Friday, 8 May 2020

Sharing the stories of the
children and prisoners of
Theresienstadt 75 years later

Theresienstadt heads the list of concentration camps inscribed on the wall around the Aron haKodesh in the Pinkas Synagogue, Prague … today marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Theresienstadt or Terezín on 8 May 1945 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camp at Theresienstadt or Terezín on 8 May 1945.

The end of the Holocaust and of World War II 75 years ago has brought a number of anniversaries and commemorations this year, including the 75th anniversaries of the liberation of the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau (27 January), Buchenwald (11 April), Bergen-Belsen (15 April), Sachsenhausen (22 April), Dachau (29 April), Ravensbrück (30 April), and Mauthausen (5 May).

Theresienstadt or Terezín was both a concentration camp and ghetto established by the SS in World War II in the fortress town of Terezín, in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, then part of German-occupied Czechoslovakia and now part of the Czech Republic.

Theresienstadt was both a waystation to the extermination camps, and a ‘retirement settlement’ for elderly and prominent Jews to mislead their communities about the Nazis’ plan for genocide. The conditions there were created deliberately to hasten the death of the prisoners, and the ghetto also served a propaganda role, most notably during Red Cross visits and in making propaganda films.

The ghetto, about 70 km north of Prague, was established by a transport of Czech Jews in November 1941. The first German and Austrian Jews arrived in June 1942, Dutch and Danish Jews followed in 1943, and prisoners from other nationalities were sent to Theresienstadt in the last months of World War II.

A suitcase packed for Theresienstadt … an exhibition in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

About 33,000 people died at Theresienstadt, mostly from malnutrition and disease. More than 88,000 people were held there for months or years before being deported to extermination camps and other killing sites. About 23,000 people survived Theresienstadt.

Many prominent Jews were held at Theresienstadt, which was known for a cultural life that included concerts, lectures and clandestine education for children.

Theresienstadt, across the river from the city of Leitmeritz (Litoměřice), was founded on 22 September 1784 by the Habsburg Emperor Joseph II, who named it after his mother, the Empress Maria Theresa.

Following the Munich Agreement in September 1938, Nazi Germany annexed the Sudetenland or the German-speaking region of Czechoslovakia. Although Leitmeritz was ceded to Germany, Theresienstadt remained in the Czechoslovak rump state until the invasion of the Czech lands on 15 March 1939. The Small Fortress became a Gestapo prison in 1940 and the fortress town became a military base, with about 3,500 soldiers and 3,700 civilian workers based there in 1941.

As the Nazis planned the transport of Jews from Germany, Austria and the Czech lands to the ghettoes, a meeting in October 1941 decided to convert Theresienstadt into a transit centre for Czech Jews and as ghetto.

The Wannsee Conference on 20 January 1942 decided to use Theresienstadt to hold Jews over the age of 65, and those who had been wounded fighting for Germany in World War I or who had been decorated with the Iron Cross. In this way, Theresienstadt helped to hide the true nature of deportation to the East.

Later, Theresienstadt housed prominent Jews whose disappearance in an extermination camp could have drawn international attention.

To lull victims into a false sense of security, the SS advertised Theresienstadt as a spa town where Jews could retire, and made them sign fraudulent home purchase contracts, pay deposits for rent and board, and surrender life insurance policies and other assets.

‘A view of the Engineers’ Barracks Building in Terezín’ by Sonja Fischerová (1931-1944) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Although education was forbidden, teachers continued to teach clandestine classes. The subjects including Czech, German, history, geography, and mathematics, and Hebrew was mandatory – despite the risk to teachers and children.

Children also took part in cultural activities in the evenings, and many children’s homes produced magazines, the best known being Vedem.

Encouraged by the Viennese art therapist Friedl Dicker-Brandeis (1898-1944), hundreds of children made drawings. She was deported to Auschwitz and murdered in Birkenau on 9 October 1944. But, before she was deported, she entrusted a friend with two suitcases filled with 4,500 drawings.

The drawings she helped the children to create are now regarded as Theresienstadt’s most precious legacy. The drawings are now in the collection of the Jewish Museum in Prague, and some are on display in the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague.

Many musicians performed at the ghetto. Karel Ančerl conducted an orchestra composed largely of professional musicians; Karl Fischer, a Moravian cantor, led various choirs; the Ghetto Swingers performed jazz music; and Viktor Ullmann composed more than 20 works at Theresienstadt, including the opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis.

The children’s opera Brundibár was composed in 1938 by the composers Hans Krása and Adolf Hoffmeister for the Children’s Orphanage of Prague. It was first performed at Theresienstadt on 23 September 1943. And was performed 55 times, or about once a week, until the transports of autumn 1944.

The opera tells the story of a brother and sister who stand up to a bully in order to afford milk to save their sick mother. It was meant to teach the children at the orphanage about how to deal with a bully, and how to remain positive in difficult situations.

The 1941 debut took place in secret because of the German occupation. When Hans Krása was deported to Theresienstadt, he rewrote the opera for the children in the camp. They rehearsed in secret until the Nazis discovered them. Instead of being punished, the Nazis saw Krása’s opera as a way to show the world that they were treating their prisoners fairly, allowing them to practice the arts.

The antagonist, an organ grinder who sang loudly on the street in order to make money and drown out all the townspeople’s voices, was symbolic of Hitler’s tyrannical reign. The Nazis failed to make this connection, and so the resistance opera continued to be performed under their noses.

Brundibár was performed 55 times in the camp for inspectors from organisations including the Red Cross. Many of the opera’s performers were deported from Terezín to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where most of the performers died. When performers were deported, they were replaced by other prisoners at Terezín.

