Marianka Zadikow May
A Life Profile
BY GAIL WEIN
Marianka Zadikow May is a woman of indomitable spirit, a loquacious and energetic person whose outgoing and optimistic attitude has always endeared her to everyone around her. She was born in 1923 in Munich, Germany. Her father, Arnold Zadikow, was an internationally-renowned artist and sculptor whose work is in the collections of major museums around the world. Marianka’s mother, Hilda Lohsing, was also an artist. The two met in Munich when both were students. Marianka was an only child, and had no other relatives nearby, though she did have uncles in Cologne, Hamburg and Vienna.
Growing up and attending elementary school in Munich, Marianka was already experiencing anti-Semitism. Other schoolchildren attacked her because she was obviously Jewish – her curly hair gave her away. “I had some difficult times on the way to school, but I still did not really understand what was going on,” said Marianka. She wasn’t the only Jewish girl in her school, but, said that she felt as if she was. “We lived in a very Catholic place. There was a Catholic priest and a Protestant minister coming to school once a week, and a Jewish religion teacher, who taught us about the pride of Judaism,” she said.
Moving to Prague
In 1933, Hitler wasn’t yet the leader of the country, but his power and popularity were growing. When Marianka was ten years old, she and her mother moved to her mother’s hometown of Prague, where a number of relatives on the maternal side of the family lived. Marianka’s father didn’t go with them; he went to Paris to try to pave the way for his family to safely join him there. After three years, her father managed to get to Prague, though his job was about 80 miles away. “He worked as artistic head of the Moser Glassworks factory in Karlsbad,” said Marianka, “and weekends he came home to Prague to visit us.”
When they first moved to Prague, Marianka and her mother lived in a room in an old house, owned by her mother’s art teacher from her schooldays. By the time Marianka’s father moved to Czechoslovakia in 1936, Marianka and her mother had their own home – one large room in a cold-water walkup apartment.
Marianka herself did not have an opportunity to study art like her parents, nor did she have a normal education. She attended first and second grade in Germany, and then three years of middle school in Prague, which was more like a vocational school. Though she aspired to be a pediatrician and a violinist, studies to prepare for these professions just weren’t possible at that time.
By 1939, life was becoming more and more restricted for Jews in Prague. They were not permitted to work for non-Jews, teach in the universities, or have their own offices or factories. “Ration cards for Jews were much smaller quantities of everything,” said Marianka. “The quantities of meat were ridiculous – you would eat for a sandwich what we had for a week, but we were still father, mother, child under one roof, and we could still speak about things we wanted to speak about.”
Marianka, a native German speaker, worked hard to learn to speak Czech. She practiced pronunciation in the mirror at home, but found that the most effective way was for her to sing in Czech. “Czech folk songs were the first things I did in Czech, long before I could speak the language,” said Marianka. “I never knew where one word ended and another one started. I knew only when it was a love song or when it was a children’s song.”
She heard some of these songs as she made her way across Prague to go to work. She was a hat maker, refurbishing hats for customers who couldn’t afford new ones. In addition to this job, the teenaged Marianka took care of her family, cooking and doing laundry on weekends for her mother, father and grandmother.
An Affidavit from Albert Einstein
When Marianka’s father was living in Paris, he met Albert Einstein, who hired the artist to craft a tombstone for one of his family members. According to Marianka, Einstein provided the Zadikow family with an affidavit, which showed that the scientist would vouch for the family and be financially responsible for them in their first year in the United States, if necessary.
“My father and I went to the American embassy, and we got a little slip that showed that we were on the list. The consul shook my father’s hand and said, ‘That will be $10,000.’ My father said, ‘What do you mean?'” Marianka’s father could not, and would not pay the bribe. “We didn’t have it. We only just had enough money for our living expenses. So we stayed in Prague and we went to the Concentration Camp,” said Marianka.
