Coming Soon: More Resources for Holocaust Educators

After two years of sharing the stories of Terezin artists, I came to realize that I could do more to support our amazing teachers and Holocaust educators. While still continuing to document Terezin artists, I am also working on developing lesson plans and teaching tips that feature their stories.

Entrance to the Terezin Ghetto Museum.

If you are a teacher or Holocaust educator, stay tuned for blog updates and check out my Resources for Educators section, where I highlight valuable resources for teaching children and young adults about the Holocaust. I also hope you will sign up for my mailing list to receive even more resources and inspiration for educators.

Let us join together in teaching our students about the Holocaust, and promoting the message of empathy and tolerance.

Dr. Karel Fleischmann: The Story of a Terezin Doctor and Artist

Dr. Karel Fleischmann was a man whose talents were multifaceted, and whose humanity and compassion prevailed even in Terezin. He was an accomplished medical doctor, a dermatologist, who also painted in watercolor and wrote literary fiction.

He was born in 1897 in Klatovy, Bohemia, educated in Bohemia, and established his dermatology practice in Ceske Budejovice. He had a creative drive that the practice of medicine could not satisfy, and also painted watercolors, published collections of woodcuts and wrote short stories and poetry. His father was a graphic artist and calligrapher, and was always encouraging of his son’s artistic talents.

In 1939, after the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia, Dr. Fleischmann was forced to stop practicing medicine. In April 1942, he and his wife were sent to Terezin, where he became one of the remarkable ghetto doctors who struggled to treat patients in spite of overcrowding, little hygiene, malnutrition and lack of both medicines and equipment. Despite their best efforts, it is estimated that around 130 people died each day.

Dr. Fleischmann became one of the directors of health at Terezin, doing all he could to reduce the mortality rate and care for the elderly patients. He was described as outgoing, good-natured and always ready to help others. He used his medical skills to treat patients in Terezin, and some of his patients who survived remembered him making his rounds with a scuffed black bag, and how his gentle sense of humor and compassion comforted them.

While he cared for patients and gave medical lectures at Terezin, the doctor was also secretly documenting the realities of camp life in a series of paintings, portraits, drawings and writings. He was also known for his lectures about medicine and art in the ghetto.

One of his most stark and poignant drawings is known as The First Night of New Arrivals and depicts elderly Jews arriving at Terezin and finding that they had been deceived. These new arrivals had been told that they were being taken to a retirement community in the mountains, and some were even forced to pay the Nazis for their new accommodations. These new prisoners sit on their suitcases, with looks of despair, shocked and horrified at the truth of their situation.

Images of the ever-present hearse are prevalent as well, as they were the only vehicles for transport in Terezin, and had to be used for moving essential supplies as well as sick and dying people.

Dr. Fleischmann also produced stunning, stark portraits of other people in Terezin. He painted his subjects with thick dark, brushstrokes, the lines taking on an almost caricature like quality. The faces of his subjects are especially noteworthy, as he conveys personality and emotion with seemingly simple brushstrokes.

Tragically, the doctor’s medical skills and highly developed artistic talents were not enough to save him. Dr. Fleischmann and his wife were sent to Auschwitz in October 1944 on one of the last transports from Terezin. During the selection at Auschwitz, the SS officer noticed that one of Dr. Fleischmann’s shoulders was slightly misshapen and lower than the other, and decided the doctor was unfit to work. Immediately after their arrival at Auschwitz, Dr. Fleischmann and his wife were sent to the gas chambers.

Dr. Fleischmann’s legacy lives on through his artwork and writings, which were hidden at Terezin and recovered after the war, and in the memories of the Terezin survivors who he treated and comforted against all odds.

Further Reading

The Artists of Terezin by Gerald Green

Hana Brady and the Long-Lost Suitcase

Hana Brady’s story was shared with the world through an incredible turn of events. The story involves a battered suitcase with a few words painted on it: Hana Brady, born May 16, 1931, Orphan. Who was the young girl who owned this suitcase? Thanks to the efforts of Fumiko Ishioka, director of the Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Center, we now havethe answer. Here is Hana’s story.

