Monday, June 7, 2010

Travels to Terezin

Yesterday we met up with our guide Aharon to travel to Terezin. Unlike the other concentration camps we had visited, Terezin was a temporary holding place until victims were shipped to other camps. The camp was about an hour’s drive outside of Prague. Originally a garrison town, it was designed to be difficult to attack which also served the Nazis’ purpose of being difficult to escape from. The city was encircled by walls, then an area that could be flooded as a moat, then more walls. Around the town lived many ethnic Germans insuring that if a prisoner escaped they would have nowhere to go. The people who lived in the town were moved out to open up the town to serve as a camp and many moved back after the war.

The first transport was in November 1941 and transports continued until 1945 with 150,000 Jews going through Terezin. It wasn’t a death camp although 35,000 people died of illness or starvation. Most were sent on to other camps and their deaths.

Terezin is best known for its role in deceiving the Red Cross about what occurred in the camps. The story of the camps broke in April 1944 after the first successful escape from Auschwitz. The escapees were part of the underground so were very knowledgeable about what was occurring. At that point most of the Jews had been murdered so only the Hungarian and Slovak Jews remained. The two escapees published a detailed report that went to a number of sources including the Red Cross and the Vatican. The Red Cross had to respond and so they planned to visit Terezin. The Nazis sought to create a showcase camp that would deceive the Red Cross into thinking that the stories were false. In order to make the camp seem less crowded they sent 13,000 Jews to Auschwitz. They arranged for them to be kept there for six months so they could write letters home indicating all was well. Then on Purim they were gassed. False stores and cafes were created to facilitate the deception. Needless to say it was not the finest hour of the Red Cross as they believed the Nazis’ lies.

Not everyone worked in Terezin and children lived in the camp until their deportation and death. As a result there were efforts to engage the children artistically and much of their artwork remains. Adult artists were required to work for the Nazis, but many also did their own artwork, often subversive in nature and showing the side of the camp the Nazis hoped to hide. There was also an active theater and a number of talented writers and musicians. Theater and musical performances were an important part of the camp and a group of teenage boys published a newspaper until their deportation.

We then headed over to the hidden synagogue, originally located in a private home, now part of the memorial. The original family had to leave Terezin when it was converted to a camp. They returned after the war and discovered a room decorated with Stars of David and Hebrew text. It was not until after the fall of Communism over 20 years ago that the family felt they could reveal the room. In the intervening years it was used for storage.

To enter the synagogue you must first go through a courtyard. During the war a bakery for the Nazis was on the other side of the wall. The design of the synagogue is attributed to Artur Berlinger who it is believed was an artisan at Terezin with access to paints. The walls contain a number of texts, paintings of candles and Stars of David. The texts are particularly telling given the circumstances faced by the Jews. The Eastern wall has the text from the Talmud, “Know before who you stand”. On the other walls are such texts as “We beg you, turn back from Your anger and have mercy on the treasured nation that you have chosen”. The portion from the morning prayers asks that they be removed “from distress to relief, from darkness to light, from subjugation to redemption, now, speedily and soon”. Other prayers plead with God not to forget them and to rescue them. The selection of prayers which were on the walls was clearly designed as a response to the circumstances in which they found themselves. The hidden synagogue was a deeply touching expression of faith in circumstances which could sorely test it.

As we drove through the countryside Aharon reminded us that the Germans’ murder of the Jews was only the first step in their plan which would have next extended to Poles and other nationalities. The plan for the Czechs was to exterminate a third, use a third for slave labor and Germanize the balance. He noted that the countries that were closer to the earlier activity during the war saw the most Jews escape prior to the war. Over 50% of pre-war Jews in Austria and Germany left as well as 25% of Czechs Jews.

We also discussed the interest in Eastern Europe in Jewish heritage today. I related that when I was at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, I was surprised at the number of non-Jews who sought to learn Yiddish, many with an interest in the history or literature. In the United States that would be very uncommon. Aharon noted that in Europe the Jews co-existed for centuries with the local population and often made up a significant percentage of the cities. Their history is also part of the history of the nation in which they lived which contributes to this interest. Frequently grandparents may remember the Jews who lived in their communities and that spurs interest as well. He also commented that many people are discovering that they have Jewish roots and there is a new-found interest in learning more about their history.

Today we shifted gears from Jewish history to Czech art with visits to two excellent museums. The Kampa Museum is located along the river south of the Charles Bridge. It has large collections of paintings by Frantisek Kupka and sculptures of Otto Gutfreund. I had especially enjoyed the work of both artists on our earlier visit to the Veletrzni Palace. Kupka was born in Czechoslovakia, but worked largely in France. He painted largely abstract work and was an amazing colorist. He also saw a relationship between music and painting and sought to express that in his artwork.

Gutfreund is acknowledged as the first cubist sculptor. His earlier more representational work was also quite strong. We recognized many of the same pieces that we had seen at the Veletrzni Palace with the Kampa having many of the earlier studies.

Later in the day we stopped at the Mucha Museum to view the work by Alphonse Mucha, a leading Art Nouveau artist, best known for his posters of Sarah Bernhardt. Our travels to different countries are always a good opportunity to see a cross-section of work by artists in their countries of origin.

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