Tuesday, April 23, 2013

T is for That Time I Stayed in a Concentration Camp

My junior year, 2005, I traveled with 4 other students from my high school to the Czech Republic. We flew into Prague and spent just one day exploring the city. 

It is an absolutely beautiful city that I would love to go back and really visit- but that was not what we were there for. From Prague we boarded a bus to Terezín. This walled military town was turned into Theresienstadt, a Jewish Ghetto and concentration camp, by the Nazis in 1941 and that is where we would spend 4 days for an ISTA (International Students Theater Association) Festival of Tolerance.
The Nazis used Theresienstadt to solve their question of what to do with the "special" categories of Jews- the artists, musicians, composers, actors, the more prominent and wealthy families.  Those who passed through this camp were put to work drafting propaganda for the Third Reich.  A propaganda video was also filmed here and a special performance of the children's opera,  Brundibár, took place when the International Red Cross was permitted to visit Theresienstadt. They came to investigate the growing rumors of extermination camps. For their visit fake stores and cafes were built to give the appearance of comfort. In the grass shown below, they strategically placed the healthier inmates and staged a futbol game.
To hide the evidence of over-crowding many of the inmates were deported to Auschwitz or Treblinka. Under threat of punishment or deportation the inmates acted their part and the Red Cross fell for the gimmick. Once their propaganda project was complete, the entire cast and the director of the film were shipped to Auschwitz where they perished.

But with access to paper, pencils, paint, and canvas, many of the inmates, in secret, found ways to record their own experiences of the reality of the camp. Much of the secret work was hidden in the walls or buried underground making it the largest collection of art from any of the camps. Many of the drawings and journals were created by children in the camp.  Of the 15,000 children deported to Auschwitz, 14,900 perished. They are survived by 4,000 drawings now on display in the museum built in the old barracks and the book, I Never Saw Another Butterfly, which is a collection of poetry and art made by the children of Theresienstadt attempting to find relief from the horror of their world.

I'll pause the history lesson here and get back to my own trip there.  You might be wondering what in the heck a group of high school students did for 4 days in this eerily quiet town. Honestly before the trip I was completely freaked out. We would be staying in the old barracks from the Ghetto (obviously updated from the original days) and I had a dark pictures in my head of what that meant. I was terrified of walking in a place filled with so many ghosts. There were students from all different schools, not just international ones. The only real requirement was that you had to audition and you had to know English. I shared a room with 4 girls from Slovakia....I didn't say English had to be your first language. This arrangement was a little awkward at first but definitely appropriate given that the theme of the trip was tolerance.  It's powerful word to focus on in a place that saw so little of it.
As visitors we toured this town, now mostly empty after the war. We visited the art exhibitions on display in the barracks left relatively untouched since the day the camp was liberated. We saw the hidden synagogue with the menorah painted on the walls in lieu of candles. One evening we all partook in a traditional Passover meal as the holiday season fell during our stay. It was a surreal and powerful thing to be a part of in a place like that.

We saw the deportation point with the overgrown train tracks that at one point led to hell on Earth. We saw the crematorium and the sat with our journals and heavy hearts by the river near where the ashes of thousands were dumped to conceal the genocide as the end of the war drew near.
How did I stand by this river and smile. I'm not sure. It's strange and the emotions are raw. But in this place where human depravity and suffering were rampant we created joy. We laughed and played and sang and moved and remembered and lived and I think that is an honorable and appropriate tribute to the memory of this place.

In different sessions throughout the day we were instructed to take our cue from the artists there before us and practice our own story telling, drawing and poetry writing, singing and movement.  We were then split into smaller ensemble groups and we worked together to compose our own response to what we had learned and observed. One of the most moving moments was sitting in the attic of the barrack and listening to the testimony of Helga Hoskova. She shared her memories and some of the 100 drawings she made while living in those very barracks as a young child. The diary she kept was hidden for her by her uncle in the walls of  records department where he was positioned.  When she was 15, a year younger than I was when I visited, she was sent to Auschwitz and survived. Her uncle was later able to retrieve her journal and coincidentally, Helga's Diary: A Young Girl's Account of Life in a Concentration Camp, was released yesterday.

Aside from posterity, the reason this post is so lengthy is that soon there will be no more Holocaust survivors. I feel the burden to share the story of that place. I was stretched so much there. Pushed so far out of my comfort zone and forced to expand my view of true tolerance and also bravery in the midst of fear. I learned how to tell my story and pay homage to the past.

140,000 Jews came through the gates of Terezín. 33,000 died due to the horrible conditions, brutality, and illness.  87,000 were put on a train to Auschwitz. At the end of the war only 17,000 had survived.

(You can read a better summary of that year's ISTA Festival of Tolerance here.) 

6 comments :

  1. Wow. Powerful.

    I visited Dachau (the first of the concentration camps) when I was staying in Munich during my trip around western europe I took aged 18. I've seen Anne Frank's house, and heard my Nana's tales of what it was like to live in London during the Blitz, my Great Aunt and Uncle's tales of being evacuated during the war to Wales and the horrible people that they had to stay with.

    I find it so hard to understand what happen then. I find it hard to understand the Rwandan genocide, the wars going on now. The apartheids of Southern USA and South Africa. The Slave Trade. How can people treat people like that because of their tribe, skin colour or belief system?

    It is so important we keep telling these important stories. Hopefully learning about the past mistakes of humankind will be prevent some of them being repeated.

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  2. Thank you for such a powerful post! I spent a day in Auschwitz Auschwitz-Birkenau and still have chills and nightmares about that place. I think everyone needs to visit one of these sites in their lives if they have the chance - it's the only way once all the survivors are gone to ensure that this never happens again.

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  3. Wow I have goose bumps... I'm speechless what a amazing opportunity.

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  4. You're making me re-think not going into the Czech Republic when I'm in Germany this summer. We are going to visit a concentration camp: Buchenwald.

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  5. Hi Shannon! I found you through Kelly's Korner. I planned on commenting on a different post but then I saw this one and I knew this was the one. I went to Eastern Europe two years ago and went to Berlin, Krakow, and Prague. You really should go back to Prague, it's absolutely gorgeous and there's so much to explore!

    I have also been to Terezin. I haven't thought about it much in the past two years because I also went to Auschwitz and Majdanek, which had more of an impact on me. But I too, feel the burden to share the stories. The art exhibits are incredible; it's hard to believe people were able to create art like that when so much evil was happening around them, but I guess that's why they *could* do it. I don't think I saw that river, but I do remember walking through a dark tunnel and seeing the crematorium and looking at the bunks and wondering why. And I had forgotten about that secret synagogue - I can't even imagine being persecuted for my faith, so having a secret representation of that where people would have been killed if it was found is so brave me.

    Thanks for helping me remember.

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  6. WOW! I am reading through older posts and am just moved to tears by this. As a former History teacher I admit that this was one of the places that I was not aware of. Thank you so much for bringing light to this and for sharing with us about Helga's book. I plan on going and purchasing that and reading it! Thank you so much for sharing this again!
    :) Rebecca

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