The Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation is launching a celebration of the music, sports, art and literature of Terezin, the Nazi-run ghetto/concentration camp in the former Czechoslovakia also known by its German name, Theresienstadt.
Art, culture and sport — at a concentration camp? "It sounds counterintuitive — bordering on crazy — but it's true," says Rachel Lithgow, executive director of the foundation, whose stated mission is "to educate people on an international scale to ensure that the lessons of the Holocaust are universal, timeless and enduring."
Lithgow is also the organizer of the program, "Transcending Their Boundaries: The Children Of Terezin," which opens Sept. 4 with an exhibit at the Free Library of Philadelphia and includes several other cultural presentations.
The inmates were permitted to engage in activities for two reasons, Lithgow says. First, the Nazis enjoyed the entertainment. Second, the activities became part of Nazi propaganda. Terezin was, the Nazis claimed, a humane resettlement camp for Jews on their way to communes in Eastern Europe.
But the trains that left Terezin packed with Jews had only three destinations: Auschwitz, Majdanek and Treblinka. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 150,000 Jews passed through Terezin between 1941 and 1945. Of them, 35,000 died in Terezin and 88,000 were sent to their deaths at other concentration camps. More than 15,000 children passed through Terezin. Fewer than 100 survived.
One of the most well-known examples of Terezin's arts and culture is Brundibar, the children's opera performed to impress visitors from the International Red Cross. It was also filmed for the Nazi propaganda movie, The Führer Gives the Jews a City.
The creativity of Terezin's prisoners extended beyond Brundibar. "They used creativity to maintain their humanity in an inhumane situation," Lithgow says, "and that's what we are celebrating."
Siobhan Reardon, president and director of the Free Library of Philadelphia, says, " 'Transcending Their Boundaries' illustrates in a very real and impactful way the fact that throughout history, people — especially children — have used their imaginations, their skills and their hopes to rise above even the most unimaginable situations."
Among the artifacts on display are wooden marionettes, paper artwork and copies of the magazine Kamarad, created by Terezin's children. "People were a little concerned that, 'Oy, is this OK for kids?' " Lithgow says. "But it is not your typical Shoah exhibit. It doesn't have gruesome photos or things like that. There are placards with general information that is OK for kids. Adults can add the horror in their own minds."
One of the items emblematic of that mix of horror and creativity is a hand-painted Monopoly game. But instead of "Monopoly," the word in the middle of the board is "Ghetto." Instead of Boardwalk and Park Place, the colored rectangles that ring the board bear the names of the streets of Terezin. "A child would see this as a game," Lithgow says. "An adult sees the sadness in it."
Terezin also had a soccer league. Like Brundibar, it functioned for entertainment and propaganda purposes. Liga Terezin, a documentary film about the soccer league, will be screened on Sept. 12 at the Free Library. The evening includes a Q & A with the film's director, Oded Breda, who is also the director of Beit Terezin, the Tel Aviv museum that honors the ghetto's victims. (Breda's uncle, Pavel Breda, played on one of Terezin's soccer teams and later died in a Nazi work camp.)
Then, says Lithgow, "we completely change gears and go into cabaret," with the Cameri Theatre, an Israeli opera company, slated to perform songs written by Terezin's prisoners about the ghetto and performed for the Jews and the Nazis.
"It's concentration camp cabaret," Lithgow says. "It's upbeat music with wink-wink lyrics. For example, there's a song called 'Welcome To Theresienstadt.' You have to see it to believe it. It's horrifying and entertaining."