Out of the Depths Have I Cried: Aesthetic Opposition at the Gateway to Auschwitz

Barbara B Javore. Religious Education. Volume 110, Issue 4. 2015.

It is a forty-minute drive from Prague to the garrison town of Terezin, in the Czech Republic. Traveling through an idyllic pastoral landscape on a mild spring day, my journey was graced by scenes of charming farmhouses and gardens filled with lilacs. In this serene setting the small town of Terezin appeared. The most unique and perhaps most insidious ghetto in the lexicon of the Nazi chamber of horrors stood silently waiting. In this place, leading actors, artists, architects, writers, dramatists, musicians, and scholars from Austria, Germany, and Czechoslovakia were imprisoned until they were transported to work or death camps. Although they were forced to labor for most of the day, these artists provided an astounding cultural life of concerts, lectures, plays, cabarets, and art exhibitions using their extremely limited free time. They provided a plethora of aesthetic experiences for their fellow inhabitants as they awaited selection for departure to the unknown. I made the journey to discover why such a thriving and varied array of artistic and cultural events were able to be presented in Hell’s antechamber. I wanted to understand the impetus behind the extraordinary cultural life that was central to the existence of Terezin’s transient inhabitants.

My pilgrimage to Terezin was the culmination of an exploration of the creative process that has been intrinsic to my work as a religious educator. I have intentionally integrated the aesthetic experience into my pedagogical framework throughout my career. When I encountered the story of the aesthetic life in Terezin, I became haunted by the power of the creative force that permeated the existence of people living in an environment of degradation and fear. By examining the accounts of survivors and exploring the artistic legacy they left behind, the vital importance of the aesthetic experience for those who were once a part of the fabric of Terezin became more apparent. A clearer, more nuanced understanding of the complex role of the creative process emerged.

I began my visit by entering the “Little Fortress.” Set at a distance from the town of Terezin, the prison was once the focal point of anxiety and terror for those living in the walled town nearby. The fear of being sent to the “Little Fortress” was a part of daily existence for it was the point of no return. Walking through an archway bearing the words arbeit macht frei (work will set you free), the prison complex conveys a pervasive sense of desperation. “Around 30,000 prisoners passed through the Little Fortress, many of them to the extermination camps of the East. Conditions in the Little Fortress were worse than in Theresienstadt itself; many prisoners were kept in solitary confinement and under the threat of execution- a threat that was carried out 2000 times” (Schwertfeger Berg 1989, 11). Standing in these rooms with a tour group of twenty, it was almost impossible to imagine the conditions endured by the actual number of those condemned to exist in these spaces until pardoned by death. This locus of torture now stands quietly mute to what once took place within its walls.

It is a ten-minute walk from the Little Fortress to the town of Terezin. It has not changed significantly since the end of the Second World War. The buildings that once overflowed with the desperate, the ill and the starving, remain standing in silent testimony, once again serving as housing for the current inhabitants. A single museum, built in one of the former barracks, shelters the artifacts that bear witness to the artistic and cultural life that characterized Terezin during the Shoah. A replica of one of the bunk rooms in a typical barracks, had to be re-created, however, because little remains to bear original witness to what took place here.

Presently, the town’s three thousand inhabitants live among Terezin’s ghosts. The train tracks that once took the transports that carried 140,000 of its inhabitants to “the east” remain. The crematorium that disposed of the bodies of nearly 35,000 who died of deprivation and disease, is now open for tourists.

Terezin’s post-war years, were characterized by continued anti-Semitism under a repressive Communist regime and its tragic history was sublimated. Thankfully, in the last two decades, a renewed interest in the story of the Jews who lived and perished in this Ghetto has emerged. The site continues to be developed as a center for education and tourism. This quiet town continues to bear witness to its grim legacy.

