“Who is Dr. Ryshavy and why would he make me the heir of his house in the Czech Republic?”
The was the question that the man sitting across from me one day asked me. I opened my mouth to answer, but I stopped. I knew the answer. In fact, I’ve known the answer for nearly 70 years. But I asked myself, am I the person tell it? Should I be the one to reveal to the questioner a decades-long secret — a secret that was well known in our big family but apparently had been kept from him for all these years?
This man turned to me with this question because I was one of the last four living first cousins in our family. It was a family that once had no fewer than 34 first cousins, the sons and daughters of the 13 Ticho siblings. My grandfather, Itzchak Zvi Ticho, was a true believing Jew living in Boskovice, a small town in the Czech Republic. He was the head of a family that I traced back to the late 1600s and that most likely had lived in Boskovice for centuries before that. For all those hundreds of years, the large Ticho family lived within a small circle in what is today the Czech Republic — until 1939, that is, when the German army marched into Czechoslovakia.
Six years later, after World War II and the brutal Holocaust ended, the remaining family members were scattered in Australia, India, Argentina, Uruguay, England, in several locations in the United States, and all over the land that later became Israel.
I was 91 years old when I was confronted by the question. The answer was on the tip of my tongue, but I still hesitated. Do I have the right to answer the question truthfully? As far as I knew, everybody in our big family knew the story but maintained the secret. Should I be the one to violate that trust?
Fifteen members of our immediate family died in the Holocaust — five of my father’s siblings and their spouses and five first cousins. Another five family members were trapped by the Nazis when Czechoslovakia became a victim of German aggression. Four of us managed to escape — one cousin, my father, my brother, and me. The fifth cousin, Lilly, miraculously survived three years in the Terezin concentration camp, a stop at the Auschwitz genocide factory, and bitter years in a Nazi slave labor camp.
Lilly’s trials during the Holocaust began when she was scheduled to be deported to Terezin. Despite their youth, she and her boyfriend, Herbert, decided to get married, hoping that this would keep them together. Terezin served the Nazis as the first in a long list of other ghettos, jails, and concentration camps designated specifically for Jews. When they got there, men and women were separated. They lived in different buildings. For three years, Lilly and Herbert saw each other only for brief moments and hardly ever privately. Lilly had studied nursing for two years and her skills were in great demand in Terezin. Among the tens of thousands of women who arrived at the camp, there were always a few who were pregnant. Many women asked to have an abortion because they did not wish to be burdened by a baby or they did not wish to bring a child into the miserable living conditions in the camp. Others wanted to have the baby, hoping that they would be given special consideration to care for the child. Lilly, with the assistance of a physician, granted the mother’s wish, one way or the other, as best they could.
For nearly three years, that was Lilly’s job. Her husband, Herbert, also had a very fortunate job in the camp bakery. He regularly risked his life to smuggle pieces of bread to Lilly or to other family members in the camp. During these years, at regular intervals, transports “to the East” were organized, and thousands of camp inmates disappeared. Constant new arrivals kept the camp overcrowded. Ultimately, it became Lilly’s and Herbert’s time to leave Terezin in a transport. They were assigned to different transports, and they lost touch with each other.
Lilly was just 19 years old. She must have looked strong and healthy, and in the usual selection process in Auschwitz, she was sent to the right. A few days later, she and a group of Jewish women were sent to a slave labor camp in Poland. This was a miserable place; its sadistic female guards made the prisoners’ lives as difficult as possible. The smallest infraction was punished by lengthy line-ups in front of the barracks. This was in the miserable winter of 1944-45, and the prisoners had to stand at attention for hours, dressed in the only clothing they had — a coat, a dress, and shoes. Prisoners who collapsed were beaten. Many died.
One day, a German man came to the line-up and asked whether there was anyone who spoke German and knew anything about electricity. Lilly volunteered, although she did not know anything about electricity — but she did speak German fluently. The man picked her out of the line-up and made her his assistant. Her job was, essentially, to carry the man’s ladder and toolbox as he went about the camp making repairs. Lilly and this man had a cold and distant relationship; he spoke to her only to give her orders. If she did not respond fast enough or to his satisfaction, he was quick to remind her that he could send her back at any time.
