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.

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.

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.

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.

Art poured out of Terezin whenever 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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Tirzah Firestone