Theresienstadt is just a town. A small village, really, with a patch of green grass framed by sleepy sidewalks residing at its center. As we stood in the center, I noticed the ashen trees that lined the seemingly abandoned alleyways.
They were the same trees which appeared in the drawings hanging in the museum; drawings which were found curled up in the creases between the walls. Now, the walls have been re-worked with a fresh coat of paint. But not the trees. The dead trees still line the alleyways, like frozen ghosts which never leave.
It only took five minutes before I realized people live in Theresienstadt today. I couldn’t fathom how people wanted to live there—to eat, to sleep, to make love—in the place that had once been a concentration camp. “If you ask the residents why they are living here, they won’t understand the question,” explained the Czech tour guide. “It was their home before it was a concentration camp, so after the war they moved back.
Beyond the trees we saw the train tracks where thousands were shipped to extermination camps. A man walks his dog next to the tracks now.
Theresienstadt was the “show camp” for the outside world, a place where prisoners were allowed to draw pictures, make music, and act in plays. When the Red Cross came, the Jews changed the ending of Hansel and Gretel so that instead of the witch being thrown into the oven, the kids were cast into the oven instead. It was a warning, but the Red Cross missed it. They spent only five hours in Theresienstadt, two of which were spent eating lunch, and they deemed it humane. Two weeks later, those same little kids who played Hansel and Gretel were burned to death in Auschwitz.
Theresienstadt was meant for 6,000, but held nearly 60,000. Prisoners were forced to work with barely any food or water until their jagged cheek bones and hip bones became sharper than the biting outside air. They worked and lived and slept and breathed and diseased diseased diseased together until they perished from sickness or until they were shipped to an extermination camp.
The last place we visited was the crematorium, which engulfed 35,000 bodies. Somehow, that was only a drop in the bucket of the 11 million murdered during the Holocaust, 6 million of which were Jews.
We held small, round candles while we stood in the crematorium. I brought my pointer finger close enough to the flame to feel its heat on my flesh. G-d said, “Let there be Light,” and there was. And with that, he created the possibility for darkness. Humans took that possibility and made light their prisoner. They made fire their prisoner in the darkness of that crematorium.
I cradled the little piece of light in the palm of my hands. How does one reclaim the fire that burned up our people, my people, this nation, this religion, this race, this what? What are we but the remnants of something so horrific that we just try to forget? What is it that has kept us persevering longer than any nation in the history of the world? What is the code that Jews live by?
Lithograph by Leo Haas (1901-1983), Holocaust artist, who survived Theresienstadt and Auschwitz
Be a light unto the world. But the world burned us up.
Cupping his candle, which gently illuminated his ponytail and colorful knitted kippah, the Rabbi told us a story of how he and his students were kicked out of Auschwitz the year before. “To be honest, though,” he laughed, “if there is anywhere in the world you do want to get kicked out of, it’s probably Auschwitz.”
“Why did you get kicked out of Auschwitz?” we all asked.
“We were singing. We were singing “Am Yisrael Hai” (The People of Israel Live), and we were kicked out because we were told it was a somber place and singing was not allowed. But if Jews looked at suffering like that…if we weren’t the type of people to go back to these places and sing, we would never have survived.”
We stood together in a circle, none of us sure how to cry, if to cry, what to cry about when there is no way to comprehend. So we all stood, none of us crying, but none of us with dry eyes either.
And then, slowly, one voice joined another, the lights of our candles dancing in unison with our breath as together we sang “Hatikvah” (The Hope), the Israeli national anthem.
Moments later our wicks disappeared, and we left for the airport to head back home to Jerusalem.
NOTE: To learn more about the lasting impact of the Holocaust on our peoplehood, join Mesorah DC for a special presentation with a survivor at Sixth and I Synagogue on Monday, May 7th.
About the Author: Idalia Friedson lives and works in DC. In her free time, she enjoys doing Krav Maga, singing too loudly, and attending Gather DC’s Wednesday night learning group with Rabbi Aaron Potek.