March 12, 2021
A firefighter’s charms
These small metal charms in the Sydney Jewish Museum’s collection were made in the Theresienstadt Ghetto. They belonged to Pavel Thorsch, a member of the Feuerwache (FW); the Fire Brigade in Terezin. Pavel had lived in Brno, Vienna and, by 1938, Prague. His work with the Jewish community in Prague offered protection from deportation for a long time – also because he was married to a Catholic woman. However, in February 1945 he was deported to Terezin, leaving his wife behind.
Pavel joined the Fire Brigade immediately. It was a vital part of the control and safety of the camp, created as a part of the technical department, one of the six departments of the Jewish self-administration. The Fire Brigade put out room fires, fires on the rubbish dump, extinguished fires caused by electric cables. They were used not just for firefighting but also as guards, labourers, rescue workers, first aid officers, fighting floods, cleaning toilets and sewer blockages and did a lot of transport of the sick and dying. They burnt vermin infested straw mattresses, assisted at the train station with arriving and departing transports. They also did rapid response rescues, and air defence duties such as black outs. It was hard, dangerous, dirty and unrelenting work.
The commandant of the Fire Brigade was an engineer, Leo Holzer. He had been a student at Pavel’s high school in Brno and they knew each other. Holzer later wrote in his memoirs that towards the end of the war the Fire Brigade were also forced to burn wagonloads of documents from the German main office, the Jewish self-government, files of the protectorate gendarmerie, and mail – hundreds of mailbags of letters and cards that hadn’t yet been delivered to the prisoners.
Pavel survived Terezin and in 1948 left Europe, sailing on the Toscana from Genoa, arriving in Australia on 3 December.