Terezin After 60 Years

Terezin cemetery

By: Jan Velinger

Terezin cemetery
A week ago, several hundred former inmates of the Terezin concentration camp in North Bohemia met at a reunion marking the 60th anniversary of the start of mass transports of Czech Jews. Some 150 000 European Jews were sent to Terezin, known in German as Theresienstadt, in the years 1941 to 1945, and some 35 000 died there. The rest were sent on to Nazi death camps in occupied Poland, where many more perished. I was able to attend the ceremony at Terezin, and see for the first time with my own eyes, a town that had been so stained by its dark legacy. Even more importantly, I was able to meet with survivors, some from as far away as Israel, who would not miss this important occasion.

At first glance, it seems almost like any other town, with children playing on the main square, and locals gathering for coffee at the corner news stand, almost but not quite. There are the reddish-brown 18th century ramparts which remind you, constantly, this is Terezin, site of the former concentration camp, site of the former Jewish ghetto. Viewing its ordered streets, the ordered streets of a former military town, one can not help in one's mind's eye, to imagine what it must have looked like in 1941. The exhibits at the Terezin Small Fortress, the Ghetto Museum, or the newly opened exhibits at the columbarium and former crematorium, brings one closer to the truth. One is struck by the plain language, the natural bluntness of the exhibits: lists of the dead behind a glass display, plain tables on which corpses were washed, a plain tablet inscribed with the names of the death camps. Standing there, in the quiet halls of the crematorium, one views the cobblestones and smoothed ramps once used for horse-drawn carts bearing the dead, and at the bottom, the very cart itself is on display. In another room, a steel-grate window, revealing a pool with lily pads, and one breathes, in that oppressive space, and is secretly thankful, almost heretically thankful, to be alive. The death lists, read that officially those who died at Terezin died from diseases of the digestive tract, tuberculosis and respiratory ailments, but these resulted from the cruel living conditions in the Terezin ghetto.

And so the ceremony. It began with a speech by Czech Culture Minister Pavel Dostal at Terezin's culture centre. Dostal analysed the role of euphemism in the Holocaust, most embodied in the once enigmatic phrase the Final Solution. His speech was followed by an emotional performance of cello and piano, of compositions by Max Bruch and David Popper. Hundreds of Terezin survivors were present, many supported by younger family members. Rabbi Karol Sidon offered a prayer at the commemorative opening of the columbarium and morgue, in memory of those who died.

In an interview shortly before, the rabbi was adamant that the lessons of Terezin had never been properly learned.

"The idea that Terezin was good at least for one thing, in that people at least learned their lesson so that they would never do anything like that again, is very misleading, because during my lifetime alone there has been so much genocide, so much suppression of the miserable truth of what human beings truly are, and what they are capable of. There is a predominance of euphemisms which blind us to atrocities before our very eyes."

The rabbi's view is hardly surprising; although not everyone was as caustic. One survivor, Marta Kottova, sees hope in future generations. As a member of the Terezin Initiative she regularly organises trips for children to the former concentration camp, and claims her stories have a positive impact. She spoke fondly of those who helped her, when she was herself a child in the Terezin ghetto. It was one of the most impressive things about the reunion of the survivors, that old friends, and some new, could find anything positive to say about Terezin at all.

"I am one of the children who survived. Terezin represents my childhood for me. I was here with my mother and father, but there were many, many other wonderful people here as well, professors who risked their lives to teach us. If an SS officer had ever opened the door, the teachers would have immediately been shot. Today I try and teach children in schools the meaning of this sacrifice. At the end of the war many soldiers and intelligent people told me it was easy to fight with a gun, when compared to us, who had nothing to fight with but words."

Another survivor, Anna Hanusova had this to say:

"I think I learned here to be a human being, to be tolerant, because here, around me, were such high cultural people, who helped us to save not only our bodies, but our hearts and our souls."

Clearly, the legacy of Terezin reveals the strength and courage at the heart of the Jewish community, then and now. For Max Tiben the camp will always remain a graveyard: he lost his father there in 1943, and the rest of his family at Birkenau.

"For me this visit in Terezin is a memory for all the family because we have no graves, and my father died here in Terezin in '43, and my all family... I was the youngest and I survived. All the family went to Birkenau, and they all died there. So for me it is the memory for all the family."

Many others, however, refuse to speak about their experiences even today, they are simply unable: even sixty years is not enough to lessen the pain. But watching many of the survivors at a banquet in the afternoon, some laughing, telling stories among themselves, most approaching the day with remarkable vigour, one could not help but be impressed. Dr. Vojtech Blodik, deputy to the head of the Terezin Memorial, believes in the continued need for discussion of the Holocaust, as part of the healing process, and as a means of educating future generations.

"It is very important to meet the former prisoners, but not every former prisoner is ready to come back. It's a problem for many of them, I would say for most of them to speak about this history, but there are many active members of the Terezin Initiative, this is the organisation of former Terezin ghetto prisoners, who are talking with students, and with adults, and who are also working as historians. Their task is to preserve the memory of tens of thousands of victims."

And so remembrance of Terezin continues. Abraham Weingarten, whose wife was a survivor. put it most succinctly at the end of the day, and I chose to end Talking Point with his words.

"The Jewish people didn't lose only 6 million of our people, who perished, but actually Theresienstadt, here was concentrated the top of the elite of the Jewish culture in all over Europe, it is a terrible gap now, it is hard to describe, for the Jewish nation it was a mortal blow, not only physically but mentally and culturally. When you go through Terezin you see all what we lost as a Jewish nation, and not only as Jews actually, you take the Czechs themselves. How many people could contribute so much to the Czech culture? So, what can you say? What can you say?"