I know that Terazin is a common site for writing about, but there is a reason for that.
No matter how much we have read or learned about in school, as Americans we cannot begin to understand the impact of the “Final Solution.”
I was dreading this visit. I had already been to Berlin, where I went to a museum called “The Topography of Terror” which portrayed, in great detail, every aspect and step of the Nazi genocide against the Jews.
Thankfully, since Terazin was not a “concentration” or “extermination” camp, a beginner like me could make it through without a total breakdown (but not without a few tears). As it turns out, there are two parts to Terazin. The first is a prison, which housed political dissidents, resistance members, and actual criminals, but nobody was there just because of religion. The conditions were terrible; it’s true it wasn’t a death camp, but most everyone there did die either by disease caused by poor hygiene, starvation, or execution.
For me, the most powerful segment of the visit was to Terazin’s second part, the ghetto. In its time it was a mostly-Jewish village. In 1939, the Nazis in Czech Republic began shipping Jews there from other parts of the country as well as from other countries. It became a transfer spot for Jews who would ultimately end up at Auschwitz, Riga, Chelmno, or one of many other camps where almost no one made it out alive.
During its time as a ghetto, the people of Terazin tried to maintain as normal a life as possible, which included running a school. While newcomers were crowding into barracks and the conditions were killing the very young, old, or weak, the residents tried diligently to keep things as normal as possible for the children.
So now I come to the focus of this piece: the children. There are several spots on the property of both the prison and the ghetto that have displays of artwork by the children of Terazin. Among these are selections with a “Memories of Home” theme, which has children’s drawings of Christmas (I don’t know why; I know they were Jewish), kids sledding, kids playing soccer, and families together. They are typical of what you would expect children’s art to be with bright colors and simple drawings. Following that display is one of “Fairy Tales.” A common strategy used by the teachers was to redirect the pupils’ attention to happier subjects and have them draw fairies, shooting stars, knights, and princesses. These were, predictably, bright and happy in tone – fun to look at.
Then came the collection of reality. The pictures the kids drew about what they saw around them every day were horrifying. No child should be drawing pictures such as these. Not a smiley-face to be found; in fact, the sky was never blue either. Even the simplest, most basic drawing was effecting at conveying the misery encountered by these people on a daily basis. Grays, browns, and blacks were primarily the colors used. People crowded on bunks; people crying; even people leaving on trains. There is not a lot of realistic photo documentation from this time and place. The most you are able to find are the propaganda photos and movies that show people having a wonderful time singing, playing sports, and having coffee at the local café. These were all staged, so the children’s artwork is the testimony that is left.
When I think about all the kids art I have seen over the years I imagine rainbows, sports, and all the myriad of colors overlapping on my refrigerator over the years. What I cannot imagine is my own children, or any children that I know, having any experience that would prompt artwork as haunting as what I witnessed at Terazin.
Photo credit: Nichole Olbertz