Theresienstadt, the Concentration Camp That Keeps on Living, Even in New York

A series of curious events following an interview with Hanna Arie-Gaifman, artistic director of Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y.

I owe an apology to Hanna Arie-Gaifman, director of the Tisch Center for the Arts at New York’s 92d Street Y. More than four weeks ago I interviewed Arie-Gaifman about the exhibition “The Culture of Terezin – Will to Live, Will to Create” which had just opened at the Y, but only now, when it is ending, have I come around to writing about it. I’m sure that’s not what she had in mind.

Arie-Gaifman and her exhibition threw me. Whenever I sat down to write the story, my mind began to wander to the streets and the sounds and the music and the plays and the soccer matches and the horror and the fear and the stench of the Theresienstadt concentration camp, one hour north of Prague, where my grandparents had lived before they were murdered.

The Theresienstadt poster for the performance of the the children's opera Brundibar

Theresienstadt, which some prefer to call by its Czech location, Terezin, was in operation between 1941-1945. Some 140,000 Jews were interned there during the war, of which 33,000 died in the camp (including my grandfather) and 88,000 were transported to Auschwitz, where they were gassed to death (including my grandmother). The so-called “model” camp is famous because of the sham Red Cross visit there in June, 1944, because of the Nazi propaganda movie that was filmed in the camp and because of its amazingly boisterous cultural life and educational endeavors, evidence of which has been preserved and was on display over the past month at the 92nd Street Y.

Much of Theresienstadt’s operations were overseen by the Reich Main Security Office, RSHA, department IV-B4, under the command of SS-Obersturmbanfuhrer Adolf Eichmann. In what I might otherwise consider a coincidence, I had the pleasure this week, if you can call it that, of attending a riveting evening organized by the Anti-Defamation League and the Israeli Consulate in New York marking 50 years to the Eichmann trial, in which Tami Raveh, the daughter of Eichmann’s prosecutor, Gideon Hausner, gave an eyewitness account of what went on in their home during that historic trial.

I came to the Eichmann event after having watched, for the umpteenth time since I had spoken to Arie-Gaifman, the Nazi-staged propaganda movie “The Fuhrer Gives a City to the Jews,” of which only 20 minutes were recovered. In it you can see the haunting images of the doomed inmates who served as extras in the film; the buildings in the camp, which look almost exactly the same today as they did then; and the performances of a work by Czech composer Pavel Haas, a jazz session of Martin Roman and – this is not a joke - his Ghetto Swingers, and a few minutes of the children’s opera “Brundibar," perhaps the most famous of Theresienstadt’s shows, which was performed no less than 55 times. All of the children that you can see on the stage of “Brundibar,” along with the thousands of prisoners who had played any kind of roll in the making of the film, were shipped off to Auschwitz the moment the filming was over.

“Theresienstadt was an entry point, a purgatory, on the way to hell,” Arie Gaifman told me in her office at the 92nd Street Y. “On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the first transports, we thought it was the right time, while we still have survivors among us, to teach Americans, especially children, about the story of Theresienstadt. It wasn’t just the walls in which they lived, or a place from which they were taken to their death, it was the spirit, the vision of saving lives for the future, the attempt to allow people to escape by means of very sophisticated art and a very sophisticated education system and extensive lectures on everything from preventive medicine to ancient history. And all carried out by people who were at the top of their field."

Name * Used in internal listings and as fallback for alt-text in articles. Gaifman - Bright - Feb 20
Joshua Bright

“They didn’t have much free time. They came back from their physical work, for which they were completely unprepared, utterly exhausted. But their thirst for theater, for literature, for music, even for the comedy of the cabaret was overwhelming, and it also provided an escape from reality.”

“We need to recognize this unique creativity and its power,” she adds. “’Auschwitz’ and ‘Holocaust’ have become somewhat empty metaphors, because we will never understand, we cannot understand. Theresienstadt is a place where one can begin to comprehend the horror.”

Arie-Gaufman rattles off the names of the then-renowned composers, performers, painters, poets and philosophers who were at Theresienstadt, such as Viktor Ullman, Erwin Schulhoff, Leo Haas and Leo Baeck, the cream of the immensely talented pool of Jewish intellectual and artistic creativity in pre-war Central Europe. She has put together an impressive program of visual exhibition, lectures and concerts that were performed at Theresienstadt.

“Terezin is something that has accompanied me all my life,” she says. “My mother’s family all went through Terezin and ended up in Auschwitz, and though my mother left, her family stayed, telling her ‘this is not going to happen here. We’re not leaving’.”

Arie-Gaifman’s biography jarred me from the outset. Her parents came to Palestine from Czechoslovakia in 1939, the same year that my parents arrived. They lived in the same Jerusalem neighborhood as my parents, and they circulated in the same Czech-centered milieu in Jerusalem during the Second World War. But contrary to my parents, who lived in Jerusalem till the end of their lives, Arie-Gaifman’s returned in 1947 to look for her mother’s family in Prague, where they “got stuck”, as she puts it, until they were allowed to immigrate back to Israel in 1964.

