Vedem: The ‘Dead Poets Society’ of Terezin


Based on accounts of the people who knew him during his short life, Petr Ginz was the perfect person to create and pilot an underground magazine. The fact that he was 14 when he founded the magazine Vedem only adds to Ginz’s legacy. 

Vedem translates to “in the lead,” and the half-Jewish, Prague-born Ginz was unquestionably a leader. A writer, artist and poet who completed several novels before he reached his teens, Ginz was also a meticulous editor who employed every technique he could devise to keep stories and illustrations coming in. Through his tenacity and enthusiasm, Ginz and his fellow occupants of the Terezin ghetto and concentration camp in Czechoslovakia —Theresienstadt in German — produced 83 editions of Vedem between 1942 and 1944, the longest-running magazine to be produced inside a Nazi camp. 

Through Vedem, Ginz and his staff exposed the horrors of Terezin, the “model ghetto” that the Nazis established in Czechoslovakia. According to the creators of both a new exhibition at the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance and an upcoming documentary film, Vedem cemented the artistic legacy of Ginz, who was killed at Auschwitz at the age of 16. 

“Petr kept the train going,” said Rina Taraseiskey, curator of the exhibition “Vedem: The Underground Magazine of the Terezin Ghetto.” “He would bribe children with food when there weren’t enough articles. Sometimes he would write the whole issue by himself, and he would just sign it in with different pseudonyms.”

“What these boys were doing was extremely subversive,” added Danny King, the exhibition’s co-creator. “They were risking their lives in order to do this, but it was at once a reflection of the reality that was going on there, and also a bit of an escape. They expressed their opinions with humor and cartoons and poetry. They could forget they were in prison.”

The “Vedem” exhibition includes multiple illustrations and articles from several of the issues of the magazine. Poetry is included, along with editorials, some containing bathroom humor that reflects the ages of its authors. Other content is far more subversive and eye-opening. Sidney Taussig, who joined Vedem as a sports writer, penned a story about his job transporting corpses to the crematorium. In their “Rambles Through Terezin” columns, the boys took readers around the ghetto, interviewing police officers, doctors and nurses. Vedem also covered cultural happenings.

Ginz, Taussig and the magazine’s other key contributors called themselves “The Republic of Shkid” in homage to a Russian book about a children’s orphanage that had been a favorite of their counselor, Walter Eisinger. The boys all lived in a converted school building and ran their newsroom in secret using a discarded typewriter and smuggled printing supplies; the Shkid kids produced a 10- to 15-page edition of Vedem each week, gathering on Friday nights to secretly read and critique the edition. 

Through the magazine, the Shkid boys exposed elements of the ghetto that functioned as their home and prison. “You probably think you know Terezin well,” Ginz wrote. “I want to prove you wrong.”

During the war, the Nazis converted the fortress town of Terezin, located 40 miles outside of Prague, and used it as a temporary transit camp to house Jews before they were deported to the death camps. Nazi propaganda presented Terezin as a “model camp” to perpetuate the myth that Jews were being treated humanely, and the camp became home to a number of artists, actors, musicians and scholars. According to the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, 140,000 Jews were deported to Terezin from 1941 to 1945. Some 88,000 were transported to death camps and 19,000 were still alive when the camp was liberated in 1945.

The conditions of the camp meant that the authors of Vedem changed frequently. Of the approximately 100 boys, ages 12-16, who worked on the magazine during the course of its nearly two years of publication, only 15 survived the war.  By storing the magazines in a box, which he buried and then recovered after liberation, Taussig is credited with saving its history.

Speaking at the opening of the exhibition during the MOT’s Yom HaShoah commemoration, the museum’s director, Liebe Geft, said that the boys of Shkid embodied the theme of maintaining one’s human spirit during dark periods.

“We are always looking for new portals thorough which we can introduce and encourage serious study of the Holocaust,” Geft said. “We have hundreds of thousands of young people coming through this museum, and this exhibit will resonate directly with all of them. Our museum speaks to empowering young people to stand up and find their voice, especially in the face of adversity, persecution and maltreatment.”

The granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor and resistance fighter, Taraseiskey was inspired by the Shkid boys’ fighting spirit. She is completing the documentary film about Vedem and is spearheading a graphic novel and educational outreach efforts. Under the guidance of art director Michael Murphy, the exhibition presents Vedem as it might look today as a contemporary punk zine. 

“I tried to put the exhibition in an aesthetic that would be relatable to people of today,” Murphy said. “It’s kind of combining the 1940s zine Vanity Fair, which is what they were going for at the time, to kind of something that would be more relatable now.”

“We’re not in a war situation here, and we’re really trying to encourage people like these kids who weren’t writers or artists,” Taraseiskey added. “They became journalists because they were inspired, and because they did not want to lose their humanity or their fighting spirit.”

“Vedem: The Underground Magazine of the Terezin Ghetto” continues through July 3 at the Museum of Tolerance, 1399 S. Roxbury Drive.

Poem: Terezin


With my hair soot red
as coals above my grandfather’s bones,
buried near the poems of Desnos,
I hurried through the Gate of Death,
up the gallows’ knoll,
the executioner’s chiseled wall,
to see the Ohre’s shores rivering out
to wag the Elbe’s long tail,
and hurried through the tunneled mounds
down again to hell,
past the fire’s wind lash
of oven grates to holding cells
where brush wire and Jewish arms
in tubs of creosol
scrubbed all brains of the mind’s eternal no.
In their bones the earth’s push-step
the Aryan angel denied, moved me
to doubt in a changing world,
that all things, including stone, began
from one single Godly loss of breath.
On the slab at Terezin, in the “Lords House,”
I climbed to bed, cold as heaven,
and played dead.

This poem appeared in “The Hunger Wall” (Grove/Atlantic Press).

