The Story of Petr Ginz

In the weeks leading up to Liberation Day in the Czech Republic, Oko! Magazine will be commemorating the occasion by sharing weekly stories of those who fell victim to the Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities during World War II. In collaboration with the good people who are spearheading the Stolpersteine Prague project, we will be reliving the accounts of those whose lives were mercilessly ended prematurely, and aiming to ignite a collective conscience to help ensure that the horrors of the past are never to be repeated. 

 

Petr Ginz was born in Prague on February 1st, 1928. He lived on Stárkova street – situated close to the Vltava river in Prague’s Old Town – with his parents Otto and Marie and sister Eve. Otto was Jewish; Marie was Christian by birth.

Petr was a remarkably talented child who by the age of fourteen had written five novels. Their titles were; ‘From Prague to China’, ‘The Wizard from Altay Mountains’, ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’, ‘Around the World in One Second’, and ‘A Visit from Prehistory’. He also wrote poetry, an Esperanto-Czech dictionary and produced over 150 drawings and paintings, many of which survive today.

Of his five novels ‘A Visit from Prehistory’ is the only title to survive. In the introduction Petr claims he found the manuscript in the attic of a house where author Jules Verne once lived, implying he was just translating it. The story is about the ‘Ka Du’, a monster lizard that destroys and kills anything in its path as it takes over the African continent. The ‘prehistoric monster’ is in fact man-made and its designer wants to conquer the world. In the story, the ‘monster’ is ultimately destroyed by scientists.

Petr writes in the afterword (speaking as the writer Jules Verne) formulates a warning that is remarkably topical in view of his own reality; “Belgian Congo was thus freed from a tyrant and the world was liberated from a supposedly prehistoric monster. But it has to be added, is it not possible that a new monster may appear on the surface of this Earth, worse than this one – a monster that, controlled by an evil will and equipped with the most advanced technical means, will torture mankind in a terrible manner? In the progressive nineteenth century it is entirely possible. Who knows?” Petr was a boy wise beyond his years. The Ka Du was certainly a convincing metaphor for the evil man-made monster that was to come – Nazism.

Petr went to a Jewish school until he was enrolled in a school for exceptional children. However, after just a year he was no longer allowed to attend as Jews were forbidden under Nazi law.

Children from mixed marriages, where one parent is a Jew and the other Aryan, were considered “First Degree Mischlings” and according to the anti-Jewish laws of the Third Reich were to be deported to a concentration camp at the age of fourteen.

On October 22nd 1942, Petr received a letter:

You have been assigned to transport Ca and are ordered to report today, on 22/10/1942, at 6pm at the latest to the assembly grounds Veletrh in Prague VII, entrance opposite Vinarska Street, with all your documents and your luggage, which must not exceed the weight of 10kg. Large suitcases will be picked up by our collection service tomorrow morning. Inform the person delivering this letter where these main suitcases will be stored. We are enclosing all the printed information and questionnaires; read through them, fill them out, and bring them with you to the Exhibition Grounds. At the same time we are informing you that you must hand in all food-ration coupons for the next supply period, which you have recently received. We have arranged for our service to help you with your preparations for joining the transport.”

Fourteen year old Petr was transported to Theresienstadt on October 24th 1942, leaving behind his mother, father and sister.

Petr’s parents stored much of his writings and art in the house of a family friend, where they were to be discovered 60 years later.

Shortly after Petr arrived in Terezín he founded an underground magazine titled ‘Vedem’ (We Lead). Petr was the magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, and it was published almost weekly for two years, between July 1942 and September 1944, totalling over 800 pages. The first 30 issues were created using a typewriter. After the ribbon went dry, 53 issues were produced by hand.

“You probably think you know Terezin well. I want to prove you wrong.” – Petr Ginz. Editor. Vedem.

The magazine contained opinion pieces, poems, reflections about the past and future, thoughts that expressed not only helplessness about the situation at the time, but also faith and hope – often supported by black humour – that it would improve. Petr also illustrated the magazine and whenever he didn’t have enough articles submitted to publish, he would write them himself using a pseudonym. In one article, he proclaimed: “They tore us unjustly from the fertile ground of work, joy, and culture, which was supposed to nourish our youth. They do this…to destroy us not physically, but spiritually and morally. Will they succeed? Never!”

There was only ever one copy of each issue of the magazine and had anyone been caught with it, the penalty would have swift and deadly for everyone involved.

Each edition of Vedem was eventually buried in a metal box. This box was dug up by a surviving Vedem writer after the ghetto was liberated on January 27th 1945.

Of the 40 boys who contributed to Vedem, it is believed that only nine survived.

In 1944, Petr’s sister Eve was transported to Terezín where they were reunited. Petr gave most of his writings and paintings to Eve and a friend before he was transported to Auschwitz on September 28th 1944. It was in Auschwitz that Petr, aged just sixteen, was gassed. He was one of 1.5 million children murdered by the Nazi regime.

 

Petr’s father Otto was transported from Prague to Terezín on February 11th 1945. Both Otto and Eve survived the Holocaust and returned to Prague after the liberation of Terezín on May 2nd 1945.

One of Petr’s drawings ‘Moon Landscape’ – a black and white sketch of the earth viewed from the moon drawn in 1944 while he was in Terezín – was made famous when a copy was selected by Yad Vashem to be taken into space aboard the shuttle Columbia by the first Israeli Astronaut, Ilan Ramon. Tragically the shuttle suffered a catastrophic explosion during re-entry on February 1st 2003 – what coincidentally would have been Petr’s 75th birthday.

The publicity given to the tragedy and Petr’s drawing led to the re-discovery of many of Petr’s illustrations and a diary which he had written 60 years earlier. The diary records daily life in Prague between February 1941 and August 1942, while the city was under Nazi occupation. Petr often used humour in his diary. In one entry, referring to a new law that Jews must wear yellow stars, he notes; “The wearing of Jewish stars has become compulsory. On my way to school I counted 69 sheriffs. My mummy counted more than 100.”

Petr’s diary has been published by his sister Eve (now Chava Pressburger) with the title ‘Diary of my Brother’. It has also been translated into English with the title; ‘The Diary of Petr Ginz, 1941-42’.

In March 2004 an asteroid discovered by Czech astronomers was named ‘50413 Petrginz’ in Petr’s honour’.

In 2005 the Czech Republic issued a postage stamp in memory of Ilan Ramon, the Columbia’s crew and Petr. It also pictures the ‘Moon Landscape’ drawing.

In 2018 Yad Vashem provided a copy of Petr’s ‘Moon Landscape’ to astronaut Andrew Feustel who took it with him to the International Space Station in memory of Petr and IIan.

This year Petr would have been 91.

A documentary has been made about Petr’s life called ‘The Last Flight of Petr Ginz’.

 

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