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Hand-drawn Monopoly recalls life in ghetto

By Kevin Flower, CNN
  • An unofficial version of the popular board game was created in Theresienstadt
  • The Nazis created a ghetto in Theresienstadt, an area of north-western Czechoslovakia
  • Soviet troops liberated Theresienstadt in 1945
  • Two brothers kept the board and later donated it to Israel's Holocaust museum

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Jerusalem (CNN) -- Micha and Dan Glass are not your ordinary Monopoly players.

In 1938 the two young brothers were happy school children. They lived with their parents in the Czech city of Brno.

Their mother was a photographer who liked to document the family's life in photos, and their father an electrical engineer who enjoyed taking his boys skiing.

The idyllic life of the Glass family was to be shattered a year later with the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia.

"Before (the) war it was normal living. And then the war came and a completely different world. You can't understand it. Everything changed," Dan recalls.

Both of the boys parents were arrested. Their father was sent to a forced labor camp, and their mother detained and tortured for six months.

In 1942, the boys and their mother were sent to the city of Theresienstadt, an area of north-western Czechoslovakia where the Nazis established a ghetto for the Jews of Bohemia and Moravia.

Hand-drawn "Ghetto" Monopoly

At ages eight and 10, Micha and Dan became intimately familiar with death. Over 35,000 people perished in Theresienstadt while another 84,000 were sent on to be murdered in the Nazi death camps further east.

Disease, famine, and sub-human conditions aside, the camp's prisoners did everything they could to maintain a semblance of normality. For one prisoner, an artist named Oswal Poeck, this meant designing and drawing a makeshift version a famed board game. An unofficial version of the popular board game Monopoly was born.

Fashioned from cardboard and drawn by hand, "Ghetto" Monopoly, was created as a distraction for Theresienstadt's thousands of children and used as a tool to teach them about life (and death) in the ghetto.

Properties in the game were not popular city streets and landmarks, but rather buildings and locations from the ghetto itself -- all named after German cities and a grim reflection of the reality faced by the camp's prisoners.

"It's strange to understand how can people make games for children in this special place -- in the ghetto," says Sima Shacher, a researcher at Beit Theresienstadt, a center dedicated to documenting life in Theresienstadt.

One of the reasons the games were created, Shacher says, is because the children were separated from their parents and the adult prisoners looking after them did what they could to make life more tolerable. It was an important way for them to maintain a sense of humanity and purpose in a hellish environment, says Shacher.

His memories of playing the game are foggy, but Micha Glass recalls hiding the board and its pieces under his mattress so it would not be discovered.

In 1945, Soviet troops liberated Theresienstadt and miraculously the Glass boys and their mother survived. It was not until their release that they learned that their father had been killed in Auschwitz, and that most of their extended family was also dead.

The family eventually made their way to Israel to begin a new life, and with them they brought their ghetto Monopoly set. Over the course of years the boys would occasionally play the game and continued to hold on to it in adulthood to serve as a reminder of what they lived through.

Fifteen years ago, the brothers decided to donate the game to Israel's Holocaust remembrance museum, Yad Vashem, where it now sits on permanent display. The reasons were simple according to Micha.

"Because there are many, many people who think that there was not a Holocaust -- we had a very happy family before the war and after the war there was nothing," he says.

Micha's younger brother Dan says the passage of time has made him reflect more about the past and the importance of memory. The game, he said, is an important symbol.

"It is something very, very unique. We wanted it to be shown to the public -- to show there exists such a thing -- there was a Theresienstadt, there were kids, there were children, there were survivors."

For both brothers the game brings up difficult and painful memories, but through it all they are able to see the silver lining.

Combined, the brothers Glass have six children and 15 grandchildren. This, they say, is what has made surviving the horrors of the Holocaust bearable.

"What is good," says Dan, pointing to his older brother, "is that I am standing here with my brother and that I have a big loving family. This is the main good thing. This is what I have."