Category Archives: Terezin poets

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

Children’s Stories and Poems: Terezin 1942-1944

Recently, I had the good fortune to read and examine one of the original 2000 English copies of the book Children’s Drawings and Poems: Terezin 1942-1944. Two friends who work in Special Collections at the University of Colorado generously gave me a tour of the archives after hours and located a sole book on Terezin in the collection. I returned to Special Collections a few weeks later to review the book in more depth. This hardcover book with its slightly worn dust jacket featured a child’s collage of a solitary humanoid figure. It was published in 1959, an English translation with an initial print run of only 2000 copies. A sticker on the inside cover read “Gift of Professor U.K. Goldsmith, 1973.” I wrote down the name, curious about the person who donated this book.

I own a later edition of this book, which features drawings and poetry from children who were in Terezin. Most of these drawings and poems are owned by the State Jewish Museum in Prague, and they were selected from more than 4,000 drawings and poems in the museum’s archives. Many of these works of art were created from any materials the children could find, such as scraps of paper, office forms, wrapping paper…This original edition featured reproductions that were far clearer and more vivid than the later editions. The paper felt heavy and opaque with beautifully vivid illustrations. Yet for me, two of the most poignant drawings were simple pencil lines depicting the outline of a child’s hand and sketches of butterflies. The hand was drawn by a boy named Frantisek Brozan and the butterflies by Eva Bulova. Almost nothing is known about them, but they were among the thousands of children who were sent to Auschwitz and murdered. There was a section in the back that featured biographical information on the authors and artists, but for most all that is known is what is gleaned from camp records: date and place of birth, date of transport to Terezin, whether they survived or died. In later editions, this section is still included, but all these years later no more biographical information has been discovered. Most of these young creators have been all but lost to history. That was the thought that stayed with me as I closed the book, leaving the two ribbon bookmarks at the page containing the poem “The Butterfly”, the one that captivated me from the start.

A memorial in Prague, illuminated by candles. May we never forget.
A memorial in Prague, illuminated by candles. May we never forget.

Later, after the visit, I researched the professor who donated this book. His name was Ulrich K. Goldsmith, and he was born to a Jewish family in Freiburg, Germany in 1910. He fled the country in 1932, passing through England and Canada before settling in the United States, where he received a PhD in literature from the University of California at Berkley. In 1957 he arrived at the University of Colorado, Boulder where he was the chair of the Department of Germanic languages and literature and co-founded the Comparative Literature department. He was known as a remarkable humanist and scholar of Stefan George and Rainer Maria Rilke. After his death in 2000, the university established a memorial prize in his name. Little else seems to be recorded about him, though surely his former students and colleagues have memories of him. Unfortunately, I don’t know how he acquired one of the original English translations of Children’s Drawings and Poems, or how he came to know the story of Terezin. If Professor Goldsmith were alive today and I had the chance to speak with him I would have asked him about these stories. Most likely, I will never know, but I will always be grateful to him for leaving this remarkable book with the library so that future generations may know the story of Terezin.

Petr Ginz: A Prodigy Behind Walls

Petr and Eva Ginz with their parents before the war.
Petr and Eva Ginz with their parents before the war.

The life of Petr Ginz, an artist, writer, Esperantist, magazine editor and scholar, dramatically illustrates the creativity and talent of so many children who died in the Holocaust.

Petr was born on February 1, 1928 in Prague to Otto and Miriam Ginz. His father was a manager in a textile company, and both his parents were passionate about Esperanto. In fact, his parents met at an Esperantist convention and taught the language to Petr and his younger sister, Eva. The children were from an interfaith background; Otto was Jewish and Miriam was Christian.