Hana Brady as a child. Used with permission of George and Lara Brady.

Hana lived with her parents and older brother George in a small Czech town called Nové Město na Moravě. She was described as a happy, active and athletic little girl who was very close to her family. Hana was just eight years old when the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia. The family’s life became restricted, and they were forced to hand over their radio and other valuables to the Nazis. Their Christian friends stopped playing with them, because their parents feared they would be punished for playing with Jewish children. Hana and George remained close and supported one another during this time.

In March 1941, their mother, Marketa, was assigned to a Nazi transport and taken away. Soon after, they were forced to sew yellow star badges to their clothing along with all the other Czech Jews. When one man in town refused to comply, a Nazi officer was furious and ordered the arrests of all the other Jewish men in town. Hana and George’s father Karel was arrested and taken away a few days later, and the two children were left with the family’s housekeeper.

Later that day, their uncle Ludvik, a Christian man married to their father’s sister Hedda, arrived at the house. He had heard the bad news, and came to bring the children to his home. He helped the children pack, and Hana gathered her belongings in a large brown suitcase with a polka dot lining.

The children remained with their aunt and uncle until May 1942. That was when the children received a notice ordering them to report to a deportation center. They were taken to the center, where they were forced into a large warehouse with hundreds of other Jewish families. After four days in the warehouse, they were put on a train and sent to Terezin.

George as a child. Used with permission from George and Lara Brady.

The train stopped at Bohusovic Station, and Hana, George and the others on their transport had to carry their luggage the last few kilometers to Terezin. The children were separated into homes, and Hana was assigned to the girls’ home in barrack L410. She slept on a thin burlap mattress on a three-level bunk bed and was initially confined to the barrack due to her age.

Hana was unable to see George and missed her brother terribly. Some of the older girls looked out for her, and she became friends with one of them, a dark-haired girl named Ella.

Hana spent her days with the room supervisor and the younger girls, doing chores and attending secret classes in the barrack. They learned songs in music class, the basics of sewing, and art class. Hana’s favorite class was art, and she adored her teacher, famous artist Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. Hana produced many drawings, some of which still survive.

One of Hana’s drawings from Terezin. Used with permission of George and Lara Brady.

After she had been in Terezin for some time, the rules were changed and Hana was finally able to see her brother, who was assigned to the boys’ home in Barrack L417 and was working as a plumber in the camp. The siblings would see each other every chance they could get, and George was determined to do everything possible to take care of his sister. Hana in turn worried about George, and she would set aside her weekly buchta (a sort of plain doughnut) and give it to her brother to eat.

As the months went on, the camp became more and more cramped, and many people died from food shortages and epidemics. And every few weeks, people were assigned to transports heading East, to some unknown destination.

In September 1944, George was sent away on one of these transports. A month later, Hana was assigned to a transport and she was full of hope that she would be reunited with her brother. Hana’s friend Ella helped her to wash her face and hair, because Hana wanted to look nice when she saw her brother again.

The next morning, Hana, Ella and many other girls from their home were put on a dark train, which traveled nonstop for a day and a night. There was no food, no water, no toilet, and no way to know how long the journey was. Hana, Ella and the other girls held hands, whispered stories, imagined they were somewhere else.

On the night of October 23, 1944, they arrived at Auschwitz. The girls were forced out of the car, and ordered to stand on the platform. The guards selected a few of the older girls and sent them to the right.

Hana and the rest of the girls were told to drop their luggage and go to the left, where they were herded into a large warehouse. That night, Hana died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz at the age of thirteen.

George had also been sent to Auschwitz, but he managed to survive the camp, in part due to the plumbing skills he had gained at Terezin. He was liberated in January 1945 at the age of seventeen and returned to the home of his Uncle Ludvik and Aunt Hedda.

He learned that his parents were dead, and for many months searched for news of his sister. Eventually, he met a teenage girl in Prague who knew Hana from Terezin, and learned the horrible truth.

In 1951, George moved to Toronto and started a very successful plumbing business, married and had three sons and a daughter. But despite all his joys and successes, George’s loss of his parents and beloved sister was never far from his mind.