Terezin or Theresienstadt, was a garrison town built in the late 1700s, designed, ironically, in the shape of a six-pointed star. It initially accommodated a population of about five thousand inhabitants but the walled fortress town would eventually house over 60,000 prisoners, serving as a conduit to the Death Camps. The Nazis found this walled town perfectly suited for their intentions and removed the original populace. They adapted Terezin to incarcerate Jewish people whose disappearances would raise questions and cause concern. “Theresienstadt was promoted not only as a special place for old Jews who ‘could not stand the strain of resettlement’ but also as ‘model ghetto,’ thus strengthening the myth that Jews were being transferred to places where they could survive” (Friedman 1992, vii). Lured to Terezin, which was touted as a resort and spa, they were assured of safe haven during the war. The population of Hitler’s so-called “gift to the Jews” included highly decorated Jewish heroes of World War I, artists, musicians, dramatists, writers, and scholars. Children and the elderly formed a significant segment of the population. The deception that was Terezin became immediately apparent upon the arrival of those condemned to exist within its walls. The hardship and degradation of life in this pastoral village began as soon as the town’s new inhabitants stepped off the train.

Conditions were hardly conducive to the creative process and it is almost incomprehensible that art and culture flourished here at all. “Overcrowding, filthy water supplies, vermin, unhygienic bathrooms, and lack of washing facilities led to frequent outbreaks of disease, including typhoid and scarlet fever. Constant lack of food weakened people, so they fell ill easily and failed to get better. And many old people were already sick and feeble when they arrived” (Thomson 2011, 28). The elderly perished at alarming rates. The adult population was forced to work twelve- to fourteen-hour days. But it was after the work day was completed that life truly began. Survivor Ruth Elias recounts that, “The inmates immersed themselves in any diversion that was at hand just to keep from being constantly reminded of the horrible conditions around them. We wanted to fill each free moment with something beautiful, and therefore we plunged into these cultural activities to savor every minute of life. No one knew what awaited us or when it would all end” (1998, 98). The arts provided a time to escape. to remember, to be restored. The unknown was the greatest challenge to survival. Aesthetic experiences were eagerly attended by the community and provided a barrier against despair.

The majority of the residents of Terezin, were largely unaware of the town’s primary function; a conduit to the death camps, primarily Auschwitz. They knew, however, that the transports would not be taking people to a better environment. The selection process and the dread surrounding it was more than ample proof that remaining in Terezin was of paramount importance. Survivor Vera Shiff recalls, “There were few among us who really knew the horrendous truth: only the members of the Council of the Elders and some prominent individuals (i.e., Leo Baeck, the former Chief Rabbi of Berlin). Even Dr. Tarjan, who knew full well about the extermination camps in the East, never admitted to it openly. Only to me did he hint at the truth. He repeated many times over the instructions on how to pass successfully a selection” (Schiff 1996, 82). The Nazi plan required that secrecy about the true purpose of the ghetto be maintained. What awaited those who were selected was never fully known. The Nazis wanted to be as expedient as possible as they dispatched Terezin’s residents to the transports. They wanted to accomplish their task with the least amount of resistance in order to maximize efficiency and maintain order.

For the residents of the Terezin Ghetto, avoiding selection was intrinsic to survival. “Fear of the transports was the central anxiety around which all life in Theresienstadt revolved and was at the same time the force that engendered the most impassioned response to impermanence in works of art—literary,musical and visual—that have survived much longer than Theresienstadt’s three-and-a-half-year history” (Schwertfeger Berg 1989, 2). Anxiety was a constant presence but instead of producing a malaise of indifference or hopelessness, it gave birth to creative expression. “Art became an essential, perhaps the only worthwhile, part of life in Theresienstadt. The artistic struggle helped the prisoners to affirm their own humanity and to keep their spirit alive” (Spies 1997, 17). Aesthetic experience as spiritual resistance was intrinsic to existence in Terezin. Any attempt at rebellion or insurrection was a doomed proposition. There was no way out. The arts served as an outlet for freedom of expression, denied in every other avenue of life.

