Sketch of the poem At Terezin, music by Allan Blank

Earlier today I processed a sketch entitled At Terezin and I was immediately drawn in and shaken to my core. The first lines read “When a new child comes everything seems strange to him. What on this ground I have to lie? Eat black potatoes? No! Not I! I’ve got to stay?” Curiosity, confusion and fear all radiate from these short sentences. Learning the history behind these words left me devastated.

Terezin, or sometimes referred to as Theresienstadt, was a Jewish concentration camp from 1940 till 1945. The site located in what is now the modern Czech Republic, was originally the site of a fortress constructed by Emperor Joseph II. During World War II, Germany turned the fortress into a concentration camp for Jewish writers, artists and scholars. More comparable to a prison than an extermination camp (such as Auschwitz concentration camp), Nazis billed the camp to the rest of the world as a “spa town” when pressed for details by the Red Cross. The reality was that Terezin acted as a collection point for transfer to ghettos, or death camps. Conditions were deplorable. With nearly 150,000 people crammed into the tiny fortress, the prisoners were forced to wear rags and sleep in the dirt, there was little food (often rotten) and disease ran rampant.

In an effort the true identity of the camp secret from the persistent International Red Cross, the Nazis staged an elaborate deception. The visit from the Red Cross was to happen in June of 1944, prior to this, massive transfers to the extermination camps occurred. A beautification of the camp leading to the building of gardens, renovating barracks and forcing the prisoners to enact cultural events were staged for the visitors, who left satisfied. Later, a propaganda film was created to showcase Terezin in a positive light. However, the truth of the camp’s sinister purpose would be revealed in 1945, but by then over 80,000 Jews had died within the walls of the fortress.

As sickening as the Terezin hoax was, it pales in comparison to the heart wrenching records left behind by the camp’s youngest prisoners. The book is called I Never Saw Another Butterfly  and it is a collection of drawings and poems created by the Jewish children at Terezin. Although the Nazis wanted to fool the world into believing that the camp was a haven of cultural learning, the truth was that artistic expression was forbidden. Secretly, the children met for art classes lead by Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, where they could create, learn and hopefully find happiness. After the war, many of the writings, art and poems were collected by Hana Volavková an art historian and Holocaust survivor. I continue to be haunted the simple poem At Terezin. The last lines read “Here in Terezin, life is hell. And when I’ll go home again I can’t yet tell.”

Sketch of At Terezin, music by Allan Blank

Part of me didn’t want to write this post. The horrors faced by innocent children were too heinous to contemplate. Of the 15,000 children imprisoned at Terezin, only 150 survived. For those of us mathematically challenged (me included) that is 99% of children under the age of 12 died from malnutrition, disease or being sent to one of the extermination camps. Yet, I know as a historian that to deny that the past happened not only will…as the classic staying goes “doom us to repeat”, but truly is an insult to the people that experienced such torments.

Margot Blank was a Holocaust survivor. She was only 14 years old when she was sent to the Gurs camp in France, a year later she had lost both her parents and two years later she was liberated. At 17 she had to find a way to move past the atrocity she experienced and continue live. Her courage and strength was incredible.

Looking over the sketch, I wonder what Allan Blank was thinking while composing. Was he trying to memorialize the events, was he struck by the poetry of children, or was his inspiration coming from Margot? Perhaps if I ever find the completed score the answers will be found. Until then, I encourage you to listen to the tragically beautiful  Poems from the Holocaust: At Terezin.

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