The culture of an ‘ideal’ camp

The culture of an ‘ideal’ camp

Ambitious Terezin exhibit offers unique look at Nazi showplace

Concert in Terezin barracks Courtesy Jewish Museum Prague/92Y

Hanna Arie-Gaifman has deeply personal reasons to be gratified at the 92nd Street Y’s presentation of a multi-disciplinary series on the Nazi transition camp in Terezin, Czechoslovakia. “My mother’s family went through Theresienstadt [the German name for the camp], and they all perished in Auschwitz,” says the director of the Y’s Tisch Center of the Arts. The camp, which was billed by the Nazis as an ideal community for the Jews, absorbed her interest from childhood. Born in Czechoslovakia after the war, Arie-Gaifman immigrated to Israel with her family when she was 14; by the time she was 18, she was cataloguing artifacts from Theresienstadt at The Hebrew University.

The Nazis turned Terezin and its fortress, originally built by Joseph II in 1780, into a camp in 1941. More than 150,000 Jews were sent there – mostly Czech, but the transit camp also processed Jews from Slovakia, Germany, and Austria, as well as the Netherlands. The vast majority of Czech Jews who were taken to Theresienstadt died, including almost 15,000 children, only 132 of whom are known to have survived.

The drawings created by some of those children, and their poetry, have been widely distributed, including at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, but Arie-Gaifman contends that there has never been a comprehensive program that exhibited the wide range of cultural and educational activities that took place in Terezin.

“Through their ingenuity and through the need to educate the young,” she says, “the population created something that was really miraculous.”

In addition to schools, the camp supported theater groups, cabarets, and a swing band, and inmates organized athletic competitions. There were thousands of lectures – one for each day of the camp’s existence – concerts, dance recitals, and 55 performances of the children’s opera “Brundibar.” The library was filled with 60,000 smuggled books.

“Will to Create, Will to Live: The Culture of Terezin” is running through February 16 at the 92nd Street Y, and includes more than 20 programs in a span of five weeks. A four-concert series of music associated with Terezin will be performed by the Nash Ensemble of London, and will be augmented by talks, panel discussions, and documentary films. An exhibit of art posters and artifacts is on display in the Weill Art Gallery. The Y Tribeca is presenting a day of learning to honor the lecture series at Terezin.

When Arie-Gaifman heard the Nash Ensemble play music performed in Terezin, “I thought it would be wonderful to bring them here, and this is how it started.”

The concerts were booked a year ago, and then she and her team began adding different programmatic elements as various departments in the Y became interested in participating. “I got fabulous support from the leadership of the Y,” she says.

In addition to the public events (a full listing is available at, the Y will bring the story of Terezin to school children in elementary and high schools. Teachers will be able to download a specially prepared curriculum of age-appropriate lessons.

Theresienstadt gained notoriety from a film made by the Nazis at the time of a visit by the International Red Cross in 1944. Part of the population was removed from the camp and deported to Auschwitz, the grounds were spruced up to impress the visitors, and various cultural programs were presented. The SS made a film of the goings-on, which was then supposed to be used as part of the German propaganda campaign to prove that Jews were being treated well. Although the film was never shown, scenes from it have appeared in numerous documentaries about the Holocaust and are now quite familiar.

Terezin was unusual, Arie-Gaifman believes, because it had such a large population of highly educated and cultivated Jews, and it was a place where Jews were permitted to govern themselves. They were able to grow their own vegetables on small plots, and so consumed up to 1,000 calories a day – not enough, but not starvation rations, either. They were allowed to bring about 50 kilos, or slightly over 100 pounds, of property with them into the camp, and quite a few brought their musical instruments.

“You had people of the highest quality in leadership positions,” Arie-Gaifman says, “and for these people, the performing arts was [one] of the highest needs. It became the escape into normalcy.”

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