Many of the survivors who shared their stories were convinced that they were alive because of the aesthetic experiences they provided or were witness to. Concert pianist Alice Herz-Sommer states, “Music gave heart to many of the prisoners, if only temporarily. In retrospect I am certain that it was music that strengthened my innate optimism and saved by life and that of my son. It was our food; and it protected us from hate and literally nourished our souls. There in the darkest corners of the world it removed our fears and reminded us of the beauty around us” (Müller & Piechocki 2006, x). Artistic expression became the creative constant in an environment of false reality and chaos. “The act of making art suspended the collective nightmare, and replaced the arbitrary rules of the ghetto with individual purpose. It helped to sustain hope, a sense of the self, and the will to live” (Dutlinger 2001, 7). The artistic experience provided a respite that allowed the residents to return to their former existence, if only briefly. Art and music were integral parts of the lives of most of Terezin’s inhabitants before they were imprisoned. The aesthetic experience had the power to return them to a better time. It gave them the hope that would carry them through the degrading circumstances confronting them on a daily basis. The strength to survive until the war ended was given sustenance by the artistic life flourishing in Terezin. Unfortunately, only a small portion of the 155,000 people who were to pass through Terezin would survive the war. The creative force that sustained them and validated their personhood, would be the spiritual presence that gave them glimpses of the divine in the midst of chaos and death.

An astonishing variety of artistic offerings were available for those in the ghetto. “At first secretly, and then with the consent of the Germans, a rich cultural life developed for many of Terezin’s inhabitants, including dramatic and musical performances (sometimes of pieces composed in the ghetto), lectures and readings, and even a cabaret” (Langer 1995, 663-664). The Nazis would sanction the artistic life of Terezin because they knew it would never be permanent. “The attitude taken by the SS Command was both pragmatic and cynical: ‘Let them play!’” (Panatnick and Vojtech 2002, 13). It would serve their propaganda agenda as they would promote the Terezin Ghetto as an ideal residence for Jews during the war. “Living amid a German enemy whose purpose in Terezin was to delude the world, their prisoners, and perhaps even some of their own members into believing that the place was not really what it was—a transit camp to the gas chambers of Auschwitz-it is no wonder that the painters of Terezin returned again and again to the contrast between truth and delusion” (Langer 1995, 666). Artists would be forced to use their talents in the service of the Nazi regime on their work details but their precious free time would provide them with the opportunity to tell the truth through their art. The artists placed their lives in extreme jeopardy creating art works that documented the actual conditions of Terezin. The artworks they produced were carefully concealed within the walls, floors, and ceilings of the residential barracks. If the artists did not survive, the hope was that the hidden art would one day reveal what really took place in Terezin.

The risk that the artists took in the service of truth, cannot be over-emphasized. Being caught meant torture and almost certain death. “In their time off, evenings, nights, they sketched and painted their impressions, their criticism, their hopelessness, their despair. Of course not officially: if they would have been caught it would have meant immediate assignment into the next transport. That part of their work was hidden in safe places” (Troller 1991, 133). But not all art remained concealed. Some of it was smuggled out of Terezin in the hope that the world would learn the truth. Some of the forbidden art made its way to Switzerland where it raised troubling questions about Nazi treatment of the Jews. Nazi retaliation was brutal in what became known as “The Painters’ Affair.”

Leo Haas, was one of four artists accused of producing “horror propaganda.” Horror propaganda was the term Nazis applied to art that accurately depicted the conditions in the ghettos and death camps. As punishment for exposing the truth, the artists and their families were sent to the dreaded “Little Fortress.” Haas recalled his interrogation, stating, “Günther [an SS captain] questioned me, showing me a study of Jews searching for potato peels and saying, ‘How could you think up such a mockery of reality and draw it?’” (Thomson 2011, 52). The Nazi Regime thrived on false reality and when confronted with a challenge to their charade, they attempted to root out any possibility of the truth being exposed. Truth in art was anathema. “The Germans labeled this art ‘horror propaganda,’ but it deserved to be called the ‘horror truth’ of Terezin. The artists foresaw that the challenge to the postwar world would be how to imagine the reality of the camp. The real tribute to them is not to their moral courage or spiritual defiance, but their will to pit their vision of how the Holocaust should be seen against the aim of their oppressor to shape another view” (Langer 1995, 663-664). Haas, alone, would survive the interrogation and its aftermath. In almost miraculous fashion, much of the artwork that was concealed within Terezin’s buildings has been recovered.

