Today I opted to write a slightly different post, focusing on the significance of Terezin for today. I often fear that the stories of the artists of Terezin will be regarded as a part of history, and it seems that the lessons of history are so easily overlooked in the present. The stories of the past are sometimes regarded as no longer relevant, as they seem so far removed from today, from our daily lives.
A friend of mine who teaches language arts to middle school students told me that Anne Frank’s diary had very little impact on her students. Many of her students live in impoverished inner-city neighborhoods and face incredible hardships. Still, they were simply unable to relate to the intense struggles and fears of a young Jewish girl living in hiding during the Nazi regime. It was the same when I read Anne’s diary as a middle school student and most of my classmates showed little interest in her story. Even then, I was saddened by this lack of interest, and I wanted to do something about it.
Sharing the stories of the artists of Terezin is a start, and those who take the time to read them have been deeply moved by these individuals. I have also incorporated some of these stories into my young adult novel, which I am trying to publish. But there is so much work to be done, as these stories remain largely unknown. This is such a shame, because these artists can inspire us and teach us about empathy.
Many psychology studies on empathy, such as Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, show that it is very easy for people to quickly lose all compassion for those they perceive as different from themselves. We see this and hear the news reports every day: people who are different in some way from the dominant social group are bullied, persecuted and killed. And the perpetrators are not usually violent people or criminals, but ordinary people who feel threatened by the “outsiders” and who have no empathy for them. But other studies have shown that it is possible to cultivate empathy towards others. Studies that required people to get inside another’s head and understand their perspective, such as by reading a personal account or identifying with a complex literary character, later displayed increased empathy toward the other. In the case of Terezin, we know so little about most of the artists, which makes it harder to truly understand who they were and to feel a connection with them. But I believe we can glean something of their individuality through the works they created, and empathize with them if we are truly listening carefully.
Above all, we need to remember the lesson of Terezin, that even in the face of human brutality, even during the most devastating genocide the world has ever known, the human spirit endured, and creativity flourished. If the artists of Terezin could keep on creating during such a time, it seems to me that there is hope for humanity. It is up to us, those who came after, to listen to their words, to their music, to view their art and try to understand and empathize with the individuals who created these beautiful works. The artists of Terezin can teach us a great deal about empathy and compassion if only we take the time to listen.