From a young age, Petr’s intelligence, curiosity and passion for knowledge was evident. He wrote his first novel at age 8 and wrote 5 novels in all before he was deported to Terezin. A skilled artist, Petr also illustrated the novels himself. He was interested in a wide variety of subjects, including literature, art, science, history and geography, was an avid reader and also recorded his experiences in a diary. Petr’s enthusiasm for the arts and learning did not diminish after he was transported to Terezin at age 14, in October 1942. He continued his studies and borrowed countless books from the makeshift Terezin library, and wrote short novels. He also made a major contribution to the cultural life of Terezin when he established a literary magazine called Vedem (We lead), which he published weekly. Petr wrote many of the pieces himself, and other boys from his barrack contributed work as well. The magazine featured pieces on daily life in Terezin, satirical essays, short fiction, poetry and artwork.

A close bond developed between the boys of Petr’s barrack, L417. They called their barrack the Republic of Shkid, and created a flag and national anthem. Their creativity and imagination in such circumstances were remarkable, as was the amount of work they produced for Vedem, much of which survives today.

Petr often wrote very matter-of-factly about the events he experienced and life in Terezin, and even managed to insert some humor. He did write some poignant pieces as well, most notably a poem in which he described how he missed Prague, though he knew it did not miss him. He described how he could not return because he was living like a caged animal but would always long for Prague, his “fairy-tale in stone.”

Tragically, he would never see Prague again. Petr was assigned to one of the last transports to leave Terezin, in September 1944. His sister Eva, who adored him, wrote about the day Petr left in her own diary. After Petr boarded the train, Eva spotted him at one of the windows and managed to pass some bread to him through the window, to hold his hand one more time before she was chased away by guards. Eva wrote honestly and poignantly about how she worried about her brother and wondered if he was still alive.

At the age of 16, Petr was murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, like hundreds of thousands of others. A prodigy was lost that day, and we will never know how many other gifted, talented young people were lost that same day. What remains are the writings and drawings he left behind, which his sister Eva preserved and shared with the world after the war, a poignant reminder of all that was lost the day Petr Ginz died.

Picture of the Ginz Family from Krizkova, Marie R., Kotouc, Kurt J. & Ornest, Zdenek. We Are Children Just the Same: Vedem, the Secret Magazine of the Boys of Terezin. The Jewish Publication Society, 1995. Print. Used with permission.

Further Reading
We Are Children Just the Same: Vedem, the Secret Magazine by the Boys of Terezin (by Marie Krizkova, Kurt Jiri Kotouc and Zdenek Ornest)

The Diary of Petr Ginz (edited by Chava Pressburger)

Georg Kafka: Franz’s Unknown Cousin

Me with statue of Franz Kafka in Prague
Me with statue of Franz Kafka in Prague

While conducting Terezin research I was surprised to discover that Czech literary icon Franz Kafka wasn’t the only talented writer in his family. Franz died in 1924 from tuberculosis and was spared the horrors of the Holocaust. Other members of his family were murdered by the Nazis, including his cousin, Georg Kafka, who was a talented poet and playwright.

Little is known of Georg, but we do know he worked as a teacher until he and his parents were sent from Prague to Terezin when he was twenty-one years old, in the summer of 1942. In the ghetto, he managed to write poetry, fairy tales and plays, as well as translating contemporary Czech books into German. One of his most highly regarded works was a play in verse called The Death of Orpheus. It was selected by the Manes group, an organization in Terezin that promoted German-language plays and lectures. Phillip Manes, the leader of the group, spoke at the premiere of the play and praised Georg as a gifted and talented poet.

After reading the one-act drama, I found myself strongly agreeing with Manes. Typically, I find it a challenge to read the script of a play and feel that references to Greek mythology have been overdone. But I was engrossed by this play, which focuses on the extraordinary singer and musician Orpheus after he has lost his beloved Eurydice forever and has gone away to live among shepherds. Here Orpheus is a man defeated, no longer caring about even his music and trapped in despair. In an especially poignant scene, Orpheus is visited by his mother, who grieves to see what has become of her son, who was once so bright and full of life.

