Sunday, July 13, 2014

Terezin: A Good Day. Hard, But Good.

On June 30, I was fortunate enough to escort the 46 teens on Buss 11 of NFTY's L'dor V'dor trip to Eastern Europe and Israel. My job, as a "Friend of NFTY" was to safely chaperone them on the Lot Airlines flight to Warsaw, negotiate passsport control and security and make our connection on Lot to Prague in the Czech Republic, where the tour began. We met three other groups of teens, campers from Eisner and Crane Lake camps, who travelled on two other flights and got to Prague before us.

Before I go any farther, no - this is not a "what I did on my summer vacation" slide show and brag fest. As a chaperone, I was asked to submit posts to the group blog a few times and I am sharing those. So they will appear in order, but quickly. As I write this I am sitting in Jerusalem after a wonderful week - much of which I must share as well. Here is the first:





Terezin: A Good Day. Hard, But Good.
Greetings from just over the Czech/Polish border. We are at a rest stop on our way from Terezin to Krakow. This morning was a very somber and thoughtful day. We checked out of the hotel in Prague and drove to Terezin.

The town and fortress were established in the 18th century but the Nazis remodeled it three or four times. First an SS prison, it became a concentration camp and later a death camp. Yesterday, when we visited the Pinkus Synagogue and Prague we saw the names of all of the people from throughout Bohemia and Moravia who went to Terezin and never returned.

At Terezin, we visited a barracks where the prisoners lived. Becky Molinoff said that “on the one hand the triple bunks and the tidy shelves made it look like summer camp.  Then you think about how crowded the prisoners were on the bunks and what finally happened to them and the comparison became very disturbing.”

We saw the art, poetry and representations of the theater they created. Jacob Rodier said “The art work really struck me emotionally. It was so real how they were allowed and able to express themselves through their paintings.” The exhibit showed how the artists gradually changed their themes from beautiful images of nature and Jewish life to vivid portrayals of life in Terezin under the Nazis. And then the artists were killed.

Crane Lake Campers sang Debbie Friedman's
Shema in the secret Synagogue in Terezin.
It was beautiful, haunting and a little Triumphant.
And we visited a synagogue that had been kept hidden from the Nazis. I was with Bus 9 from Crane Lake as we crowded 46 people into a space smaller than most of our living rooms as Noa, one of our mekhankhim (trip educators) led us in Debbie Friedman’s Shema.

It is a strange kind of concentration and death camp. It had been given a makeover in 1944 to fool the Red Cross inspectors. It almost looked like the Jews were on vacation. And today, the town functions as community of 2,000 Czechs living a daily life – interrupted by busloads of people coming to visit the remains of the camp and crematorium.  Carolyn DelAngelo said “The town looks so normal. It was a real place before and it is a real place again. It is kind of disconcerting.”

Finally we gathered at the banks of the Ohre River, behind the town, at the place where the Nazi’s forced the Jewish inmates to dump the ashes of the dead into the river. There we held a tekes (ceremony) in memory of the martyrs of Terezin.
Jacob Wunder remarked on a Czech father and son who came by the site of our tekes and used the stairs down to the river to launch their canoe while we sang “The Last Butterfly:” “I think it is interesting that people moved into the town after the war. I hadn’t thought about it before, but the father and son in their canoe told me that life has been brought back to a place of death. I think that is good.”

Tomorrow we will see Krakow, where Jewish life thrived for six centuries – until the war. I know we are not done with the somber sites, but we are all looking forward to learning about the long period when life was good. In Krakow.

Ira Wise is one of NFTY’s Flight Chaperones who escort our teens on their flights to Euorpe. He is also the Director of Education at Congregation B’nai Israel in Bridgeport, CT, where Jacob, Becky, Jacob and Caroline are members. And he is a faculty member at Eisner and Crane Lake Camps, where all four have been campers.

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