Drawing by Helga Weissova-Hoskova (b. 1932) showing a concert in the barracks.
In 1941, as the Nazis were rounding up Jews in occupied Bohemia* for deportation to the death camps, they established a “temporary holding camp” in Terezín, just north of Prague.
They organized the camp along the lines of a ghetto, which meant they gave a council, formed from the internee leadership, nominal authority for camp life. The council created a set of community committees, including ones for the arts and for education.
Many of those interned at Terezín came from artistic and intellectual centers like Bohemia’s capital city of Prague and its second-largest city Brno, including composers, musicians, actors and artists. Some were well established in their fields, like award-winning composer Victor Ullmann, who was on the faculty of the Prague Conservatory of Music; violinist Julius Stwertka, former co-leader of the Boston Symphony and Vienna Philharmonic; actor/director/singer Kurt Gerron, who had appeared with Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel; and artist Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, a member of the Bauhaus School. Others were promising young artists who had yet to make their mark.
Despite the ever-present suffering inherent to a Nazi camp, even one that was a "transition camp," the internees of Terezín created a flourishing cultural life that would be exceptional even for a fully functional town: orchestral and chamber concerts, a jazz band (called “The Ghetto Swingers”), a cabaret, choruses, more than 2,400 lectures on a wide variety of topics, poetry readings, art exhibitions, a library filled with smuggled books and always programs for children—anything that kept the human creative spirit alive.
* Bohemia is the region now generally identified as the western part of the Czech Republic.
View the Terezín Timeline