In the Nazi’s Theresienstadt ghetto, toys were passed from child to child, with those being deported to death camps leaving their precious belongings to those staying behind.
This is how Dan Gluss, then a 7-year-old at Theresienstadt, came to own the board game Ghetto - a Monopoly knockoff made for the ghetto kids by an older artist and now on display at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial.
The board game - along with a doll dressed in the striped uniform of Auschwitz, a young girl’s notebook crammed with recipes she collected to forget about hunger and dozens of other toys and games - is part of a new exhibit called “No Child’s Play.”
The exhibit, which opened last week, shows that the 1.5 million Jewish children killed in the Holocaust “were like our children in many ways,” curator Yehudit Inbar said.
“The games they were playing also remind us that the Holocaust did not happen so many years ago,” Inbar said. For example, she said, a young Warsaw Ghetto inmate’s paper dolls were fashioned after movie hero Tarzan.
Yad Vashem began collecting the toys and games in April, asking survivors and museums to contribute to the yearlong exhibit which is accompanied by photos describing Jewish life in Europe before and during World War II.
Many artifacts came from Theresienstadt, an SS-run ghetto in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia between 1941 and 1945, and a way station for Jews sent to Nazi death camps. In September 1942, some 50,000 Jews were crowded into Theresienstadt, and half the inmates died that year from disease.
The artists and writers among the inmates organized Theresienstadt’s cultural life.
Fourteen-year-old Ian Klein made three puppets for the Theresienstadt puppet theater, with the help of his teacher Walter Freud. Klein and Freud later died in the Auschwitz death camp, but the puppets are on display at Yad Vashem.
Dan Gluss, 63, a resident of the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan, said he and his family were sent to Theresienstadt in 1941. At the time he was 7 years old, and his brother Micha was 9.
Gluss said he and the other boys played soccer with a tightly knotted rag for lack of a real ball.
One day, children who were being sent east to the death camps passed on the Ghetto game to him, he said.
The game “was passed on all the time by children who went to the east and were not able to take it with them,” he said. “We stayed in Theresienstadt until the very end, and the game stayed with us.”
The center of the board, fashioned after Monopoly, shows a detailed drawing of Theresienstadt, with its barracks and alleys. The surrounding stops portray scenes of ghetto life, including the post office, the workshops, the water tower and the cook houses.
An older inmate named Pock made the game for the children “to explain to them the situation they were in,” said Inbar, the curator.
Some 13,000 children were sent to Theresienstadt during World War II and later deported to death camps. Only a few hundred survived.
For many children in Nazi camps, toys were their only link to a life the Nazis had forced them to leave behind. Francesca Kwestler-Stern escaped the reality of hunger in Germany’s Ravensbrueck concentration camp by writing down recipes she collected from her friends in a brown notebook now being shown by Yad Vashem.
At the Auschwitz death camp, Roma Alter made a cloth doll wearing a blue-and-white striped inmate’s uniform.
Inbar said the games and toys not only gave the children comfort, they also helped them cling to life. “They kept their minds out of the world they were in and channeled the little energy they had toward survival,” she said.