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Monday, March 26, 2012

Reflections from Prague, Part 2 - Terezin: Healing Through Art and Storytelling

JPEF Education Manager Jonathan Furst recently returned from a trip to Prague, Czech Republic, where he attended the 26th European League for Middle Level Education (ELMLE) Conference for European International School middle-school educators. The trip included a pre-conference tour of the Terezin ghetto, and was followed by a trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. He shared the following reflections.

Read Part I here.
Read Part III here.

When I saw that there would be a pre-session educators’ tour of Terezin (also known as the National Memorial of Suffering), I was both eager and frightened. Even though I have worked in Holocaust education for more than 5 years, I had yet to visit a concentration camp.

Jonathan leading an impromptu partisan workshop.

A “model” camp used by the Nazis for propaganda purposes, Terezin was a place of lies. But it was also the setting for startlingly brave acts of truth-telling. Jewish artists, poets, journalists — even a secret photographer — risked their lives to document the physical and emotional reality of this horrible place. There were many other acts of spiritual, artistic and other resistance, perhaps the best-known documented in I Never Saw Another Butterfly, a book of children’s art from the camp, and the film Brundibar about an opera created in the camp, which helped to both keep spirits up and serve as a coded cry for help.

Room where the opera Brundibar was performed. The Terezin
Judenrat also used it for meetings.

For the first part of the tour, I felt both sadness and shock, but when we stepped into the crematorium, the reality of the horror hit me: the scale of the room, the meticulous engineering of the ovens. I purchased a candle, and was touched when one of the teachers on the tour asked if she could light one with me. However, that was nothing compared to the emotions I experienced when nearly the entire tour said Kaddish (the Jewish prayer for the dead) with me. Words do not describe the feeling of support and compassion from this group of strangers — almost all non-Jewish — who stood with me. It was a transformative experience.

I can not thank our tour leader, Trudi van der Tak of the American School of the Hague in Amsterdam, enough for the sensitivity, depth of knowledge and sense of humanity that she brought to the experience. I am also grateful that she invited me to speak about the Jewish partisans at the end of the tour.

Though we were all somber, it made the experience more bearable for both my fellow educators and for me. And that is one of the most valuable lessons I received: telling the stories is just as healing as hearing them, perhaps even more.

So I highly recommend encouraging your students to share what they learn about Jewish resistance to their family, friends, and anyone else who will listen. We all know that the best way to truly learn something is to teach it. The lessons of the Jewish partisans and the millions of others who engaged in non-violent resistance teach us that resistance is always possible, always worthwhile. Evil can be fought even in the harshest circumstances, and even the smallest acts of defiance make a difference. The world will always need these lessons and people to teach and realize them.

Part 1 — Insights from the Prague International Schools Conference
Part 3 — Auschwitz/Birkenau: The Heart of the Beast

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