Georg Kafka could have become a great author in his own right, if only he had the chance. His father died in Terezin in March 1944, and Georg’s mother was assigned to a transport on May 15, 1944. Not wanting her to be alone, Georg volunteered to join the transport. His mother died, most likely murdered on arrival to Auschwitz, and Georg was later transported to a camp called Schwarzheide, where he died. After he was deported his work was remembered in Terezin, and he was awarded first prize in a poetry contest. It would be the final honor bestowed on this talented, creative young poet and playwright, the unknown cousin of Franz Kafka.

Further Reading (available on Amazon)
Performing Captivity, Performing Escape: Cabarets and Plays from the Terezin/Theresienstadt Ghetto
by Lisa Peschel (contains translation of The Death of Orpheus and short biography)

Raja Englanderova and Willy Groag: Keepers of the Art

Terezin motif collage by Margit Gerstmannova (1931-1944)
Terezin motif collage by Margit Gerstmannova

It seems such a shame that there is so little information available about the two people who preserved the poems and drawings of Friedl’s students. In Raja’s case things are more complicated because a famous play entitled I Never Saw Another Butterfly presents a fictionalized account of her Terezin experiences. Given the lack of information available about her, it becomes difficult to understand who Raja (pronounced Ry-ah) truly was.

We do know that she was a teenager, an older student of Friedl’s and had a leadership role in the one of the camp barracks known as “the Girls’ Home”. It appears Friedl trusted that Raja would do as much as she could to preserve the children’s drawings. Why else would Friedl have selected Raja for this task? Raja was somehow spared from the transports to Auschwitz and managed to safely hide the suitcases until the liberation of Terezin.

Willy Groag was a chemist, teacher and leader of a Zionist youth organization called Maccabee Hatza’ir and at Terezin was appointed to manage the Girls’ Home along with Raja and some others. He did what he could to improve the barrack, though there was little that could be done in the ghetto. At night he would make rounds to check that everyone was in bed and no one was missing, and would tell stories to children who were unable to sleep.
When liberation came, Willy was one of the few men in the camp who was strong enough to work. He was appointed Director of Children and Youth, and worked tirelessly to reunite children with their parents. Often it was an impossible task since many of the children were orphaned.

In August 1945, several months after liberation, Raja approached him and revealed Friedl’s suitcases, which she had succeeded in hiding to the end of the war. She turned the suitcases over to him, and he returned the suitcases to the Prague Jewish community. At the time, the community leaders did not express much interest in them, and they languished in storage for over ten years, when some members of the community discovered them. Since then they have been exhibited worldwide, even to this day. For the most part, they are kept safely in Prague, at the Jewish Museum and the Pinkas synagogue and have been published in a number of books and volumes.

Though little is known of Willy and Raja, together they brought the poems and drawings of the children of Terezin to the world. These small works of art are all that remain of so many of the children of Terezin, their only legacy, preserved thanks to the efforts of Willy and Raja.

“Terezin motif” from Krizkova, Marie R., Kotouc, Kurt J. & Ornest, Zdenek. We Are Children Just the Same: Vedem, the Secret Magazine of the Boys of Terezin. The Jewish Publication Society, 1995. Print. Used with permission.

“I Am a Jew and Will be a Jew Forever”

Figuring out how to get to Terezin was the first challenge. I’m not the most experienced traveler, but luckily for me my boyfriend Robert has visited about 30 countries, some of which he has explored solo. Robert and I navigated our way through the Prague metro and arrived at the largely deserted bus depot on a chilly gray January morning. The next order of business was to find out the correct bus, and we made our way to the battered trailer that served as the ticket office. Inside was a small desk, and two elderly men sat around the desk. Robert immediately took charge, and armed with his Czech phrasebook, asked the men in their native language if they spoke English. They did not, and so Robert asked in Czech for two tickets to Terezin. After buying our tickets, we went to search for our bus. There weren’t very many passengers other than us and another group of tourists, and the bus was only about half full. That came as a surprise to me. I had expected that there would be many people visiting Terezin, but that wasn’t the case.

