Zdenka Fantlová, who has died aged 100, was a survivor of the Terezín (Theresienstadt) ghetto, in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, as well as of Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and several other concentration camps.
She was a valuable witness to the remarkable musical and theatrical life in Terezín, featuring in the 1993 BBC2 documentary The Music of Terezín, and wrote an account of her Holocaust experiences in a book, The Tin Ring, first published in 1996.
Terezín, a fortress town about 40km north of Prague, was originally built for 5,000 people in 1780; during the second world war it was established as a ghetto by the Nazis, packed with over 50,000 Jewish prisoners and serving as a holding station before further transports east. Zdenka arrived there on 20 January 1942. She had been looking forward to it as her boyfriend, Arno, had been sent there a few days before.
Under Nazi supervision, Terezín was run by a Jewish administration. With many musicians and artists among the inmates, concerts were organised and encouraged. “We were quite ignorant of what was in store for us, only the Germans knew,” Zdenka said. “They knew we were sentenced to death, so they let us get on with it and we were just dancing under the gallows.”
Zdenka worked in the kitchen, alongside the future conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Karel Ančerl. She was in cabarets written by the satirist Karel Švenk and a play called Esther – designed by František Zelenka, from the National Theatre in Prague. After a rehearsal, the pianist and composer Gideon Klein played for her. “He went up to the stage and in the semi-darkness he played Chopin’s C minor Etude. I thought this man is playing just for me. It seemed amazing and it was, but in Terezín these things could happen.”
She did indeed find Arno in Terezín and was able to run down to a hidden cellar with him. “We rushed in, closed the door and, of course, everything. You name it, yes.”
After the assassination of the high-ranking Nazi official Reinhard Heydrich on 27 May 1942, 2,000 men were transported east from Terezín in reprisal and Arno was among them. The night before departure he brought Zdenka a tin ring that he had made with the date inscribed inside, 13 June 1942. “That piece of metal, for me, was the strength of life, of hope, and love. That is all you need for survival.” They never saw each other again.
Zdenka was born to Czech-Jewish parents in the town of Blatná, where her father, Arnošt Fantl, was in the metal business. They moved when she was three to Rokycany, near Pilsen. Her mother, Betty, died soon after and her father remarried. With an elder brother and new stepsister, she had a happy childhood in a non-religious, assimilated Jewish family, attending the synagogue in Pilsen only on Jewish holidays.
On a visit to Prague as a teenager, Zdenka heard a gramophone recording of You Are My Lucky Star, a song from the musical Broadway Melody of 1936. “As I listened to that song,” she said, “I knew I had to learn English, come what may.” She spent a year at the English Institute in Prague, which would ultimately save her life.
After the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, her father was arrested by the Gestapo for listening to BBC Radio. In 1942, Zdenka was sent with the rest of her family to Terezín. She was there for more than two-and-a-half years, and left on a transport with most of the musicians and composers on 17 October 1944 – destination Auschwitz.
In the selection on arrival in Auschwitz, Zdenka was with her mother and sister in a line in front of the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. Her mother was sent left (to the gas chambers), Zdenka right, so she grabbed her sister to go with her. Stripped of everything, she hid the tin ring in her mouth and, naked and shaved, was thrown a green evening gown with pearls and sequins round the neck. This is what she wore for the next six months in a series of concentration camps – in Auschwitz, Kurzbach, on a death march to Gross- Rosen, Mauthausen and finally Bergen-Belsen.
Zdenka’s sister died of typhus in Belsen and Zdenka nearly died too. After the camp was liberated in April 1945 she just managed to find the energy to crawl to a British medical post and – in the English she had learned thanks to You Are My Lucky Star – begged for a drink of water. The soldier demanded she go back to her hut, but she refused, saying it was better for him to shoot her there. So he organised to get her out.
From Belsen, Zdenka was sent to Sweden, where she worked at a biscuit factory and at the Czech embassy. It was in Sweden she discovered that she was the only one of her family to survive. In 1949, along with many other Czechs, she emigrated to Melbourne, Australia, where she met and in 1950 married her husband, Charles Ehrlich. She continued to work as an actor with the Tana theatre, set up by her Terezín friend Hana Pravda and her husband, George, to bring Stanislavsky-style productions to Australia.
In 1969 Charles’ work brought him and Zdenka to London, where she was to spend the rest of her life. The Tin Ring appeared first in the Czech Republic and was then translated from Czech into German, English and Italian; it was published in the UK in 2010, and soon afterwards also adapted into a one-woman show by Jane Arnfield and Mike Alfreds.
Zdenka was a charismatic public speaker about her wartime experiences. In August 2021, a memorial sculpture of a bronze suitcase was erected outside the house in Blatná where she was born.
Charles died in 1996. Zdenka is survived by her daughter, Kate, her granddaughters, Amanda and Emma, and a great-grandson, Regan.
• Zdenka Fantlová, actor, writer and Holocaust survivor, born 28 March 1922; died 14 November 2022