This week, communities all over the world paid their respects to International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which took place on January 27. It was highlighted by Philadelphia and Jersey Shore area news channels, along with various ceremonies across the tri-state area. This somber day, is a day of mourning and hope, as we remembered that the suffering was vast. Each camp and ghetto had their own hardships, and even shared some aspects, but one particular camp and ghetto had a very unique characteristic where the cultural and art life of its inhabitants flourished. Terezín or Theresienstadt, a former military base named after the Austrian monarch, in Czechoslovkia, flourished out of pain and terrible circumstance.
A remarkable testament to the spirit of a people who refused to be broken and would not shed their dignity, the location served as a transit camp, labor camp and holding pen for Jews between November 24, 1941 and May 9, 1945, (according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.) It also served a key role as a propaganda camp for the Nazis, and was used to stage spa and retirement community-like atmospheres for photo-ops and Red Cross inspections.
And while in actuality, conditions were far from acceptable for artists, art was taught to children by brave teachers in secret. The professional artists were both able to continue their life’s work, capturing this moment in time, and also give the children something to live for. To both focus on a craft and use art to cope, the young art students expressed the important details of what they saw around them and portrayed their lives and happy times from before the war. (Image on left from pamatnik-terezin.cz)
Theater and Opera were not neglected. Viktor Ullmann’s opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis was recently streamed at Wolf Trap.
The Last Cyclist, a brilliant and scathing satire centered on bicyclists, was written in 1944. From its synopsis: Bicyclists are blamed for all of society’s ills and systematically hunted down and murdered. The play was banned following its Terezín dress rehearsal. Lost to time, the script by Karel Švenk was painstakingly reconstructed by writer and producer Naomi Patz. This, among hundreds of other creations birthed within the confines of the camp.
Even today, art continues to be sustained by inmates of Terezín. A large scale of precious works survived thanks to an artist and later prisoner in Terezín, Gertrude Kauders. According to Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, a multitude of art that Kauders hid together with friend Natalie Jahudkova was just recently uncovered in 2018.
And still they live on– serving as inspiration for the creation of new art. This Remembrance Day, one group of survivors and seniors from Northeast Philadelphia spent time together on Zoom through
KleinLife programming, watching new dance choreography Maybe Even Higher, before partaking in some interactive dance movement themselves. The dance show was based on several children’s artwork from Terezin, each scene bringing the drawings to life through movement with attention to colors and subjects of the pieces. Renowned international artist, Mark Podwal, has often focused his talent on Jewish history, tradition and legend and boasts a very well received and solidified Terezín portfolio. His works exhibited worldwide, with collections at the National Gallery in Prague, among many others, he was awarded the Gratias Agit Prize by the Czech Foreign Ministry. Podwal was a very close friend of the late, great Elie Wiesel, and has numerous designs on Tahari clothing. Learn more about him, markpodwal.com.
Theresienstadt was finally liberated by the Red Army in 1945, but remains at least one camp in our memories today where talent, courage and perseverance kept the inmates free in a way that the Nazis could never touch. It was a moment in time, and yet continues to live on in the purest way. A sad chapter in human history with a big resolution, it is my sincere belief that we, the living, must carry on the spirit of those who perished. The best way to honor is by learning something new and exploring further the links provided in this article. It is my sincere hope that you, dear reader, will find at least one new path to uncover about this tragic but sacred world, and not leave it in the forgotten past. Wishing everyone a meaningful reflection of the ripples still flowing from this year’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day.