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Joanna Millan was a baby when the Nazis took her and her mother to a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. Her mother died, but Joanna was adopted by a Jewish couple in England. She told her remarkable story on Wednesday to students at Lakenheath High School in England.
Joanna Millan was a baby when the Nazis took her and her mother to a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. Her mother died, but Joanna was adopted by a Jewish couple in England. She told her remarkable story on Wednesday to students at Lakenheath High School in England. (Ron Jensen / S&S)

RAF LAKENHEATH, England — At the age of 10 months, Joanna Millan, then known as Bela Rosenthal, and her mother were sent from their native Berlin to a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia.

“What had I done?” Millan wondered Wednesday as she spoke of her tragic early life as a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.

Her point was that she had done nothing. She was punished, as were her mother and father and millions of others, simply for being Jewish. This is discrimination, she told the 300 students at Lakenheath High School who listened in near silence for more than an hour.

“Racial hatred does not die off,” she said. “In fact, there has been a revival of it.”

Millan’s appearance was part of Holocaust Remembrance Day events sponsored by the Equal Opportunity Office at RAF Mildenhall. Other survivors spoke Wednesday at the school at RAF Feltwell and Middleton Hall at RAF Mildenhall.

The differences between people, Millan said, should be respected, even honored. It would be a boring world if everyone were the same.

“It’s a great celebration to be different,” she said. “That’s what I’m trying to say. It’s great.”

Millan learned this lesson the hard way. She never knew her father, who was taken to Auschwitz and killed when she was 6 months old.

“My mother didn’t know what happened to him. Just one day, he didn’t come home,” she said.

Her grandmother had already been killed at the camp in Poland.

She was separated from her mother soon after arriving at Thereisenstadt, Czechoslovakia, in June 1943, and her mother was killed not long after that.

The Nazis sent 141,000 Jews to Thereisenstadt. One-quarter of them died. Millan said 15,000 Jewish children were sent to the camp.

“I was one of less than 100 that came out alive in 1945,” she said. “I believe I was saved because I had no one to take me to the gas chambers.”

Other children accompanied mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles to their deaths. Millan had no one.

Disease was rampant. She suffered from hepatitis and scarlet fever. People were worked to death. They starved to death. They were executed, sometimes for absolutely no reason.

Each day smoke rose from the crematorium where nearly 200 bodies a day were burned.

In the spring of 1945, the Russians were advancing on the camp. The Nazis forced the Jews who were able to work to dig a large tunnel. The plan, Millan said, was to put all the Jews in the tunnel and gas them to death, collapsing the tunnel on them after they were dead.

This project was three days from completion when the Russians arrived, bringing freedom and medical care to the survivors, including Millan, who was not yet 3 years old.

The British government agreed to take 1,000 children from the camps, but only 301 could be found. Millan was one of them.

“I had no mother, no father. No grandparents. No auntie or uncle,” she said. “Didn’t know what was going to happen to me, who was going to look after me.”

She was put in a home with a few other children.

“We were shown what toys were,” she said. “Even colored pencils and pens. Never seen anything like that. They taught us to be kids.”

She was eventually adopted by a Jewish couple, who changed her name from Bela Rosenthal and taught her not to speak of her previous life, not to tell people she was born in Germany or that she was Jewish.

“I became very isolated,” she said. “Imagine E.T. coming to your class and trying to pretend he’s one of you.”

In recent years, however, Millan began to secretly defy the demands of her adopted parents. She researched her family from Germany, traveling to the document center in Berlin where the paperwork of the Third Reich is held. She returned to Thereisenstadt.

She feels an obligation to speak out and tell her story, to show a new generation what hatred and prejudice and discrimination can do.

“It’s like I’ve been in hiding for 50 years. I’ve come out of the closet,” she said.

Her message seemed to reach the students, who were still and quiet for her entire talk and asked questions at the end.

“I thought it was pretty good,” said Thomas Remien, a 10th-grader. “I didn’t know about it.”

Asked what he thought as he heard Millan tell of her lost family and tragic childhood, he said, “I felt kind of sorry. [It’s] kind of heartbreaking.”

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