Marianka and her father stood in lines at many different consulates to see if there was some way to get to any country, including those in Africa, South America, Madagascar, etc. “Once we were standing in line for an entry visa to Peru,” said Marianka. “Suddenly you hear whispering. The people on line were asking, ‘What’s the capitol? Lima! Lima!’ We only wanted to be prepared if the officials ask us, ‘What do you think the capitol is of the country where you want to go?’ At least we should know that much.”
Around 1940 or 1941, the first transports of Prague Jews began, and these were to the Łódź Ghetto. Marianka helped some of the elderly residents pack their belongings, going to their homes and helping them determine what they would need to bring with them. “I had a hand scale, to make sure they had the right amount of baggage. The Nazis would take a suitcase or the bedroll of somebody walking in the street, and put it on a scale. If it was too heavy, they were punished.”
In May 1942, Marianka, her mother and her father received their transport numbers, 458, 459, and 460 on Transport AU-I. They had just two or three days to get their belongings packed, they were permitted to bring just 50 kg per person.
Arriving in Terezín
The transport was an ordinary train car with seats, and Marianka was able to travel with both her parents. “On the train, I found my best friend, Miriam Kummermann,” recalled Marianka. “We stood by the window singing Czech folk songs.”
The connection between the railroad depot and the Terezín camp was not yet built, so Marianka, her parents and the others on the transport had to walk about two miles. “Some of us carried our own luggage, but there were also wooden wagons pulled by people, sunburned Jews who came out of Terezín, who were there for many months. We said, ‘That’s what you look like when you go in there? That’s not so bad. That looks all right.’ When we arrived, we were roped in like you rope in cows, the men were roped in one group, and the women and children were roped together somewhere else.”
That evening, Marianka and her mother were marched to their Barracks. “When we came to our room, we were introduced to the room elder, and we were told, ‘You will have to find a way to squeeze in,'” Marianka said. “Squeeze in? There were no beds, there was nothing. People were like sardines, all in a row. And when you wanted to get in somewhere, they cursed. ‘Hey, do you know what kind of weeks we’ve had behind us and you’re disturbing us? Let us sleep at least, it’s the only thing that’s ours!’ And later on, I understood what that was. From the beginning, we were always overcrowded.” Later, Marianka and her mother lived in a barracks were bunks had been constructed. Marianka chose a top bunk where there was a little bit more room, which she’d climb up a simple wooden ladder to get to.
Working in Terezín
There was an employment office at the camp, staffed by Jewish prisoners. Marianka was assigned a job and the next morning was marched to the site by a Czech policeman.
“Every morning we were marched to where we worked, and after working hours we were marched back to the barracks, and there was no place we could go besides that. After a few months, when the Czech civilian people who used to live in Terezín were all gone, only then we were allowed to walk in the streets after work,” said Marianka. “We were in a place that was suited for maybe 7,000 people. We were at times over 50,000 and you couldn’t even fall when you walked, because you fell onto someone else who could catch you.”
For the first 100 hours of work, each inmate was assigned the jobs that no one else wanted to do. Supplies were scarce, and the people on cleaning detail were given a bucket and water, but no soap or cleaning fluids. Marianka said she had some interesting jobs. In one, she was assigned a cleaning detail where they used wadded up newspapers instead of rags to clean windows. On the sly, Marianka and her co-workers read these newspapers and got news of the war. Then she would relay that news to everyone in her barracks. She was permitted to select her next job, and chose the art studio where her mother and two-dozen other women worked.
Another of her jobs was on an assembly line in a factory where they built munitions for the Nazis. A subtle defiance by Marianka and some of her co-workers was to put together parts in the wrong order so that they wouldn’t function. The factory was in a tent set up in the middle of Terezín. “It was hot summer and they didn’t give us a drop of water to drink or [let us] go to the bathroom,” recalled Marianka. “There was a cynical, nasty Jewish man overseeing the operation, who was not humane enough to let somebody simply get water if they need it.”
