Monday, April 28, 2014

Remembering Terezin



Remembering Terezin by Divya Kannan

'A little garden,
Fragrant and full of roses.
The path is narrow
and a little boy, a sweet boy,
like that growing blossom.
When the blossom comes to bloom,
the little boy will be no more.'

                                    - Franta Brass (Born in Brno on September 4, 1930. He was deported to the TerezĂ­n concentration camp on December 2, 1941, and died in Auschwitz on October 28, 1944. He was only fourteen years old.)

Countries, particularly in Europe, are in the midst of extensive scholarly and public debates about the tragedies of the first World War, on the occasion of its hundredth anniversary this year. Yet, the on-going search for further Nazi camps and the existent mass, unmarked graves of those massacred in the second World War stand as a gory reminder of the greater destruction, which soon followed. This horror, which can, probably, be never aptly captured in words, continues to mark the history of various peoples and nations. A visit to a former Nazi camp, on the outskirts of Prague, brought home this fact forcefully.

 As our local train chugged away from Prague Hladvani (the main railway station), the grandeur of the Charles bridge and Vlatava river, gave way to a sleepy, unimpressive countryside. Dotted with grim looking buildings and exuding an inexplicable eeriness, it stood in stark contrast to the artistic splendour of the Czech capital. This was, perhaps, because the train followed the same route that more than a hundred thousand Jews, gypsies, communists and other political prisoners had endured during the period of the Second World War and before.

An overwhelming sense of uneasiness accompanied us to the Holocaust memorial at Terezin. At the entrance of our destination, it was impossible to avoid the inscription on the wall. The metal plaque solemnly mentioned the number of people which had been brought to the town. If mere numbers could be spine chilling, then it was this. An estimated 3000 prisoners out of a total of 80,000- 90.000 prisoners, a majority of them Jews, transported to extermination camps via Terezin survived.

Terezin or Theresienstadt (the German name), an otherwise sleepy and sparsely populated town, to the north of Prague, was one of the largest deportation camps maintained by the SS forces during Hitler's reign. Scholars have labelled it a deportation camp because, unlike the infamous Auschwitz or Dachau concentration camps, inmates were not subjected to organised killing here. It was supposed to be a transit point, to separate the 'able bodied' from the 'weak' and choose those who were to be transported to the gas chambers at extermination camps regularly.

The history of Bohemia and Moravia and its emergence as a city of wealth and importance is enmeshed with the histories of various Jewish populations that partook in the region's making as mostly farmers, artisans and traders. The mobility of the Jewish merchant was always a recurring concern for changing political formations. The Christian monarchs, largely due to religious differences, sought to impose various controls on the former, over the centuries. Our silent walk through Terezin interrupted only by monstrous buildings, reiterated something which we often tend to forget- the inadequacy of viewing Adolf Hitler as an individual aberration in world history. Anti-semitism was not his invention. His emergence and the subsequent implantation of a policy of annihilation of particular social groups, was a culmination of multiple factors that has marked the social history of Europe. Unfortunately, right wing governments, including in countries such as Hungary which witnessed the killing of thousands of Jews, are attempting to absolve themselves of the need to keep the memory of those who were oppressed and resisted the violence. They are seeking to shape public discourse in such a way to reduce the war as the result of the actions of the German people alone. What is being concealed is the support and participation of various social and political forces across Europe at the time which made the Holocaust possible. Hitler drew upon these prevalent anti-semitic tendencies by propounding a violent theory of racial elimination in the 1935 Nuremberg Racial Laws and played upon the imagination of the German people when he declared in the Mein Kampf, “...the personification of the devil as the symbol of all evil assumes the living shape of the Jew.”

The vast, empty spaces of Terezin's town square seemed to explain its transformation into a death camp. Built in the latter half of the eighteenth century during the reign of Joseph II, it was originally intended as a walled garrison town comprising a military fortress and a smaller one which was to be a political prison. Theresienstadt derived its names from the emperor's mother, Queen Maria Theresa, ruler of the region for over forty years before him.   The Nazis, seeking to establish their programme of racial engineering, and a site to hold captive the Jews of the territory of Bohemia and Moravia found the military fortress suitable.

