Since her early childhood in the 1920s, Lisa Miková had dreamed of becoming a fashion designer. When as a student she started submitting her designs to one of the best Prague salons, there was every reason to think that her dream would come true. But Lisa was Jewish, and the German occupation brought her studies to an abrupt end. In 1942, at the age of twenty, she was sent with her parents to the Terezín Ghetto. There she fell in love with a young engineer called František, and in the tough conditions of the ghetto they married. Miraculously they both survived Auschwitz, and after the war enjoyed fifty years of married life together. David Vaughan went to see Lisa Miková, who has just celebrated her 96th birthday, at Prague’s Hagibor Jewish old people’s home.
When I visited Lisa at the end of last year, one of the first things I noticed on a shelf in her room was a wooden figurine, about 30 centimetres high, wearing a dress made to one of her pre-war designs. It is stylish, light and modern. On the wall there is also one of her sketches from the time, an elegant design for the woman about town, one of several that survived the war through the initiative of one of her friends. Today Lisa is no longer able to walk, and her sorrow at the recent death of her only son Petr is evident. Yet she remains full of life. The moment she starts to talk, we are once again with the young girl who drew those lively and imaginative sketches.
“Yes, that’s my sketch. That’s what I was studying. There was a special school in Prague where I was studying as long as it was possible for me as a Jewish girl to study.”
And you were also designing clothes for a well-known fashion designer at the time.
“I was interested in it. My parents thought that it would be my profession one day, so my father always said I should learn perfect French and go to Paris.”
And you went to Paris…
“No, I didn’t go to Paris. The war started and everything I wanted to do finished.”
But you did travel to Switzerland, just before the war.
“Yes, we were in Switzerland, but we came back – the whole family. At first, we were there only on holiday, and there we met people who said, ‘That’s wonderful. You are very intelligent to have emigrated.’ And my father said, ‘We didn’t emigrate at all. We are on holiday.’”
This was when you still had a chance to emigrate. And yet you decided to go back to Czechoslovakia.
“We went back, the whole family. First my father said he must go back to do something with his business and that my mother and I will stay in Switzerland. My mother said, ‘No, I won’t let you go alone. I will go with you and Lisa will stay at some pensionat [guesthouse].’ And I said, ‘No, I won’t. I’ll go with my parents.’ We discussed it every day and I was furious that my wonderful holidays were spoilt. We went back, the whole family. I was a stupid girl. I was not yet seventeen. I had a great love in Prague and I wanted to go back.”
When the occupation started, did everything change suddenly – overnight – or was it gradual?
“It changed everything. As a Jewish person I couldn’t do anything. I wasn’t allowed to go to any school, I wasn’t allowed to go to any place where young people met and played sport. Nothing. Everything was closed for me, except for the cemetery. And there we met.”
You would meet in the cemetery.
“Yes. The only place where we could go.”
And what about your dream of becoming a fashion designer?
“This dream died. When I was in prison, I had to work very, very hard and I spoilt my right hand. Ever since I came back it has been difficult for me even to write my name.”
“First I was there with my parents. Then I met my husband in Terezín. My future husband.”
And how did that come about?
“He was an engineer and he was eight years older than me. I was able to draw, so they took me to a place where they made prints and things like that, and I was drawing there. So that’s where we met.”
You were married in the Terezín Ghetto?
“Yes, we got married in Terezín.”
Who married you? Was it a religious ceremony with a Rabbi?
“It was something like that, but of course very primitive. My parents knew my husband, but they were no longer there.” [They had already been deported further to Poland].
Once you were married, did you have some degree of privacy, some space on your own with your husband?
“I had very good luck. My husband arranged somehow for us to live at the top of an old house. He made a small room with his friend – two small rooms. In one room I lived with my husband, in the next room his friend with his wife.”
So while most people were living in dormitories in the barracks together, you had you own little room in the attic.
“It was something very exceptional. Couples couldn’t normally live together.”
You had some semblance of normality, but that didn’t last very long.
“Not very long. Then my husband had to join a transport somewhere, along with the husband of my friend. We two women remained. And then the Nazis were so bestial, I could say. They said that the women could volunteer to join their husbands. There was somebody – he was in a very high position in Terezín – he said, ‘Don’t go anywhere. You won’t meet your husband.’ And I didn’t believe him. I said, ‘All the men will have their women there. Only my husband will not have his wife. And I went.”
“We came to Auschwitz.”
But miraculously you both survived the war. What happened next?
“In Auschwitz everybody was so shocked. We were so young that they thought it was a pity to send us to the gas chambers, because we could work. So they sent us to factories to work.”
That was what saved your life?
“What save my life was that I was young and I was healthy. And I survived it. They cut our hair and we had nothing on our head. It was cold, it was freezing.”
How did you manage not to lose your humanity?
“Everybody managed somehow. I always had only the will and the wish to survive, and I was sure that my husband would also survive and that we will meet. I was sure about it. And I was one of the few women who met their husbands again after the war.”
And what was it like, the first time you saw him again?
“Wonderful. We already prepared it somehow when we were still in prison. I had an aunt there in Prague, my father’s sister, who had a German husband, a German professor. So I was sure that she will remain in Prague, that nothing will happen to her, and that we will meet at this aunt’s flat. And we met there. I had given him the address, of course, and we met there.”
“I can’t speak about that. It was something one can’t tell with words.”
Were you able to get used to normal life again, or was it very difficult?
“It was a little bit difficult, because we had nothing.”
You had lost your parents.
“I knew that my parents were not living any longer. This I knew. My parents, my mother-in-law, my brother-in-law. We were alone, the two of us. This I knew. We had no money, we had nothing, so my husband started work immediately. They took him to the technical high school. He was an engineer. So he already had his profession and everything. I had nothing. I was a student. I had always loved literature and knew languages, so I started in bookselling.”
And you ended up studying to be a librarian in East Germany, in Leipzig.
“Yes, I studied in Germany at a special school for libraries. This school didn’t exist in our country.”
And what was it like going to Germany – of all countries – after the war?
“It wasn’t always easy. When I saw an older man I thought, ‘You were perhaps in the SS or in some other organisation.’ It was a very bad feeling for me. It was difficult. Not the young ones. The young ones were the same as me, but I was somehow afraid of the older ones. I didn’t want to meet them.”
And this was in the 1950s.
So you came back to Prague and worked as a librarian here.
“I worked in a bookshop.”
And did you still dream of designing clothes?
“Oh yes. Of course I did, but it was quite impossible. And I told myself, if it can’t be perfect it shouldn’t be at all.”
When the political changes came and the communist regime fell in 1989, how did you experience that?
“I was happy. I was of course happy that I could live long enough to see that.”
As a young girl you had dreamed of Paris, so did you get to go to Paris?
So it wasn’t the same.
“It wasn’t the same. Of course not.”
Do you feel that you have had a good life?
“I lost everybody who I loved. I have a lot of people around me. I have a young woman, who comes every day. She always says I’m like your daughter, and she’s really like my daughter. When she was a young girl she somehow wasn’t on good terms with her mother, so she came to us – to our family. I’m like her mother, and she comes nearly every day.”
You celebrated your 95th birthday this year [2017, Lisa is now 96]. Do you find it easier thinking about the past as you get older, or does it not get any easier?
“It’s not easy. It’s not easy at all.”
It doesn’t get further away.
“No, I think the whole past not. It’s quite impossible. There is always something which remains with you of the past. So it’s quite impossible.”