On September 11, 2001, I gathered together the actresses of Raise Your Spirits Theatre in Gush Etzion. We created our theater troupe that summer, in the midst of a bloody intifada in Israel, and had made a decision at the time to not cancel rehearsals or performances on the day of a terror attack. We opened our rehearsals with the reciting of Psalms. But nothing of this magnitude—the sheer numbers—had happened thus far.
I told our actresses, “I only discovered a month ago, through a distant cousin, that I had relatives who died at Theresienstadt. They may have been theater people. We’re not at Theresienstadt and this isn’t the Shoah, and we’re performing. But anyone who prefers not to, can sit it out.” No one chose that option.
On the advice of one of our rabbis, we opened the show with the reciting of Psalms, both cast and audience. We decided to close the show with the singing of “Hatikva” and “Ani Maamin,” customs we have retained to this day.
From that moment I wanted to visit Theresienstadt.
My husband was born in Slovakia after the Shoah, to parents who survived by hiding in an underground storeroom in Bratislava. He is descended from Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman Heller, z”tl, author of Tosfos Yom Tov, who studied under the Maharal of Prague, so his connection was also close up and personal.
In Prague, I wondered about every Czech person we met—did their parents or grandparents help or hide Jews during the Shoah, or did they stand along the sidewalks and cheer the Germans? I loved the magnificent architecture and taking my photo next to a statue of Franz Kafka, but my soul couldn’t escape the souls of the past.
Today most of the historical synagogues in the Jewish Quarter are museums, though there are services in a few of them on Shabbat. The Maisel Synagogue, in addition to housing historical and religious artifacts, has a haunting three-dimensional presentation of the Jewish Quarter as it was once upon a time. I wondered, what distant cousins of mine ran along these cobblestoned alleyways, playing or chasing a ball?
In the Pinkas synagogue are walls covered with the names of Jews who had been deported from Prague and the area—77,000. More than a quarter of a million Czech Jews were murdered in the Shoah. Somewhere on those walls are the names of my relatives.
Upstairs was a display of art by the children of Theresienstadt that reveals fears, memories, impressions of real life and dreams for the future, like the child who painted boats on the sea, on their way to the land of Israel. There are even pictures of transports and executions. Their painting teacher, artist Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, helped them cope by using various art methods with them, the ultimate art therapy. The majority of these children perished.
The Pinkas Synagogue leads to an ancient mikvah. As co-creator of the show “Mikva the Musical, Music and Monologues From the Deep,” I have a new curiosity about mikvahs around the world. Our guide, Stephan, told us the mikvah is from the 16th century, but was discovered only 50 years ago. When I asked him why he felt such a connection to the mikvah, he said, “I feel it has great spiritual power for myself and for the Jewish history of my family…”
The Jewish cemetery, next to the synagogue, has reportedly more than 100,000 buried there, in layers. Among its interred luminaries are the Maharal and the Kli Yakar. Beyond the cemetery is the 700-year-old Altneuschul of the Maharal, with ceilings so high you can hear an echo—of generations past? Of the elusive golem, which legend says is still in the attic? One of the psukim on the walls proclaims, “Fear God and keep His commandments for that is the whole person.”
Later we made the long trek to the beautiful Jerusalem Synagogue, not in the Jewish Quarter. As we passed through the Old Town Square, surrounded by coffee shops, palachinka and sandwich stands, bordered by a park with tall trees and birds, I thought, what was this square used for? My vision changed from color to black and white as I tried to access the collective memory.
The next day we drove to Theresienstadt, through pastoral villages and farmland. Theresienstadt does not look like a concentration camp; rather, it is a quaint town today, with landmarks of Holocaust-related buildings scattered throughout. The exhibits in the main building indicate how the prisoners tried to maintain clinics and lessons, and hold plays and concerts. It is tribute to the Jewish spirit of survival that among those conditions of horror, hunger and deportations to death camps, they tried to achieve a degree of “normalcy.”
For me, the most moving part of the visit was seeing the tiny prayer room, tucked away behind a private courtyard. They had decorated the “shul” with psukim and maganei David, perhaps to replicate one of the beautiful Prague synagogues. The pasuk at the head of the room was, “And may our eyes see when You return to Zion in compassion.”
The next day we visited the Museum of Communism, a shocking and eye-opening experience. My husband’s parents came to Israel in 1949, with three young children. He turned away from one of the exhibits, which depicted the oppression and cruelty under Communism, and said, “They just made it out. A little while longer and we would have grown up under Communism.”
We enjoyed happier elements of the city—a boat tour, a trip to Prague Castle and a concert of Vivaldi, Ravel and others, including Smetana’s “Vltava” with its recognizable strains of what we know as “Hatikva.” The circle closed.
It is customary, when one enters a synagogue, to say a short prayer or a psalm. I found no prayer or psalm books in the synagogues I visited, so I recited, by heart, the first psalm that came to me—“A song of ascents. When the Lord returns the returnees to Zion, we shall be like dreamers.”
The next day we got on a plane and flew home to the land that is no longer a dream.
The author is an award-winning theater director who lives in Israel, editor-in-chief of www.WholeFamily.com� and a recent recipient of an American Jewish Press Association award for excellence in Jewish journalism. This article is in memory of her relatives who perished at Theresienstadt or who were deported from there to Auschwitz: Herman and Golda Bergida, and Amalia Bergida. Anna and perhaps Ilona Bergida, sisters, were liberated from Theresienstadt. Thank you to Debbi Korman for this information.