James Ragan is the author of eight books of poetry. For 25 years he taught as director of the USC Professional Writing Program and is currently distinguished visiting professor of poetry at Charles University in Prague.

Piecing together daily life in Terezin


Erich Lichtblau-Leskly is relatively unknown, but the power of his art — created while he was an inmate of the concentration camp known as the Theresienstadt ghetto — is evident in the exhibition “The Art Of Erich Lichtblau-Leskly” at the newly opened Museum of the Holocaust in Pan Pacific Park. The paintings, on display through May 1, are rendered in a cartoon style, and many are sarcastic commentary on the desperate conditions under which the Jewish prisoners existed, contradicting Nazi propaganda that promoted Theresienstadt as a model facility where Jews supposedly were well treated. Lichtblau-Leskly’s work is singular when compared to most Holocaust-related art, according to E. Randol Schoenberg, president of the museum’s board of directors.

“There’s not a great deal of artwork that was created within the camps. And the artwork that was created under those circumstances in the ghettos and camps often looks quite different from what Lichtblau did. … It’s an attempt to record scenes within the ghetto, but privately. It’s clear that he’s only showing them to his wife and not to other people, because he’s making fun of a lot of the other people, including people who could have punished him.”

When other artists were discovered and ultimately sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Lichtblau removed slogans, titles and captions from his paintings and cut most of them into pieces that his wife hid in the boards of her bunk. After liberation, she retrieved them and Lichtblau reassembled them. He also reproduced them, first in Czechoslovakia, where he changed his name from Lichtblau to Leskly, and then in Israel, where the couple eventually settled. 

Among the themes running through the work is the artist’s personal experience. “My First Night in the Ghetto: Overcrowded” is a biting comment on conditions in this “model” camp. The work depicts rows of double-decker bunks, all occupied, with clothes hanging on nails. Lichtblau-Leskly is shown sleeping on the floor, with a physician leaning over him. The accompanying text explains that the artist was ill with a fever. The doctor is telling him, “All you need to get a place on a bunk is vitamin P — protection (or patronage).” 

The shortage of food — especially for the elderly, who couldn’t perform hard labor and thus were given very sparse rations — is another subject. In “Competition for Potatoes,” an old woman in a long, black coat with a fur collar and a black, fur-lined hat forages with a twig for potatoes in a garbage pile as rats eye the same food.

“The woman foraging,” Schoenberg said, “could have been the wife of a doctor from Vienna, once a very elegant woman, reduced to this level of searching for scraps, like a rat, through the garbage.”

Lichtblau-Leskly also criticized some of his fellow prisoners. “ ‘Organizing’ and Stealing Are Not the Same” shows two men who are identical, or two aspects of one man. On the left, the prisoner “organizes” or takes food from a common supply, which is considered a necessity for survival and thus acceptable; on the right, the man steals food from the bowl of another prisoner, who is old, using a cane, and almost blind. The latter form of stealing, as the text states, was considered morally reprehensible, but, Schoenberg noted, Lichtblau-Leskly also sympathized with the thieves.

“Nearly everybody had to become an opportunist,” Schoenberg said. “To not become an opportunist was suicide. And so, people were put in certain positions, and sometimes the positions provoked envy in other people, or gave opportunities that other people didn’t have. Lichtblau shows the terrible position that people were put in; while they were trying to save their own lives, they were put in positions that hurt other people, too. It’s just terrible, if you think about it,” he added. 

Schoenberg commented that the artist chose as subjects specific incidents that were repeated consistently. “They’re somehow archetypes of the life and what people were forced to do in the camps. That’s what makes them so powerful. They aren’t merely individual scenes, but they represent activity that occurred over and over again”

Sickness, especially paratyphoid, which causes intense diarrhea, was suffered by virtually every inmate and is illustrated in “Terezinka — A Ghetto Disease,” a caricature depicting a man in yellow trousers who runs down a long staircase terrified that he won’t make it to the latrine in time. “Death Rate: 150 Daily” refers to the horrific level of mortality in the camp — it shows nurses making up beds that appear to hold dead or dying prisoners who, as the text explains, will be carted off to the crematoria on a hearse. Other inmates will be forced to pull the cart. In the foreground, an old woman with a yellow star on her chest leans on a nurse for support.

“Obligatory Salute and Forbidden Cigarettes” delineates the precarious position of even the most privileged prisoners. “Here’s a person who is relatively high up in the hierarchy and protected,” Schoenberg explained. “He’s one of the ghetto officers. He’s there at a deportation, and someone hands him some cigarettes, which are, of course, illegal, but are very valuable as a result. So he hides them under his cap, but, walking away from the deportation scene he sees an official, a German or Czech official, and has to remove his cap. The cigarettes fall out, and Lichtblau says he was on the next transport to the East. So what he thought was his good fortune ended up being his undoing.” 

Schoenberg estimated that of the approximately 150 Lichtblau-Leskly works in the museum’s collection, some 70 or 80 are on exhibit. He pointed out that in documenting these scenes from the ghetto, Lichtblau-Leskly was literally risking his life. But, in an essay in the exhibition catalogue, the artist’s daughter, Mira, said her father had a compulsion to paint these scenarios, and that painting “helped him keep his sanity in that valley of darkness.” She added that the works were also a way for her father to record for the world what had taken place at Theresienstadt.

The Erich Lichtblau-Leskly Collection at the Los Angeles Museum of The Holocaust 100 S. The Grove Dr., Los Angeles, Calif. 90036

T (323) 651-3704 | F (323) 651-3706 | E info@lamoth.org | Admission- FREE | http://www.lamoth.org

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Israel flag flies, a Czech surprise, voter fraud, bridge to understanding


Consul General Dayan

I have been around long enough now to see many Israeli consuls general come and go (“Death to Fanatistan,” Oct. 3).