Then, years later, in 2000, he received a letter from a woman named Fumiko Ishioka, the director of a Holocaust Center in Tokyo. She had received a leather suitcase with polka dot lining at her center – Hana’s suitcase.

Fumiko Ishioka. Used with permission of George and Lara Brady

Almost nothing was known of Hana, and after months of searching, Fumiko had found George and sent him a letter in the hopes of learning about his sister. Later, George and his daughter Lara traveled to the center in Tokyo to meet Fumiko and a group of schoolchildren known as the Small Wings, and to share Hana’s story.

In March 2004, George and Fumiko learned that the suitcase was actually a replica created by the museum at Auschwitz after the original suitcase and many other items from the Holocaust had been destroyed in a fire.

While saddened to hear about the fire, George and Fumiko were grateful that the Auschwitz museum created the replica, which brought them together and allowed them to bring Hana’s story to the world.

Further Reading

Hana’s Suitcase by Karen Levine

The Artists’ Affair Part 3: Bedřich Fritta

Another remarkable artist who was incarcerated in Terezin was Bedřich Fritta, who was imprisoned along with Leo Haas and Otto Ungar in July 1944.

He was born Bedřich Taussig in 1906 in Weigsdorf (Višňová), Northern Bohemia and demonstrated an interest and aptitude for art. In 1930 he moved to Paris to study art, and eventually settled in Prague where he worked as a graphic designer, technical draughtsman and contributed cartoons and caricatures to satirical magazines. He preferred to be called Fritta, his pen name, and this is what he family and friends affectionately called him.

In December 1941 Fritta was sent to Terezin on one of the first transports along with other artists, engineers and doctors who were assigned to help set up the camp. His wife, Hansi, and their one year old son Tommy accompanied him to the camp.

At Terezin, Fritta was assigned as supervisor to the camp’s drawing studio, where blueprints, construction plans and technical reports were composed. Those who knew him described him as extroverted, outspoken, and strong-willed, a man of great enthusiasm. It seems that Fritta and Leo Haas were the ones who first used materials available to them to secretly depict life in the ghetto. Some of the other men who worked with them began to do the same.

In addition to his work at the camp, Fritta produced over 100 drawings and sketches in Terezin, most of which were ink drawings, finished with a paintbrush and water to add shadowy dimensions. His drawings are characterized by the interplay of light and shadow, and their haunted, despairing figures. Some of his sketches depict barracks, transports leaving the ghetto, the cafe set up in preparation for the Red Cross visit, in which solemn people sit at empty tables while a band plays.

Fritta also created a  picture book for his son Tommy, a gift for the boy’s third birthday on January 22, 1944. The book, which the artist bound with heavy brown paper, was filled with colorful ink, pen and watercolor drawings accompanied by captions. Fritta depicted Tommy’s daily activities, but also images of a happy life outside of Terezin. For Tommy’s third birthday, Fritta and his wife Hansi even managed to plan a special party in the ghetto, complete with presents and a cake.

Following the Red Cross visit, Fritta and Leo Haas hid many of their drawings and paintings, Haas in the paneling of a wall, Fritta in a large tin case that he and some of his friends secretly buried. Tommy’s book was hidden in the ghetto along with Fritta’s other paintings. Soon after the Red Cross visit, Fritta, his wife Hansi, and Tommy were imprisoned in the Small Fortress along with Leo Haas, Otto Ungar and their families.

Fritta endured unimaginable suffering while imprisoned,  and was savagely beaten and interrogated daily. He later contracted dysentery, which depleted all that remained of his strength. When he was moved to a cell occupied by Leo Haas, his friend was horrified at how emaciated and ill he had become. In early August both men were forced to sign an indictment stating that they were guilty of creating propaganda and distributing it abroad.

