It was late morning, a month ago, when my cousins, Revita and Renata, and I walked from the apartment we had rented in the Old Town section of Prague in the Czech Republic to Pinkas Synagogue.
According to the Jewish virtual library website, Pinkas Synagogue is first mentioned in 1492, although Jews themselves have lived in Prague since 970 CE, and by early in the 18th century, there were more Jews in Prague than anywhere else in the world. This, however, doesn’t mean they had an easy history here. I won’t go into it now, though, but do want to point out after World War II Pinkas Synagogue became a memorial to Moravian and Bohemian Jews, and today it’s part of the Jewish Museum in Prague.
We were interested in Pinkas Synagogue because Renata had read about the exhibit of children’s drawings there. These were drawings done by children at Terezin (Theresienstadt, in German) concentration camp during World War II. More than 150,000 Jews, primarily Czech, but also Jews from Germany, Austria, Holland, and Denmark were sent to this holding pen where 33,000 died as a result of overcrowding, malnutrition, and disease while those 88,000 who didn’t die were sent on to various death camps where they did. In the end, there were 17,247 survivors at Terezin, and of the 1,500 children who had lived there, only 100 remained.
We bought tickets and walked across the hot, dusty, small courtyard into the synagogue. Inside, it was cool and dim, and from somewhere came the sonorous voice of a cantor (either a recording or “live”) singing psalms. I was rooted to the spot, for all around me, on every wall, ceiling to floor, were row upon row of names, each as if bleeding into one another with no beginning and no end, hand painted in gold, red, or black letters. I felt as if they had gripped me by my wrist and were telling me to stop: “Wait. Look, see who we are.”
Hometowns were in gold letters; family names in red, and first names in black. Collectively, they were mesmerizing and beautiful. But nothing could overcome the heaviness I felt looking at the 77,297 names of flesh and blood Czech Jews.
On the east wall, on either side of what seemed to have once been an altar, set apart in two vertical rows were the names of towns we associate with the extermination camps. Riga, the capital of my native country Latvia, was among the notorious and familiar, and I couldn’t but help feel deep shame and unredeemable sorrow.
The drawings of the children were upstairs in the women’s gallery. Most were in pencil or colored pencil. A few were in charcoal. Some depicted how they were ostracized, excluded from school. Others drew trains, convoluted train tracks and being deported; some drew Terezin and its guards. There were black, leafless trees; a dark night with only a sliver of moon. A few drawings were simply totally black.
These drawings speak to the wisdom of the parents who recognized not only the therapeutic value of art, but the need for children to have as “normal” a life as possible even if there was no guarantee they would survive the camps. The children were kept “safe” and emotionally healthy because they didn’t have to hide or deny their feelings. They drew. They continued to have “school.” They were always in the forefront of their enlightened parents’ minds. Talk about “family values.” We have so much to learn.
Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College.