Some made a big difference; some had almost no discernible impact. But on a warm September day on Wilshire Boulevard, Consul General Yaakov Dayan, with one giant moving gesture, assured his place among the very best.

The blue and white now waves proudly on prestigious Wilshire, along with the Stars and Stripes. And we are all the more enriched for it. Kol hakavod!

Ron Solomon
Executive Director
The West Coast Friends of Bar-Ilan University in Israel

Democrat Ad

My response to David Rintels’ full-page ad (Sept. 19) telling how proud he is to be an FDR Democrat because “FDR defeated monstrous enemies in World War II without stooping to abuse” is: Is he kidding?

FDR had every American of Japanese descent forcibly removed from their homes, rounded up and put into camps where they were kept until the end of the war.

These were not Japanese who were suspected of espionage or even pro-Japan politics. To the contrary, every man, woman and child of Japanese descent lost his or her home, business and, most importantly, their freedom solely because of place of origin — place of origin of ancestors that is.

People of Japanese descent who were born here were rounded up and put in camps, just the same as people who themselves came from Japan. Maybe Rintels should speak with someone who was in Manzanar, which was open for three and a half years, or to someone kept at one of the other 10 camps where Japanese were forced to live.

Their memories of lining up for meals, or to use the latrines, or laundry, or to have no place to return to after three years in a camp might cause them to have a different reaction to FDR.

Dee Dee Quinn
via e-mail

How I Returned

What a wonderful tribute Rob Eshman wrote to his wife and marriage, a beautiful love letter that you invited your readers to share (“How I Returned,” Sept. 12).

Thank you. L’Shana tova umetuka.

Saundra Gass
via e-mail

Clash in Jordan Valley

Clash of ‘Right and Right’ Festers in Jordan Valley” by Daniel Heimpel (Sept. 26) focused mostly on Palestinian complaints, while ignoring the main reason for the Israeli army’s presence in this area of great strategic importance for Israel.

Jordan’s Palestinian majority may one day overthrow the monarchy and scrap the peace treaty with Israel. Then an anti-Israel axis would run from the Jordan Valley through Iraq to Iran. The valley must remain under Israeli control to block any ground attack from the east.

Heimpel made Israeli settlers the problem, while omitting mention of Palestinian terror attacks in the valley, by focusing on Palestinian resentment of the new, small settlement of the Maskiyot — six of whose eight families are Israeli evacuees from Gaza.

The story was illustrated by one photo of Maskiyot and four of Palestinians or their homes. Palestinian resentment is inevitable, given that most Palestinians reject Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

The Palestinian Authority demands that any final peace must allow 4.5 million Palestinians to move to Israel, thus turning Israel into an Arab state. Peace must be based on a Jewish majority in a secure Israel with defensible borders, including the Jordan River.

Bob Kirk
via e-mail

Czech Republic

Kudos to the authors of the articles “Czech Republic Surprises With Jewish Treasures” and “Propaganda Film Disguised Horrors of Terezin” (Oct. 3).

One of my ancestors was involved in the giant synagogue project around 1892.

However, the Catholic church protested against the gothic style planned originally, and the building would exceed the Catholic cathedral in height…. The plans had to be redrawn.

I was imprisoned for almost three years in Terezin and remember the filming. Before the movie was made, a monthlong “beautification” was organized, with 7,500 seniors deported to the East. A bank was shown where useless ghetto currency was used.

Shops were opened where prisoners could “buy” merchandise they had to return afterward. A true documentary type story was filmed in 2002 in the United States, showing fragments of the propaganda movie.

A famous star named Kurt Gerron is the tragic victim of the hoax. You can get the DVD called, “Prisoner of Paradise.”

Fred Klein
Los Angeles

Debates Won’t Matter

Marty Kaplan’s fear of an unfair election at the hands of the GOP ignores the overwhelming evidence that the Democratic Party has also benefited from voter fraud (“The Debates Won’t Matter,” Oct. 3).

Since John F. Kennedy’s victory in 1960, thanks in large part to the fraud of the Chicago political machine and the Teamsters Union, the Democratic Party has systematically engaged in watering down the voter pool. The Democrats and their surrogates have opposed ID checks for elections at every opportunity.

The readers of The Jewish Journal deserve fairness and should start soliciting viewpoints from both sides of the political spectrum before all journalistic integrity is lost.

Gillee Sherman
via e-mail

The Pope’s Outreach

Well done article (“Pope John Paul II’s Lifetime Outreach to Jews,” Sept. 19) –very moving and I enjoyed it. Pope John Paul II did a lot to bridge the gap with many faiths. He set an example of compassion, understanding, learning, forgiving and peace. Very good qualities to have. The program at the Skirball Center is an excellent idea.

Elizabeth Kruger
Los Angeles

Propaganda film disguised horrors of Terezin


The film is grainy and in black-and-white. It jumps about, slowing down at odd moments and growing dim occasionally. But it’s the people that hold your attention.

They walk about, wearing fashionable clothes, nodding a stiff hello when they spot a friend. They watch a soccer match, sit briefly outside a small cafe, listen to a concert.

It’s all a sham, of course, part of a bogus documentary produced by the Nazis during World War II at Theresienstadt, the concentration camp an hour north of Prague in what was then Czechoslovakia. And it’s one of the reasons you should visit.

The Holocaust continues to sound a melancholy note in the major cities of the region. Warsaw, Krakow, Budapest and Prague are remarkable, warm and charming, filled with cobblestone streets and intimate cafes, grand boulevards and monuments, fine art and fine food.

But in each of these cities is a reminder of the Jews who were murdered during World War II, initially forced into ghettos, eventually transported to death camps across the region.