The following day, they were put on a train to Auschwitz. Fritta was suffering from severe dysentery and malnutrition and was barely able to walk or move. When the group was suddenly forced off the cars at Dresden, Haas lifted his friend onto his back and carried him off the car and through the dark streets. After a check at Gestapo headquarters, the prisoners were sent on to Auschwitz, where Fritta was taken to the infirmary. The doctor tried to keep Fritta comfortable and Haas and other friends visited him and smuggled food. But at this point, Fritta was unable to eat, and drifted in and out of consciousness. The outgoing, enthusiastic, courageous man who risked so much to reveal the truth of Terezin died eight days after arriving in Auschwitz, in late August 1944.

The artists’ wives and children were imprisoned in the Small Fortress for more than a year. Fritta’s wife Hansi died of malnutrition and disease in Terezin a few months after her husband. Their son Tommy survived the war in Terezin, an orphan at just four years of age. He was adopted by Fritta’s friend Leo Haas and his wife Erna. Haas returned to Terezin to recover their hidden paintings as soon as he could, and was successfully able to reclaim the tin box with Fritta’s works. He returned the beautiful, lovingly crafted picture book to Tommy, his last gift from the father who adored him.

Exhibition of Fritta’s Drawings

Tommy’s Book:

Further Reading
The Artists of Terezin by Gerald Green

The Artists’ Affair Part 2: Otto Ungar

Otto Ungar was another artist who along with Leo Haas, was interrogated, tortured and imprisoned in the Small Fortress for depicting the truth of Terezin. Far less is known about Ungar than Leo Haas, unfortunately. It is known that he lived for most of his life in the Czech city of Brno. Before the war, Ungar resided in Brno with his wife and daughter and was a teacher at a Jewish secondary school and an artist. He was described as a very reserved, sensitive and anxious man, which makes it all the more remarkable that he took tremendous risks by creating raw and brutally honest drawings of daily life in Terezin.

Ungar worked in the drafting office at Terezin, along with fellow artists Leo Haas and Bedrich Fritta. All three men were aware of the deception the Nazis were perpetrating at Terezin and sought to record the truth of what happened in the camp in sketches and paintings. Ungar secretly painted the arrival of transports (The Coming of a Transport), and the despair and suffering of elderly adults at Terezin, many of whom had been deceived and told they were being sent to a retirement community (Portrait of an Old Woman).

After being interrogated in July 1944, Otto Ungar was also imprisoned in the Small Fortress, where he endured daily beatings and torture by the prison guards. His right hand, the hand he drew with, was savagely broken by the guards. Two of his fingers had to be amputated as a result, and he lost the use of his hand.

Later that summer, Ungar was sent to Auschwitz, where he managed to survive the selection, despite his injuries. He remained there until January 1945, where he was forced on a death march across the frozen Polish countryside to the camp Buchenwald. Incredibly, Ungar survived the march despite being severely malnourished and ill with tuberculosis. He and the 14,000 other survivors were crammed into Buchenwald’s “Little Camp”, where a typhus epidemic raged. In these final terrible months of the war, in unspeakably horrific conditions, Otto Ungar did something remarkable. He scavenged scraps of paper and small pieces of coal, gripped the coal in his broken and mutilated right hand and slowly, painstakingly began to sketch his surroundings. Even after all the suffering and tortures he endured, despite his sensitive and anxious nature, he never lost his will to create, to reveal the truth. The Nazis could not break his resilient spirit, even though they broke so many others.

Otto Ungar survived the war and was liberated from Buchenwald in May 1945, but died a few months later in a hospital in Germany from complications of tuberculosis and typhus. His wife and daughter both survived the war in Terezin and returned to Brno.

The images that Ungar created in Buchenwald were lost, but many of the works he created in Terezin have survived. They remain today to show us the truth of Terezin and are the legacy of a gentle and sensitive soul that the Nazis could never break.

Further Reading

The Artists of Terezin by Gerald Green

The Artists’ Affair Part 1: Leo Haas

On July 17th, 1944, a group of artists were summoned to the office of Terezin Commandant Karl Rahm. Their names were Leo Haas, Otto Ungar, Bedrich Fritta and Felix Bloch, and they worked in the drafting office at Terezin. Their crime: drawing and painting the true nature of the ghetto. They were interrogated by Rahm, and SS officers Captain Moes, Captain Hans Gunther and the infamous Colonel Adolf Eichmann. The officers wanted to know why the artists painted what they did, and accused them of being part of a Communist plot. The artists denied the Communist accusations, and stated that they simply drew and painted what they saw, the reality that surrounded them. The men were then brought to the damp cellar of a barrack, where they were again interrogated and questioned about their alleged Communist ties. Ultimately the officers stopped questioning them and transferred them and their families to the Small Fortress, where they endured more interrogations, beatings and torture.