In 1944, three years after the establishment of the Terezin Ghetto, the Nazis once again devised a treacherous hoax. They were determined to complete the Final Solution, the systematic extermination of Europe’s Jews, and were succeeding at an alarming level. The Death Camps were brutally efficient killing machines. The outside world, however, was beginning to respond to atrocity reports about the concentration camps. An elaborate facade was created to deceive a delegation from the Red Cross coming to inspect conditions at Terezin. The entire town was transformed, but only on the surface. What was concealed would have told the truth about conditions in the ghetto the Red Cross team never explored beyond the parameters of the tour. “They had been given a carefully rehearsed inspection tour, which avoided all buildings that might arouse suspicion. Transport records show that just before the delegates arrived 5000 people were transported, including a group of the mentally ill. In this way the streets looked less crowded” (Schwertfeger Berg 1989, 18). Residents were forbidden to provide any information that could have given the Red Cross Team reason to assume they were being lied to. The Red Cross Team did little to question their Nazi hosts. During this visit a remarkable performance of Verdi’s Requiem took place.

Rafael Schächter, a brilliant young composer and pianist, had the incredible vision and tenacity to facilitate the performance of Verdi’s masterwork. He worked with a broken piano in the basement of one of the barracks and rehearsed a select choir in the evenings after the work day ended. Using a single score, the choir of 120 memorized the incredibly complex music set to the Latin text of the Catholic Mass for the Dead. “The importance of its staging went far beyond the walls of the Terezin fortress. Only thanks to Rafael Schächter’s enormous—almost fanatical—dedication to the beauty of that work, this composition by the Italian master appeared on the repertoire of a Czech singing choir” (Pamatnik and Vojtech 2002, 21). The ruling Council of Elders, the Jewish officials charged with the supervision of all aspects of life in Terezin, were vehemently against the performance. They had hoped that Schächter would select an oratorio with a Jewish theme. Since Terezin was the only place in the Third Reich that allowed Jews to perform music of any kind, performing music with a Jewish theme was emphasized. Schächter, however, would not relent. He was committed to the work which featured a powerful setting of the Dies irae or Day of Judgment. The text called on God to punish the wicked. Schãchter ultimately convinced the Council.

Performing the Requiem in the presence of the Nazi oppressors was the ultimate act of spiritual defiance. In the words of one of the survivors in attendance, “It was as if angels were singing in hell” (Brenner 2009, 63). Why the Nazis allowed the performances remains something of a mystery but perhaps they viewed it as the ultimate irony, Jews singing their own Requiem. It was entirely possible that the Nazis were almost certain that there would be no one left to bear witness to the performances. It really would not matter if no one survived. Yet, the musical judgment being rendered was clear to the performers and to their Jewish audience.

The Requiem would be performed three times. After the first performance, the choir members were placed on transports. “Only the conductor himself and solo singers remained. With a good deal of passion and will power Schächter rehearsed the requiem mass anew with another 120 singers. But after several weeks of the performances the entire choir was again deported to an extermination camp” (Pamatnik and Vojtech 2002, 21). The third choir recruited had only 60 members and after performing for the Red Cross, the conductor and his singers were ordered to the transports on the next day. “Verdi’s Requiem—a funeral mass about dying, redemption, consolation, and resurrection-performed in Theresienstadt by Jewish prisoners in death’s waiting room! It was one of the ghetto’s most stirring and unforgettable concerts” (Brenner 2009, 62). The courage and tenacity that this performance required, epitomized the artistic achievements of Terezin.

Perhaps the most beloved of all performances in Terezin’s brief history was a children’s opera, Brundibar. It was also performed for the Red Cross visit. It was presented 55 times for the audiences in Terezin and was intrinsic to the life experience of the residents of Terezin. “The opera was chosen for its content, one which boosted the morale and courage of the youngsters. The heroes of the opera were two children, who had to fight a wicked monster, Brundibar, and his attempts to thwart their efforts to provide for their ailing mother. The end of the tale brought about Brundibar’s defeat-the triumph of Good over Evil, reinforcing the daily repeated hope for a better time to come” (Schiff 1996, 71). This opera was immensely popular not only with the children but with the adults as well. They were attempting to live the story being presented. The significance of the piece is all the more poignant when the fate of the performers is considered. “A total of around 15,000 children under the age of 15 passed through Terezin. Of these, around 100 came back” (Volavkova 1993, 81).

Ela Weissberger, one of the children who survived, played the role of “the cat” in all of the performances of Brundibar in Terezin. In a recent performance of the opera near Chicago, she appeared and shared her experiences. Her remembrance stressed the strength and hope that was derived from singing Brundibar. “We sang the victory song with such enthusiasm—that one day we will be free” (2014). This “victory” song became an anthem of hope for the residents of Terezin.