In Prague, it’s Josefov, the Jewish quarter, where the Holocaust waits. It’s remembered in one of the six synagogues there, the Pinkas shul. Its walls are inscribed with the names of the 77,297 victims of the Nazis from Bohemia and Moravia. Tourists shuffle through the structure in silence, many taken with the artistic merits of the memorial, most horrified by the sheer numbers that fill the space.

But it’s in the nearby city of Terezin that one of the most unique, if bizarre stories of the period can be found. And it’s all captured in the grainy film produced by the Nazis.

The city — created in the 18th century and named for Maria Theresa of Austria — was taken over by the Gestapo in 1940, renamed Theresienstadt, and quickly turned into a ghetto. Jews from Czechoslovakia, Germany, Austria and Holland were transported to the site and its population soared. The city that had been home for 7,000 residents before the war would at one point hold 60,000 inmates.

Men and women were separated, housed in barracks packed with bunks that were three-tiers high. There was little food, and even less medicine. Sanitation was poor. Rats, lice, flies and fleas were part of daily life. So, too, death.

Nearly 150,000 Jews spent time at Theresienstadt. Only 17,247 survived the war. The large number of dead became such a problem that a crematorium was built in 1942 to deal with the corpses. Yet, the Nazis portrayed the ghetto as a model Jewish settlement.

The charade was tested — and refined — in the summer of 1944 when a commission of Red Cross officials were allowed to visit the camp to make sure that inmates at Theresienstadt were living under humane conditions. The ruse became necessary after Jews from Denmark were sent to the camp the previous winter and Red Cross officials in Denmark and Sweden began making inquiries about their whereabouts and health.

Over the next several months, the camp was gussied-up in certain key areas. Some living space was enlarged and painted. Drapes were hung and furniture added. Grass and flowers were planted. A playground and sports field were built. And a month before the orchestrated visit, 7,500 inmates — mostly orphans and the sick — were sent to Auschwitz and their deaths so Theresienstadt would appear less crowded.

An elaborate script was created that would have groups of inmates strolling along a central street, window-shopping; others would be taking part in a soccer match, while yet others would be chatting and singing as they headed off to work.

On June 23, 1944, the Nazis had everything in place as the commission was escorted through the camp. The inmates played their parts to perfection, knowing they had little choice but to cooperate. Camp officials were so happy with the result, they decided to put it all down on film and use the movie for propaganda purposes.

What remains today is a series of black-and-white vignettes — inmates at a concert; inmates sitting outside a cafe; inmates cheering a soccer match. The actors smile occasionally for the camera, hiding the hideous truth of the Holocaust from view. But look closely enough and you can see the future in their faces.

And it’s bleak.

Only a few months after the commission reported that inmates at Theresienstadt were being treated fairly, transports to Auschwitz picked up speed. Over the last weeks of September and early October, the camp was nearly emptied. Only 400 inmates remained at the beginning of 1945.

By the time the International Red Cross took charge of the camp the following May, the damage had already been done. More than 30,000 inmates had died in the camp of disease, starvation and abuse. Nearly three times that number had been shipped off to the Nazi killing factories in the east.

Artist’s Works From Death Camp Live On


The final portrait that Friedl Dicker-Brandeis drew was of a child’s face. The portrait is clean and white, and the face has an enigmatic expression of purity, innocence and stark intelligence.

What makes the child’s portrait haunting is that it was drawn in 1944 in Terezin, where children who entered the concentration camp in Czechoslovakia were shown hanging bodies as a warning, faced death by disease and starvation and were often shipped off to the gas chambers to "alleviate" the crowded conditions.

The child in the portrait seems unsullied by the wretchedness of life in Terezin, and the portrait appears to testify to Dicker-Brandeis’ conception of a purer world or the way the world was meant to be.

Dicker-Brandeis was a prolific Bauhaus artist, who taught art to the children of Terezin. Her art and the art produced by the children in the camp under her tutelage is the subject of a new exhibition at the Simon Weisenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance.

Titled "Freidl Dicker-Brandeis and the Children of Terezin: An Exhibition of Art and Hope," the exhibition is a Dicker-Brandeis retrospective, with artwork displayed from all the periods of her life, including the anti-Fascist photo montages she plastered all over Vienna in 1931 and the vibrantly colorful Kandinsky-like paintings that she did while studying at the Bauhaus in 1923.

The exhibition also displays the stackable chairs Dicker-Brandeis designed, toys she built for children and her architectural plans for the Maria Monstessori kindergarten. The collection shows a woman who was at once practical but whimsical, aggressively political but also soft and gentle.

The art, most of which was in very poor condition, was collected from 24 lenders, many of whom had been friends with Dicker-Brandeis and received the works from her as gifts.

"Her father said to her, ‘Until you become a good artist, you can’t use good paper,’" said Regina Seidman Miller, project director at the museum. "I think she felt guilty that her art was never deserving of good paper. Unfortunately, she used the worst paper always — it is a miracle her art survived. We had to restore everything."

Freidl Dicker was born in Vienna in 1898 and became interested in art at an early age. At 21, she started studying art at the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany, which was then a revolutionary new school of art and design. She was so advanced that after her first year, she was asked to be a teacher there, and she taught alongside great 20th century artists and architects such as Kandinsky, Klee and Walter Gropius.

In 1923, she moved to Vienna, and in 1931, she joined the Communist Party there to protest against the growing fascist movement. In 1936, she married Pavel Brandeis, and in 1938 they moved to Hronov, a town northeast of Prague, where she started teaching art to children from local Jewish families.

In 1942, the couple was sent to Terezin, a "model" camp that the Germans set up for privileged Jews, where they were allowed to paint, play sports and produce operas and plays. The Germans used the camp as a ruse to try to convince the International Red Cross that Jews were treated benevolently under the Third Reich.

However, the majority of Terezin’s Jews were transported to Auschwitz, and most of them died there. On Oct. 6, 1944, Dicker-Brandeis was sent to Auschwitz, and on Oct. 9 she was killed in the gas chamber.

