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Monday, September 12, 2011

Terezin: Voices from the Holocaust. Written by Ruth Thomson. Candlewick, Random House. 2011. $21.00 ages 12 and up

"No one knew where the transports were headed, only that they went to 'the East'. The Nazis claimed that transports were going to new settlements. To reinforce this deception, they made deportees write postcards back to remaining inmates, saying they were well, just before they were sent to the gas chambers to die."

It is interesting that I received two books about Terezin at almost the same time. The first, Requiem, was posted here in late August and is written in poetic form, voicing the terror through a wide variety of people. The voices in this compelling book about the Terezin ghetto, speak for the thousands of people for whom Terezin was home during World War II. It is written with younger children in mind, but it is a story for everyone.

Terezin was set up by the Nazis as a 'show' camp, a place that would hide the truth of what was really happening in the concentration camps from the rest of the world. Many of the people sent there were artists and other professionals. Many kept secret diaries and painted portraits of life that would tell the world the real truth when they were liberated, or when found following the war. Since they were forced to fabricate stories during their time in Terezin, there was no other way to get their own story told.

Their entries tell of the transfer from their homes to the camp, of the looting of everything by the Nazis once they arrived, and of their courage in taking with them some of the supplies they would need to tell their personal tales. The story they tell in their art is heartbreaking and horrifying. Their living spaces were abhorrent, barren and rife with disease. There was never room for the number of people forced to share the space, so the many pieces of artwork show desperation, emaciation and physical deformity. This was not at all what visitors saw when they came to the camp, or what news reporters were given to believe when their questions were asked and answered. The camp seemed a model of a well-oiled machine, comfortable and efficient.

Always hungry, often sick and living in terror of the next transport, the people of Terezin bore much of their circumstance with dignity and a belief that their story would be told. If their art was discovered, they were summarily sent to one of the death camps and their work was destroyed. When the Nazis were defeated in 1945, they retreated and disappeared. Russian troops freed the prisoners and the camp was renamed.
Today there are 2000 people living there, and many museums are set up to tell the stories of the war years.

I like the design of this book, with archival photographs, reproductions of much of the artwork that survived the Nazi regime, maps, sidebars, the many diary entries included, and the wealth of information provided to help us see what daily life in Terezin was like for those who lived there. There is a timeline, a glossary, a list of sources and an index. The timeline helps readers see the many events in to the other. We experience the heartbreak of camp life through the art and writing that was left by the many people housed there. The beauty and happiness of the children pictured on the cover is in stark contrast to everything that we now know about Theresienstadt.

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