by Ruth Bondy
During fifty five years since the end of the WWII , the image of a holocaust survivor in the eyes of the Israelis changed many times - and the image of ghetto Terezin as well. The Yishuv of Eretz Israel, in contrary to the festive declarations that the homeland is awaiting the "firebrands saved from the fire" as the cliche was used in those days, they were fearful to welcome the holocaust survivors here. In internal discussions the Yishuv leaders of Eretz Israel spoke about "the dust of man" and they saw the survival as a result of ancient natural choice: most probably those who survived were or cruel, egoistic, and ready to step on dead bodies. And on all of them
the living and the dead , laid a common accusation: Why didn't they fight? Why they all went towards their death like sheep to slaughter? Only the ghetto rebels' the partisans could keep their head upright: they fought with heroism. Therefore the Remembrance Day was also dedicated not only to the Holocaust but to Heroism as well, Holocaust being the holocaust of those who gave up, the heroism of those heroes only who held weapons in their hands.
Ghetto Terezin never entered the consciousness of the vast Israeli public. A marginal place, with no rebellion, one Ghetto in the middle of Europe, a ghetto for prominent as declared by the representative of the International Red Cross delegation after visiting the ghetto in June 1944, as he did not bother to see the truth beyond the performance which was prepared for him and the members of his delegation. The former prisoners of Ghetto Terezin, most of them young people that made aliya to Israel in the late forties, asked first of all to be absorbed, to acquire a profession, to find means for living and housing, to start a family: they were busy with their everyday living hardships. Also between themselves or with their mates who were not holocaust survivors, they discussed very little about what they went through during the German occupation, in ghetto Terezin and especially after it.
In a way, the former prisoners of Terezin created by themselves an image of Terezin as a place of nostalgia: after all, this was a place where they still were together with their parents, brothers, sisters, friends, many experienced their first love there, They lived among people of same age, learned, hoped and believed that there is a possibility to overcome. They had no knowledge about the extermination machine, of gas chambers.
Only after many years, when they celebrated he tenth anniversary of their liberation, the former prisoners of Terezin met here in Israel for the first time in an annual meeting, in kibbutz Givat Hayim - Ihud, where some of them found their home. And then also, in May 1955: singing songs around a bonfire, like in their youth in a Zionist youth movements, football game to remember the football in ghetto, pure joy of meeting again - but only a very humble start of thoughts that they have to organize in order to erect some kind of site to remember the victims of ghetto Terezin especially their friends from the Zionist youth movement Hechalutz , that most of them did not survive.
To perpetuate one side of the holocaust: a trial of keeping a human image, care for children's' education as a seed for further sprouting of Jewish people in future, the strength of creativity under constant hunger conditions, friendship and responsibility in general.
This aspect of ghetto Terezin reached the vast Israeli public only during the beginning of the sixties , with the publication in Hebrew of the book "I have not seen any butterflies around here" paintings and poems by children in ghetto Terezin, translated by Lea Goldberg and Tuvia Ribner, and of the book "Requiem for Terezin" by Josef Bor, telling about the performance of Verdi's Requiem in the ghetto, both books published by 'Sifriat Hapoalim'.
By influence of the Eichmann Trial, some personal memoirs and biographies have slowly-slowly drawn the individuals out of the foggy, frightening and imperceptible number of six millions.