But her art survived — in Terezin she hid it between planks of wood — and so did the love that she transmitted to her students there. Dicker-Brandeis was aware of the hopelessness of her surroundings, but it was not something she dwelled on.

"She wasn’t good in a saint-like way," said Miller. "She never told children that everything was going to be OK. What she said was, ‘If you have one day, then you have to live it. And while we are here, we have to do the best that we can.’ So it was a way that they were allowed to be sad and afraid, but they could express it through art."

Dicker-Brandeis had her charges in Terezin draw self-portraits. She was always careful to have them sign their work, so that they could develop self-esteem and retain their identities beyond the numbers that had been assigned to them when they entered the camp. Instead of drawing images of the death and destruction, the children drew flowers and pictures of their friends, among other things.

"Instead of food, she would ask her friends to send her paint," said Ela Weisberger, 71, one of Dicker-Brandeis’ students in Terezin, in a phone interview from New York. "She used the wrapping paper when people were getting packages, and from that we were drawing our paintings."

"Some of the paintings or collages were done on forms from the offices that were in the garbage. She was using every little thing that you could make out of it something," Weisberger said. "You look at her paintings, her beautiful colors, and you feel life in them. I think that she would have been the artist of the century if she would have survived."

Zachor:Remember


On Nov. 15, the Los Angeles Zimriyah Chorale, along with other Los Angeles choral groups, left for a European trip that included performances in Prague and, most notably, Nuremberg, where the chorale participated, on Nov. 25 and 26, in performances of Leonard Bernstein’s “Symphony No. 3, Kaddish,” in a concert hall built on the site of the famous Nazi Nuremberg rallies of the 1930s.

During the Czech leg of the trip, many of the choristers visited Terezin (Theresienstadt), the “model camp” at which the Nazis attempted to fool observers into believing that the Jews and others interned under the Hitler regime were well cared-for but which was really, as chorale member Sherri Lipman notes in this memoir of the trip, an “anteroom to Auschwitz.”

Our visit to Terezin was difficult. It was my first exposure to the physical reality of a Nazi concentration camp. The contrast of the trip through the lovely Czech countryside to the ancient fortress town of Terezin was heavy upon me.

Once we arrived, we had the sense of a movie set or a Disney reproduction. Terezin was, in reality, an anteroom to Auschwitz. Most of Terezin’s population was eventually shipped to that infamous place, and only a few remaining prisoners were well-fed and clothed to provide the International Red Cross and other observers with the fiction of good treatment.

I shall always remember a sense that I was being accompanied by the souls of those who had once lived there. They were there as we were shown the barracks for boys with the inscription “Yizkor” above the doorway. They shared my view of the cemeteries.

As we filed through the prison cells, the spooky showers, the dorms; as we saw the pictures drawn by the children trapped there; as we came upon the archway spelling out “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Will Make You Free”), all of these images were shared in a metaphysical way with those who had gone before us.
As we sang two compositions composed at Terezin by Viktor Ullmann, who died there, I felt a sadness, yet a joy that was heightened by the sight of 2-year-old Gabriel Ellias, son of two of the chorale’s members. The music survived its composer, but we were there to keep it alive. So many people perished, yet Gabriel was there. He was our victory.

Many of us, when passing the Jewish cemetery, placed a stone on a headstone and said a private prayer for the soul it memorialized. Each of us, for our own reasons, needed to leave something there.

Our tour finally took us to the railroad siding, off the main track, where the trains disgorged their doomed passengers. The sky was very blue, the grass around the tracks deep green, and the sun had come out. Together, we chanted “El Male Rachamim” and recited “Kaddish” and then, as if the song sprang from one collective mind, we began to sing “Ani Ma-amin” (“I Believe”). Among our tears and comforting embraces, I think I found a spark of peace.

There are those who suggest that the concentration camps should be torn down and monuments placed on the sites as a memorial. I disagree. The physical reality of the camps is not a tourist magnet. The camps are testimony to what human beings are capable of doing when no one speaks out against evil. I shall carry the image of Terezin all the days of my life.

In Nuremberg

I started with rage, a blackness in my heart as we entered Nuremberg. No amount of beautiful countryside or picture-postcard houses could dilute it. No pleasant lunch with friends, crammed into a tiny restaurant room, trying to make our wishes known to a nice waitress, helped. I felt the same anger that had kept me from ever visiting Germany before or from buying a German car or studying German or appreciating the music of Wagner.

But the rage began to break up after I entered the hall with my husband and friends and began rehearsing. As we sang together, Jews and non-Jews, children and adults, a little chink appeared in my emotions. Music can do that.

In this place, which was built for Nazis, there were no Nazis.

What a joy to work with the brilliance of the Nuremberg musicians and their director, Jac van Steen. During the days before the first performance, we perfected and tuned countless sections of the difficult work, while stage business was honed and lighting effects finalized.

Finally, it was Saturday night. Meistersinger Hall, this magnificent place set on the site of Hitler’s monstrous rallies, in the city where the infamous Nuremberg Laws shackled thousands of Jews, was glittering. The auditorium was packed. We were elegant in our gowns and tuxedoes.

Never had we performed this work so well! We picked up our audience in our musical hands, the “speaker” of the piece grabbed them, and something magical occurred. There was a sense of communion, each of us linked in our own individual emotions, capturing the past and exposing it to the light. My rage eased ever so slightly and a new feeling began to take its place: hope!

When we finished, after the final “Amen” echoed through the hall, there was silence. The audience had stopped breathing and was afraid to do anything. Then, some tentative clapping, more hands, a collective roar, rhythmic applause, countless bows, flowers, our smiles.

In this place of immeasurable pain and madness, we arrived.

