Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Terezín and the Defiance to Live

"Work Makes You Free"
Hi Everyone,

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the Soviet army's liberation of Auschwitz, with memorial services planned in Oswiecim (Auschwitz), Poland. The Czech Republic will be represented at these services by Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka and three of his ministers. A tribute to Holocaust victims and survivors will also be held in Terezín, in northern Bohemia, the largest Nazi concentration camp in Czech lands during World War II.

I’ve not yet visited Terezín, but have been to Lidice and the Kobyliská střelnice. Lidice is a village that the Nazis completely destroyed in order to punish those who were supposedly involved in the assassination of the high-ranking SS commander Reinhard Heydrich. Kobyliská střelnice, located in Prague 8, was originally a military shooting range, but was later used by the Nazis as a place of execution.

It’s not easy to write about such places and incidents—how does a writer choose the words to properly convey carnage, destruction and horror? I struggle with this, and one of these days will write about my visit to Terezín and other such places. Until then, I’d like to share with you a story of Terezín and the prisoners’ defiance to live in spite of the unimaginable loss and horrific cruelty they experienced. But first, we'll take a brief look at Terezín's history.

A Brief History of Terezín

Terezín is located about 60 km (about 37 miles) northwest of Prague, at the confluence of the Labe (Elbe) and Ohře (Eger) rivers. The fortress was originally built between 1780 and 1790 by order of Emperor Joseph II of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and was designed to be a military fortress for defense of the route between Prague and Dresden. The fortress was named after Emperor Joseph’s mother, Maria Theresa of Austria. The garrison town and the fortress were used by the army for almost 200 years. Eventually, the fortress became obsolete and was re-purposed as a prison for political prisoners.

For most of its history, Terezín remained a prison. One of the fortress’s most famous inmates was Gavrilo Princip, the Serbian who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This act resulted in the start of WWI.

Map of Terezin Fortress

Terezín was taken over by the Gestapo on June 10, 1940 after the “Sudeten Crisis,” which was set off when Hitler was determined to become an advocate of the ethnic Germans living in the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia. The fortress continued to be used as a prison by the Germans during that time.

Sudeten Land

Then in November 1942, the Nazis turned the fortress and garrison town into a transit camp and ghetto for European Jews and other "subversives." The camp was established by the high-ranking SS commander Reinhard Heydrich, the man appointed as Deputy Reich Protector of the Protectorate of Bohemia.

Reinhard Heydrich

Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia
Terezín was not a typical concentration camp, though it did have crematoriums. The Nazis planned to use the fortress as a transit camp, intended as a temporary holding place for Jews and other prisoners who were to be eventually sent to other ghettos and concentration camps, including Auschwitz.

Terezín Barrack

Prisoner Statistics

About 150,000 European Jews passed through Terezín, including Czech, German, Austrian, Dutch, Danish, Slovak and Hungarian Jews. Of these, about 88,000 prisoners were sent to Auschwitz and other camps. Approximately 15,000 children lived in the ghetto. Terezín also held Allied soldiers as POWS; these soldiers were sent to the prison for repeated escape attempts from POW camps.

While the camp was not a “death camp,” about 1/4 of all Terezín’s prisoners died from starvation, stress and disease due to lack of adequate food, cramped and unhygienic living conditions.

Terezín Crematorium

The camp housed not only Jews from around Europe, but also those the Nazis considered as subversive, including scholars, musicians, scientists, writers, artists and other creatives.

Terezín Used for Propaganda

Rumors of the Nazi’s “final solution to the Jewish question,” namely the concentration camps with their crematoriums, eventually leaked out to the West. After Danish Jews were imprisoned in the camp, the Nazis invited both the Danish Red Cross and International Red Cross to visit, in order to dispel the rumors.

Terezín was cleaned up before the visit, with shops and cafes stocked, homes painted and many Jews sent to Auschwitz (and other concentration camps) to reduce overcrowding. All of this was done to show the world that the Germans were actually resettling and protecting European Jewish populations, rather than sending them to their deaths.

