Discarded Scraps Vol. 3: The Story of Beit Terezín

Discarded Scraps Vol. 3: The Story of Beit Terezín

The cutting room floor is full of passages that I still really love but that didn’t quite fit in the book. I have a particularly soft spot for Beit Terezín, and this intro from the original manuscript gives you more of an idea of its beautiful history.

The dream of a permanent living monument to the Nazis’ model camp first took hold in May 1955, at a gathering in Israel of about one hundred and fifty survivors. Its primary stated aim was to honour the memory of those who had perished in the Holocaust, but those gathered identified another, much more practical, need for such an institution. Back in Czechoslovakia, the Communist regime was recasting the Holocaust to exclude Jews as the primary targets of Nazi barbarism. Indeed, annihilation of Czech Jewry was, in the new regime’s eyes, merely coincidental. Jews featured prominently amongst the political prisoners and intelligentsia who met their deaths in either the Small Fortress, that corner of Theresienstadt used as both prison and execution ground, or in the death camps to the east, and this accounted for the disproportionate number of them in the final tally. But it was for their political affiliations that they were targeted, not their religion. Any evidence to the contrary was being systematically washed away from the Czech historical landscape. At Theresienstadt itself, on the memorial plaque, there was no mention of the word Jew. The Small Fortress became a National Czech Commemoration Place for victims of fascism. The Pinkas Synagogue in Prague where, after the war, the names of all those Czech and Moravian Jews who died were inscribed on the walls, had been closed to visitors since the Communists took control of the country. It was therefore up to survivors outside of Czechoslovakia to set the record straight.

Beit Terezin as a functional communal centre was a long time in gestation. For one thing, the Theresienstadt Martyr’s Remembrance Association was not legally registered until 1966. As there was no permanent gathering place, meetings of this new group had to be held all around the country, in bars, cafes, offices, members’ houses. Establishing a proper site became the main priority, not only so that survivors would have a place to meet but also to house the archival material that was steadily flowing in and at serious risk of being damaged or lost. The members were adamant that their site should not be like the dreary, depressing Holocaust memorials that were springing up at the time, but a vivid place, preferably within the confines of a kibbutz. It was a dream of many Czech Jewish Youth Group members before the war to make aliyah and live on a kibbutz. Givat Chayim was the obvious choice. It was a kibbutz established primarily by survivors of Theresienstadt and their families, even though by the mid-1960’s many had left to try their luck in the bigger cities. It was centrally located, in geographical terms, only forty-five minutes north of Tel Aviv, which suited the Association’s greatly dispersed members. And, perhaps most significantly, it was the Kibbutz that Jacob Edelstein himself, the highly esteemed Judenältesten from the camp, had intended to join upon his arrival in the Promised Land.

Getting the kibbutzniks to agree to house the proposed Beit Terezin was the easy part. Following some brief negotiations, they allocated a large central site for the building. Getting funding was a little more complicated. At the time nobody had enough money to properly fund the project, and it was hard to convince outsiders with no connection to Theresienstadt to pitch in. Luckily, one of the Association’s founders, Ze’ev Shek, was appointed Israel’s ambassador to Austria and, within two years, had managed to secure an initial seeding grant from that country’s Jewish community. The rest was made up by a group pledge from all Association members to put aside ten percent of their monthly earnings until enough money was raised. Throughout the fundraising process, another survivor, an architect by the name of Albin Glaser, was busy drawing up plans for the building, which he presented to the Association’s members in early 1969. His drawings met with widespread approval and so, with the money finally in place, construction on the new permanent home for the Theresienstadt Martyrs’ Remembrance Association could begin.

On a blustery September day in 1969, surrounded by only a few shacks and orchards lined with bare trees, a small celebration took place. The survivors had finally found a home within their new homeland, a place to truly pay their respects to the family and friends who would never get to see this beautiful place. Ze’ev Shek himself, having returned from Austria, read from the clumsily worded foundation scroll: “We, the survivors of ghetto Terezin, relatives and friends of all inhabitants of the ghetto that did not come back from the Holocaust, that died in Terezin or perished on their way to death camps, today, the twenty-ninth of September 1969, the foundation cornerstone is being laid down for a library and archive to commemorate their memory.” He paused, to hold back the tears, wishing his family to look kindly from above on what was being built in their name. He continued: “In accordance with the spirit and approach of all our friends in Hechalutz and the Zionist Movement, that were not fortunate to live with us in the State of Israel, we did not want to erect a statue or a sculpture to commemorate them, an object that will symbolise indeed the past suffering, but will not serve as a bridge to the future.” He stopped again, taking in the nods and knowing smiles of his fellow members. “We asked to build a house in which the life will continue to flow, that the young people will read and learn there, a place people will come to sit down and make conversation within its walls.” He went on to outline his own dreams for what would soon be standing where he stood, finishing off with a rousingly optimistic salute. “We wanted to build this site for commemoration of the dead in the heart of a bustling, noisy place, in the midst of flowers and trees, among children and farers, in order to express our faith that was also their faith.”

A cheer went up, for once again those present felt what it meant to be liberated. The members passed by that lonely piece of hardened sandstone in single file, pausing and dipping their heads, or kissing the dirt by its side, like they were appearing before God himself. Their loved ones might not have graves, and their souls might have been forbidden from descending upon the Bohemian streets, but now they would have a home, a living home which, when all is said and done, is far preferable to a tomb. They would live forever, gathered as one, a true community, in the hearts of descendants they could never have even imagined.

For the following six years, the foundation members of the Theresienstadt Martyrs’ Remembrance Association would visit Kibbutz Givat Chayim Ichud whenever they could to lend a hand in the construction of Beit Terezin. For most that meant standing by the side, shielding their eyes from the blistering Israeli sun and snacking on whatever fresh fruit the orchard had to offer, beaming like expectant parents. However long the trip, be it from Be’er Sheva in the south or De Nehemiah in the Upper Galilee, by car or, usually, train, it was always worth it. Watching the belly swell, life form, their loved ones brought back from the ashes. They particularly took pleasure in the efforts of the idealistic young Israeli kibbutzniks who laboured whatever the weather, an act of true cavod, of honour, to ensure that these people’s home within a homeland would soon be finished. By the time it opened in 1975 everyone who had been a part of Beit Terezin, from those who first met in cafes, to the Kibbutzniks who had no personal connection with the horrors of Europe, felt an ownership, a pride in the structure. It was, to them, the most beautiful little house in the world.