In this place, where once echoed the throbbing shrieks of hate, the forests of swastikas and the brutality of goose-stepping multitudes, we brought beauty.

In this place, we could never erase the past, but we could try to go forward.

In this place, I wanted to help change the future for my children and grandchildren. I wanted to show them that each of us must make a difference, by exposing blind hatred to the light of day.

My rage will never completely leave me, nor should it. I must use the power of that emotion for change. I am now a part of the future, and I refuse to let the past repeat itself. As long as I have the strength to do so, I shall try to be a voice that says we can be better.

I shall commit myself to the process of healing, so that unthinking hatreds cannot find currency in our world. It would be foolish to think that one person might make that much of a difference, but I know I’m not alone. Each of us was a part of it, and it all began … in this place.

A Miracle Reawakened


The fading Hebrew inscriptions that adorn the walls of a small storeroom in the town of Terezin can be seen in virtually any synagogue around the globe.But thousands of Jews have been flocking to the recently discovered room because of its unique role in history – as a makeshift synagogue during the former Czech ghetto’s darkest days.

What makes the place of worship even more special is that it is the only remaining example of its kind at the wartime transit camp, also known by its German name of Theresienstadt, in which more than 30,000 Jews died.

The historical significance of the 20-square-yard prayer room is evident to those who have entered it via a courtyard tucked behind an ordinary terraced house in the center of the town.”It is unbelievably valuable,” said the Czech Republic’s chief rabbi, Karol Sidon. “It shows the ghetto from a different side than usual. When I saw the room for the first time it was extremely moving, because it shows that people were able to believe there, even in the ghetto during the war.”

The walls of the room, which stands near the original railway track used to transport Jews to Auschwitz, feature a selection of Hebrew liturgical inscriptions, along with drawings of Jewish symbols.On the front wall is a verse from the Amidah, the core of Jewish daily prayer services: “May our eyes be able to envision your return to Zion in mercy.”

The words were almost certainly written by a German Jewish ceramic worker, one of a number of craftsmen living in the neighborhood during the ghetto’s existence between 1941 and 1945. Local experts believe the craftsmen, who were permitted to live in relative comfort because the Nazis needed their skills, used the storeroom as a temporary synagogue.

According to Vojtech Blodig, the Terezin Ghetto Museum’s deputy director of education, the Nazis may well have been aware of the synagogue.

“The Germans’ philosophy was very simple,” Blodig said. “Let the Jews pray, let them play theater and perform concerts in the ghetto, because they will all die later.”Although several similar places of prayer were scattered across the town during the war, this is the only example that survives.

“This room was preserved because for years it was in a terrible mess. It was used as a storage area for boxes and hay,” Blodig said.”Other rooms in attics or garages were used as synagogues, but they were destroyed, and no remnants of original inscriptions and drawings on the walls survived.”The existence of the synagogue came to light only after the fall of communism in 1989, when the granddaughter of the property’s original owner finally revealed its story.

“I knew about the synagogue the whole time,” said local teacher Hana Cerna, 63.”But because during communism the Jewish religion was taboo, and no one talked about the ghetto, I didn’t tell anyone. The news only broke after the Velvet Revolution,” as Czechoslovakia’s break from communism is known, “when I told my schoolchildren that I had a synagogue at my home.”

The condition of the prayer room had deteriorated badly by the time the Ghetto Museum learned of its existence. After almost half a century of neglect, inscriptions on the lower half of the walls had faded beyond repair.

The museum reached a deal with Cerna under which they would repair the roof and restore the prayer room in return for regular access. They brought in Prague restorer Dominika Machacova to save what she could of the inscriptions and drawings.

“It was in a very bad state,” she said. “It was very humid. and rain was coming through the roof.”Machacova spent five months conserving the original paint layers, finishing her work in 1997.”Its historical value is greater than its artistic value. It is a wonderful discovery,” she said.The prayer room was kept in its original state as much as possible.

“I didn’t want the room to be repainted,” Sidon said. “It is real this way, and it would have lost the urgency of reality.”

That sense of reality has deeply moved many of the Jews from around the world who have already visited the site. Local guide Jan Netrval explained that some visitors burst into song or said prayers in the room, while others left letters, candles, flags and flowers.

“It is a great piece of history, and some people become very emotional,” he said. “Yesterday there were people whose parents died in Terezin. The ones who were here, or whose parents were here, feel very strongly.”

American rabbi Joshua Hammerstein, writing in New York’s The Jewish Week after a visit to the synagogue, described it as “an oasis of holiness in the midst of hell, never defiled by the Nazis, a place where the condemned could utter ancient prayers and dare to hope.”

He continued, “We were in tears. Spontaneously we davened the afternoon service, although very few of us had prayer books. It didn’t matter. The prayers were calling out to us from those walls.”Those interested in visiting the site won’t find it easily without arranging an official tour, because the owner has no plans to advertise the synagogue openly.

“I know that some of today’s young people, I mean skinheads, do not like things like that. I wouldn’t put a board outside my house saying that I have a synagogue here.”

Art as History’s Witness


Art as History’s Witness

Paintings from Terezin are on exhibit at the Jewish Federation Building

By Diane Arieff Zaga, Arts Editor

Left: “Competitors for Potatoes” by Eli Leskley. “Many [paintings] … are like ghoulishly bright cartoons in which the subject matter is anything but funny.”

It was 1942 when 29-year-old Eli Leskley, a Czech-born Jew, was sent to Theresienstadt, a fortified ghetto 50 kilometers from Prague. As a visual artist, he was assigned to the sign workshop, where he had access to paper, paint, ink, pencils and other art supplies. With what must have been a combination of remarkable courage and an overpowering need to document what transpired there, Leskley secretly painted dozens of prison-life scenes, mostly with watercolors and ink on office-sized paper taken from the workshop.

