Terezin, a small fortress north of Prague, is a chilling place. It was converted from a 19th century prison into a Jewish ghetto in 1941, and houses museums that chronicle its history through the horrors of the holocaust. These museums are all spectacular, and put this historical scar in perspective.
Though not as deadly as the infamous Auschwitz, Terezin effectively destroyed the lives of both Jews and those, however remotely, of Jewish descent. There were no gas chambers at Terezin, but rather it acted as a half-way point between free life and extermination. At its peak, some 50,000 Jews were crammed into buildings that were supposed to house 3,000 soldiers. Thousands died from infectious diseases, while others died of sheer exhaustion and the great despair that was created in the concentration camp. The worst of it was the condition of the children; like the others, they were forced to work, had little food, and lived in cramped conditions. About 15,000 children passed through Terezin, but there are only 132 known survivors. In one of the museums, there is a section of art created by these young victims of the holocaust, and it is incredibly touching. Friedl Dicker-Brandeisova was able to create an atmosphere that gave these children an opportunity to embrace at least one aspect of childhood. One can see, however, that these paintings are hardly childish. Instead, themes of escape, their early life, and the desire to escape to a life of fantasy are prevalent: they have lost their childhood, and are no longer adults. The holocaust destroyed an integral part of their being. They never had a chance to experience all the joys of life, but only its sorrows. I think Michael Flack, a young artist who died before he could ever reach his potential, was able to best sum up the impact on the children in Terezin.
That bit of filth in dirty walls,
And all around barbed wire,
And thirty-thousand souls who sleep
Who once will wake
And once will see
Their own blood spilled.
I was once a little child,
Three years ago.
That child who longed for other worlds.
But now I am no more a child
For I have learned to hate.
I am a grown-up person now,
I have known fear.
Bloody words and a dead day then,
That's something different than boogie men!
But anyway, I still believe I only sleep today,
That I'll wake up, a child again,
and start to laugh and play.
I'll go back to childhood sweet like a briar rose,
Like a bell which wakes us from a dream,
Like a mother with an ailing child
Loves him with aching woman's love.
How tragic then, is youth which lives
With enemies, with gallows ropes,
How tragic, then, for children on your lap
To say: this for the good, that for the bad.
Somewhere, far away out there, childhood sweetly sleeps,
Along that path among the trees,
There o'er that house
Which was once my pride and joy.
There my mother gave me birth into this world
So I could weep...
In the flame of candles by my bed, I sleep
And once perhaps I'll understand
That I was such a little thing,
As little as this song.
These thirty-thousand souls who sleep
Among the trees will wake,
Open an eye
And because they see
They'll fall asleep again...
This was written in 1944, when Michael was still a young teenager, and had already suffered so much pain. Fortunately, this and many other works of art were saved, either smuggled out of the camp or found hidden within Terezin. Music, books, paintings, and diaries have been discovered, which were used to piece back together what exactly happened in Terezin. The horror of the site reduces most people to solemnity if not tears. It’s a warning light to the world that reminds us of the horrors of totalitarian regimes and the senselessness of genocides. It must not be forgotten.
But such a horror makes us ask questions. Why was it not stopped? How could the world have continued turning when such violations of human rights were being breached? The problem is truth. The world did not know what was truly occurring. In 1944, the Germans allowed the Red Cross to visit Terezin to dispel rumors that the Nazis were exterminating Jews on a mass scale. They used Terezin as a sort of model; they created a facade of a beautiful city with happy citizens living prosperous lives. It couldn’t have been farther from the truth, but the Nazis tricked the Red Cross into believing, through this process of ‘beautification’, that the concentration camps were a positive aspect of society. Children even performed the opera Brundibar. This propaganda distorted reality, and further destroyed the possibility to save the imprisoned Jews from liberation. It is understandable why the Jews could not fight back. They were physically weak from lack of nutrition and strenuous labor. Furthermore, their psyche had been greatly destroyed, and it seemed safer to collaborate with the Nazis rather than fight against oppression.
But their were a few who tried to escape, if only mentally, from the horrors of Terezin. Brundibar, for example, was performed since its composer, Hans Krasa, was also imprisoned in the camp. Countless paintings with common motifs against the Third Reich were created and distributed. The people were able to create a false reality for themselves to cope with the horrors they faced and fight against what the Nazi’s termed the “Final Solution”.
140,000 men, women and children were deported to Terezin from its establishment to 1945. A quarter of them died within the camp. The rest ended up in at either Auschwitz or other death camps. An estimated 4,000 survived these horrors. These numbers demonstrate the need to know the real truth. If the truth of the camps had been known, perhaps more people could have been saved. When people talk about the fabrication of the Holocaust and insist that it never occurred, it is imperative that there lie is countered with the truth, and that this stain on our history is not forgotten. Hopefully, it can be a lesson for future generations, including ours, as a warning against unchecked genocide.