TEREZIN, Czech Republic — Half a mile from the center of the former Theresienstadt ghetto and concentration camp, over 100 European diplomats, parliamentarians, government officials and Jewish leaders gathered Tuesday at the camp’s onetime crematorium to light candles and lay wreaths in memory of the 33,000 Jews that perished there during the Holocaust.
Prior to the ceremony, dignitaries were given a tour of the former ghetto and concentration camp, including the notorious “Small Fortress,” the Gestapo’s regional prison and torture facility that largely held political prisoners. There, they could see identical rooms holding three-tiered wooden beds that held dozens of inmates across from rows of 5-by-10-foot windowless isolation cells.
Now a picturesque if sleepy town in the Czech Republic’s northwest, Terezin was renamed Theresienstadt by the Germans during World War II. Over the course of the war, 140,000 Jews were imprisoned there. Most who didn’t die on site due to the gruesome conditions were shipped to extermination camps such as Auschwitz and Treblinka, where they were summarily murdered.
Holocaust survivor-turned-Tik Tok star Gidon Lev addressed the crowd, reading the poem “Altertransport” or “Elder Transport,” by Czech author and songwriter Ilse Weber. Lev spent four years of his childhood at Theresienstadt, and his grandfather perished there.
Weber worked in the camp’s children’s infirmary and often composed songs and poems for the children. When her patients were transported to Auschwitz, she volunteered to go with them and was murdered in the gas chambers upon arrival, along with her young son Tommy.
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The ceremony came just ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is celebrated annually on January 27. It was the culmination of a two-day event organized by the European Jewish Association (EJA) focusing on antisemitism and “fake news,” or the increasing spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories about Jews on social media and in educational institutions across the European continent.
European Jewish Association delegates at the former Theresienstadt ghetto and concentration camp, January 24, 2023. (Yaakov Schwartz/Times of Israel)
Theresienstadt was central to the outward-aimed propaganda spread by the Nazis, who used areas of it as a decoy for international visitors – including the International Red Cross – and filmed a propaganda film there purporting to show its Jewish inmates leading an idyllic life. Most, though, lived in a constant state of near-starvation and inhabitants were continuously shipped off to the death camps to be murdered.
“You can see how close we are to the German border — it’s less than an hour to Dresden, which has 500,000 inhabitants. But when you see how few people, and how few pupils, visit this place, I cannot accept it,” said Frank Müller-Rosentritt, a German parliamentarian with the Free Democratic Party who has long been a supporter of Jewish causes and has sponsored pro-Israel legislation.
Germany Free Democratic Party MP Frank Müller-Rosentritt at Theresienstadt, January 24, 2023. (Yaakov Schwartz/Times of Israel)
“Every student in Germany should have to visit a ghetto or concentration camp during their school time — it doesn’t matter what you believe, whether you are Muslim, or Christian, or Jewish, or don’t believe in anything at all. It’s the freedom of everybody, and we all need to live side by side together in this free way,” said Müller-Rosentritt. “This is what we need to teach everyone and not only fight against the rising antisemitism but also fight against the rising anti-Zionism.”
EJA chairman and founder Rabbi Menachem Margolin echoed the need for more politicians thinking along the same lines.
“As we all know, the level of antisemitism in Europe is on the rise. And when you think about it, who has the power to change things? The decision-makers. Because maybe there are many antisemites, but as long as the government is committed to combating antisemitism, then there’s a chance,” Margolin told The Times of Israel.
“We need to make sure that the decision-makers here in Europe will make the right decisions, and therefore we invited here today 120 diplomats and members of parliaments from across Europe to visit Terezin, to understand where the final stop of hatred is, and in order to motivate them to take the right steps, preventing antisemitism through legislation and different activities,” he said.
Holocaust survivor Gidon Lev speaks about the meaning of the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign at the former Theresienstadt ghetto-concentration camp, pictured on January 24, 2023. (Courtesy EJA)
Standing in front of the camp’s painted sign bearing the infamous Nazi phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei,” or “Work Will Set You Free,” survivor Lev pointed out both the danger and irony in the Nazis’ misinformation.
“They told us, ‘Work will set you free,’ and then they worked us to death,” he said. “They really meant what they said. We’d work, die, and then when we’re dead, we’d finally be free.”
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