The Red Cross visitors were taken on a planned and restricted tour through the ghetto and camp, and were only allowed to speak to a few prisoners. During their tour, the visitors also attended cultural events such as the children’s opera (Brundibar, written by Krása) and a sporting event, among others.

Unfortunately, the Red Cross visitors were duly impressed and decided the prisoners were being treated as well as could be expected under the circumstances.

Later, the Nazis decided to create a propaganda film to show the world how well Terezín’s prisoners were being treated. The film was never completed or distributed; however portions of the film were saved and can still be seen on sites such as YouTube.

Cultural Life in Terezín

In the midst of harsh living conditions and under the constant threat of disease and deportation, the prisoners developed a rich cultural life, while striving to provide some normalcy and have a reason for living in their uncertain existence. Writers and artists found ways to keep journals and paint/draw pictures of the horrible life they faced every day. In addition, professors and actors gave lectures while others gave theater and concert performances. One source even says the ghetto had a lending library of 60,000 books.

Children living in Terezín were not supposed to attend school; however, teachers and others found ways to provide the children with lessons. The children also drew pictures, many of which you can see on display at the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague’s Jewish Quarter. I’ve seen these pictures and they are as natural, imaginative and lively as any children’s pictures you’ve ever seen—a very queer find in such a solemn exhibit. It makes you wonder how the children could portray such liveliness and hope, when their everyday reality was so dark.

The camp's inmates participated in these activities only when their tasks were finished each day. You can imagine the hunger pangs, weakness, and beyond-bone-weariness the prisoners experienced. Yet they were able to find the energy and spirit to participate in plays, operas, lectures and other pursuits.

It’s amazing that a ghetto/transit camp, such as Terezín, developed culture in the midst of so much tragedy and destruction. The prisoners were able to keep their captors in the dark about this cultural phenomenon. After a time, the Germans learned of the prisoners' activities and at first determined to put an end to all such endeavors. However, the Jewish elders persuaded the camp commanders to allow the inmates to continue. After this, Terezín’s cultural life “exploded.”

Edgar Krása and Rafael Schachter

Edgar Krása and Rafael Schachter met as inmates of Terezin and decided they’d work to make life more bearable for the other prisoners. Krása had volunteered to work in the kitchens as a cook when he first arrived at the camp, working to make the food as good as possible. He also participated in singing groups together with other camp inmates. Schachter was a Czechoslovak composer deported from Prague. He gathered prisoners to sing favorite Czech songs, operas and they even performed Verdi’s Requiem Mass in front of their captors.

Rafael Schachter

Schachter told his singers to study the Requiem’s message of salvation and retribution to those who have done evil. He wanted the singers to take this message into their hearts and souls while performing the piece before their Nazi jailers. In this way, the prisoners displayed their bold defiance to the Nazis when singing the requiem. What therapy for the singers—singing down retribution on their captors’ heads! Fortunately, the Nazis didn’t understand the words. If they had, the singers would have met their ends much sooner.

Krása went on to survive Auschwitz and to escape from a death march after being shot. He went on to move to Boston, Massachusetts and later opened his own restaurant.

Schachter died on a death march during evacuation from Auschwitz in 1945. His spirit lives on in the music he wrote, which is still performed today.

Honoring Those Who Died in the Camps

This is a short post about one portion of the prisoners' lives at Terezín. There are so many more stories—but I hope that you get a feel for the prisoners’ determination and defiance to live in the midst of the daily atrocities they suffered. These people continued to strive for life, when each day might be their last.

Jews Arriving at Auschwitz Summer 1944

This post is in honor and remembrance of all the men, women and children who suffered cruelty and hardship in the ghettos and concentration camps. May they rest in peace and may we never forget them.

Headstone for Terezín Inmates' Buried Ashes

God bless,


(c) 2015 by Sher Vacik. All rights reserved.

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