Monthly Archives: May 2015

On the Road to the Small Fortress

The Ghetto Museum is located in the main section of the town, known as the Big Fortress. After leaving the museum Robert and I took a walk around the town’s main square and down the side streets, lined with old buildings and barracks, most of them a tan color with reddish roofs. It was raining by this point, and few people were around. The people that we did see were mainly inhabitants of the town. Strange as it seemed to me, people do live in Terezin today. I wondered how they managed to go about their daily lives when the memories of those who were imprisoned here were so strong. Do they ever think about what happened here? Or do they go about their daily lives without reflecting on the history at all, with everyday struggles taking priority?

The other portion of town is called the Small Fortress, which was historically a jail for political prisoners. In 1940, the jail was taken over by the SS and was operated by Nazis for the remainder of the war. To get to the gates of the Small Fortress, you have to exit the main part of the complex, cross a bridge over the rushing river Ohre, and walk through vast Jewish and Christian cemeteries with unmarked gravestones. During World War II, the cemetery quickly filled up, and most of the 32, 500 prisoners who died in Terezin were not given a proper burial, but were sent to the crematorium at the far edge of the Big Fortress. On certain days, the crematorium can be viewed by the public, though it was closed when Robert and I visited.

As we walked to the Small Fortress, cold rain began to fall and we seemed to be the only people around for miles. The utter desolation of the place chilled me, and its impact on me is perhaps best represented by a photograph that I took during the walk to the Small Fortress. A lone figure walks through the rain, crosses the wet stone pathway that cuts through the cemetery, with rows of graves stretching out endlessly. A plain cross can be seen far ahead, as can black trees whose bare branches seem to claw at the gray sky. And in the distance is a grayish stone wall, the barrier which once enclosed people inside the Small Fortress of Terezin.

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“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.

 

An Unlikely Chronicler

At first glance I may seem an unlikely person to spread the word about Terezin. I converted to Judaism in college after many years of study, and as far as I know, I have no Jewish ancestry. In college and graduate school I studied literature and psychology, not Jewish studies, and my research on Terezin has been entirely self-conducted.
I also have a strong creative drive and for years have been writing fiction and poetry and creating visual art. The fact that so many creative geniuses were imprisoned in Terezin, the fact that the children and young people bravely continued to create art, poems, and even a literary magazine called Vedem resonated strongly with me from the start. I don’t exactly remember how I first learned of Terezin. It may have been the reference to the butterfly poem in the documentary Paper Clips, about a school in Tennessee that built an incredible Holocaust memorial. I began to research Terezin and learned that many creative works were produced there, including poems and artwork, a children’s opera, symphonies and plays.

Much of the children’s poetry and artwork was hidden away in suitcases by a talented artist and extraordinary educator named Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. The suitcases were eventually discovered and the poems were published in anthologies and the artwork put on display in exhibits worldwide. Very little is known about the identity of the young people who produced these poems, generally nothing more than a name, a birthdate and hometown, and the time and place of death. Less than 200 of the 15,000 children survived the war, most of them were deported to Auschwitz and murdered on arrival.

After reading a number of books on the topic, I found myself wanting to visit Terezin to get a sense of the ghetto for myself. I bought a travel guide on the Czech Republic, though it would be several years before I had the opportunity to visit. When I finally did visit, I was inspired to write a young adult novel which was set in part at Terezin. Initially, I believed this novel would provide a way for me to spread the word about Terezin. After realizing how incredibly difficult it is to get a book published, I knew I had to find another way to share this story with others, and eventually this blog was born.

I’ll begin by giving you a tour of the landscape and buildings that make up Terezin, which I experienced for myself in January, 2011. Next I will share the story of my visit.

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.