In a world where possession of contraband cigarettes was a fatal offense, the risk of discovery for the artist was great. Leskley folded and hid his paintings — many of which were sharply satirical — in the nooks and crevices of the camp, sometimes first tearing off the incriminating text that accompanied them. Some, such as “The Three Kings of the Ghetto” and “Christian Jews are Arriving,” incorporated symbols and metaphor. Others, such as “Return After Disinfection” and “Trading Soup for Bread” were more journalistic in their approach to describing life in the “model” ghetto.

Nazi propagandists may have touted Terezin as a bucolic resort for cultural elites, even prettying it up with tablecloths, flowers and classical concerts for a Red Cross visit. Of course, Leskley and his fellow prisoners knew better. Immediately prior to and after that infamous visit — an elaborately staged sham depicted by the artist in several drawings — the SS shipped thousands of inmates to Auschwitz. Terezin was a closely guarded, disease-ridden place where death — whether from punishment, starvation or the dreaded transport east — was common.

As chance would have it, both Leskley and much of his work survived. After liberation, he and his wife, Elsa, recovered many of the hidden paintings, which they took with them when they emigrated from Europe to Israel.

Now, more than 50 years later, visitors to an exhibition at the Jewish Federation Building can get a look at these drawings, a bitter, detailed vision of camp life. Most of the pictures were done when Leskley was off duty and able to work unobserved in his third-floor bunk. Many of them are like ghoulishly bright cartoons in which the subject matter is anything but funny. The effect is powerful and immediate.

The exhibition is entitled “Terezin: Then and Now.” The “then” portion includes 70 of the works Leskley produced in Terezin, along with his later re-creations of the same. The latter are companion pieces — larger, more highly colored versions of the ghetto-produced originals, done by the artist during his first decade in Israel. The wall text that accompanies Leskley’s works provides an important context for them through its informative descriptions of the physical and sociological conditions that prevailed at Terezin.

A collection of miscellaneous camp artifacts is also on display. Included are postcards, permits for packages and, most heartbreaking, the “Nesharim flag,” a hand-embroidered pennant that was sewn to mark a soccer-tournament victory for the camp’s team of young boys.

The art in the “Now” portion of the show is the result of something altogether different. In 1993, 13 young painters who were members of a master class at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts spent five days at the former site of the Terezin camp. The art students — none of whom were Jewish — hailed from countries as far-flung as Germany and Singapore. Their trip was made under the auspices of Project Gedenkdienst, which translates as Commemorative Service. The 4-year-old program, run out of the offices of Austria’s Interior Ministry, allows young Austrians to substitute 14 months of work at Holocaust memorials for their obligatory eight months of military service. One such intern, Bernhard Schneider, created the Terezin art project, which centered around the class’s trip to the ghetto memorial.

Judging by the haunted quality in many of these paintings, all of the students seem to have been deeply affected by their visit. Their project is described at greater length in the exhibition catalog, which includes brief commentary from Simon Wiesenthal, Vaclav Havel and the group’s professor, Anton Lehmden.

As for Leskley, his art was forged in far different circumstances. As with any other “Holocaust art,” it is difficult, and perhaps pointless, to judge his work by the rules of art criticism. The strength and importance of this show are not necessarily in its sophistication or subtlety of technique but in its power as visual testimony. This is not only art for art’s sake but art for the sake of history. In this capacity, Leskley is a cleareyed and vivid witness.

“Terezin: Then and Now,” at the Jewish Federation Building, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. The exhibition is on display in the Pauline Hirsh Gallery, Museum Gallery, Boardroom and select corridors. For more information, call (213) 852-3242. The Federation will also host a performance of music and poetry from Terezin on June 29 at 4 p.m.

A modern impression of Terezin by Judith Exel (1993).

More About Terezin

Film Several short films about the Theresienstadt Ghetto have been made over the years, ranging from four-minute shorts to hour-long productions. They include a film of interviews conducted with survivors at an Israeli kibbutz and the infamous Nazi propaganda film “The Führer Grants the Jews a City.” The Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles has gathered videotapes of all the Terezin-themed films known to date and is screening them for visitors in its Museum Gallery on Sundays, at 2 p.m., and Thursdays, at 3 p.m. Call (213) 852-3242 for a complete program and confirmed schedule.

Books Here is a short list of recommended books about Terezin. While some are widely available elsewhere, all of them may be found in the Federation’s Martyrs’ Memorial Library and Jewish Community Library, or may be purchased from the museum book store. Call the number above for a more extensive bibliography.

* Bor, Josef, “The Terezin Requiem.” New York, Borzoi Books, Knopf, 1963. Translated from the Czech.

* De Silva, Cara, ed., “In Memory’s Kitchen.” New Jersey, Jason Aronson, 1996. Translated by Bianca Steiner Brown, forward by Michael Berenbaum.

* Karas, Joza, “Music in Terezin, 1941-1945.” Paperback edition, Stuyvesant, N.Y., Pendragon Press, 1990.

* Schwertfeger, Ruth, “Women of Theresienstadt: Voices from a Concentration Camp.” Oxford, England, Berg, 1989.

* Volavkova, Hana, ed., “I Never Saw Another Butterfly: Children’s Drawings and Poems from Terezin Concentration Camp, 1942-1944.” New York, Shocken Books and U.S. National Holocaust Museum, 1993. Expanded second edition with a forward by Chaim Potok and afterword by Vaclav Havel.

D.A.Z.

Art as History’s Witness


Left: “Competitors for Potatoes” by Eli Leskley. “Many [paintings] … are like ghoulishly bright cartoons in which the subject matter is anything but funny.'”