The Israelis started slowly to see the Shoa, the survivors and also the heroism with different eyes. The fate of Terezin was comparatively better, the ghetto was not destroyed and remained to exist till the end of the WWII. Although most of the prisoners perished, there remained in Terezin a lot of material relatively to other ghettos in Poland, where everything was destroyed and burned to its base. An exhibition paintings by Terezin artists and exhibition of childrens' paintings, performance of music composed in Terezin, performance of children's opera Brundibar in Hebrew translation, in several versions, dramatized story of the Requiem for Terezin, performed by Nava Shaan, publishing the diary of Gonda Redlich, manager of Youth Care Dept. in Terezin, the Hebrew version of youth newsletter Kamarad , cabarets with texts from Terezin - all these created a new image of Terezin. But even this new image is in many a way distorted. Sometimes ghetto Terezin in the Israeli Communications media defined as a place "were the Germans concentrated the best of Middle European artists" - and it was not so, the Germans concentrated in ghetto Terezin, at least for a transit period, all the Czech Jewry and most of German and Austrian elderly Jews - among these there were many free professionals, scientists, intellectuals and artists. Sometimes there is an impression as if the prisoners of the ghetto went from one theatre performance to opera, from lecture to lecture, from one concert to another one, from cabaret to cabaret. Of course this was not so. During my stay of 18 months in the ghetto, I had the privilege to see once an opera and once a theatre performance - many other prisoners could not see even this. And it was not due to of lack of interest, but the hard work, standing the lines for food, water tap, WC, the will to be in time before the curfew, that started usually at 20.00 hrs, to see the parents or he husband, the wife, the children, a friend, the oft illnesses, the dread before the transports, mourning the death of a parent that died in the ghetto: the strength was essential first of all for the everyday existence.
To all this there was a technical difficulty to get a ticket for a performance in the small improvised places, prohibition to be out in the streets after sundown, all these prevented most of the people to attend these performances, but only a few of those who lived in the barracks where it took place, or those with good connections with the Leisure Time Department - ('Freizeitgestaltung' as named in German).
As if all the many thousands of dying old people - as a consequence of hunger, illnesses, the absence of will to continue to live, fright of perpetual saying good bye and departures that laid over the ghetto like a cloud, the transports departing to unknown destination or known only by the camouflaged name of a transit camp by name Birkenau bei Neu-Berun, that was nothing else but Auschwitz. The nerve- racking endless standing in lines, the permanent feeling of hunger, not a maddening hunger like in other camps, only a gnawing hunger like a small rodent, the never ending chain of illnesses, also among the smaller children and youth - impetigo, encephalitis, typhoid, scarlet fever, infectious jaundice, diarrhea, - the fleas and bugs harassing the people by night - all of this as if did not exist at all.
Maybe, there is no other way, if you want to keep the memory of a unique Ghetto Terezin. The suffering, distress, illnesses, and hunger existed in all places over eastern Europe where Jews were concentrated during the German occupation. But so many artistic treasures, poems, songs, musical compositions, children's paintings and youth-homes' newspapers, diaries and memoirs were saved only from this ghetto.
Ghetto Terezin deserves to be remembered as it has been: a place where human spirit exalted, but also a place of rigidity and meanness, and also of largeness and mutual assistance, but also of disregard of other peoples' suffering. Kaleidoscope of human beings caught in a trap and in distress that most of them knew to preserve their human image, that were not cruel to each other, hoping to survive until the end of the war, the end that for most of them arrived too late to come.
And therefore we see the importance to transmit the accumulated material about ghetto Terezin to the next generations, not only as a testimony for that era, but a testimony about the presence of individuals and their readiness to take responsibility to safeguard the rule: not to show of hands, the ability of human beings to learn, to create, to laugh and to love the life also under the most difficult and severe conditions.
The founding of Beit Theresienstadt
The dim sensation felt by the about 150 members present at our May 1955 first gathering, ripened - after twenty five years since the liberation, with more economic stability and ability to confront the pain of the past - to a decision : survivors of ghetto Terezin in Israel, together with members of Zionist youth movements among them, have to establish an Association, that not only will organize meetings for the living, but an Educational-Cultural Institution should be founded to honor the memory of those that did not survive, especially the members of Hechalutz headed by Jacob Edelstein, the first Elder of the Jews in ghetto Terezin.
We, the survivors of ghetto Terezin, relatives and friends of all inhabitants of the ghetto that did not came back from the holocaust, that died in Terezin or perished on their way to death camps, today, 29. September 1969, the foundation cornerstone is being laid down for a library and archive to commemorate their memory of them.