Arie-Gaufman, born and educated in Communist Czechoslovakia, graduated from a prestigious high school in Jerusalem and completed her BA in Russian studies and English Literature at the Hebrew University. In 1968, when she was still a student, the multilingual Arie-Gaifman was recruited by famous Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer to catalogue and translate the 28 boxes of documentation that Zeev Shek had transported from Theresienstadt to Israel in 1946.

Shek, an inmate at Theresienstadt, had meticulously stored and hidden documents, letters, posters and other paraphernalia inside the walls of the camp’s buildings. When he was taken away to Auschwitz, he implored his girlfriend, Alice Ehrman, to continue his work, which she did. Both miraculously survived and eventually got married. After the war Shek returned to Prague and brought home the documents, giving them to the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, where they lay in boxes, untouched, until 1967, when Israel captured East Jerusalem and relieved the academic enclave that had been isolated and abandoned for 19 years.

Shek later joined the Foreign Ministry where he became a part of the so-called “Czech Mafia” that played a major role in setting up the post-Independence diplomatic corps at the Israeli Foreign Ministry; my father, also Czech, was a junior member in that mob. Shek was instrumental in establishing Israeli relations with Germany in the early 1950’s and went on to a distinguished diplomatic career but tragically died at the age of 58 while serving as Israel’s Ambassador to Rome. His son, Danny, himself a former Israeli ambassador to France, has been a good friend of mine for many years.

I called Danny in Tel Aviv to ask him how he can explain the fact that in all our years of acquaintance we’d never spoken about his father’s historical role in saving the documents of Theresienstadt. He agreed that it was eerie, but no less so than the fact that I had reached him only a few minutes after he had returned from the inauguration ceremony of a memorial room at Petah Tikva’s soccer stadium in honor of the Theresienstadt soccer league that had operated for close to three years at the camp. Danny’s parents, Zeev and Aliza Shek, had produced a movie about the league and its manager, Mila Cervenka, in collaboration with their scriptwriter who, I was no longer surprised to learn, had been Hanna Arie-Gaufman.

In 1988, she left Jerusalem and moved to New York, not before she earned a Masters Degree in Slavic Languages and Literature from Stanford and a Doctorate in Comparative Literature from the Hebrew University. She returned to her birthplace in Prague after the Velvet Revolution, where she served as the dean of the Mozart Academy and as director of artistic management at the Czech Philharmonic. For the past 12 years, Arie-Gaifman has been in charge of artistic direction at the 92nd Street Y.

“The Theresienstadt exhibition allowed me to bring together my passion for literature and music with the presentation of my core belief and lesson from Theresienstadt: that art and literature are not a luxury and that not everything evolves around money and stock markets and hi-tech. People with the greatest minds need inspiration, and the arts can provide it, even in the worst of circumstances,” she says.

Following our interview, Arie-Gaifman took me on a tour of the exhibition where the posters and the timetables and the tickets and the money and the yellow stars from Theresienstadt were on display. But it was the musical scores and the scripts of the plays that caught my attention, because it is through them, more than anything else, that Theresienstadt, unlike other concentration camps, can be recreated and relived, anytime, anywhere. The music that was written and the plays that were performed in the camp by some of the finest artists of their day weren’t destroyed. Whenever and wherever they are heard or performed, they bring the camp back to life and connect, in some special way, to the tens of thousands of Jews who had watched and heard them, including my grandparents.

After the interview I went home, where for weeks I stayed glued to Google, frantically searching for something that I couldn’t define. Eventually, I looked up the name of Karel Fleischmann, an uncle of Arie-Gaifman who had lectured at Theresienstadt about preventive medicine and Jewish antiquities and whose photo she had found when she was working on Shek’s papers. In an Internet promotion of a book entitled “University over the Abyss”, I found an etching of a Theresienstadt lecture penned by another Karel Fleischman, whom Arie-Gaifman says is not her uncle. But on a list of lecturers attached to the same book I was surprised to find the name Valerie Waldstein.

She was born in Benesov, Czechoslovakia, on November 12, 1893. She was on Transport Di-688, on July 13, 1943, from Prague to Terezin, and on Transport Et-334, from Terezin to Auschwitz, on October 23, 1944. Before the war she had been a Zionist activist in charge of expanding Wizo activities in Slovakia, and I imagine that this was the main topic of her lectures. Her nickname was Wally, Wally Waldstein, and she was my mother’s favorite aunt.

I had never known that Wally Waldstein had lectured at Theresienstadt. I kept on Googling, and found her name on another list, this one of prominent inmates at Theresienstadt. It was a pdf file, attached to the flyer for the exhibition “The Culture of Terezin,” the brainchild and proud creation of Hanna Arie-Gaifman. The exhibition has been on for over a month, and it closes today.

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