Tag Archives: Terezin artists

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

http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/exhibitions/last_portrait/fleischmann.asp

http://art.holocaust-education.net/explore.asp?langid=1&submenu=200&id=13

http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Fleischmann_Karel

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
http://www.jmberlin.de/fritta/en/index.php

Tommy’s Book:
http://www.jmberlin.de/fritta/en/bilderbuch-fuer-tommy.php

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

http://art.holocaust-education.net/explore.asp?langid=1&submenu=200&id=14

http://www.theholocaustexplained.org/ks4/the-nazi-impact-on-europe/theresienstadt-a-case-study/leo-haas-living-culture-in-the-ghetto/#.WPPA3NLyvIU

http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/exhibitions/last_portrait/haas.asp

Ilan Ramon and Petr Ginz: The Astronaut and the Prodigy

There is an incredible and tragic connection that exists between the young prodigy Petr Ginz and the astronaut Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli in space. He was born Ilan Wolferman in Ramat Gan, Israel. His father’s family fled Germany in 1935 and his mother and grandmother were Holocaust survivors who were imprisoned in Auschwitz. They left Poland after the war, and emigrated to Israel.

Ilan graduated from Tel Aviv University with a degree in computer engineering in 1987 and joined the Israeli Airforce, where he became a highly accomplished fighter pilot and earned the rank of Colonel. During his fighter pilot training he adopted the surname Ramon. In 1997, he was accepted by NASA and began training to be a Payload Specialist, a process which took five years. He participated in the 113th mission of the Space Shuttle Program, aboard the shuttle Columbia.

Though described as secular, as the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan saw himself as a representative of the Jewish people. He opted to eat kosher food on the mission, and consulted with a rabbi on how to keep Shabbat in space. Ilan also brought with him a variety of objects that held special significance. These objects included a small Torah scroll that was saved from the Holocaust, a dollar bill with the image of the Lubavitcher Rebbe – and a copy of a drawing by Petr Ginz.

Petr’s drawing depicted a lunar landscape, mountainous and desolate, with an image of the Earth shining in the distance, though Petr did not live long enough to see the first pictures of Earth taken from space. Ilan took the image to commemorate Petr, who died in Auschwitz, and all the others who were affected by the Holocaust.

**To view Petr’s drawing and NASA portrait of Ilan, please visit: http://www.science.co.il/Ilan-Ramon/

 

Ilan and his crew members completed their mission, but tragically, their Shuttle Columbia broke apart on re-entry, killing all on board. The disaster happened on February 1, 2003, which would have been Petr’s 75th birthday. The copy of the drawing was destroyed, but part of the diary that Ilan kept on the mission survived the disaster. Though badly damaged, after 5 years forensic scientists were able to restore about 80% of its content. One of the pages was a handwritten copy of the Kiddush prayer, another way Ilan expressed his pride in being part of the Jewish people. The diary that Petr kept, along with many poems, stories and articles have been saved. These writings give us greater insight into who this man and boy were, and ensure that some part of them lives on. I greatly admire their many achievements, but they shared other qualities that impress me even more than what they accomplished. Most of all, I remain in awe of how they were able to look beyond their immediate surroundings, to imagine all that lies beyond the confines of Earth and how they had the courage to envision and to work for a better world.

Further Reading

Memorial site for Ilan Ramon:    http://www.science.co.il/Ilan-Ramon/

Behind the Scenes with the Terezin Storytellers

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak more with filmmaker Rich Krevolin about Making Light in Terezin. We discussed the significance of the story of the Terezin artists, the challenges of communicating such an incredible story and how to continue to spread the word about Terezin. The story of how many Terezin prisoners managed to create works of poetry, theater, music instead of giving into despair is an incredible story of resilience and is an affirmation of humanity in the midst of a regime that was committed to the destruction of humanity. These works of art and how they came into being are the powerful legacy of the prisoners of Terezin. This legacy is not so widely known, which is why we must continue to spread the word about it.

Mural in Prague with partially obscured Star of David
Mural in Prague with partially obscured Star of David

The way we communicate this story has its challenges, and both Rich and I shared the concern that by focusing on the creative pursuits of many Terezin prisoners, the horrors of the ghetto risk being downplayed. By no means do we wish to imply that the Terezin prisoners were privileged in any way. They were not able to create because conditions were better than in other ghettos, but rather they created in spite of the rampant disease, cold and starvation. Initially, people had to create their works in secret, as any artistic expression was forbidden. Gradually, over time the Nazis permitted such pursuits to an extent, primarily so they could exploit the works and build a façade of Terezin as a model ghetto. The reason that many of these works survive today is thanks to those prisoners who remained in Terezin and carefully hid away and guarded these works. Some of these works, like the cabaret, were preserved for decades before they were rediscovered.

Those of us who have committed ourselves to telling the story of Terezin have done so through the use of film, scholarly articles, traditional book publishing and blogging. We all share the desire to make this story more widely known and appreciated. Rich has been successful in promoting Making Light in Terezin, which has aired on PBS and is still aired from time to time. The documentary has also been shown at film festivals worldwide. Rich would like to continue to spread the word by finding an international distributor, and I sincerely hope he is successful in these efforts.

Theater is another way this story is told. In addition to her scholarly work, Dr. Lisa Peschel collaborates with theater departments at various universities to produce the Terezin cabaret and other dramatic works. Seeing these productions live must be an incredible experience, and I greatly hope that I can work to arrange for a production to come to Colorado. For now, I am focused on researching, developing and growing my blog as the main way to share the stories of the artists of Terezin. I feel so strongly that these stories must be passed along, and it is truly heartening to speak with others who feel the same.