Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January was created to preserve the memory of those who lost their lives in the Holocaust under Nazi persecution. What book could better mark the event than Ruth Thomson’s award-winning Terezín. In her acceptance speech at the recent Educational Writers’ Award organised by the Society of Authors and ALCS, she said that her main intention in writing the book was ‘to give a voice to those whose voices had been silenced’. Her original inspiration arose from her research into Holocaust Art for the Ben Gurion Museum. She was intrigued by a powerful series of prints by the artist Leo Haas, and wanted to know more about his background and the place they depicted. Journeys led her to Prague and to Terezín, a small fortress town in the Czech Republic, originally named after the Empress Maria Theresa. In 1941 the Nazis renamed it Theresienstadt, turning it into a ghetto, initially for Czech Jews, but later imprisoning German, Austrian, Dutch and Danish Jews. It became a transit camp from which thousands of prisoners were sent to Auschwitz and other death camps.
What happened in Terezín in those terrible years is told through the words of its inmates, both adults and children, their accounts drawn from secret diaries, testimonials written during and after the war, and recorded interviews. Alongside their words are the drawings, sketches and paintings made by the inmates, many of whom were artists and designers used by the Nazis in technical drawing studios to illustrate official reports, maps and charts. Away from supervision they recorded their own images of the reality of camplife, secretly and at great risk hiding the artwork, some of which was recovered after the war. One of these artists was Friedl Dicker-Brandeis who held secret classes for the children in which she taught them to draw and paint, create collages, stitch and sew puppets. ‘There was something about her way of teaching that made us, for the moment, feel free of care,’ wrote one of the children who survived.
Terezín was dressed up as a model camp, a sickening lie that masked the daily horror of disease, overcrowding, torture and famine. Families were divided up, Jewish Elders forced to choose which individuals would join the transports to the death camps. When a delegation from the Red Cross visited the camp in 1944, the Nazi stage management of newly painted barracks and hastily erected shops and cafes duped the visitors into believing that it was a ‘model Jewish settlement’.
And yet, amid the squalor and deprivation what sings out is the strength of the human spirit, the will to survive, and the solace and comfort provided by the concerts, operas and plays performed by the inmates, many of whom were professional musicians and conductors.
This is a powerful and moving account of a little known part of Holocaust history, largely because it is told through the voices of those involved. Ruth Thomson is to be congratulated on her meticulous research in piecing together the evidence and presenting the story in such a compelling and graphic way.