“That butterfly was the last one.
Butterflies don’t live in here,
In the ghetto.”
(Excerpt from poem The Butterfly, by Pavel Friedmann,
“I Have Not Seen a Butterfly Around Here: Children’s Drawings and Poems from Terezin”)
Thirty miles outside Prague, sits a star shaped town and fortress, Terezin. Built over 200 years ago by the order of Emperor Joseph II of Austria, it is named after his mother, Maria Theresa. I am here today, not for the history of hundreds of years ago, but for the history of the last century. A history I feel close enough to that I can touch it--my parent’s generation. This is not a vacation destination for the faint of heart, but it is an experience that cannot be surpassed.
After visiting the small fortress prison, our hired driver dropped us at the Ghetto Museum in the town center. The ghetto square seemed desolate and overgrown. Older and disabled people walked by, but the feeling was that of a ghost town. I wondered if we had been left at a mental institution. (Upon further research, the current largest employer in town is the Prague Institute for Social Care. They own a building that houses the elderly and disabled).
Commandeered in 1940 by the Germans, Terezin became a prison for Jews and those who questioned the Nazi regime. The ghetto was staged as a model Jewish camp so foreigners could see how well the Jews were living and thriving. What the world did not know was that—like a Hollywood movie set—it was all fake, made-up and staged for the world to see. It was all propaganda. The reality--a holding camp. Just one stop in the passage to death for thousands of men, women and children.
In the Ghetto Museum, hundreds of drawings made by interned children are on display. Considered Terezin's "most precious legacy," students created drawings under the tutelage of artist Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. Dicker-Brandeis hid over 4,500 drawings and poems--records of life in the ghetto--into two suitcases before she was departed to Auschwitz and murdered. (These drawings can also be seen at the Jewish Museum in Prague).
An enclosed area that normally held 7,000 residents, held over 58,000 “prisoners” at its peak--about five personal square feet of space per person. Although not an extermination camp, thousands died due to disease and malnutrition--the adverse effects of overcrowding. Of the 15,000 children who passed through the Terezin ghetto, only 100 survived to see the end of War II. The Germans organized and implemented this hell hole quickly and efficiently. On January 9, 1942, the first group was deported from Terezin to Riga concentration camp. The last deportation occurred October 28, 1944, and headed to Auschwitz. In those 34 months of full operation, over 155,000 people flowed through this facility; 35,000 perished due to living conditions alone--over 30 people a day. It did not take long before room for the deceased ran out, and a crematorium implemented.
As uncomfortable as this environment is, it is nothing compared to the heinous acts witnessed, endured and lost by so many men, women and children. Who knows what they would have accomplished in their lifetime had this not happened. All world leaders need to visit places like Terezin before taking their oath of office. Terezin helped me to feel some of the magnitude of the holocaust. It is incredibly humbling. After the fall of Communism in 1989, the Czechoslovakia and Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel said, “Human rights are universal and indivisible. Human freedom is also indivisible: if it is denied to anyone in the world, it is therefore denied, indirectly, to all people. This is why we cannot remain silent in the face of evil or violence; silence merely encourages them.”
World leaders need to be uncomfortable. We need to be uncomfortable. Those who lost their lives, need us to be uncomfortable.