The work of the musicians was exploited by the Nazis in the two propaganda films made in the ghetto. Only the social elite could get tickets for events, and attending musical and theatrical performances became a status symbol.

Hoffmeister’s final verse was: ‘Who likes mummy and daddy and our native home is our friend and can play with us.’ For the performance in Terezín, Erik A Saudek changed this ending to: ‘Who likes the law, stands by it and is not afraid of anything …’ This final verse became something of an anthem in Terezín. Actors and viewers alike knew very well the meaning of these words in combination with the innocent children’s fight with evil Brundibár.

At the end of Brundibár, the chorus sings: ‘We’ve won a victory over the tyrant mean. Sound trumpets, beat your drum, and show us your esteem. We’ve won a victory because we were not fearful, because we were not tearful. Because we marched along singing our happy song, bright joyful and cheerful.’

A Menorah made for Hanukkah in Theresienstadt in 1944 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Theresienstadt was the only concentration camp where religious observance was not banned. Some Jewish communities and individuals had brought their own Torah scrolls, Shofar, tefillin, and other religious items with them. A team of rabbis oversaw the burial of the dead. Rabbi Richard Feder and Rabbi Leo Baeck provided pastoral and spiritual ministry not just to Jews or for Jews and Christian converts, but for all.

The Red Cross took over the administration of the ghetto and removed the SS flag on 2 May 1945. The SS fled on 5-6 May. On 8 May 1945, V-E Day, Red Army troops skirmished with German forces outside the ghetto and liberated it at 9 pm.

In the post-war period, a few of the SS and Czech administrators and guards were put on trial. But the ghetto was generally forgotten by the Soviet-era authorities.

Tickets for Terezín and the Jewish Quarter are available in central Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Until the present Covid-19 pandemic ‘lockdown,’ the Terezín Ghetto Museum was visited by 250,000 people each year. Many people visit Terezin in conjunction with visits to the Jewish Museum in Prague.

As Covid-19 restrictions begin to ease in some European countries, the Jewish Museum in Prague has announced that it will reopen next Monday (11 May 2020), according to a report by Jewish Heritage Europe, and it is offering a special discount entry fee for visitors.

‘Our venues and exhibitions are getting ready to reopen!’ the museum announced on its website this week. From Monday, visitors will once again be able to see the Old Jewish Cemetery, permanent exhibitions dealing with Jewish history and traditions in the Maisel and Klausen Synagogues and the Ceremonial Hall, as well as the Memorial to the Victims of the Shoah in the Pinkas Synagogue and an art exhibition at the Robert Guttmann Gallery.

The museum is offering a limited-time discount on individual tickets – 200 Czech crowns, down from 350. These tickets can only be bought on-site at the museum, and not online.

The 13th-century Old-New Synagogue, administered by the Jewish community, is set to reopen on 25 May, and will offer a 50 per cent discount on tickets.

The museum closed on 13 March in compliance with Czech Coronavirus restrictions. Last week, Jewish Heritage Europe reported how loss of tourism revenue – particularly from the museum’s closure – is having a harsh impact on Prague’s Jewish community and its welfare and other projects.

A Reuters report noted that ‘a big chunk’ of the community’s ‘revenue comes from the Jewish Museum. This includes several synagogues and the cemetery. However, during the two months of closure, the museum has offered a number of virtual tours and exhibits.

A suitcase packed for Theresienstadt … an exhibition in the Jewish Museum in Vienna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Meanwhile, Rebecca Comerford, a professional singer and actor, has been involved in bringing Brundibár and the story of Terezín to American audiences, including synagogues, in a deliberate decision taken in the light of the present political climate.

Rebecca Comerford is a mezzo soprano and the founder of Ojai Youth Opera Company. She has sung both nationally and internationally as an opera soloist with some of the world’s finest houses, under the baton of Metropolitan Opera conductor Steven Crawford in Rigoletto at Carneigie Hall, the New York City Opera VOX series, the National Chorale at Lincoln Center, Spleto Opera in Italy, Neue Oper Wien in Vienna, and the Granada Festival for Spanish Song in Spain.

Rebecca and the Ojai Youth Opera Company were involved in reviving Brundibár and she has taken the story of Brundibár to Etz Chaim synagogue in Biddeford, Maine.

Only 20 of the 400 performers of Brundibár survived to see liberation. ‘They were making art up until the very end,’ says Rebecca Comerford. Brundibár was not performed outside Theresienstadt until 1986, when Radio Prague recorded its international debut. The Lyric Opera of Kansas City performed a production in 2005.

Rebecca Comerford spoke in Etz Chaim synagogue in Biddeford, Maine, about her company’s revival of Brundibár for American audiences. She recalled how she and the board of directors of the Ojai Youth Opera chose Brundibár as part of their programme for the 2017 season because of ‘the current political climate, and the rise of fascism across the globe, and the pervasive rise of intolerance, not just nationally, but on a macro level, too.’

She says there is an element of education to the show too. She recalls how the company had to decide what they were going to teach their performers about how to promote tolerance and inclusion, and about how to deal with bullies and negativity.

‘We decided that this would be really timely and relevant in terms of our mission, and said let’s do this outreach component, too. We’ll really discuss the messages. How do we deal with a bully? What does that mean to our children? And why do they need to know this story, so history doesn’t repeat itself again?’ Rebecca Comerford said.

Rebecca Comerford also performed Wiegenleid by Gideon Klein, a Czech composer who was active in the camp’s underground cultural life in Terezín. Klein wrote the lullaby shortly before he was deported to Auschwitz, where he was murdered.

‘It’s our obligation as a human family to share the story,’ Rebecca told her audience in Etz Chaim.

The 13th-century Old-New Synagogue in Prague is set to reopen on 25 May (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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