Sunday, July 16, 2006

Theresienstadt (July 16)

After sleeping in again, I had breakfast and headed to the bus station to catch a bus to Terezin.

I hoped to catch the 9 am bus, but by 9:05 there was no sign of it, so I went in a bought a ticket to the 9:30 bus. Good thing, too, because it sold out a few minutes later.

Not that it arrived a few minutes later. There was no sign of it by 9:30, when I started chatting with an Israeli family who I saw in schul yesterday. I glanced at my watch and was shocked that it was 9:45 and still no sign of the bus. Finally, at 9:55, the bus arrived.

A huge crowd gathered around and an argument broke out between the driver and a woman who was part of a group of about 5 women, standing between me and the bus door. While I still don't know what they were arguing about, since I don't speak Czech, it seems that the bus was oversold, and there was much gnashing of teeth. After 3-4 minutes of blocking everyone's entrance, she stepped back, now only blocking my (and everyone behind me) entrance. When it became clear that she was just going to stand there talking and not let any of us on, I began to push the women in front of me until they realized they would have to move. A minute later and I was on the bus and in my assigned seat.

Thankfully, this was one of the newer buses with air conditioning (while the weather remains dry, it's also rather warm). The Israelis and I did a little comparison between the humid Prague weather of a few days ago and Tel-Aviv. Tel-Aviv gets very humid in the summer, but there, everyone has air conditioning. If you are overcome by the heat and humidity, you can step on any bus, in any store, in any hotel or movie theater, and you can cool and dry off. Here, there's no escape. It's like being wrapped in a large fuzzy, ugly pink, wet, heavy blanket and then forced to stand in the sauna. I don't care how beautiful Prague is, but after a while it becomes unbearable.

It's only an hour-long trip to Terezin and the bus let us off between the small fortress prison run by the SS and the walled ghetto. Terezin was originally established as a garrison town and fortress by the Hapsburg emperor Joseph II and named Theresienstadt after his mother, Maria Theresa. During the war, the Nazis decided to transform it into a ghetto for Bohemia and Moravian Jews, and later for elderly German and Austrian Jews, as well as the so-called "prominents." The original population of 5000 people were evicted, and tens of thousands of Jews were brought in. At its height the ghetto held 58,000 people in a space designed to house a tenth that number.

The ghetto museum is spread out across several buildings. I began at the main museum, which was a children's home for boys under 15. The exhibits on the ground floor are illustrated with the art work created by children in Theresienstadt. Several important artists were imprisoned in the ghetto, and they worked with the children doing innovative art therapy. Because the ghetto was not completely liquidated and was eventually liberated, much of the children's art survived. Sadly, of the 10,500 children imprisoned in the ghetto, 8,000 died either of starvation or disease within the ghetto or in the death camps to which most of the ghetto population was sent.

The most famous of these artist-teachers was Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, who later died in Auschwitz in 1944. To see an example of her art, go to

Downstairs was a documentary film on the history of Theresienstadt and the Small Fortress (which was a prison even before WWII and it's where the Bosnian Serb assassin of Archduke Ferdinand died), and of the awful conditions within Thereseinstadt during the war. By 1943, reports of Nazi atrocities and the holocaust had begun to appear in western newspapers, and so the Nazis decided to use Theresienstadt as a "model ghetto" to counter this. In 1944, the International Red Cross was brought in and bought the cover story hook, line, and sinker.

Many of the artists working in the ghetto had created secret pictures documenting the actual horrors of the ghetto, but when they tried to smuggle these pictures to the Red Cross, they were arrested and all sent to the Small Fortress, where most were killed or later died in Auschwitz. Only one or two survived to liberation.

Upstairs was a history of the camp, its creation, operation, and the fate of its inmates. That was a lot to take, so I took a break for lunch and chatted with a group of American study-abroad students and asked details about the logistics of their trip to get a better idea of how to arrange my class next summer.

After that I walked over the the Madgeburg barracks for the next part of the museum. In one of the rooms, a typical living area for dozens of women is recreated, using, I think, actual clothing and furnishings of the victims. The rest of the floor is given over to art created in the ghetto. First is music, including the children's opera Brundibar, which was performed over fifty times within the ghetto. Then paintings, drawings, and sketches by various individuals, followed by literary works created in the ghetto, such as poetry, and underground journals. Finally, there is a room devoted to the various theatrical productions staged within the ghetto.

It is hard not to be struck by how much art and literature created at Theresienstadt survived, particularly since almost all its creators perished. It is even harder not to wonder at the intense human need to create and enjoy art, even in the most tortured of circumstances. Art here was no luxury item or frivolous elective; it was essential for survival. It seems to me that in Theresienstadt one really sees the true power and role of art, stripped of its various fads and affectations. Art was about expressing loss, and grief, and longing. It was both an escape from hell and a reflection of it. It raised people's spirits and it was a political cry of protest. In a very real way, it was a form of resistance.

Of course, Theresienstadt was not the only ghetto to produce art and literature. I saw a very moving poem written by Mordechai Geburtig in the Krakow ghetto just a week or two before he and his family were murdered during the ghetto's final liquidation. It begins:

"It's burning, brothers, it's burning!
Oy, our poor shtetl is burning,
Raging winds are fanning the wild flames
And furiously tearing,
Destroying and scattering everything.

"All around, all is burning,
And you stand and look just so, you
With folded hands....
And you stand and look just so,
While our shtetl burns."

In Warsaw, it was the archives of the Oneg Shabbat, organized by Jewish historians, who sought to document the evil being perpetrated by the Nazis as their resistance. Here, I think, it was the artists who took the lead.

After I left the building, I headed over to the columbarium, where the ashes of 20-30,000 who died in the ghetto were originally stored before the Nazis decided in November 1944 to dump them all in the river to conceal the scope. The first 20,000 who died were buried in the cemetery, but as the death toll rose from starvation and disease, it overwhelmed the cemetery, so the Nazis began to cremate the bodies. Across from it is a new memorial in the morturary where the bodies were washed and prepared for burial.

The next stop was the cemetery and the crematorium. It's getting a little easier, but I still choke up when I see the large ovens. There's just something so horrifying about the whole thing that's very difficult to take.

I didn't have much time left before the bus back to Prague, so I hurried over to the Small Fortress. Those killed in the fortress were buried in a cemetery before its gates, and the memorial there is clearly a work in progress. In the center of the cemetery is a tall wooden cross, bearing a crown of thorns. There are marble plaques at its base, but someone has recently removed all the letters, so it looks as if the memorial is undergoing some ideological renovation.

In the meantime, someone finally figured out that placing a giant wooden cross in the middle of a cemetery whose graves are overwhelmingly those of Jews probably wasn't the smartest idea, and a large star of David has been added at one end of the graveyard.

I managed to catch the 4:30 bus home, but that too had its moments of drama, as it was already mostly full when it arrived in Terezin and two people were turned away. This was an older, pre-air conditioning bus, and, of course, I ended up with a window seat on the sunny side, but thankfully, this was a mercifully short ride. I picked up my train ticket to Dresden for tomorrow and then had dinner at the restaurant in Mala Stranka that I like so much.

Now its time to do one more set of laundry and then start packing.

1 comment:

Steve said...

Did you see the Emma (Irma) Lauscher tree outside the cretmatorium? A seed from that tree was planted as a sapling outside the Children's Museum at Yad Va'Shem. Probably th most moving story of my visit to Threseisenstadt on a bitterly cold wintertime visit.