Enrtance to the Small Fortress at Terezin

The interrogation and subsequent imprisonment of these men and their families in the Small Fortress of Terezin would come to be known as “The Artists’ Affair”. What follows are the stories of these men, beginning with Leo Haas, the one member of the group who survived the war.

Leo Haas was born in 1901 in Opava, Czechoslovakia and was interested in art from a young age, showing promise in painting and as a piano player. As a teenager, an art teacher recommended that he continue his art studies, and Leo moved to Karlsruhe, Germany to study at an art academy there. To fund his studies, Leo played the piano in local bars and restaurants – and painted the scenes he observed around him. In 1921 he moved to Berlin where his finished his studies and began working in a graphic design studio. He spend time in Paris and Vienna before marrying Sophie Hermann in 1929 and settling in his hometown of Opava. Haas became an established portrait painter and director of a local printing house, and was also known as a caricaturist.

Leo’s first encounter with the Nazis came in 1937, who declared his caricatures “degenerate” and “Communist”, which foreshadowed the events that would happen at Terezin. Haas, his second wife Erna, and her family were sent to Terezin at the end of September 1942. Haas was soon transferred to the graphic department of the ghetto, where his primary task was making architectural charts. Other well-known artists also worked in the department, including Otto Ungar and Bedřich Fritta, who would become a close friend of Haas. The men were often able to visit other parts of the ghetto, and they secretly began to paint and draw what they observed. Haas depicted transports, scenes from the ghetto café – where no food or drinks could be found, performances, bread rations being transported in a hearse, and many other aspects of life in the camp. He was known for being very politically minded, but known for his compassion and unflinching depictions of ghetto life in all its brutality.

He created a secret compartment in the paneling of the wall of his barrack where he hid many of his works. The works remained hidden during Haas’s interrogation and imprisonment in the Small Ghetto of Terezin, where Haas was sentenced to hard physical labor. After three and a half months, Haas and Fritta were again interrogated and accused of distributing Communist propaganda.

At the end of October they were sent to Auschwitz for their supposed crimes. Fritta was ill with dysentery and died a week later. Haas was soon transferred to another camp called Sachsenhausen where he was put to work in a counterfeiting unit due to his artistic talents. He was transferred twice more before being liberated by the Allies on May 5th, 1945. His wife survived the war but was in very poor health, and would remain sickly for the rest of her life. They adopted Fritta’s son Tomáš and moved to Prague, where they lived until Erna’s death in 1955. Haas then moved to East Berlin where he remarried, and worked as a caricaturist and cartoonist. He also exhibited his art around the world, up until his death in 1983.

Not long after the war, Haas bravely returned to Terezin in the hopes of recovering the paintings he had hidden in a wall panel of his barrack. He found all the paintings he had hidden there, as well as some of Fritta’s works, works of art that showed the world the truth of Terezin.

Further Reading
The Artists of Terezin by Gerald Green

A Birthday in Terezin: The Story of Berta Weinshenk

I was recently in contact with the great-grandson of an elderly couple who were sent to Terezin in 1942. I learned that this couple, Jakob and Berta Weinshenk, were from Nuremberg, Germany and they were sent to Terezin on September 10, 1942.  Jakob died about six months after arriving at Terezin, but incredibly Berta managed to survive the war. She celebrated her 75th birthday in the camp and her friends wrote her a special birthday poem on a piece of cardboard, which survived. The poem celebrates Berta’s bravery and expresses the wish that Berta would live a long life surrounded by her children and grandchildren. The full text of the poem can be found here:

A Birthday in Terezin….