Beyond the perpetuation, there was another reason - even if same was not discussed in the first meetings of the preparatory committee - the communist regime in Czechoslovakia ignored the murder of the Jews as Jews. The Small Fortress in Terezin - during the rule of the nazis was in use as a prison for political prisoners, among them also Jews - became a National Czech Commemoration Place for the victims of fascism. On the memorial plate in the Central Park in Terezin the town, there is not even a trace of the word Jews.
The Pinkas Synagogue in Prague, where after the war all the names of Czech and Moravian victims were hand-painted over its walls, was closed down to visitors during the communist regime.
In the beginning due to technical reasons - the humidity spread out from the low foundations of the building to the walls and then because of renovation works - the place remained closed until after the 1989 revolution.
Many of the sittings of the Preparatory Committee (the members actually nominated themselves as there was nobody that could nominate them) - were dedicated to a discussion about principle questions: Is it possible that all other former ghetto prisoners join the Association which is about to be founded in future, or the members of Hechalutz only ? And maybe also all the people whose dearest ones were in transit via Terezin and then perished in the Holocaust? Gradually, during the years the frames were expanded and today all people interested in, supporting the work done and the aims to be reached - may join and be a member of the Association. With the legal registration of the Theresienstadt (Terezin) Martyrs Remembrance Association in 1966 it was clearly stated: More than anything else there is a need of a site (so far the sittings of the Committee took place in cafe- houses or offices of those members who were then in senior positions in all kind of institutions) - a place for gatherings, a site for commemoration and other activities, a central place for safeguarding the documentation and other material needed for research.
In those days, in various cities, there already existed sites for commemoration of victims from various communities according to the Diaspora and Holocaust map - most of them in desolated places during daytime, and during other days of the year too. Members of the Theresienstadt (Terezin) Martyrs Remembrance Association wanted a vivid place, in the middle of a settlement as an integral part of it - the natural choice was Kibbutz Givat Hayim - Ihud, and this in view the following reasons: in spite of the fact that there were fewer and fewer survivors of ghetto Terezin among the members in the Kibbutz (because many of them tried their luck in the cities) but among the kibbutz founders were many born in Germany and Austria, Zionist youth movements graduates, that part of their families had been deported to Terezin and then perished in the Holocaust. These members had a positive approach to the foundation and erection of a house on their Kibbutz premises, or to be more exact, on the premises of Keren Kayemet leased to the Kibbutz.
This and more: Givat Hayim is located in the middle of the country - anyway, the Association's members were dispersed all over the country - from Sde Nehemia in the Upper Galilee till Beer-Sheva in the south. Then, only very few of them were car owners, and a place in the center of the country will ease the access to all. And mainly: the Kibbutz by itself was viewed as a more suitable place to the spirit of the days in the past era. Actually, almost all of the Czechoslovak youth movements graduates meant to join one of the kibbutzim upon their alyia to Israel, but the reality was stronger than the ideals. Moreover, Jacob Edelstein their leader in time of the occupation, intended too to join the Givat Hayim Kibbutz (then so far not divided) after making the aliya to Israel. Therefore it was decided from the beginning, that part of the building which will be erected in future in Givat Hayim - Ihud, will be also used by the Kibbutz for their own cultural activities. As a result - the Kibbutz allocated a central site for the building, in the heart of its local institutions.
Following the negotiations with the kibbutz, and after Zeev Shek - one of the Association's founders started his service as Israel's Ambassador in Austria and obtained from the Jewish Community an obligation for a significant donation, and after fund rising among our members (about one tenth of one month salary), and after the architect Albin Glaser - also one of ghetto Terezin survivors - presented his proposals of the future structure's shape, three years after establishment of the Association - only then in a festive ceremony, the cornerstone for the building has been laid.
In the foundation scroll has been put down:
In accordance with the spirit and approach of all our friends in "Hechalutz" and the Zionist Movement, that were not fortunate to live with us in the State of Israel, we did not want to erect a statue or a sculpture to commemorate them, an object that will symbolize indeed the past suffering, but will not serve as a bridge to the future. We asked to build a house that the life will continue to flow, that the young people will read and learn there, a place people will come to, sit down and make conversation within it's walls.
