Ghetto Terezin and its part in the Holocaust
By: Ruth Bondy [Jan 2001]
During the half century since the end of WWII, the image of the Holocaust survivor in the eyes of the Israelis changed many times – and the image of ghetto Theresienstadt as well. The Yishuv in Eretz Israel (the veteran Jewish community in then Palestine), contrary to the solemn declarations that the homeland is awaiting the “embers saved from the fire”, as the cliché used in those days had it, was afraid to welcome the Holocaust survivors here. In internal discussions the leaders of the Yishuv mentioned “human scum” and saw the survival as a result of natural selection: they thought that the survival depended on cruelty, egotism and stepping on corpses. Bothe the living and the dead were accused: why didn’t they fight? Why did they go to their death like sheep to the slaughter? Only the ghetto rebels, the partisans, were accepted – they fought heroically. On this note Remembrance Day was dedicated not only to the Holocaust, but also to heroism, Holocaust of those who gave up, heroism of those wielding weapons.
The average Israeli never internalized ghetto Theresienstadt. A marginal place with no revolt, a little ghetto in the center of Europe, a ghetto for VIPs as declared by a representative of the delegation of International Red Cross after visiting the ghetto in June 1944 – he never bothered to see the truth beyond the performance staged by the Nazis for the delegation. The former prisoners of ghetto Theresienstadt, mostly young people who emigrated to Israel in the late forties, asked first of all to be absorbed, to acquire a profession, to find a living and housing, to start a family; they were busy with problems of everyday life. Also – among themselves or with partners who were not Holocaust survivors they talked very little about what they went through during the German occupation, in ghetto Theresienstadt and – especially – their later experiences in the camps and death marches.
In a way, the former Theresienstadt prisoners created a nostalgic image of Theresienstadt: this was, after all, the place were they were still together with their parents, siblings and friends, many had experienced their first love there. They lived among people their own age, they hoped and believed that, maybe, they would prevail. They knew nothing about the machinery of extermination; about gas chambers.
Only years later former prisoners of ghetto Theresienstadt in Israel met for the first time at a country-wide meeting; the venue was kibbutz Givat Haim-Ihud, where some of them had found their home. Then, in May 1955, they sat around a bonfire singing like in their youth in the Zionist youth movements, played football in memory of games in the ghetto and enjoyed meeting again. At that time there was only the beginning of a notion to found an organization to commemorate the victims of ghetto Theresienstadt and especially their friends, members of the Zionist youth movements and Hehalutz, most of which did not survive. They looked for a way to commemorate another facet of the Holocaust – the spirit of friendship, creativity and responsibility, of remaining a human being and care for children’s education so as to ensure the future of the Jewish people – all this in conditions of hunger and extreme deprivation.
This aspect of ghetto Theresienstadt entered the consciousness of most Israelis only in the 1960ties, with publication (in Hebrew) of the book “I Never Saw Another Butterfly – Children’s Drawings and Poems from Terezin Concentration Camp 1942-1944”, translated by Lea Goldberg and Tuvia Ruebner’ and the book “Requiem for Terezin” by Josef Bor, about the performance of Verdi’s Requiem in the ghetto (both books were published by “Sifriat Hapoalim”). The Eichmann trial mad a stark impression: survivor’s stories and biographies showed individual fates, not perceived before in the enormous and nebulous number of six millions. Slowly the Israelis, too, came to see the shoah, the survivors and heroism with different eyes. Ghetto Theresienstadt artists, exhibitions of children’s opera “Brundibar” in Hebrew translation, the dramatized story of the Requiem for Terezin, performed by Naava Shan, publishing the diary of the director of the Youth Care Department in Terezin, Gonda Redlich, a Hebrew translation of the youth newspaper Kamarad from the ghetto, cabaret songs with texts from Theresienstadt – all these created a new image of ghetto Theresienstadt.
But this new image is distorted in many ways, too: the Isrealy media sometimes define Terezin as the place “where the Germans concentrated the cream of Central Europe’s intellectuals and artists”; that was not the case. The Germans brought to this ghetto (for a time, at least) almost all the Jews from Czech lands and most of the elderly Jews from Germany and Austria, among these were – according to the structure of Central European Jewry from before the Nazi regime – many professionals, scientist, intellectuals, and artists. Sometimes the impression is created as if the ghetto prisoners went from one theater performance to the opera, from lecture to lecture, from concert to concert, and from cabaret to cabaret. This, of course, was not so.
During my stay of 18 months in the ghetto I had the privilege of attending on opera performance and one theater performance – many other prisoners were not so lucky and that was not due to a lack of interest. The hard work, standing in line (for food, water, the WC); having to be home in time before the curfew (usually at 8 p.m.), meeting parents, husband or wife, the children, a friend; frequent illness, fear of transports, mourning the death of a parent in the ghetto – one needed one’s strength first of all for a day-to-day existence.
In addition, it was not easy to get tickets for performances in the small, improvised places. For all these reasons most people were not able to attend such events; usually only a few of those living in the same barracks where the performance was staged or those who had good connections with the “Freizeitgestaltung” (Leisure Time Department).
It seems as if the tens of thousands of old people were forgotten, dying from under-nourishment, diseases, not wanting to continue to live, with the dread of the constant leave-taking hovering over the ghetto like a black cloud, transports leaving for an unknown destination or to one known only under it cover name “Birkenau bei Neu-Berun” – meaning Auschwitz.
The nerve-wracking endless standing in queues, the constant feeling of hunger, not a hunger driving you crazy like in other places, but hunger gnawing like a small mouse, the never ending chain of maladies, affecting also children and youth – impetigo, encephatlitis, typhoid, scarlet fever, hepatitis, diareha, – the fleas and bedbugs biting mainly at night, as if all this never existing.
Maybe there is no other way, if one wants to keep the memory of the unique character of ghetto Theresienstadt. suffering, want, diseases, hunger existe in all concentrations of Jews in Europe during the Nazi occupation’ but such a quantity of treasures in the fields of art, lyrics, musical compositions, children’s drawings and newspapers from children’s homes, diaries and notes were preserved in Terezin only.
It is fitting to remember ghetto Theresienstadt as it was: a place of spiritual elevation and of hardness, of pettiness and also generosity, of mutual help and of ignoring your neighbor’s suffering, a kaleidoscope of trapped and distressed people, most of whom kept their humanity, who did not act cruelly towards each other, who hoped to survive until the dreamed-of end of the war – but for most of them it came too late.
And that is the importance of transmitting the material on ghetto Theresienstadt to future generations, not only as testimony of an era, but testimony for the readiness of individuals to accept responsibility for the community, to not give up; testimony for the ability of man to learn, to create, to laugh, to love life even in the most difficult and severe conditions.