Our day began with an early morning visit from our friends Tony and Eva Vavreka, who spoke to us about their experiences growing up under communism in the former Czechoslovakia. High school sweethearts, Tony and Eva immigrated to the United States in the late 1960’s. We are lucky to learn from them and to have them as part of our program.
Our good friend, Holocaust survivor Pavel Stransky, met us at our hotel and accompanied us by bus to the Terezin camp where accomplished, prestigious Jews from Prague, Berlin and elsewhere were sent. This former garrison town of Terezin, was renamed Theresienstadt by the Nazis. Despite the crowded conditions and lack of food, these Jews, who didn’t know where they were going or how long they were going to have to “wait it out,” composed operas like Brundibar, wrote literary journals like Vedem, and painted beautiful works of art. Pavel worked as a teacher in Terezin, where he married his lovely bride, Vera, in order to go with her and her family to Auschwitz. At that time, they had no idea what that meant. Luckily, both Pavel and Vera survived and were reunited in Prague after the war.
As we toured the museum at Terezin, Shalmi and Pavel shared information about what we were seeing, including the propaganda film made by the Nazis for the Red Cross visit. The Nazis forced the Jews in Theresienstadt to beautify the ghetto.
The reason for the Red Cross visit? In what was known as “The Artists’ Affair,” five ghetto artists were able to smuggle drawings out of the ghetto which depicted the deplorable living conditions. A local art dealer was able to get them to Switzerland to the Red Cross. About the same time, when the Danish Jews were taken, their foreign minister demanded to know where they were going, and the Nazis told them they could visit them. The Red Cross came as a result of the concern of the Danish foreign minister and increasing international pressure to view conditions in the camps. Shalmi pointed out that the Nazis, again as the dictator, are very sensitive to criticism. Therefore, they clean up the ghetto and make a propaganda film, for a visit that lasted only two hours, and ended without the Red Cross going out of their way to find out what was really happening there.
We went to the hidden Danish synagogue that until ten years ago was used as a garage to store potatoes. Inside this synagogue, Shalmi read the Hebrew prayers still visible on the walls: “May it be your will, O God, that we return to Zion and see it once again.”
“Please God, abstain from your anger and take pity on the people you have chosen.”
After our first attempt at a Google Hangout with New Milford High School and St. Thomas Aquinas High School, we went to dinner overlooking this beautiful city on our last night here.