Once, the man ordered Lilly to climb a ladder to do something up high. “I am sorry,” she responded. “I cannot do that.” The man was shocked and angry and demanded to know why. “I am very sorry, sir,” Lilly replied, “but I don’t have any underwear.” This brief sign of pride and modesty apparently made an impression on the man, because the next day he brought her a pair of long underwear.
Now, the relationship between the man and Lilly changed, and whenever the prisoners were ordered to stand at attention out in the freezing cold, he made sure that she had to provide him some essential services and therefore could not be spared. Instead of standing in the bitter cold, she worked in the heated electrician’s workshop. As a result, Lilly survived. In her videotaped testimony, she credited this German man for it when the Russian army liberated the camp.
After the war, Lilly returned to Brno, her hometown, and slowly recovered from the last terrible years. She zealously and intently searched for her husband but encountered only death and dead ends. Millions and millions of people were displaced in Europe — families were torn apart — millions died. It took years for a modicum of normalcy to return. During this time, Lilly happened to meet the doctor she worked with in Terezin. He had also survived — but lost his wife in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.
Five years went by. By then, Lilly had accepted the fact that her Herbert was one of the six million Jews who did not survive the Holocaust. Slowly, she began to rebuild her life and her nursing skills. And then, one day, as she walked on one of the main streets of Brno, she ran into her husband, Herbert! Miraculously, he had survived, and he had spent years wandering as he searched for his Lilly.
The reunion was difficult. They really had not had a married life during their three years in Terezin, and then they had been apart for years after the war ended. In addition, Lilly was raising a son. Nevertheless they seized the opportunity to emigrate to Israel, where Lilly could rejoin her sister and the few other members of the Ticho family who had escaped the Holocaust.
To gather material for my book, “MiDor LeDor — from Generation to Generation,” I tape-recorded detailed interviews with several family members and friends who were familiar with our family’s history. It was during these interviews that I learned that Lilly’s secret was known throughout the family. However, in Lilly’s videotaped testimony, on file at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, she simply says that she met her husband and they had a son.
Dr. Ryshavy died on December 29, 1955. He made no mention of Lilly or of her son — until it came to his last will and testament. There, he declared the heir to his house would be a boy born on April 2, 1948. Should he not be able to file a claim, the inheritance should go to the boy’s mother, Lilly Sobotkova, nee Ticho. On September 10, 1958, the People’s Court in Ostrava, Czechoslovakia, declared the minor child, represented by his mother, to be the owner of the house.
The minor child was just 7 years old when all this was taking place; apparently, his mother was determined to keep the information from him. It was not many years later, when, in some round-about manner, he got word that he once had inherited a house in the Czech Republic., He decided to turn to his old cousin with the question: “Who is Dr. Ryshavy, and why would he make me the heir of his house in the Czech Republic?”
The question caused a bitter rage to rise in me.
All the hatred, all the loathing, all the revulsion I felt for the Nazis and that I had, at last, learned to control came back with a vengeance. Here, once again, even after the Nazis were destroyed, the bloody hands of the heartless mass murderers were reaching across seven decades, causing such intense pain and distress to this poor innocent man sitting before me. My heart was also aching from the rage as I recalled the pain of a father who gave up his son, the ache of the son who never knew his father, the sting of the husband who was forced to live with a secret indiscretion, the torture of a mother who had to live with a lie, and the stress and anxiety of a family to maintain a decades-long lie — the truth behind the question.
I resented that I now was forced to make a choice to tell the truth or to continue the lie the Nazis had foisted on all of us.
With my eyes filling with tears and with my voice abandoning me, I decided for the truth, and with great difficulty managed to say, “Because he was your father.”
Charlies Ticho of Hackensack was a film producer and director for more than 60 years. He retired at 88 and has spent the last five years writing about his experiences.