Art as History’s Witness

Paintings from Terezin are on exhibit at the Jewish Federation Building

By Diane Arieff Zaga, Arts Editor

It was 1942 when 29-year-old Eli Leskley, a Czech-born Jew, was sent to Theresienstadt, a fortified ghetto 50 kilometers from Prague. As a visual artist, he was assigned to the sign workshop, where he had access to paper, paint, ink, pencils and other art supplies. With what must have been a combination of remarkable courage and an overpowering need to document what transpired there, Leskley secretly painted dozens of prison-life scenes, mostly with watercolors and ink on office-sized paper taken from the workshop.

In a world where possession of contraband cigarettes was a fatal offense, the risk of discovery for the artist was great. Leskley folded and hid his paintings — many of which were sharply satirical — in the nooks and crevices of the camp, sometimes first tearing off the incriminating text that accompanied them. Some, such as “The Three Kings of the Ghetto” and “Christian Jews are Arriving,” incorporated symbols and metaphor. Others, such as “Return After Disinfection” and “Trading Soup for Bread” were more journalistic in their approach to describing life in the “model” ghetto.

Nazi propagandists may have touted Terezin as a bucolic resort for cultural elites, even prettying it up with tablecloths, flowers and classical concerts for a Red Cross visit. Of course, Leskley and his fellow prisoners knew better. Immediately prior to and after that infamous visit — an elaborately staged sham depicted by the artist in several drawings — the SS shipped thousands of inmates to Auschwitz. Terezin was a closely guarded, disease-ridden place where death — whether from punishment, starvation or the dreaded transport east — was common.

As chance would have it, both Leskley and much of his work survived. After liberation, he and his wife, Elsa, recovered many of the hidden paintings, which they took with them when they emigrated from Europe to Israel.

Now, more than 50 years later, visitors to an exhibition at the Jewish Federation Building can get a look at these drawings, a bitter, detailed vision of camp life. Most of the pictures were done when Leskley was off duty and able to work unobserved in his third-floor bunk. Many of them are like ghoulishly bright cartoons in which the subject matter is anything but funny. The effect is powerful and immediate.

The exhibition is entitled “Terezin: Then and Now.” The “then” portion includes 70 of the works Leskley produced in Terezin, along with his later re-creations of the same. The latter are companion pieces — larger, more highly colored versions of the ghetto-produced originals, done by the artist during his first decade in Israel. The wall text that accompanies Leskley’s works provides an important context for them through its informative descriptions of the physical and sociological conditions that prevailed at Terezin.

A collection of miscellaneous camp artifacts is also on display. Included are postcards, permits for packages and, most heartbreaking, the “Nesharim flag,” a hand-embroidered pennant that was sewn to mark a soccer-tournament victory for the camp’s team of young boys.

The art in the “Now” portion of the show is the result of something altogether different. In 1993, 13 young painters who were members of a master class at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts spent five days at the former site of the Terezin camp. The art students — none of whom were Jewish — hailed from countries as far-flung as Germany and Singapore. Their trip was made under the auspices of Project Gedenkdienst, which translates as Commemorative Service. The 4-year-old program, run out of the offices of Austria’s Interior Ministry, allows young Austrians to substitute 14 months of work at Holocaust memorials for their obligatory eight months of military service. One such intern, Bernhard Schneider, created the Terezin art project, which centered around the class’s trip to the ghetto memorial.

Judging by the haunted quality in many of these paintings, all of the students seem to have been deeply affected by their visit. Their project is described at greater length in the exhibition catalog, which includes brief commentary from Simon Wiesenthal, Vaclav Havel and the group’s professor, Anton Lehmden.

As for Leskley, his art was forged in far different circumstances. As with any other “Holocaust art,” it is difficult, and perhaps pointless, to judge his work by the rules of art criticism. The strength and importance of this show are not necessarily in its sophistication or subtlety of technique but in its power as visual testimony. This is not only art for art’s sake but art for the sake of history. In this capacity, Leskley is a cleareyed and vivid witness.

“Terezin: Then and Now,” at the Jewish Federation Building, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. The exhibition is on display in the Pauline Hirsh Gallery, Museum Gallery, Boardroom and select corridors. For more information, call (213) 852-3242. The Federation will also host a performance of music and poetry from Terezin on June 29 at 4 p.m.

More About Terezin

Film

Several short films about the Theresienstadt Ghetto have been made over the years, ranging from four-minute shorts to hour-long productions. They include a film of interviews conducted with survivors at an Israeli kibbutz and the infamous Nazi propaganda film “The Führer Grants the Jews a City.” The Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles has gathered videotapes of all the Terezin-themed films known to date and is screening them for visitors in its Museum Gallery on Sundays, at 2 p.m., and Thursdays, at 3 p.m. Call (213) 852-3242 for a complete program and confirmed schedule.

Books

Here is a short list of recommended books about Terezin. While some are widely available elsewhere, all of them may be found in the Federation’s Martyrs’ Memorial Library and Jewish Community Library, or may be purchased from the museum book store. Call the number above for a more extensive bibliography.

* Bor, Josef, “The Terezin Requiem.” New York, Borzoi Books, Knopf, 1963. Translated from the Czech.

* De Silva, Cara, ed., “In Memory’s Kitchen.” New Jersey, Jason Aronson, 1996. Translated by Bianca Steiner Brown, forward by Michael Berenbaum.

* Karas, Joza, “Music in Terezin, 1941-1945.” Paperback edition, Stuyvesant, N.Y., Pendragon Press, 1990.

* Schwertfeger, Ruth, “Women of Theresienstadt: Voices from a Concentration Camp.” Oxford, England, Berg, 1989.

* Volavkova, Hana, ed., “I Never Saw Another Butterfly: Children’s Drawings and Poems from Terezin Concentration Camp, 1942-1944.” New York, Shocken Books and U.S. National Holocaust Museum, 1993. Expanded second edition with a forward by Chaim Potok and afterword by Vaclav Havel. — D.A.Z.