Through the ages, the major military fortress, spanning the breadth of the town, lined with red bricks and divided by a moat from the open streets ahead has witnessed the presence of thousands of  Jews, speaking different languages and professing allegiance to different cultures. It also imprisoned Gavrilo Princip, the assassin of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, whose murder, is considered to have sparked the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. The minor fortress, which was a rather away from the camp, held political dissidents. By 1941, the first batch of Jews began to arrive in Terezin. They came in hordes from across Czechoslovakia and later, parts of the Netherlands, Denmark and Hungary. What happened after arrival is now widely known, although at that time the Jews seemed uncertain of what awaited them, since very few before them in other similar camps had  lived to tell the tale. 

Numerous rows of stone graves lay spread out at the entrance of the Terezin fortress. Amidst them stand two huge wooden symbols- the Star of David and the Christian Cross, memorials to those who died here, due to persistent starvation, illness and torture. The graves are one of the many tragedies of the Second World War that are now being increasingly heard. For here lies the ashes of around 15,000 persons, comprising Jews, Christians and others (Hitler also ordered the killing of those Christians with even a tinge of Jewish ancestry), out of the 30,000, known to have perished in Terezin itself. In 1944, when the International Red Cross Committee delayed their visit to the camp by about six months, Nazi forces, in a frenzy to cover all possible evidence, dumped the urns of the dead into the Ohre river and surrounding areas. They were discovered only after the war had ended.

The dead outnumbered the living and in 1942, bodies began to be cremated in large furnaces and the ashes allowed to be kept at the Jewish cemetery outside the ghetto. According to Jewish tradition, the deceased are buried and the burning of thousands must have broken the spirits of those who could not afford to even grieve for their loved ones. This immense humiliation and suffering was aggravated with the continuous torture of the inmates, orchestrated by the Nazi machinery. Vengeance marks these horrendous killings. The Nazi establishment did not stop at subjugating the Jews, their ultimate perceived enemy, like their medieval predecessors. Instead, they sought annihilation, to wipe them of the face of the earth completely. This largely explains the systematic and cold-blooded manner in which the 'Final Solution' was carried out, particularly in the final months of the war. With the Allied forces nearing, the Nazis transported thousands of Jews immediately from Terezin to Auschwitz for extermination.

As in other concentration camps, the Jews were required to elect their council of elders. The role of the Council was to provide the Jews with a sense of organisation and frame certain regulations within the camp. The Nazi propaganda, particularly the film units, wanted to demonstrate to the world that Terezin was a 'model Jewish settlement', a place for Jews to live and govern themselves. They have also been a subject of controversial debates, which have questioned the role of council members in choosing inmates for transport and alleged collaboration with Nazi officers. One of these propaganda films, directed by a Jewish prisoner, Kurt Gerron and titled 'The Gift of Terezin' was shown to the members of the Red Cross Committee, who did not find issue with the conditions of the camp. The political pressures and reasons for the Red Cross' decision is not as extensively  discussed in contemporary times because of the former's sustained association with humanitarian work. Yet, the cruel irony of the fact that the Red Cross visited Terezin and let themselves be 'manipulated' by Hitler's men begs further interrogation.

The rooms of the Nazi officers and hundreds of inmates stand grimly, their contents neatly kept for visitors to glance at. But one can only imagine the terrible living conditions at the time. Around forty to fifty inmates and sometimes, even more, were crammed together in seventeen low-roofed, dimly lit cells with tiny bunkbeds. Food provision was kept at a bare minimum with an intention to starve the inmates over a prolonged time causing irreparable sickness and eventually painful death. Men and women were segregated in the living quarters and provision of water and clothes was scarce. There were also a dozen or more solitary confinement cells for those considered to be extremely dangerous and subversive. It is one of these cells that Princip died in 1918.

