Monday, March 26, 2012
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.
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.
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
Tuesday, January 31, 2012
JPEF’s Education Manager, Jonathan Furst, traveled to Prague last week to attend the 2012 European League for Middle Level Education Conference. When he was not busy presenting at the conference, Jonathan attended a guided tour of Terezin.
Terezin is a fortress and a town that sits across from the Ohře river in the Czech Republic. Built in the late 1700s by the Hapsburg Monarchy, Terezin was a military town for over two centuries. It was first utilized as a prison in the second half of the 19th century, and housed political prisoners of both World Wars – including Gavrilo Princip, the assassin of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
During World War II, the Gestapo converted part of Terezin into a Jewish ghetto, interning over 144,000 Jews throughout the course of the war – 33,000 died within its walls due to hunger, disease, and sadistic treatment; only 17,000 prisoners survived. It was also used as a transit camp for European Jews on their way to Auschwitz, and a part of Terezin called the Small Fortress also served as a Gestapo prison for Allied POWs.
Terezin also gained notoriety because the majority of Jews interned there were artists, musicians, professionals, and scholars – their captors encouraged them to lead “creative” lives and even erected and concert venues as a ploy to fool the International Red Cross.
During the guided tour, Jonathan led an impromptu seminar with over twenty European school-teachers participating.
“Thanks to Trudi van der Tak for an informative and deeply moving tour, and for inviting me to teach about the wider spectrum of Jewish resistance.”