The story of Berta’s deliverance from Terezin is an incredible one. In 1945, the Nazis announced that a transport was being arranged to Switzerland and asked for volunteers. Berta did not believe them, but feeling she had nothing left to live for she volunteered. Unlike all the other trains leaving Terezin, this one actually did arrive in Switzerland in February 1945. Berta was later reunited with her daughter Chana, whose family had immigrated to the United States before the war. Her older daughter, Pauline, also survived the war in France, but her son Martin was murdered in Auschwitz. Berta lived with her family in the United States until her death at age 95.

There is another story about Berta that is recounted in an exhibition at Yad Vashem. There is a matzah cover, white and fringed with a salmon colored border, bearing the stamp of a Jewish home for the elderly in Vienna. It is unknown how or when Berta acquired this matzah cover, but she kept it safe during her imprisonment in Terezin and after she died it was donated to Yad Vashem by her surviving relatives. Below is the full story as recounted on the Vad Vashem website:

Jerusalem Post Article: The Unlikeliest Storyteller

I am deeply moved and incredibly grateful that this weekend Butterflies in the Ghetto was featured in the magazine section of The Jerusalem Post. A link to the pdf version of the article can be found below. Many thanks to author Stephanie Granot for sharing the story behind the blog and for bringing the stories of the artists of Terezin to many more people.

The Unlikeliest Storyteller, by Stephanie Granot, The Jerusalem Post

Zuzana Ruzickova: the Gifts of Music and Life

A young girl takes a scrap of paper and carefully draws a series of musical notes. The notes are a small part of Bach’s English Suite Number 5 in E Minor, one of her favorite musical compositions. She doesn’t know where she is going or if there will be music there, and she wants to carry a piece of her beloved music with her. She tucks away this small scrap of paper. Knowing she has it gives her a certain strength as she boards the cattle car and is sent away to the unknown.

The girl’s name was Zuzana Ruzickova, and she was born in Czechoslovakia on January 14, 1927. She came from a wealthy and loving Jewish family, and from an early age, Zuzana was in love with music. When she was nine years old, her parents bought her a piano and paid for lessons. Zuzana progressed rapidly, and developed a deep appreciation for the works of Bach. As Bach’s works were primarily written for the harpsichord, Zuzana began to study that instrument as well. Her teacher, Marie Provaniokova, recognizing Zuzana’s talent and passion, secured her acceptance at a prestigious music academy in France to continue her harpsichord studies. Sadly, Zuzana was unable to attend due to the Nazi invasion of Czecholovakia and the Nuremberg laws.

In January 1942, Zuzana and her parents were transported to Terezin, where Zuzana was sent to work in the ghetto’s vegetable gardens. After work, Zuzana would attend the concerts and musical productions at the camp. She also managed to continue her musical education by taking lessons with the pianist Gideon Klein and joining a children’s choir.

Zuzana suffered a terrible loss when her father died in the spring of 1943. She became even closer with her mother and when her mother was assigned to a transport in December 1943, Zuzana chose to go with her. They were taken to Auschwitz, and both survived the initial selection. Years later, Zuzana could still remember the smoke from the gas chambers, and how terrified she was. On June 6, 1944, Zuzana and her mother were chosen to be executed but, possibly due to the D-Day Invasion, they were instead sent to a factory in Germany. Eventually, Zuzana and her mother were sent to Bergen-Belsen, were they were ultimately liberated. Seriously ill and suffering from starvation, they were transferred to a hospital and were able to return to their hometown in July 1945.

Zuzana was reunited with her old piano teacher and was determined to continue with her studies. At this point she had missed four years of formal instruction and her hands were battered from years of hard labor. To make up for all the time she had lost, Zuzana practiced up to twelve hours a day and managed to gain acceptance to the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague in 1947. She specialized in the harpsichord and the music of Bach. Zuzana later became an instructor at the Academy, and married a fellow musician, Viktor Kalabis. But the couple were to face many challenges as musicians, for in 1948, Czechoslovakia became Communist. She and her husband remained in the country during the 40 years of Communist rule, and against the odds, Zuzana managed to establish a successful career as a harpsichordist. The government gave her special permission to perform worldwide, and Zuzana became the first person to record the complete works of Bach on the harpsichord.