The theories of racial purity considered Jews and Gypsies to be the lowest in the hierarchy and targeted them as slave labour for arduous tasks in the camps and German factories. Jewish adults and children were put to work for long hours in units such as mica mining, tailoring, smithery, cloth sorting etc. The deceptiveness of this project is summed up in the phrase, 'Arbeit Macht Frei ( Work Makes You Free),' that hangs above the entrance of the prison quarters like a double edged sword. Until they had arrived in the Nazi camps, many Jews did not know or believe that they would be butchered indiscriminately. When the Nazis selected the physically stronger inmates for hard labour, it was felt that there was some hope for surviving the entire ordeal. But it was not meant to be. Being chosen for manual labour only meant a delaying of death. No Jew was expected to be left alive when the 'Final Solution' was completed.

Terezin was no different. Although the Jews had a small council of elders, it could not change their lives substantially. However, it brought them together seek consolation and help in each other. These council members were also transported later to Auschwitz. Rabbis held prayer services and made attempts to grapple with the violence being inflicted upon them. The story goes that when the Red Cross team arrived, many Jewish men, working as illustrators and drawing masters in the Nazi office, tried to depict the reality of Terezin by smuggling out illustrations, but their attempts failed. It had raised the suspicion of the Nazis who kept some of the suspects in solitary confinement without food or water until they died. We were told, during our visit to these solitary cells that the next prisoner punished was made to remove and clean the remains of the dead. It was meant to be a lesson to those who even dreamt of challenging the authority of the masters.

Today, Terezin also stands as a memorial to the thousands of Jewish children. Very few survived the gas chambers of Auschwitz and other killing fields. Jewish children captured with their families were separated from them after the age of four, and confined to the special homes looked after by Jewish teachers within the camp. They were not provided any substantial schooling and put to laborious work. But the adults persisted and their meager earnings were pooled together for educating the children.  Within the walls of these buildings, the children congregated to organise small cultural events and compile their own magazines, music and art. Recent research has thrown light on the 'cultural life' of the prisoners at Terezin, many of whom were prominent musicians, playwrights and writers. Yet, what stands apart are the paintings and few surviving poems by the children themselves. The experience of viewing these drawings was heartwrenching. While some of them depict the images of families huddled into railway carriages and bodies toppled over another, hundreds of them portray colourful butterflies, birds, smiling children with families and friends. The 'joyfulness' of these pictures echoes a lingering sense of sadness. What must have gone through the minds of these children? Did they know what awaited them when they departed from Terezin months later? How did they, undergoing such suffering, muster the courage to draw such pictures?

These pictures were created, as the result of one teacher's courage and determination. Friedl Dicker- Brandeis, an Austrian art teacher was deported to Terezin and took with her a suitcase filled with art material. It escaped the scrutiny of the Nazi officers who were responsible for stripping prisoners of all their valuables upon arrival. During her internment, she kept the children together and encouraged them to draw, to express their feelings, in the hope that it would alleviate their suffering in some way. She saved these precious drawings for as long as she could until her tragic death. In 1944, she received news that her husband also at Terezin had been chosen for Auschwitz. She volunteered to join him. But little did she know that the Nazis killed women, children and the elderly first, since they were considered to be physically weaker and easy targets for elimination. Friedl died in Auschwitz while her husband remained in the camp. It was only known later that he was not sent to Auschwitz having been chosen for hard labour instead. He survived the war and her suitcase was found with the children's artwork. Titled, 'The Butterfly Project' was founded in memory of Friedl and the children. Art is being is used to help children and young adults suffering abuse and conflict in the world.

At the end of our return journey to Prague, we alighted in front of a bronze sculpture of a bespectacled man holding two young children. It depicts Nicholas Winton, a person who risked everything to save Jewish children he had never met before.

