A spring series of local events focuses on creativity during the Holocaust, looking deeply at how art was part of the lives of people and children imprisoned in a Czech concentration camp.
People created art in many of the camps used by Germans to imprison Jews and others, but what happened at Terezin was special.
“At many of the camps there were people who made art,” said Brittany Hager McNeely, director of education and engagement for the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation. “Terezin is unique in that there was so much art that came out of it.”
There were professional artists imprisoned there — dancers, musicians, writers, painters — and they helped the children growing up in Terezin to create works of their own. Hager McNeely said the art that came out of Terezin complements an exhibit at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee showcasing the work of a Holocaust survivor who created fabric art pieces reflecting her experience.
“We felt Terezin, being such a great wealth of art from the Holocaust would be a great tie-in,” Hager McNeely said.
The three-part series, Surviving Terezin, began in April with a doctoral student from Mount Mary University who spoke about art therapy and how art can be used for healing. Her research looks at how Holocaust survivors and victims used art to process the things they experienced.
This month, dancer and writer Judith Brin Ingber travels to Milwaukee for an interactive multimedia performance on Terezin and the art created there. In June, Terezin survivor Steen Metz will speak about his experience in the camp as a young boy.
The series is a project of the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center with partners the Jewish Museum Milwaukee, the Harry and Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center and Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid.
Brin Ingber said the story of Terezin is one of community.
In Terezin, she said, children were taken from their families and housed together. Older children were responsible for the younger children, and there were adults assigned to watch over the children.
Before or after work at the camp adults would come and teach lessons to the children, Brin Ingber said, and many of the people who taught were artists. There were painters, dancers, actors, writers and other artists imprisoned at Terezin who helped the children to observe and understand the world around them, even as they were starving.
Some, she said, would take the children to the top of the walls around the camp and hold clandestine movement classes.
“It would look like they were looking for flowers and playing on the grass, but they were actually giving them dance lessons to keep their bodies more vigorous,” she said. “They would try to give them a sense of group feeling and all the good of what a children’s modern dance class” can do.
Friedl Dicker-Brandeis was among the artists there. She was from Vienna and had trained at the Bauhaus. She and her husband kept moving east, ahead of the Nazis, Brin Ingber said.
“Finally it was useless and they knew they were going to be deported to Auschwitz, so she took two suitcases and put in the suitcases artist supplies to teach children,” Brin Ingber said. It was preparation for the deportation to a camp that they knew was coming.
At Terezin she decided to teach art and poetry, and people kept bringing her supplies.
She gave lectures on what she was doing, so adults could understand.
“She wasn’t training them to be artists, she was giving them ideas about how to use what they were really seeing, what was the real reality, and to paint what they saw in front of them,” Brin Ingber said. “They could add their own memories from when they were children and in homes with beautiful things so it wasn’t just the grime that they saw.”
She kept track of the poems and paintings, and when she was about to be deported, put them in her suitcases and asked one of the teenage boys to hide them. After the war, he went back for them, Brin Ingber said.
The paintings and poems began to be published in the 1950s, the first under the name “I Never Saw Another Butterfly,” also the title of a poem written by Pavel Friedman while he was in Terezin.
On her visit here, Brin Ingber will share the story of the children in Terezin, and the artists who taught them. She will incorporate local children and those in the audience into her presentation, which she said ends on a hopeful note.
“I hope through this story of Terezin and what went on in Terezin, and how imprisoned adults and imprisoned children still worked authentically to look at the kind of meaning that art can bring to life – even when you’re starving,” Brin Ingber said. “And the kind of meaning we can take from this to find compassion and find amazement and find something of our Jewish values of believing in life no matter what, and that life is hallowed, even in these extreme situations.”
It is also a call to action, she said, knowing that there are millions of children today who are living as refugees from war-torn countries.
“These are very special people who have a message that still speaks to our time, that we need to offer some kind of help to refugees and people in peril, and we can’t close off to the situation because you never know when you’re going to be helping another Friedl or … any of these people I hope to personalize for the audience.”
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Terezin by the numbers
15,000. Children who passed through the camp.
- Approximate percent of those children who perished in death camps.
60,000. Number of volumes in the lending library there.
- The year the International Red Cross visited, as part of a Nazi propaganda effort to show that Jews were living in a “spa” town where they could “retire” in safety.
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How to go: Surviving Terezin
Almost Snuffed Out: The Story of the Extraordinary Terezin Children’s Musical “Fireflies.” A multimedia presentation by dance historian, choreographer and writer Judith Brin Ingber, who recreated the performance at Terezin.
7 p.m. May 10
Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, 6255 N. Santa Monica Blvd.
Free and open to the public.
Steen Metz: A Survivor of Terezin. Metz and his family were deported from Denmark to Terezin in 1943. He will recount his story of survival and where he found the strength to do so.
7 p.m. June 8
Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid, 6880 N. Green Bay Road
Free and open to the public.
For more information or to register, contact Brittany Hager McNeely at 414-963-2714, email BrittanyH@MilwaukeeJewish.org or visit HolocaustCenterMilwaukee.org/Events