By Rick Pinard
RFE/RL broadcasts daily from Prague-Hagibor, a site connected for more than a century with offering help and hope to people in need.
In 1908, Prague’s Jewish Community purchased a large tract of land on what was then the distant periphery of the neighboring town of Královské Vinohrady. It was to serve as the location of a care facility for the elderly, indigent and infirm. Given the plot’s generous size and proximity to a tram line, the area rapidly developed into a multifunctional complex. It became home also to local Jewish sports teams whose athletes chose the name “Hagibor” from the Hebrew word (הגיבור) meaning “the hero.” With time, locals came to associate the name Hagibor with the entire area.
Throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s, Hagibor teams competed in national and international sporting events, occasionally achieving remarkable successes. For example, Hagibor’s water polo players became Czechoslovakia’s top team in 1928. Hagibor athlete Oskar Hekš ran for Czechoslovakia in the marathon of the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, and placed eighth.
However, it was after the Nazi occupation of the Czech Lands on 15 March 1939 that Hagibor itself first gained a special importance to those facing oppression. Relegated to the sidelines in the general persecution of Czechia’s Jews, Hagibor’s sports teams faced bans on using facilities with their Gentile friends and colleagues. Under the leadership of Fredy Hirsch – a young, gay, Zionist refugee from Aachen, Germany – Hagibor then became an oasis of fun and hope in a desert of oppression. Hirsch organized fitness training, sports competitions, summer camps and the like for Prague’s Jewish young people.
RFE/RL spoke to Prague native Edith Sheldon, née Druckerová, now of Sydney, Australia, who remembers those days:
RFE/RL: Mrs. Sheldon, do you have any memories of Hagibor from before the Nazi invasion?
No, I did not have any Jewish friends at that time. Also, I was never sporty.
RFE/RL: What do you remember from any time you spent at Hagibor?
I was twelve years old when Hitler marched in. We had to live with more and more restrictions to our way of life, and, actually, to our life as such.
Hagibor came to mean the world to us Jewish kids. We were not allowed to mix with non-Jews and thus I had to find a whole new circle of friends.
Hagibor and the Jewish cemeteries were the only open spaces where we could meet. In the beginning, it was possible to go there by tram. Later, we were not even allowed to use the platform of the second carriage and had to walk all the way.
RFE/RL: Do you associate Hagibor with any particular friends? If so, with whom? What were their fates?
Yes, I ran into Ada Löwy there, whom I had met on holidays several years earlier. She became my best friend. She would often come to our place, too. She and her parents were included in a May ‘42 transport to Terezín and were immediately transported further to the Lublin region in Poland. A few weeks before it was our turn to go, I received a smudged piece of paper, which she somehow must have managed to hide and send. She described the dreadful conditions they ‘lived’ under, her parents already dead, draining some marshes and sleeping just where they worked, no blankets or anything. I seem to remember the name of the village as Siedlice. She begged me to send her some dried bread crusts, hoping that they would not be stolen. I managed to send a few little parcels but heard nothing from her. My mother and I were sent to Terezín at the end of July.
RFE/RL: What, if any, associations does the name Fredy Hirsch bring to mind?
We learned Hebrew songs and dances, and even had an exercise routine led by Fredy Hirsch. We also had a rhyme about it:
“Život by byl šedý, kdyby nebyl Fredy,
zapíská si na píšťalku až jsme z toho bledý”
(Roughly: Life would be so gray, without Fredy on detail
He blows his trainer’s whistle, until we all turn pale)
We all absolutely adored Fredy. He was very devoted to us all. Fredy was not only our salvation in Prague, but also accomplished a lot to ease the childrens’ life both in the Terezín Ghetto and at Auschwitz. Strangely, the Nazis showed him respect, which was very unusual.
After Hagibor, Fredy Hirsch continued organizing events for Jewish youths even under the dire circumstances of the Terezín Ghetto and in the so-called Terezín Family Camp at Auschwitz, where he died in 1944.
After deporting Czechia’s Jews, Hitler’s SS turned Hagibor into a forced-labor camp for people in “mixed,” i.e., Jewish-Gentile marriages and people of partial Jewish heritage. After the war, the complex initially served as an internment camp – in the summer of 1945 for Stalin’s NKVD; then until late 1947 for Germans awaiting deportation; for Czechs with German spouses and for Nazi collaborators pending trial. In many cases, those were also dark times.
Nevertheless, in the memories of Prague’s Holocaust survivors, Hagibor remains to this day a place associated with fun, with help and with hope for a better future.