Heinz Prossnitz (Collage) by Post BellumMemory of Nations
The student Heinz Prossnitz organized aid to people deported to Łódź, Terezín (Theresienstadt), Auschwitz-Birkenau on a huge scale. Together with friends, he sent them thousands of kilograms of food. He thought of others first, even though he himself was in danger. He died in a gas chamber aged 18.
Born in 1926, he lived in Prague; his father Fritz Prossnitz was the head of the Finance Department at the local Jewish community.
After the Nazi occupation, Heinz, called Heinzek by his friends, joined a Zionist youth group. The leader of his group, the Makabi Hacair, was Fredy Hirsch, later an important figure in the care of Jewish children at Terezín and Auschwitz.
Heinz Prossnitz by Post BellumMemory of Nations
Heinz was said to be small of stature, redheaded and sociable; he attended a Czech school until 1940 when the Protectorate authorities banned Jews from studying.
Like his Zionist friends, he began to educate himself at the Jewish Jugend-Alijah (Youth Aliyah) school, aimed at the emigration of young people to Palestine.
He had already been active in scouting, and after the occupation his involvement grew: alongside regular subjects, he learned English and Hebrew, worked in workshops, studied the history of Zionism, and met with others in the evenings.
Shopping time for Jews by Post BellumMemory of Nations
In the summer of 1941, the Nazis banned all Zionist activities, including the Jugend-Alijah, and education continued only in private homes. As of September, Jews had to be marked with a star. In the autumn, deportation transports started leaving the Protectorate, and the young Zionists helped others prepare for the journey.
Heinz Prossnitz (Collage) by Post Bellum and Wikimedia CommonsMemory of Nations
At that time, people knew nothing about the murders or the gas chambers. Nothing of the sort was even imaginable. They expected that they would have to spend some time in a ghetto or a camp, that they would be concentrated somewhere together for labor, as the Nazis told them.
The support of the Zionist Havlagah (Restraint) group at that time focused on practical matters (what to take along with only 24 hours to prepare? How to transport the permitted 50 kg of luggage to the assembly point?). Heinz was in charge of the cash box into which young people deposited small sums of money to finance such assistance.
The first deportation transports from the Protectorate (successively carrying 5,000 people) headed for the ghetto in Łódź, Poland.
Soon the deportees began sending home censored notes to relatives and acquaintances containing encoded requests for assistance. The ghetto was overpopulated (nearly 170,000 people in a small space). Czech Jews often could not manage in the harsh conditions. They suffered from hunger and the cold.
Ruth Bondy (a survivor of Terezín, Auschwitz and other camps) wrote:
For the first twenty months, only money orders could be sent to Łódź. Sums of 20, 25 and 30 marks were remitted regularly to friends in Łódź from the common treasury of the Havlagah group. As it turned out later, the Nazi administration seized up to 60 percent of the money. From 10 marks, only three would remain, but that was enough to buy a kilogram of bread, and that was a lot.
According to an overview Heinz drew up in 1944 prior to his own deportation to the gas chambers, Łódź had received 40,000 marks from the common treasury and another 15,000 marks from a fund called Keren Polania in Hebrew, money Heinz had apparently received illegally from abroad, mainly from Switzerland (Heinz's father was associated with the Jewish Agency in Switzerland).
Terezín - 4th yard of the Small Fortress by Post BellumMemory of Nations
In November 1941, the Nazis stopped deportation transports to Łódź because of fears that an epidemic could spread from the overpopulated ghetto to the surrounding areas. For the Protectorate’s Jews, deportations started to the newly established ghetto at Terezín.
Again, it turned out that the Nazi authorities had lied to the Jewish representatives. They had counted on Terezín functioning as a self-governing ghetto, in which the Jews would live and work. However, starting already from January 1942, trains also left from here carrying thousands of people to the extermination camps.
Cell n. 38 in the Small Fortress in Terezín by Post BellumMemory of Nations
Members of the Jewish youth organizations were mostly sent to the ghetto in the course of 1942. In the summer of 1943, Terezín also received a significant part of the employees of Prague’s Jewish Community.
Heinz Prossnitz (Collage) by Post BellumMemory of Nations
Heinz Prossnitz also expected to leave, but his father Fritz received an order from the Nazi authorities for him and his family to remain in Prague for the time being. As the head of the Finance Department they considered him “indispensable” for the moment.
Heinz was 17. He stayed behind almost without any friends, with the vain desire to leave for Palestine, working in the kitchen garden of the Jewish insane asylum in Prague-Hloubětín.
He continued to procure and send money, mainly with the help of two girls from mixed marriages: Erika Wolfová (nicknamed Eka) and Edith Březinová (Hebrew name Noemi, later married Rosenová).
Edith Březinová-Rosenová survived the Nazis – after the war she and her mother first left secretly for France and then traveled on to Palestine. Edith was born in 1926 in Kadaň where her non-Jewish father owned a distillery.
When she was two years old, her parents divorced. She grew up just with her mother in the German-speaking border region of Bohemia, in Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad).
After the Munich agreement in 1938, they moved central Bohemia (and eventually to Prague). Her parents had not registered her with the Jewish community at birth, but her mother raised her in a Zionist spirit. She spoke German and learned Czech in Prague. She became a member of the hiking and nature-oriented Tchelet lavan movement. It was in that environment that she came to know Heinz.
As the daughter of a non-Jewish father, Edith did not have to wear a star and was not included in any transport. “Since I didn’t have a star, I was able to go out in the evening. Jews had to be home by eight. I could also buy what could not normally be bought.”
In 1943, Heinz and his friends began to concentrate on providing food aid to the deportees – including to Terezin, because even there people suffered from hunger and want.