In 1938, at the age of thirty, Winton traveled to Prague, upon a request from one of his friends who was involved in Jewish refugee work There, he unassuming young man was confronted with the cries of Jewish parents who were desperately seeking ways to get their children out of the country sensing the path Germany could take. Struck by their plight, Winton requested many European governments, including that of his home country, England, to offer assistance in rescuing the children. His pleas were repeatedly rejected until the English government grudgingly conceded. The administration agreed to let Winton bring children younger than seventeen, across the borders, on the condition that each of them would be received by a family willing to take care of them and a guarantee of fifty pounds for a return ticket to their countries of origin later. Enlisting the support of his mother and friends, negotiating and bribing his way through multiple international borders, Winton finally managed the safe passage of an estimated 660 Czech children. In an operation later labelled ' Czech Kindertransport', trains filled with tiny tots and young children, passed through the notorious Dutch borders and arrived in the homes of British families. However, a batch of two hundred children set to embark upon a train from Prague never made it. Their train could not leave because the Nazis invaded Poland and the war had begun.

Gradually, Winton lost contact and was unable to keep track of these children in England and not much was heard from their families, who were presumably killed. It was only in the late 1980s, when his wife found his old, torn notebook containing elaborate details of the children and their photographs did the world take notice of him. Soon, Winton was honoured by the very same European countries which had spurned him and accolades have since, kept pouring in.

Winton finally met the dozens of the children he had helped rescue, in his late eighties (most of them were already in their late sixties and seventies) and in an interview to the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation in 2013, he ended on this note:

“I am afraid you are not going to like what I am going to say. I feel very pessimistic, considering everything that is going on and the lessons that the world should have learnt.  They have learnt very little from it. We have lived through a hundred years of the greatest inventiveness that mankind has ever known and now we are in the most dangerous and critical position than the world has ever been in. We have done all this wonderful inventions and yet, the world is in turmoil. I don't know what has gone wrong.  Your generation must know more about it than I do. It is not a happy situation at the moment. It is a question of how one leads one life. I mean, there are so many people who go to so many different churches. I know a lot of them and I can ask them, 'do you do this or do you do that and yet, very few people I know believe in god and yet they go to all these churches and synagogues and all these other places but there is something that could unite everybody. If people lived, forget for the moment their idea of religion and lived by the fundamental ethics of goodness, kindness, decency, love and honour, the world would be a different place. I don’t know what it is. You must know more than I do why it is. Everybody is so greedy. Everybody is so dishonest but the opportunities still exists but we will have to be quick because things are in trouble at the moment. All these terrible things are happening where civilization started. It should be possible if people lived an ethical life.”

This year, Nicholas Winton celebrates his 104th birthday.

We left Terezin, bogged down by our inability to comprehend the utter brutality of the war period. Some of us tried to wish it away. Perhaps, a visit to Auschwitz, Chemnitz and other concentration camps would have been worse to digest. But what we saw was only a part of the hate-filled project that drove millions to death and despair, remnants of which are seen in the words and actions of many contemporary, extreme right wing groups. The victors and defeated of the Second World War continue to hound us by the manner in which they transformed the course of history.

The trip reminded me of the crossroads we find ourselves at in India. As we gear up for yet another parliamentary election, certain voices are reminiscent of the pre Second World War era. They eulogise the figure of men like Narendra Modi in an attempt to build a cult around him as the 'saviour' of the people. Their enemy is the 'other'. But this hatred of the perceived 'other' is driven by a particular fear. The fear of the minority which they want to make invisible. The Gujarat pogrom of 2002 has been one of the worst incidents of violence in post-independence India. The country is poised at a particular crossroads and yet, it seems lessons from the past have not been learnt. Members of the great Indian Hindu middle class, jet setting, money minting corporates and corrupt politicians tell us that a 'Hitler type of personality' is the answer. If history is to repeat itself once again, we need not look far. The graves at places such as Terezin and the endless names on memorials across the world stand witness to the monstrosities that can emerge and engulf us in its entirety.

The author is research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University


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