We wish to collect as much documentary material regarding the life in ghetto Terezin as possible, within our reach, including the names of all 140.000 Czechoslovak, German, Austrian, Denmark and Holland Jews, that passed through the gates of the ghetto during the four years of its existence - winter of 1941 until spring 1945 - hoping that the visitors who will come to honor their memory, will feel here some of the ghetto's mood, that they will be more understanding what it is like to maintain something like cultural life under a constant shadow of death, to safeguard the elements of justice and inner honesty, the relationship between friends and mutual help. Our sincere wish is that researchers will come, and will succeed to transmit to future generations a loyal image of ghetto Terezin with all the special features it had, that they will be able to give the proper articulation to the deeds and efforts of Jacob Edelstein and friends that surrounded him, that if they erred or were mistaken - only due to over-trust in human beings they erred, because they were not capable to grasp the full measure of the satanic nature of the German "supreme" beings.
The decision we have taken, to build the Beit Terezin in kibbutz
G i v a t C h a i m I c h u d was not incidental, but because many of the kibbutz members are the ghetto survivors: We wanted to build the site for commemoration of the dead in the heart of a bustle noisy place, in the midst of flowers and trees, among children and farmers, in order to express our faith that was also their faith.
N E T Z A C H
I S R A E L
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The connstruction of the building
There were no sharp arguments as to the form of the building: It was obvious that it has to be accomplished within the very limited means that the Association had at its disposal. It has to be built as a very modest but multi-purpose site. As per the architect Albin Glaser's suggestion there will be a Memorial Room in form of a twelve-sided structure, built of red bricks - to remind the Terezin fortress. For the Kibbutz a theoretical library study-room and a hall for lectures and smaller cultural events, and for the Association : the archive, study-room and a reading hall.
The greatest dispute on the designation of the site erupted between members of the Association's Managing Committee only in stage when the building of the project started : A short time after the Liberation a Center for Collection of Documentary Material view the Holocaust (Dokumentacni Akce) had started in Prague, financed by the Joint Organization and its manager Zeev Shek., a member of
Maccabi Hatzair and an educator in the ghetto. Before making his alyia on a student certificate, in 1946, and because of lack of opportunity to a legal alyia for the other employees of the Center, it was decided that Zeev Shek will take with him to Israel, in his personal luggage, all the documents which were collected so far.
These documents, which were stored at the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus Jerusalem, and therefore could not be approached for many years, were said to become the foundation of the future to be archive of Beit Terezin. But, as per Moshe Sharet's request - Minister of Foreign Affairs then - not to disperse the documents between small organizations, Zeev Shek who at that time was Sharet's secretary - transferred the material of Dokumentacni Akce to the archive of Yad VaShem and the research and study hall, that was supposed to be a part of Beit Terezin has been cancelled, although some members strongly opposed same. Contrary to this, owing to Zeev Shek's good connections during his office in Vienna, he got a copy of card index including data of 160.000 ex-prisoners of ghetto Terezin, according to the transports they were deported. This index was prepared in Prague immediately after the end of the war and has been preserved. This index was of utmost importance, especially after the severance of diplomatic relations between Israel and the Czechoslovak Republic, together with all countries of the Communist Block (except Romania), following the Israel victory in the Six Days War in 1967.
In the course of time it turned out, that there is a chance to build an archive also without the collection of Dokumentacni Akce, and that also small research sites are justified, and it never crossed their mind to compete with the sovereign institution like Yad.VaShem. Additional piercing debate was conducted regarding the mosaic floor in the room of remembrance, because its costs then were thought too high - 100.000 Lirot. There were members who thought that the money will be better invested in an educational project and research. Some of them saw in the mosaic map of ghetto's streets with all the blocks and buildings, something that the time will erase, some of them thought that the towns map will say something only to those people who were imprisoned in the ghetto, and some of them thought that the mosaic will add to the atmosphere of the lace also to the next generations. The mosaic was accomplished according to Albin Glaser's scheme, in a workshop in kibbutz Giv'at Hashlosha and the disputes concerning it are long forgotten. Six years passed between the ceremony of laying the corner-stone and the opening of the house for its designated activities, the commemoration room still empty, with only the mosaic and a Torah scroll there. It was obvious that an essence of the ghetto history should be shown and properly visualized there, with few but large illustrations, taking into account the limited means that stood at the disposition of the Association. Propositions for a modern audio-visual display were rejected due to lack of financial means but the suggestion of Albin Glaser was accepted, to project enlarged photo-slides, elucidated from their back side, that will show in essence the development stages of the ghetto.