On the hour long bus ride, we drove out of the busy city and passed through lush farmland, and sparsely populated areas. It wasn’t long before the bus arrived at the town of Terezin, and dropped us off in the center of town in front of a large tan and cream colored building. Steps led up to a dark brown door, and above the door was the Hebrew word yizchor (remember). Square memorial plaques were fixed on either side of the door, one with a Star of David engraved on it. A white sign out front read Terezin Memorial Ghetto Museum in several languages. Robert and I climbed the steps and went inside. There were very few people inside, and we were accompanied by quiet and emptiness as we paid our admission and went into a large, expansive room which exhibited photographs and poetry of the children who were imprisoned there. The wooden floorboards creaked as we entered, and I stopped short when I saw the name beneath the photograph of a dark-haired young boy. Franta Bass. I remembered his name from several poems, remembered that he had been murdered as a young teen at Auschwitz, but had no idea that any photograph of him remained. I stared at the serious face for the first time, and I felt emotion well up inside me, tightening my throat as I recalled his poem, “I Am a Jew”:

When I first read that poem, I was deeply moved. No matter how horribly Jews were treated, Franta was determined to always be proud of his people. He swore that he would always be faithful to the Jewish people no matter what happened, that despite the brutality he endured, he would live on. I stared at the image of the young boy who wrote those powerful words, the boy who was murdered by the Nazis, and I silently mourned the unspeakable loss of him and of millions of other children. After a time, I exited the room, knowing he would live on in my memory.


The Butterfly

In the Czech countryside, about an hour drive from Prague, a fortress rises among the picturesque hills and green fields. This fortified town is called Terezin. During World War II, the Nazis called the town Theresienstadt and converted it into a ghetto and concentration camp. While the name of this camp is well-known, not too many people realize Terezin was the site of a major Nazi deception.

The Nazis made a point to send leading Jewish intellectuals, artists, musicians and writers to this ghetto and allowed them to continue to compose, paint and create their works. Later, the Nazis used the creative life of the camp to their advantage, claiming the camp was a “model ghetto”, and they even developed a propaganda film calling Terezin “Hitler’s Gift to the Jews”. The most terrible part of the deception was when the Nazis deported thousands of Jews to death camps, forced the remaining prisoners to clean up the ghetto, and had the composers and actors among them entertain a delegation of Red Cross representatives, who later claimed that the Jews in Terezin were well-treated. Whether the Red Cross delegates were really fooled is still up for debate, but what is known is that no further investigation was carried out. Of the 150,000 Jews sent to Terezin during the war, only about 17,000 survived.

This number included more than 15,000 children. While imprisoned in Terezin, often encouraged by the artists and educators there, many of these children wrote poems and stories, produced drawings and collages, and acted in performances. Tragically, less than 200 of these children survived the war.

One of the most famous surviving poems is called “The Butterfly” and was written by a twenty-three year old from Prague named Pavel Friedmann.

Butterfly (2)
Collage by Tara Malone

What else do we know about Pavel Friedmann? He was born in Prague on January 7, 1921, where he presumably lived until he was sent to Terezin in April 1942. He was later deported to Auschwitz, where he died on September 29, 1944. That is all we know, what has been gleaned from camp records.

In June, after being locked seven weeks in Terezin, Pavel wrote this poem. Maybe he wrote other poems, but The Butterfly is his only surviving legacy, all we have to remember him by. But remember we must.
The story of the artists, the poets, the musicians who were imprisoned in Terezin has not been told often enough. Very few people I have spoken with are familiar with this story, and it is essential that this story be shared and remembered in these days when anti-Semitism is again on the rise in Europe. More than ever it is essential that we remember the lesson of Terezin, that the human spirit is more resilient than many of us imagine, and that creativity, self-expression and humanity can endure in the most terrible conditions.

To the brilliant artists and creative minds who were imprisoned in the Terezin ghetto, this blog is for you. May your stories never be forgotten.