I could not stop. It was about women in the Ravensbrueck concentration camp, and other camp stories. I coaxed the manuscript out of her, and showed it to a friend in Prague. Within six months, Jarmila's book was published, her first at her age of 80-plus.

I didn't find Pepek's manuscript but something good did happen. Jarmila grew younger, she is doing gymnastics and publishing other books. "Just wait, one day you'll see Jarmila alive and healthy, and her children will be members of our family". (From Pepek's letter to Jarmila's parents, after her first arrest).

What an absurd story, I thought, as the train carried me from Brno to Prague. Pepek, who died as a Jew, wrote an essay about Czech humor in a camp. The Czechs whom he loved, and members of the communist party that he adored, took away and destroyed his work, and threw in jail the wife of his brother who had been killed by the Nazis. And all this happened after such a historical lesson -- the bloody war, Auschwitz, Gulag!

But then I began to wonder if the  Terezín Švejk, tied shut with a band, is still lying on a shelf of some STB or KGB archive.