Obituary: Zdenka Fantlová

Fred Astaire’s song You Are My Lucky Star and a tin ring gave Shoah survivor the will to live


Theresienstadt, the Czech Nazi transit camp where many leading Jewish musicians, artists, writers and actors were interned, was a hive of cultural activity with concerts and plays staged daily.

Viktor Ullmann composed his opera The Emperor of Atlantis there with a libretto by another inmate, Peter Kien, and satirist Karel Švenk staged his daring cabarets in the camp.

Zdenka Fantlová, who has died aged 100, unwittingly become one of the performers after serving food in the camp’s kitchen.

She had been deported to Theresienstadt with her mother and sister months earlier. “I was standing there with my ladle at the ready when this pale young man… suddenly turned to me and said: ‘Excuse me miss, can you cry?’”

A surprised Fantlová confirmed that indeed she could, and the young man — Josef Lustig, an established actor and playwright — offered her a part in his new cabaret, Prince Confined-to-Bed. Fantlová was now part of Theresienstadt’s artistic circles and life in the camp, in spite of all its horrors, was a bit brighter.

Zdenka Fantlová was the second child of Jewish parents, Arnošt Fantl, a businessman, and Betty Mautner.

Betty died at just 28 and Arnošt remarried and had another daughter. Fantlová’s childhood in the Czech town of Rokycany, near Pilsen, was idyllic: the family was well-off and thoroughly assimilated. Religion was not a big thing in their life: the town didn’t even have a synagogue, just a prayer room, and Fantlová loved the local butcher’s pork meatloaf. Jewish holidays were observed, though.

Hitler’s rise to power was not seen with alarm at first but then slowly, as Fantlová said, “doors began to close”.

When she was excluded from school for being Jewish, her classmates just thought it odd; however it spurred Fantlová to make a decision that would later save her life.

She had been captivated by Fred Astaire singing You Are My Lucky Star and determined that one day she would learn English. Fantlová convinced her father that, as she couldn’t continue her studies, she might as well learn English. So off she went to the English Institute in Prague.

Not long after, a neighbour informed on Arnošt for listening to the BBC and he was arrested. His daughter would never see him again.

Soon people were rounded up and “sent east”, although no one knew exactly where. Fantlová was desperate not to be separated from her sweetheart, Arno, but he was deported to Theresienstadt. On January 20, 1942 Fantlová and her family were also sent there.

Fantlová got used to life in the camp, learning to stay alert and using her wits to avoid being sent to what was rumoured to be much worse places. She even managed to reconnect with her beloved Arno but soon they were separated again.

Before his departure on a transport “east”, they managed to meet one last time and he gave her a tin ring he had made, bearing the date 13.6.1942. “That’s for our engagement and to keep you safe. If we are both alive when the war ends, I’ll find you,” he told her.

Arno died in Auschwitz, but his ring gave Fantlová the strength to survive the death camp, where she was deported on October 17, 1944, and then during the six months of hell that followed; first Kurzbach, followed by a death march to Mauthausen and finally Bergen-Belsen. The Tin Ring, was the title of the memoir she would publish in 1996.

Fantlová’s stepmother had been murdered on arrival at Auschwitz but she had managed to keep her sister Lydia with her, at least until Lydia succumbed to typhus in Belsen.

With everyone around her now dead, by the time the British arrived in April, 1945, Fantlová had no strength left. Her will to live was faltering when, spotting a British officer, she begged for help in English. The officer came to her rescue.

It was over, her lucky star had saved her.

Sent to Sweden to recuperate, Fantlová discovered that her entire family, as well as Arno, were dead. In 1949 she emigrated to Australia where she made a name for herself as an actress.

There she met Charles Ehrlich whom she married in 1950. They settled in London in 1969 and The Tin Ring was published in English in 2010.

Charles predeceased her in 1996. Fantlová is survived by her daughter Kate, her granddaughters Amanda and Emma and a great-grandson, Regan.

Zdenka Fantlová, born March 28, 1922. Died November 14, 2022

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