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.
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 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.
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)
In spring of 1945, as the Allies made progress on their liberation of Europe, Pavel’s mood lifted and he could again hope that freedom would come at last. Pavel wrote that freedom was such a beautiful concept for him and that he would be willing to risk his life for it. By late April, air raids occurred daily as the Allies approached the Czech border. The prisoners in Terezin were distraught by the arrival of emaciated survivors from Nazi death camps. In a deeply moving scene, Pavel took his bread ration and handed it to his mother, Valy, saying, “Give it to my father when he arrives.”
Pavel’s last entry was April 22, 1945 and in it he described a chaotic day in Terezin. Hundreds of people ran away with as many stolen goods as they could carry, a quarantine was placed on part of the camp and many inmates were fighting with each other. Then the good news arrived that the Red Cross was now taking care of them. Hope arose that freedom was drawing near. Soon after, Terezin was liberated and Pavel returned to Prague with his mother. They searched for Ludvik and Handa, and Pavel learned that his father and brother did not survive. We do not learn his thoughts from this time, as Pavel no longer kept a diary after he left Terezin.
In 1948, Pavel and his mother moved to Canada, and Pavel later moved to New York City, where he married and had a successful career as a chemical engineer. He had one child, a daughter named Karen. In 1979, Pavel discovered that his mother had kept his diary for all those years and he made the decision to edit the diary and translate it into English. It took Karen a long time before she could bring herself to read the diary, afraid of what she would find. After reading his diary and accompanying her father to Terezin, Karen believed that her father’s story should be shared. She began assisting her father with editing the translations. Sadly, Pavel did not live to see his diary published, but Karen persevered and the diary was published in 2012, ensuring that her father’s experiences would be shared with others.
Further Reading A Boy in Terezin: The Private Diary of Pavel Weiner, April 1944-April 1945
By Pavel and Karen Weiner
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)
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.
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.