This recent radio interview on The World thrust me back in time to our visit to Terezin (also known as Theresienstadt, a concentration camp outside of Prague. Adam and I visited this eery destination on a sunny day in September 2011. As we emerged from the van with our private guide, we were surprised to discover ourselves in the center of a quiet little village with attractive buildings grouped around a pleasant main square. This didn't seem anything like the concentration camps I had seen in movies or books and this surreal perfection created an additional layer of creepiness.
As a "model" camp where many artists, musicians, and writers were imprisoned, Terezin was a place of both intense sadness and creativity. The prisoners were allowed to make art and in the midst of trauma and uncertainty they pieced together a cultural community of their very own with lectures, theater productions, opera performances, and even a library. The Nazis used the camp for propaganda films and for Red Cross tours to demonstrate the "civility" of their camps, but the artwork that survived also indicates that the Jews of Terezin were fierce in their attempts to fight for life and longevity. One of the most enduring pieces of work to survive from that hellish experience was the children's opera, Brundibar, which was written at Terezin and is still performed by children around the world.
I remember how stunned I was in 8th grade when I studied about the Holocaust for the first time and those feelings of shock continued over the years in various situations, but visiting Terezin as the mother of two Jewish children brought everything into a very different focus for me. Of the 15,000 children that were at Terezin, only 100 survived. Those numbers hit me in the gut with such ferocity that even four years after our visit to Terezin, I feel sick to my stomach. Survivor, Ela Wiessberger, is an amazing woman and her dedication to the children of today and the children of Terezin is truly inspiring.