In 2006, when her husband died, Zuzana decided to stop performing publically. She continued to play the harpsichord, but after undergoing chemotherapy for cancer treatment, the resulting nerve damage to her hands prevented her from playing. Sadly, Zuzana is no longer able to play her beloved instrument. Yet Zuzana’s impact is enduring, and her story is told in a documentary called Zuzana: Music is Life, which is scheduled to be released this year. And in honor of her 90th birthday, Zuzana’s complete works of Bach have been reissued. Zuzana not only survived the Nazi camps, she thrived as a musician in spite of tremendous obstacles. And she shared with the world an incredible gift: the music of Bach that had given her strength years earlier.

BBC Feature on Zuzana:

More information on the documentary Zuzana: Music is Life


Karel Ančerl and the Golden Age of Czech Music

Karel Ančerl was a renowned conductor who contributed to the cultural life of Terezin and ultimately, the entire Czech Republic. He was born in 1908 in a south Bohemian town called Tučapy to wealthy Jewish parents, as his father owned a successful liquor business. His family wasn’t known to be musical, but Karel began to study violin at a young age and later piano, and showed promise as a musician. As a young adult, Karel studied composition and conducting at Prague Conservatory. While still a student there, Karel participated in performances with the Czech Philharmonic orchestra where he had the opportunity to work with and observe various influential conductors of the time. In 1930, on his graduation, Karel conducted a performance of Beethoven’s 6th symphony, which was widely acclaimed by critics.

In the year following his graduation, Karel was hired as an assistant conductor for the Munich premiere of Alois Haba’s opera Mother, and he conducted many concerts all over Europe. Ultimately he was hired to conduct performances that were broadcast by Radio Prague and also conducted several concerts by the Czech Philharmonic. All his successes came to a halt when the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia, and he was dismissed from his position. In 1942, Karel and his wife Valy were transported to Terezin, and their son Jan was born in the camp, not long after their arrival. At Terezin, Karel conducted the Terezin String Orchestra and organized many concerts at the camp. He also appeared in a propaganda film that was used to deceive the Red Cross delegates during their June 1944 visit to the camp. In the film, Karel was shown conducting a performance by the composer Pavel Haas, who was a close friend of his.

In October 1944, Karel, his wife and son, Pavel Haas, and thousands of others were transported to Auschwitz. Karel survived the camp, but his wife, son and friend Pavel were sent to the gas chambers on arrival. Karel later recounted the moment that he and Pavel were examined by the infamous Dr. Mengele. Initially, Mengele directed Karel to join the line of prisoners to be executed, but Pavel began coughing and Mengele sent Pavel to the gas chambers instead of Karel. It is difficult to imagine how this moment must have haunted Karel for the rest of his life. After the war, he met Pavel’s brother Hugo and told him the story.

Karel returned to Radio Prague after the war, and remained there until 1950, when he was appointed artistic director of the Czech Philharmonic orchestra. His first months there were challenging, as the members of the orchestra adjusted to the long work hours and high standards Karel required. The difficult work quickly paid off, as the orchestra was invited to perform in many countries and achieved great success worldwide. Karel brought the orchestra on tours throughout Europe, Asia and North America, and was often invited to conduct other national orchestras. It is notable that Karel often promoted Czech music, cultivated a distinct Czech sound and showcased the works of Czech composers, and brought greater awareness of Czech music to the world.

Karel stayed with the Czech Philharmonic for 18 years, when he emigrated to Canada following the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. He took up a new position as conductor of the Toronto Philharmonic, where he remained until his death in 1973. Karel did return to Prague to conduct his last two performances with the Czech Philharmonic in 1969 at the Prague Spring Festival. His 18 years with the Czech Philharmonic is widely regarded as the orchestra’s golden age, which makes his decision to leave his homeland during the Communist era all the more poignant. Though he lost so much in his life, his family, friends and even his homeland, Karel Ančerl is known for his tremendous dedication to his orchestra, and for bringing the gift of Czech music to the world.


Further Reading