Zdenka Fantlova is a superstar in her Czech hometown. She immortalized Rokycany, population 15,000, in her 2002 memoir, “My Lucky Star,” where she wrote about a joyful girlhood brutally interrupted by the Holocaust.
Now the town and Fantlova have found yet another reason to embrace one another: a note that she wrote while on a train to one of the five concentration camps that she survived during World War II.
On Feb. 19, 1945 — more than 60 years ago — Fantlova was on a transport that stopped in Rokycany on its way between two concentration camps.
On the brief, coincidental stop in her birthplace, Fantlova was with her sister, whose health was failing, and who would die in her arms a few years later.
Still, the circumstances of her journey did not deter Fantlova from her difficult mission.
“I decided to send out a sign of life so somehow,” she said. “So, in the crowded car, I found a piece of paper and a pencil and wrote this note: ‘Regards from the train from Mauthausen into Germany. We are well. We don’t know anything about rest of family — when are we going to see each other? Regards, Zdenka.’ “
This short note, full of all the longing and confusion felt by a teenage victim of the Nazis , somehow survived the following decades of political upheaval. It has just been made the main attraction of a permanent exhibition in the Rokycany municipal museum.
The note’s deeper meaning for Fantlova, and its survival, is part of a story that reveals the strength of childhood ties in a small town, even one transformed by war, emigration and nearly 50 year of totalitarian rule.
Fantlova recalled vividly how she had folded the note into a tiny square when she was on the transport train going to a concentration camp.
“I addressed it to Alfred Fischer, who had worked for my parents’ company,” she said. “I threw it out the window of the train into the snow.”
A Czech railroad employee found the note and gave it to another station worker, who delivered it to Fischer’s home. By this time Fischer had been deported to Terezin, but his gentile wife and two daughters remained behind. The youngest daughter, 7, gave the note to her older sister, who kept it and later brought it to a town in the north of the country, entrusting it to yet another family member.
That relative deposited the note in a keepsake box. And that was that.
Then, last Christmas Fantlova, who now lives in London, took a trip to Rokycany — she has been visiting the town regularly since the fall of the Communist regime in 1989.
A fellow Rokycanian approached her and said that she knew someone who had something that might belong to her.
That someone turned out to be Eva Bejckova, Fischer’s youngest daughter, who still lives in Rokycany. She had given the note for safekeeping to Pavel Schwarz, a Lions Club officer and expert on the town’s Jewish history.
When she once again held that tangible piece of her past, Fantlova said she had to catch her breath.
“When I opened the note, it was like holding something from the afterlife,” said Fantlova. “It was very eerie.”
Reading her letter almost a lifetime later, she said, she realized that when she wrote it she could not have allowed herself to admit what was happening to her. She had known in her heart that her parents were doomed — her mother had been gassed when she arrived in Auschwitz and her father died on the death march out of the camp at the end of the war — but she could not permit herself to think about it then.
“This twisting of reality is what kept me alive,” Fantlova said. She saw her letter to her neighbor not as just a personal keepsake but as a greater piece of history.
“I couldn’t just put it in a drawer,” she said. “I thought about giving it to the Jewish Museum of Prague, but that’s not my town.” So she handed it over to the mayor of Rokycany.
Mayor Jan Baloun, who held a ceremony for Fantlova, gave her the ultimate Czech compliment. He called her a true patriot, and said she would forever be Czech, although she lived most of her life abroad. Several celebrations and banquets followed the handing over of the note, and Fantolova proudly displayed several articles written about it in the Czech media.
“Hundreds of people in the town turned out, everyone stood and applauded. I was crying,” Fantlova said. She still has the dramatic flare of the stage actress she’d been in Australia, where she emigrated after the war.
Sixty-seven of Rokycany’s Jews died in Nazi death camps, and only 13 came back to the town after the war.
Her memoir, “My Lucky Star,” describes life in the camps as well as Fantlova’s rescue by a British soldier who was part of the liberation team at Bergen-Belsen. She credits her ability to speak English, which she first learned by listening to such popular American tunes as Fred Astaire’s “My Lucky Star,” as a life-saving skill. She was able to communicate with the British soldier, who quickly got her out of the camp and into a hospital in Sweden.
At 83, she still carefully applies lipstick, lip liner and lip gloss before she will allow her photo to be taken, but her beauty is more than skin deep. She lectures about her Holocaust experience in both Czech and German schools. It is Fantlova’s humor that sinks in and stays. She refers to the Holocaust, with gallows humor, as “that time in my life when I got to travel for free.”
She explains that she just came back from a downhill skiing vacation. “I will try cross-country when I get older,” she said.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.