Children were cherished and represented hope for the future beyond the time of war. “The best buildings in Theresienstadt were allotted to the children. Youth qualified as children under the age of 16 and were ordered upon their arrival to be separated from their parents. The homes which sheltered them were equipped with the best the camp could muster” (Schiff 1996, 71). The incorporation of hope for the future into the lives of these incarcerated children was an acknowledgment of the possibility of life. Vera Schiff reflects, “In retrospect, it seems absurd that curricula were prepared with much care to include disciplines taught at various levels of the interned children. At the time, it did not appear pathetic or ridiculous, and perhaps it was proof of the strength of the spirit to sustain the hope for a better tomorrow” (1996, 71). The curricula provided an example of how to live life to the fullest. The short time these children had on earth ceased to be empty and meaningless. Instead, painting, singing, drama, and poetry all gave the children a creative way to bring order out of chaos. The opportunity to create was a gift to the doomed children of Terezin. For a time, the children were given a pathway to self-expression and meaning making through art. They were encouraged to imagine.

Under the direction of the remarkable artist and teacher, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, children in Terezin were given the opportunity to create art. Dicker-Brandeis was a Bauhaus-trained artist who was passionately committed to her students. She preserved over 5,000 student drawings, leaving them behind in two suitcases to be hidden in Terezin after she was transported to her death at Auschwitz. The drawings, now on display in the Jewish Museum in Prague, bear witness to her nurturing style of teaching. Each child was given attention and care. “Working from an experimental approach to teaching that provided both foundational structure and freedom within this structure she used her abilities as an artist and a teacher to illuminate the beauty of experience in the given world rather than the horror of the enforced ghetto. She did this not as a means of escaping reality but as a way of being in it and being free in it, creating internal yet shared spaces where she and the children were able to imagine and construct reality that could shore up their psychological survival” (Wix 2010, 7). Freedom of expression through choice of content and medium encouraged the children to find their own artistic sense. It allowed each child to regain her or his own individuality. “Many drawings include monograms. Continuous repetition of their names in various graphic combinations and structures restored the children’s sense of identity, the damaged feeling of self. Not one single drawing bears a child’s personal camp number, although their routine was filled with numbering and stampings of al kinds” (Makarova 1990, 26). Dicker-Brandeis was all too aware of the fear and loss that each child carried within. The horrors that were part of the child’s daily existence were acknowledged but a new world was opened to them through artistic expression. “In Terezín, Dicker-Brandeis’s care for and attention to her students and their art allowed the children to see themselves reflected both in their images and in the eyes of their teacher, thus furthering attachment to their worlds and the vital realities of their lived experiences, which were so utterly different from the artificial reality imposed by the Nazis” (Wix 2010, 32).

The creative process offered the possibility for making meaning out of the senseless existence that was Terezin. It engendered purpose in the midst of desolation, not only for the self, but for the entire community as well. The aesthetic experiences that nourished a starving, exhausted people were essential to their existence. Artistic expression in this context could never be viewed as mere escapism. It was an affirmation of life reflected in countless personal experiences.

Noted psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, an Auschwitz survivor, stated, “As the inner life of the prisoner tended to become more intense, he also experienced the beauty of art and nature as never before. Under their influence he sometimes even forgot his own frightful circumstances” (Frankl 1992, 50). The power of the aesthetic experience allowed even the most hopeless situation the possibility of being transformed for a time. Pianist Alice Herz-Sommer commenting on music, stated “It is the revelation of the divine. It takes us to paradise” (Müller and Piechocki 2006, ix). The aesthetic experience provided a pathway to something beyond present reality. Whether it was a quest for truth, defiance in the face of oppression, or a glimpse of beauty that connected one to God, the aesthetic experience brought a glimmer of meaning into hopeless chaos.

The power of the creative process has the ability to transform even the most challenging and hopeless of environments. The aesthetic experience allows each individual to encounter the ineffable, to view the world in awe and wonder. The restoration of the self is possible through an encounter with artistic expression in its myriad forms. This process is a sacred journey that fosters the connection to the divine.