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Terezin | Student Voices

Rehearsal of Smoke of Home at American University by Kim Rottschaefer

Student Voices

by Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, SIS '11
(photo: Smoke of Home rehearsal by Kim Rottschaefer)         

Hitler's supposed "Gift to the Jews," Terezín welcomed 150,000 Jews between 1940 and 1944. This hybrid concentration camp/ghetto was a place of marked contrasts: holding ground for deportations to death camps and center of learning and the arts for a people being exterminated. Though Jews were officially banned from formal education, Terezín was their de facto university. Some 2,400 lectures on every subject imaginable were delivered. The inmates, trapped within the walls of the ghetto, found some semblance of joy and the will to live by embracing the pursuit of knowledge. At the same time, the arts flourished, with hundreds of musical and theatrical performances. Yet, the vast majority of those held at Terezín, the learning and art put aside, died. Only their voices remain.            

As we, the students at American University, seek to uncover their voices, we take a page from the inmates' playbook. We will learn. We will lecture. We will perform.             

How? Two ways students at American University are involved in the Voices of Terezín project are through the honors colloquium that shares its name and through the production of Smoke of Home, a play written at Terezín making its North American debut here in March 2010. As a student in the colloquium and dramaturge for the production, I have been immersed in studying the voices of Terezín and helping bring them to life, an incredible experience unlike anything else I have been a part of in college.            

We in the honors colloquium come to the course from wide ranging academic disciplines: performance studies, religion, international affairs, and psychology to name a few. We also enrolled in the colloquium for many reasons. "I am Jewish, and I had many relatives who died in the Holocaust" was Hannah Kulakow's reason. I, like many of my fellow students, started out with no knowledge of the Terezín ghetto/concentration camp and little knowledge about the Holocaust in general. "I didn't even know a place called Terezín existed before I read the course description," admitted Bridget Weisenreder.            

We may have started out with little knowledge, but through many readings, guest lectures, and experiential learning, we have now dug deep into many of the essential questions concerning Terezín. Each of us has taken something different away. For Kera Pacakge, she will always remember that "the power of the human mind, to either keep hope through suffering or completely dehumanize another human being, has been the most striking aspect of this course." Kera was also intrigued by "the way that those at Terezín used their imagination, creativity, and intellect to survive and maintain their individuality shows how man is capable of living vibrantly even in the midst of tragedy." For Becca Davis, it's "the idea of moving on and keeping strength even despite massive setbacks and in the face of immense cruelty and violence in pain."            

Having learned, our duty now is to share the knowledge. We will be presenting at the College of Arts and Sciences Robyn Mathias Student Research Conference on March 20, 2010. Like the many lectures given at Terezín, we will take what we know and inform our community.            

Honors student Bridget Weisenreder found most intriguing the idea that "art was made even at the risk of death because it was a way for people to declare, even if only to themselves, 'I am a person. I am an individual. No one will make exactly what I have made right now.'" One such example of art from Terezín is Smoke of Home. The play, written by Zden?k Eliáš and Ji?í Stein, who lived in Terezín, is a new lens to view the Holocaust. It tells of the Thirty Year's War, one of Europe's bloodiest times, in which 17th century prisoners of war cling to returning home. The story parallels life in Terezín, that art for survival was a means of getting by a "temporary condition."            

The cast of Smoke of Home includes two students who actually visited Terezín, and one student who had not heard of Terezín until after he was cast in his part. Nick Jonczak, who is also taking the honors colloquium and Ezree Mualem travelled to Prague last spring and had the unique opportunity to tour Terezín. "Our guide at Terezín was a survivor. He built the steps to the gallows where many of his friends died," Nick recounts. Nick had the opportunity to originate one of the characters in the play's first reading outside of Terezín and performed in the play in Prague. For him, it was and still is "really challenging" to play someone who actually existed, especially someone who went through such a horrifying experience. For Ezree, the trip and the play have special significance since she is half Israeli and her family lives in Israel. She finds it important to "bring yourself to the character, to grasp how you would have gone through this and what it would have been like." On the other end of the Terezín knowledge spectrum is James Morton, who is still in high school. He describes, "I came into this with not even reading the show. Once I found out [the play] took place at Terezín, it was different seeing how they formed a community in the ghetto, in these decrepit places."            

The cast understands their huge undertaking. Amy Wilson notes that "this is the U.S. premiere, it's a huge deal, the Czech ambassador is coming" and dedicates herself, saying "I'm trying to do [the play] justice." While it might not have seemed a big deal at first, according to Wilson, ""I took Gail's class last semester and she was always talking about it, and we were like 'ok. . .'" The cast's attitude has definitely changed as they prepare themselves to perform what Morton aptly called "really heavy stuff."            

The voices of Terezín still echo today. We who have had the opportunity to hear them have an obligation to not let them die out. We must share the stories, the voices, and the horrifying details. Roxanne Bublitz calls Terezín "something everyone really should learn about" and her classmate Becca Davis said, "If I have children, I will teach them about Terezín."