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Echoes from Terezin

By Jessica Tabak

Candle, Boat and Warning Lights. Lilly Edna Amit (Bobasch). c. WWII.

Candle, Boat and Warning Lights. Lilly Edna Amit (Bobasch). c. WWII.

During World War II, the Nazis transformed the Bohemian fortress of Terezín into a camp-ghetto for Czech Jews. Those garrisoned inside its walls were subject to the dehumanizing brutality prevalent in the Nazi forced labor camps in Western and Central Europe. "Like other ghettos, Terezín was essentially a way station to the extermination camps," says Pamela Nadell, history professor and director of Jewish Studies.

But the Jews interned at Terezín, whose ranks included eminent Czech scholars and artists, countered the horror around them through an unexpected means: art. "All of these extraordinary minds and talents were confined in this town, and they started to create," says Gail Humphries Mardirosian, performing arts professor. "Choreographers and artists taught classes, musicians and conductors held performances, scholars gave lectures. And somehow the arts helped them transcend their situation. The arts became the means by which they defied the repressive degradation of their circumstances."  

The College of Arts and Sciences is commemorating this unique legacy with "Voices of Terezín," its contribution to the university-wide Human Rights Initiative. "Voices" will focus on art's power to humanize in the face of degradation and despair. "For many, the Holocaust is a stark, ready example of the kinds of human rights violations that can take place in the world," says Ellen Feder, philosophy professor and project coordinator. "Despite the atrocities that occurred, the art that was produced at Terezín speaks to the humanity and the possibilities not just of an individual person but of a people."

The project's centerpiece is the Department of Performing Arts' production of "Voices of Terezín: An Artistic Tribute in Two Parts." Cosponsored by the Embassy of the Czech Republic, the show will be held March 19–21 in the Katzen Arts Center's Abramson Family Recital Hall. Part one will feature the American University Chamber Singers' performance of "Songs of Children," Robert Convery's musical adaptation of nine poems written by the children of Terezín. This choral piece will be followed by the United States premiere of Smoke of Home, a one-act play written by Zdenek Elias and Jiri Stein while interned at the camp.  

Director Humphries Mardirosian first learned of the play in spring 2008, several months before she went to Prague on a Fulbright grant. Fellow Fulbright Scholar Lisa Peschel shared the script with her; the following spring, Humphries Mardirosian directed the play in Prague and took its on-site premiere to Terezín.  

Her decision to stage Smoke at AU inspired the cascade of related programs that have evolved into the "Voices of Terezín" project. Along with the theatrical event, the project includes movie screenings, crossdisciplinary panels, an art exhibit at Bender Library, and a visiting professorship by Stanislav Kolá? of the University of Ostrava, Czech Republic.  

The project also includes curriculum initiatives on and off campus. With Nadell's help, Humphries Mardirosian has developed a curriculum for an honors colloquium on Terezín, which the performing arts professor is leading this spring. In addition, arts management student Inga Sieminski is launching a curriculum outreach program in conjunction with Wilson High School. The program will focus on Terezín and culminate with students attending the two-part performance.  

"We want to engage the students before they come to the theatre so that the performance has a deeper impact on them," says Sieminski. "Hopefully, this will make them more alert to current atrocities and willing to stand up to them."

~from "Echoes from Terezin" Connections Magazine, Spring 2010.