Death of Father
Marianka’s father died on March 8, 1943, a few days before his 59th birthday. He had acute appendicitis, but his hospital admittance was delayed for his lice inspection, even though he was practically bald. By the time he was seen by the doctors, his appendix burst.
“My mother and I were allowed to go to the place where he worked for half an hour. I took everything out that was handwritten by him, including some poems he wrote which were in the pockets of the last pants that he wore. Those pants became my winter pants. They were good wool material that lasted two more winters.”
Meeting Rafael Schächter
By late fall 1942, Marianka and her fellow prisoners were permitted some leisure activities in the evenings. There were many performances and lectures going on. Tickets were free, though not always so easy to get – and were required in order to prevent overcrowding at the events.
One evening, Marianka explored her barracks and wandered up the stairs to the attic. There were a number of older women who lived on that floor, and they were standing in small groups. A woman asked her if she liked to sing, and meet others who sing. A tiny slip of paper was thrust into her hand, and she was told, “Be there tomorrow after work and don’t tell anybody.”
Arriving to the location of the rehearsal in the cellar of a building, Marianka found a small group of women of all different ages, an harmonium, and the conductor Rafael Schächter. “I had heard about Rafael Schächter but I didn’t know anything about him,” said Marianka. “His personality was something so powerful that even before he said anything you knew that you were in the presence of a very strong human being who was going to do things, and who demanded absolute cooperation.” Schächter told the group, “We are going to put on several operas. We have no instruments, but we have soloists. Our first opera is going to be The Marriage of Figaro.”
“I still have it in my ears,” recalled Marianka. “It was a marvelous experience. It made a very difficult and disagreeable way of life, livable in as far as we had some kind of a goal. No matter how bad the day was, no matter how hungry I was, there was something to look forward to the next day. And the most incredible thing happened. You forgot you were in a Concentration Camp.”
The next opera that Schächter mounted was by the Czech composer Bedřich Smetana. “What The Bartered Bride meant to the inhabitants of Terezín and to us who sang in it, is something totally, totally unforgettable. I sang in it 28 times. There is not a sound of it that I cannot go on singing when I hear it on the radio. Only, I don’t hear it. I live it again, and I’m again 20 years old, and again surrounded by the faces of the people in the chorus.”
The most challenging and significant work that the singers attempted was the majestic Requiem, or mass for the dead, by the Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi. “He [Schächter] explained to us that we were going to do something totally unique. We were going to sing the most beautiful music Verdi ever wrote. He explained: this was our battle, good against evil, music against violence and death. And we will survive. This music will be put to the highest heights from the deepest depths because in such a place like this it was never sung before.” Marianka sang in all 16 performances of Verdi’s Requiem at Terezín.
As one transport after another went to the East, why wasn’t Marianka sent on one of them? She has a theory that it was because she had a job earmarked for an older person, and therefore was not on the list of the younger age range of those more likely to be transported.
In 1944, Marianka’s job was at a factory making faux-leather items, like tobacco pouches. The man who was responsible for lighting the heating stove was put on one of the transports, and the woman who kept the area clean by sweeping and maintaining the toilet fell ill and died. Marianka convinced her boss to allow her to take over both jobs. He made her speak directly to the Nazis about it, and she mustered all of her courage to state her case to the uniformed overseers.
Terezín was liberated on May 8, 1945. Marianka calls that day her birthday, though her actual date of birth is May 26. “If I hadn’t been alive May 8, 1945, I wouldn’t have a birthday.”
That day, Marianka’s mother looked out the window from her barracks and saw two horses without riders. “My mother smiled and said, ‘There is a dead rider somewhere behind and I’m sure it wasn’t a Jewish one.’ A little later during the day, some people came from the International Red Cross and took the SS flag off, and put the IRC flag on the tower.”
Right away, the food they were served improved in both quality and quantity. “We didn’t get the horrible so-called coffee anymore. In the same barrel that the ersatz coffee came once, now we have tea. The food is not so great, but we have enough bread, bread baked in Terezín, and it’s not spoiled and green; we can have as much as we want.” They had real meat and real potatoes, as opposed to turnips and spoiled horsemeat that the German army rejected.