Tens of meetings, drafts for choosing the right photos and choosing the correct texts to accompany the photos, were needed. Additional four years passed until the display in the commemoration room - today called the Museum - has been accomplished.
Whoever is acquainted with the Czech immigrants - they had majority within the various Preparation Committees - knows that they were not on the side of glittering shows, they were very careful and not willing to be in debt, not very talented in obtaining funds and they stick to their principles: to many of them it seems not proper, not moral and revolting to use also money from German sources, for building a memorial to victims of the Holocaust. Therefore it was decided, already from the start of the Association's existence (contrary to the ideas of some others, more practical members), that there will be no official appeal to the German government or its institutions for their participation in funding the erection and activating of the house. In the course of time the things changed, slowly, without declarations, either by direct contact with the Germans that were born after the nazi era and wanted the contact with the house, or following change of generations, or due to actual needs and interest of mutual cooperation between both sides, for the same and common aim: to transmit to next generations the information on Holocaust in general and on the history of ghetto Terezin in particular.
In absence of financial resources, besides the membership fees and here and there some donations, the work was based - first in the Association, then in Beit Terezin - almost entirely on volunteers, without salary. The secretariat of kibbutz Givat Haim - Ihud agreed to put Pinda Shefa - one of its veteran members, also from Czechoslovakia, as the manager of the house until 1982. After Pinda came Alisah Schiller, she also being a kibbutz member, and former ghetto Terezin prisoner.
The founders' generation begun to show signs of weariness, their number thinned, the needs expanded and requested full professional work. As from 1998 the management of Beit Terezin is in the hands of Anita Tarsi, a university Master degree historian (her father in law, Harry Tarsi, formerly Tressler, was a member of the Dokumentacni Akce in Prague and one of the Beit Terezin founders).
In order to secure continuation of the regular activities in Beit Terezin - also after the founders' generation will not be here anymore - the Association's committee in 1997 decided that the second generation (and in the future also the third one) will be represented equally with the veterans in all the various committees and in the management as well. Following four of the founders' chairmen - Zeev Shek, Willy Groag, Uri Bass and Mordechai Livni - Dr. Eli Loewental was elected in 1998 (manager of Drugs Weaning Center at Haifa, second generation) as the Association's chairman, and Mordechai Livni that was the chairman during the past five years, is acting as his deputy.
Since the year 1976 the Association publishes twice a year, in January and in July, Association's Newsletter -"Dapei Kesher" , this name reveals one of its main aims : to keep contact between the Members, dispersed over the whole world - U.K., U.S.A., Canada, Germany, Czech Republic, Holland, Denmark, Australia, Chile, Venezuela and more - to keep them informed about Beit Terezin's activities. In addition to this, the Dapei Kesher bring information on what's going on in the world regarding events connected with ghetto Terezin and its history: exhibitions, theater, concerts, publishing of books, published studies, memoirs and world newspapers' reports, meetings, gatherings and congresses. The Dapei Kesher were edited for many years by Ruth Bondy, also one of the Association's founders, but now, in accordance with the new policy to transmit the Association's activity to the management of the second generation, the writing and editing of Dapei Kesher went over to her daughter, the journalist Tal Bashan.
No one can ever tell what the future will bring to the mankind, to the State of Israel, to the Kibbutz Movement, to each one of us : we can only try that Beit Terezin will not only to continue be active but that its activities will expand, as it did during the last years.