Ancestral Pilgrimage

At Terezin

I write this from a train, rumbling through the Czech countryside on our way to the tiny towns where our grandparents and families lived and died.

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Yesterday, a day spent at Terezin, the Ghetto/Concentration Camp Terezin that held over 55,000 Jews. Terezin was not a death camp, per se. And there is no way to compare Terezin to say, Auschwitz or Matthausen, where hundreds of thousands were brutally tortured and gassed. Terezin was its own special animal—a transport center from which “unusable” Jews would be shipped east to their death. But it also provided the Nazis with a propaganda front to show the world (like the Red Cross) reasonable Jewish habitation. (It actually looks like a little village, and indeed it is a fortress originally built in the 1780’s to house political prisoners.)

But the place still reeks of suffering. Behind the pretty façade, the living conditions were horrendously cramped, full of lice and bedbugs, typhus and dysentery. 58,000 people were stuffed into the space of 7,000. Hygiene, food, and medical care was so paltry, that 33,000 died there. And 8,700 of these were children.

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That’s what kept me up last night, reeling with the sheer, monstrous evil of it. How we treat the pure little beings in this world of ours! My thoughts went on and on—to the Syrian kids now born in refugee camps, the Somali children clinging to rafts on their way to somewhere.

At Terezin some kids fought back in their own way—with art—documenting the insanity for us all.
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At Terezin, the only concentration camp that allowed creativity, the children made drawings. Before being transported to Auschwitz herself, their art teacher Leah Dicker Brandeis managed to hide 4,500 of the children’s drawings in 2 suitcases. These were found ten years after liberation in 1955. Kids also sang in operas like Brundibar (composed by Hans Krasa) and even Verdi’s Requiem (conducted by Raphael Schachter) as a wishful death-knell to the Nazis.

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Art poured out of Terezin whenver it could. It helped me breathe to think of it. What a bracing testament to the human spirit, the defiance of Life to the forces of darkness.

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8 Comments

  • Reply Ariella June 23, 2016 at 6:41 am

    Quite a journey. Pace yourself. Going through this harsh but moving journey will change you as a person.
    I’m with you in love and thoughts, sister.

  • Reply Regina Gray June 23, 2016 at 8:13 am

    Tirzah, so wonderful to follow your trip. I loved reading about Prague. I was there in 1969 before the Jewish section was such a tourist destination. I was there for Kol Nidra and attended services in the operating synagogue sitting in the balcony with very old women. It was a moving visit and I never have forgotten how all the treasures that are there on display in the old synagogues was collected there by Hitler to have a museum of an extinct race! Travel safely, love, Reggie

  • Reply carola de vries robles June 23, 2016 at 10:53 am

    yess to art making, letting the soul speak, allowing the inner life imagine the beauty of all that lives, dies and flies and regenerates again and again; what a powerful alive life force shining through the unfathomable endless/timeless acts against humanity…. ….Leah Dicker Brandeis was such a strong life affirming woman and child empoweror…. I am glad you “met” her and the children’s drawings. May the soul’s beauty and the rainbow colors keep warming your heart and encourage you on your journey. Shabbat Shalom, safe travels, Carola.

    • Reply Tirzah Firestone June 23, 2016 at 11:19 am

      Thank you Carola! Rainbow indeed! We are traveling through the Czech countryside today and loving the houses of every color! It’s stunning here, and despite what we heard about it, extremely friendly and happy to help 2Jews looking for their roots. Love from here!

  • Reply rachel amaru June 24, 2016 at 11:21 am

    Thank you for this, Tirzah. Sending you much love on your journey. Shabbat Shalom.

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