Edith recalled: “They sent Mom to Terezín. I stayed behind in Prague alone and worked in bookbinding. (…) In Terezín, they received permission to send stamps and with those stamps I could send a package. I had to stick the stamps on the packages. I also sent them to people I did not know. When I received a stamp, I sent a package.”
The only post office that Prague Jews were allowed to use, during limited opening hours, was in Ostrovní Street near the National Theater. Edith carried parcels to the post office, sometimes alone, sometimes with Heinz: “I covered his star with my hand.”
They looked for food on the black market, sending potatoes, bread, sometimes margarine or sugar. Edith traveled to relatives in Dačice, sold her grandparents' furniture, which was stored there, and used the money to buy food for the deportees: “We also sold books, Heinz also had some other resources.”
Punishments for black-market activities were draconian. Heinz, Edith (Noemi), Erika, and her mother, who also joined the effort, were fortunate not to get caught trading on the black market:
“Not only food, but also wrapping paper, boxes and string were hard to obtain during the war, but Heinz found a supplier for everything. An entire network was created. Aryan friends, relatives, or trustworthy people with whom the deportees had left money, even though there was a ban on associating with Jews, secretly brought food, money, or ration coupons to Heinz.
Mixed-race people and Jews related to Aryans also brought packages. Officially they were allowed to associate with Jews but were afraid to do so and wanted to remain anonymous. To meet the increasing demands, Heinz sent some of the parcels to Terezín via Germany.”
In this way – via a foreign country, so as not to attract attention with so much aid – more than 800 kg of food made its way to the Terezín Ghetto, in addition to the 4,400 kg Heinz, his friends and family sent directly.
The food packages (and only a small proportion of the prisoners were lucky enough to receive them) gave strength both physically and mentally, created happy moments, provided hope.
Remains of the so-called family camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau by Wikimedia Commons and Post BellumMemory of Nations
The Family Camp in Birkenau (officially designated BIIb) was established in September 1943, after two large transports totaling 5,000 people left Terezin. Upon arrival they were given the opportunity to write to relatives in the ghetto. It was also possible to write and send a package to Birkenau through the Reichsvereinigung der Juden in Deutschland (Reichs-Association of Jews in Germany).
Heinz Prossnitz approached the Association on October 13, 1943 and received information that one person could send three notes. Those that came from Birkenau were censored, so just like the people previously deported to Łódź, the authors wrote messages in code.
For example, in one message one can read: “I'm worried about Ing. Sladký and Uncle Odkolek, they should write every week.” (Odkolek was and is a well-known Prague bakery.) Someone greeted “his sweet nephew” or sent “sweet kisses”. Here and there, the writers added the name of another prisoner who was also in the camp to the usual final phrase “don't forget me” or “awaiting an early message from you”.
Selection on the ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau by Wikimedia Commons and Post BellumMemory of Nations
During the night of March 8 to 9, 1944, all the people from the September transports, who had survived until that date, were murdered in Birkenau. In December 1943 and May 1944, the family camp grew by thousands more from other transports. On June 2, 1944, Heinz Prossnitz noted that he had sent 1,492 kg of bread and 293 food packages to Birkenau and had spent 56,000 crowns.
Ruth Bondy was one of the few who survived the murders. She wrote about Prossnitz's help in 1999: “The treasures of Midas pale before that. Monetary value can hardly be expressed in today's currency, but the value of bread is easy to appreciate: days of happiness, a spark of hope, belief in humanity in the shadows of the crematorias’ smoke stacks. Of the fifty recipients of Heinz’s aid in the Family Camp, I estimate about one fifth lived to see the end of the war.”
“Heinz saved my life with his selfless aid,' wrote Honza Gärtner in 1949, suggesting that a forest or street be named after him in Israel 'because he was a real hero.”
I was unable to establish whether there is a forest or a street named for Heinz Prossnitz in Israel. There is no street named after him in Bohemia or Moravia.
Heinz Prossnitz (Collage) by Post BellumMemory of Nations
On July 9, 1944, Heinz Prossnitz turned 18. He wrote down then that he often thought about his future vocation: “God knows what I will become. After all, I would like to go to Eretz Israel and work on building our state body and soul… I would not go far in communist regime. But what help is all of this when I am eighteen and still have no general or specialized knowledge or life experience. What if we just leave it, it's all very sad, if at least the war ended and we survived it in Prague in good health, we can see what happens later.”
In October 1944, the Prossnitzes received a summons to join a deportation transport. They left for Terezín and were sent on from there immediately (October 28, 1944) on the last of the large autumn deportation transports to Auschwitz.
Edith Rosen recalled Heinz's departure:
“None of the other young people were left. Everybody had gone … We were sitting, packing Heinz's luggage… He thought he would stay in Terezín, but they sent him to Auschwitz and did not return…”
A group of 18 people from Prague, including Heinz, and members of the Ghetto leadership and their families were sent directly to the gas chambers, without any selection. Erika Wolfová died in Israel. I was unable to determine whether Edith Rosen was still alive. In 2015, as a pensioner, she took care of dogs and cats and was angry with people who had stolen her old letters and photographs.
Ruth Bondy died in Ramat Gan in November 2017. At the end of her text on Heinz Prossnitz, she speculated as to what the lesson of the story might be:
“The first conclusion is that the realm of absolute evil will prevail over love for people. However, it is also possible to see the opposite conclusion. We can not raise our hands in surrender even when facing the most-destructive odds. We must never say: What can I, a small, helpless person do against them? Yes, Heinz was defeated, most of the recipients of his parcels did not stay alive, but a loaf of bread floats above the merciless sky of Auschwitz as a symbol of human compassion.”