On Tuesday 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 others perished. Jan Velinger reports on the ceremony and the continuing legacy of Terezin.
The ceremony began with a speech by Culture Minister Pavel Dostal on the nature of euphemism and its role in the Holocaust, followed by a performance of cello and piano at Terezin's cultural centre. Hundreds of Terezin survivors were present, many supported by younger family members. Rabbi Karol Sidon offered a prayer at the commemorative opening of Terezin's columbarium and morgue, in memory of those who died.
Afterwards 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 it 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 sharp tone was not surprising; even so, not everyone was as caustic as the rabbi. One survivor, Marta Kottova, saw 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 many of the elders 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."
Another survivor, Anna Hanusova added:
"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 horrors of Terezin revealed 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. Many others still 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.