Not every Russian soldier was a liberator. By 1945, Marianka was no longer living in the women’s barracks; her residence was now in a house together with a number of artists at the camp. “I found myself one day in our house hearing heavy steps coming up the stairs, and out of nowhere came a Russian soldier, and in no time he had me on the ground and him on top of me. I screamed as loud as I could, ‘Help me, help me, help me!’ From high upstairs in the house came an old man, Mijnheer Cohen from Holland, and he grabbed that soldier and threw him down the steps. I don’t know what I would have done without Mr. Cohen from upstairs.”
Back to Prague
Marianka remained in Terezín for two months after liberation, as the Red Cross imposed a quarantine to prevent the spread of typhoid and other diseases. Ultimately, a friend of her mother’s in Prague sent a truck to bring them back to Prague. Upon her return, Marianka found herself in an unusual situation: though they lived in Czechoslovakia, she and her mother were German citizens. Therefore, they were not able to get the normal ration cards, and it was nearly impossible to get work papers and an apartment, though they somehow talked their way into an unfurnished attic room.
Marianka went to the JCC (Jewish Community Center) in Prague to ask for assistance, but they had no idea how to help her. She then went to an organization that supported political prisoners (had her father not died in the war he certainly would have been a political prisoner). This organization was able to help Marianka get the proper ration cards that she needed. She returned to the JCC and the men who ran the legal department there were impressed with her tenacity. They hired her on the spot. She became a sort of legal caseworker to help other non-Czech Jews from Poland, Romania and elsewhere navigate the system, get permits to leave the country and find their families.
Coming to the U.S.
In the fall of 1947, Marianka’s uncle sent an affidavit of support for her. With visa in hand, she travelled to America on the Gripsholm, a Swedish ship. Marianka soon found herself a job in a Jewish orphanage in Far Rockaway in New York City, and she worked there for four years. “I was terribly underpaid, but I loved my job,” she recalled. Later, in 1950, she helped her mother come over to the United States.
Some people that Marianka knew from her work at the orphanage introduced her to another Czech family, which was how she met her future husband, Eric May. The family lived in the New York suburb of Woodmere.
Eric May was a Czech Jew who came to the United States just before the war. He joined the US Army around the time of Pearl Harbor. He was able to get his mother and his two sisters and their children out of Europe. Eric became a US citizen while he was in Patton’s infantry, fighting against Hitler in Europe. When Marianka met him in 1948, he and his older sister were running a company that imported semi-precious and costume jewelry from Czechoslovakia. Marianka and Eric were married on August 30, 1950.
On the Farm
After they got married, Marianka encouraged her husband to pursue a livelihood that he would enjoy. He told her that he had wanted to be a forester so he could work outdoors.
A compromise turned out to be a career as a poultry farmer, as Eric could learn that trade in an apprenticeship program through the GI Bill. He apprenticed on a farm in Hightstown, New Jersey, and in 1952 they bought a farm in Pine Bush, New York, an area that reminded them of the mountains of their Bohemian homeland. They had several thousand chickens that they raised for the eggs. “I became an egg slave,” said Marianka. Their daughter Lori was born that year, and her sister Liesi was born in 1955. Eric’s hobby was writing poetry and songs, and the family spent many happy hours singing together at home in the evenings.
In 1969, Eric and Marianka sold the chickens, but remained on the farm, and Marianka took a job as a cleaner at a nearby school. Eric also took a job, so that the couple could work five days a week instead of seven, receive benefits and have a regular paycheck.
Marianka’s husband Eric passed away in 1986, and she still lives on the farm with her daughter Lori. “I’m not a Holocaust survivor as much as a Requiem survivor,” said Marianka. “I didn’t just only survive the Requiem; I got it as a present to take with me all my life.”