In the 'Hollywood of Extermination Camps'

This week the Tel Aviv Cinematheque hosts 'Terezin Films,' screening feature films and documentaries about Theresienstadt, which the Nazis turned into a fake showcase.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Filming propaganda, August 1944, Theresienstadt.
Filming propaganda, August 1944, Theresienstadt.Credit: Beit Theresienstadt
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

In 1943 pianist Alice Herz-Sommer of Prague was sent to the Theresienstadt camp in occupied Czechoslovakia. She was 40 and she arrived at the camp with her husband, violinist Leopold Sommer, and their 6-year-old son, Stephan.

Sommer performed there with a group of local musicians as part of the camp orchestra. Among the works she played were all 24 of Chopin’s etudes. Stephan took part in the camp performance of the children’s opera “Brundibar” and later served as the page turner for the musicians.

“We had to play because three times a year the Red Cross would come. The Germans wanted to show its representatives that the Jews in Theresienstadt were doing well,” said Sommer in an interview with Haaretz five years ago, when she was 106 years old.

“When I knew I had a concert, I was happy. Music is magic. We performed in an auditorium before an audience of 150 people: the old, the desperate, the ill and the hungry. They lived for music. For them music was food. If they hadn’t attended they would have long been dead. So would we.”

Her husband didn’t survive the Holocaust, but Sommer and her son did and immigrated to Palestine. She died early this year at 110.

Theresienstadt was not an ordinary camp. It was a “showcase” for the Nazi propagandists, who used it to show the world the “good life” the Jews enjoyed in the camp before most of them were sent to their deaths.

This week (December 24-26) Beit Theresienstadt, in cooperation with the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, will sponsor “Terezin Films.” The event will screen feature films and documentaries about the camp, which was dubbed “the Hollywood of the extermination camps.” And lectures on and discussions of the subject are scheduled as well.

`The Lady in Number 6’

One film, “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life” (U.S., 2014, directed by Malcolm Clarke), tells Sommer’s story. It won the Oscar for a short documentary.

The camp was commemorated in an exceptional Nazi propaganda film, “Terezin: A Documentary Film from the Jewish Settlement Area,” which was produced in 1944 with hundreds of Jews from among the camp prisoners participating as extras and actors.

The objective of the film, which also documented the children’s opera in which Sommer’s son participated, was to discredit the “rumors” about Nazi Germany’s harsh treatment of the Jews who were expelled to the camps.

August-September marked the film’s 70th anniversary. October marked the 70th anniversary of the murder of the spirit behind it: Kurt Gerron, a German Jew who wrote the script, planned the shots, and directed and produced the film under the close supervision of the SS.

On October 28, 1944, under orders of the SS, he was sent to Auschwitz with most of the participants in the film and murdered there.

In the end, the film, which was completed after his death, was not shown to the general public or distributed abroad, as the Nazis had planned. Toward the end of the war, it disappeared.

“Today there is no complete copy of the film. The archives contain only parts of it, which were discovered over the years,” Holocaust scholar Margalit Schlein wrote in an article posted on the Beit Theresienstadt website.

`Prisoner of Paradise’

Gerron’s story is also the subject of a film to be screened this week. The film “Prisoner of Paradise” (U.S., Germany, Great Britain, 2002; directors: Malcolm Clarke, Stuart Sender) tells the life story of the Jewish actor and cabaret performer from Berlin, who participated in the premiere of “The Threepenny Opera,” performed in 72 films and became famous thanks to his role alongside Marlene Dietrich in “The Blue Angel” in 1930.

The documentary describes the stations of his life, between Berlin, Paris, Prague and Amsterdam, where he was caught by the Nazis. They sent him to Theresienstadt in 1944 to direct the propaganda film.

“Gerron worked under the close and strict supervision of the SS, who followed him everywhere, and during the course of the filming stood behind him and checked where and how he was aiming the cameras,” wrote Karl Margry of Utrecht University in Holland.

Margry, one of the world’s foremost experts on the history of this propaganda film, will be one of the lecturers at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque.

`Defiant Requiem’

Another film, “Defiant Requiem: A Documentary Honoring the Prisoners of Terezín” (U.S., Czech Republic, 2012, directed by Doug Shultz), described the musical war of survival of the musicians who were prisoners in the camp.

He describes the circumstances in which Verdi’s Requiem was played in 15 concerts in Theresienstadt between November 1943 and October 1944.

Verdi wrote the work in 1873 to accompany the deceased on his final journey. It was performed by a choir of about 150 prisoners, conducted by Rafael Schachter.

“Our goal is to sing to the Germans what it was impossible to say to them,” he told them at rehearsals before being sent to Auschwitz, where he was murdered. The last performance of the requiem was attended by representatives of the Red Cross, Wehrmacht soldiers and SS officers.

Those who attend the cinematheque event will also be able to learn about the life story of another interesting figure, Regina Jonas. An Orthodox Jew from Germany, she was the first woman in the world to be ordained for the rabbinate – by a Reform rabbi.

In 1942, before she was sent to Theresienstadt, she deposited her archive for safekeeping; it contained one black-and-white photo. In the camp she was a public figure who gave dozens of sermons that encouraged and gave hope to the prisoners. In 1944 she too was sent to Auschwitz and murdered.

The only picture she left behind is the starting point for the film “Regina” (Hungary, Great Britain, Germany, 2013, directed by Diana Groo).

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