Penned up inside this ghetto
But I have found my people here.
The dandelions call to me
And the white chestnut candles in the court,
Only I never saw another butterfly,
That butterfly was the last one.
Butterflies don’t live in here,
In the ghetto
—Pavel Friedmann, 1/07/1921 – 9/29/1944
When I visited the ghetto/concentration camp known as Theresienstadt in 2004 with my wife and son, I was apprehensive as to what I was about to see. Our visit was part of a regular tour out of Prague, consisting of about a dozen people.
But when our bus arrived, we were in a small town. Not the usual foreboding concentration camp with the “Arbeit Macht Frei” signs. That I soon learned would come later, because Theresienstadt was like no other camp. It was actually a small city, built as a fortress garrison by the Czech’s in the previous century.
The first place we were taken was a large building, that was originally the boy’s dormitory, but was now a museum. Here I would have my first encounter with the tragic yet inspirational story of Petr Ginz, a bright, young and very talented Czech teenager, who literally dedicated his life to helping the other child/prisoners survive the daily horrors surrounding them. He did this by providing the opportunity for them to tap into their creative selves and help them find hope that someday their lives would return to normal.
I began my visit by looking at the displays of their artwork – which one doesn’t expect in a concentration camp. Prominently posted was a picture of Petr and a copy of the newsletter he created along with some of his art.
As I continued reading his fascinating bio, suddenly I was overcome with emotion at the realization that he never survived because at age sixteen he was exterminated by the Nazis in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
That really hit me hard! The realization of how traumatic daily life must have been for those poor children. The sheer horror of so much death and destruction around them. Now all those young lives were suddenly reflected in the exploits of this one young boy. That’s when my feelings really got to me, at the realization that most of these children did not survive either.
Yet I was so inspired by this incredible teenager that I had to learn more about young Petr:
By 14 he had written five novels and penned a diary about the Nazi occupation of Prague. By 16 he had produced over 150 drawings and paintings. His imagination enabled him to go places and see things in his mind’s eye that others could not.
For example, he drew the Moon’s landscape in Terezin long before there were any astronauts or space travel to the moon. No photographs of its surface existed. Yet, here was Petr thinking about outer space, while being terrorized, starved and imprisoned in a place where his freedom had been taken from him. Proof that no one can ever take away a person’s imagination.
His drawing of the moon’s landscape truly confirms his yearning to reach a place far away from earth – away from this place which was threatening his life – where he could finally see the earth and still be safe and secure.
He also used his imagination and intellect to resist the Nazis in another way. This he did, along with the other boys in “Home #One-Barrack L417”, by producing a secret, weekly, underground newsletter called VEDEM, which means “We Lead”.
Petr was the creator and editor of Vedem and a frequent contributor. He coaxed the other boys for their submissions, and if there were not enough articles, he would write them himself under a pseudonym.
Vedem published items such as opinion pieces, artwork, poems, reflections about the past and future, quotes, descriptive pieces about individuals and about Terezin. The quality of the writing was impressive and reflected the boys’ emotions: humour, friendship, and sadness, as well as helplessness about their situation. And yet there was always hope that their lives would improve.
Through its stories and art work, Petr was able to convey his boundless determination to maintain his free will and independence and not surrender it to the Nazis.
While Vedem was published from July 1942 to September 1944, only ONE copy of each issue was made, and it had to be done under the utmost secrecy. Otherwise had the Nazis found out, the reprisals would have been swift….and deadly.
Ironically, most of Petr’s story would have remained unknown had it not been for the 2003 Columbia space shuttle tragedy.
So, it seems a fitting twist of fate that because of Petr’s fantasizing about the mysteries of the universe decades before man ever set foot on the moon, that his art would finally make it to the stars. And then only because an Israeli astronaut carried Petr’s drawing, “Moon Landscape”with him into space.
The publicity surrounding the flight and its explosion led to the discovery of Petr’s diary, his short stories, and much of his artwork which were all found in an attic in Prague.
Here’s how it happened:
Ilan Ramon was a colonel in the Israeli Air Force, and the first Israeli astronaut. The Holocaust had great significance for him as a Jew, an Israeli and the son of an Auschwitz survivor – his mother. While his grandfather and other members of his family perished in the death camps.
Invevitably, he contacted Yad Vashem and requested a Holocaust related item to take with him into space on the shuttle Columbia.
Yad Vashem chose Petr’s “Moon Landscape“.
It would have been Petr’s 75th birthday when the disaster occurred. Yet, in one of those strange turn of events, it helped bring Petr’s work to the outside world.
Eventually the diaries reached Petr’s sister, Eva, who carefully and lovingly edited and published her brother’s accounts of life in Prague and in Theresienstadt.
Looking back at Petr’s journey, he was able to find a level of peace and serenity through his own imagination, by putting himself on the moon, as far away as he could get from the death and starvation surrounding him on Earth.
Then decades later, by taking Petr’s illustration with him into space, Ilan Ramon believed that he was realizing Petr’s dream of space travel. But then the final irony that it took yet another tragic event, with the spacecraft’s catastrophic explosion on 1 February 2003, for Petr and his drawing to become famous.
A short time later the Czech Republic published a postage stamp in memory of Ilan Ramon, the Columbia’s crew, and of Petr.
Then in remembrance, an asteroid was named in Petr’s honor – 50413 Petrginz.
Finally in 2007, sister Eva’s efforts were realized when The Diary of Petr Ginz was published.
And ultimately, in 2013, a 67 minute documentary was released here in the U.S., titled, “The Last Flight of Petr Ginz.
For more about Theresienstatd, got to my blog, THERESIENSTADT – PARADISE OF DEATH CAMP?