Terezin, and all it meant

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day. In honor of it, I wanted to share a look back at my visit to Theresienstadt Concentration Camp and what it taught me.

Terezin, Czech Republic – 2009

I grew up without exposure to the Jewish community. I spent kindergarten through high school in Catholic schools, the first with a predominantly African-American community, and fthe second, mostly Asian. To get to Emerson College was culture-shock on a variety of levels, but the number of Jewish people I was suddenly encountering every day took me by surprise, and definitely shouldn’t have.

To be in Europe, seeing these places only previously before seen in history books is something else, but seeing concentration camps, standing in squares that you know Hitler once stood, or Mussolini once walked, or in which soldiers fought and died…It makes you reconsider the scene in front of you. It’s been over a week since I was in Prague, but the memory of Terezin is still fresh—the long stretches of gravestones, the flowering memorials, the cold creepiness of the crematorium that I could barely summon the courage to walk into…

They’ve converted an old schoolhouse into the Memorial Museum. Museo Ghetta. Inside is an intriguingly modern presentation of historical exhibits—horrors reshaped into art. A pile of suitcases is transformed into an abstract sculpture. The detestable yellow stars have been arranged in a floating glass case, looking as ephemeral, as delicate, as those that compose the constellations. Two columns are wrapped in diary excerpts—and here is where it starts to get hard to keep reading again—terrible accounts of cruelty, of hopelessness, of determination. There is a poem on one, written by Frantisek Bass:

“A little garden
Fragrant and full of roses
The path is narrow
And a little boy walks along it.

A little boy, a sweet boy
Like that growing blossom.
When the blossom comes to bloom
The little boy will be no more.”

Frantisek Bass died in Auschwitz. He was fourteen.

The most heartbreaking are the drawings done by the children of Terezin. There is a whole room of them at the museum—all drawn or watercolored onto thick drawing paper, manila colored. I remember having stacks of the same paper as a child—what a treat it was to pull a sheet from the stack and feel its weight drift across the table before I could pin it down with the tip of a pencil. How much more must these children have prized this paper?

There are drawings of dragons, fairies. Pictures of life before the camp—friends playing under blue skies lit by the light of many suns. Scenes of the camp life—boys playing soccer, rooms of the camp, a detailed drawing of the brick arch by the moat, penciled by the careful hand of a thirteen year old girl.

There are those that show the horrors too.  And the awareness of the children. A stark sketch shows naked adults doused by showers, crying in their nakedness. Another depicts a small group of children in brightly colored shirts, carrying benches while a guard, a whistle poised between his gray lips, looks on. Another shows a group of people, a stack of suitcases. In the distance, a string of boxcars sits on a hill.

Underneath each of the drawings is a plaque bearing the name of the authors, the date of birth, and the date of death. Almost every child’s life ends in 1944. Next to that date are the ominous letters that spell out the names of the camps—Bergen-Belsen. Mauthausen. Auschwitz.

But beneath a few I see something that makes my heart lift. The words Prezila. Uberlebte. Survived.