Monday, August 6, 2018

The "Secret" Synagogues of the Terezin Ghetto

Terezin, CZ. "Secret Synagogue". "May your eyes behold Your return to Zion in compassion" (Amidah). Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Terezin, CZ. "Secret Synagogue". Painted candles flanking the location of the Ark. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018
Terezin, CZ. "Secret Synagogue". Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018
Terezin, CZ. "Secret Synagogue." "But despite all this, we have not forgotten Your name. We beg You not to forget us. (Taharun) / "O God who is slow to anger and full of mercy, treat us accordingly to Your abundant mercy and save us for Your name's sake. Hear, our king, our prayer, and from our foes rescue us. Hear, our King, our prayer, and from every distress and woe rescue us." (Tahanun).  Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
The "Secret" Synagogues of the Terezin Ghetto
by Samuel D. Gruber

A few weeks ago I visited Terezin, the 18th-century military city in northern Bohemia (now Czech Republic) that was remade beginning in 1941 into  Germany's "model ghetto" they called Theresienstadt - a vast overcrowded holding pen for discouraged, uncertain, underfed, and exploited Jewish prisoners from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Holland, Belgium, and other countries which "housed" as many as 58,000 men, women and children held there at one time - always with the overflow population being sent off to death at Auschwitz, and then most of the inmates sent there, too. While Terezin was re-concerted into a town after World War II, today parts are now maintained as the Terezin Memorial.

Terezin was the ante-chamber to Auschwitz for more than a hundred thousand Jews. There are many aspects to the historical town and to the Nazi-created ghetto about which I could write - architectural, urban, interpretive, preservationist, museological, anthropological, etc. Here I only discuss the so-called "secret synagogues," those places where Jews gathered with tacit German permission to pray and follow age-old religious rituals under new and horrific circumstances. Most of the prayer places were used on as an "as needed" basis by adapting other spaces. This is documented in many surviving drawings and in some survivor accounts.

Helga Weissova Hoskova (b. 1929) Hanukah in the attic of block L410, 1943. Helga was 14 years old when she made this drawing. Source: Artists of Terezin.
Only of prayer room with some of it original decoration survives. This space was created by Artur Berlinger, a German WWI veteran, religious teacher, and artist  who was imprisoned at Terezin with his wife Berta from the fall of 1942 until their deportation to Auschwitz in the fall of 1944. During that time Berlinger created the prayer room in an old storage space and conducted regular religious services there.

Artur Berlinger in pre-Holocaust cantor's garb.
This fall I'll be teaching a class at Syracuse University on "The Holocaust, Memory and the Visual Arts," so this prayer room has immediate relevancy for me.There are very few places where art made by Holocaust victims remains intact and in situ, and where the intent can be so clearly understood. We have many surviving artworks - mostly small sketches - made by various artist prisoners of some of the impromptu prayer spaces in the Ghetto, but this is the only such space that survives at all intact. At least one other decorated prayer space is known from a drawing made by Paul Schwarz, who depicts painted lions holding the Tablets of the Law on the Ark wall (Schwarz was subsequently killed at Auschwitz, but his wife survived and saved many of his drawings).

Terezin, Czech Republic. Prayer room in former garage. Drawing by Paul Schwartz. Source: L. Chladkova, The Terezin Ghetto.
I've also been researching synagogue wall painting, so this example of synagogue walls painted in the most difficult of circumstances is of special importance to understanding the overall value of painted inscriptions, symbols and other motifs. These were not mere decoration, but were integral to the authenticity and holiness of the place.

Lastly, I was proud to visit because the second restoration of the Berlanger synagogue after the devastating floods of 2002 was carried out with financial assistance of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad, of which I was Research Director at the time.  I had nothing directly to do with the project, but it was a very good one for the Commission to support (raising private funds). Commission member Amy Epstein led the Commission funding effort and Seth Gerszberg made the major donation to the project. Besides the inevitable emotion on entering this little space, after many years I was very excited to see the result of their work.

Terezin, CZ. "Secret Synagogue". Small plaque over entrance to synagogue acknowledging donors to restoration.  Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Terezin, Czech Republic, Small plaque giving information about Artur Berlinger, who created and presided over this worship space. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
Berlinger was 53 when he came to Terezin. He had been sent to Dachau after Kristallnacht in November 1938, but after his return continued to lead the remnants of the Jewish community in Schweinfurt, Germany until he was sent on one of the last transports to Terezin. After Kristallnacht he and his wife arranged for their daughters to leave for England on a “kindertransport” and the children survived the war. Artur and Berta were transported to and killed at Auschwitz in September and October 1944.

A calendar for the Jewish Year 5704 (1943-44) that was illustrated by Asher Berlinger in Terezin. Photo: Yad Vashem,
Besides creating the synagogue, Berlanger illustrated  a calendar for the Jewish Year 5704 (1943-44) with printed zodiac symbols on the front cover that was created by Avraham Hellmann and is now in the collection of Yad Vashem. Hellmann had a background similar to Berlanger. He was Head Cantor in the Nikolsburg (today Mikulov, Czech Republic) community as well as being the founder of the Jewish Museum of Bohemia & Moravia. He apparently helped sustain religious life at Terezin before his deportation to and death at Auschwitz, and was especially important in caring for the dead and keeping track of their names and their remains.The relationship of the two men is unknown, but Berlanger's calendar, which has clear illustrations of his little synagogue, came into the possession of Hellman's (who signed it) and was donated to Yad Vashem.The calendar pictures indicate that there was an actual ark,  reader's table and Torah scroll in Berlanger's synagogue.

A calendar for the Jewish Year 5704 (1943-44) that was illustrated by Asher Berlinger in Terezin. Photo: Yad Vashem,
Terezin, CZ. "Secret Synagogue." "Know before whom you "stand" is probably the most common passage found in synagogues, and it was used here on the side wall which is where the "ark" - or whatever was used in its place - would have stood. The niche in the wall is flanked by paintings of candles. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Terezin, CZ. "Secret Synagogue." "But despite all this, we have not forgotten Your name. We beg You not to forget us. (Taharun) / "O God who is slow to anger and full of mercy, treat us accordingly to Your abundant mercy and save us for Your name's sake. Hear, our king, our prayer, and from our foes rescue us. Hear, our King, our prayer, and from every distress and woe rescue us." (Tahanun).  Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Terezin, CZ. "Secret Synagogue". "If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill," (Psalms 137:5).
Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018
During his time at Terezin, Berlinger created the permanent and semi-secret synagogue, probably the most formal of the many prayer spaces used by inmates. Given his skills as an artist it is assumed that he worked in one of the artisan workshops where he was able to get materials to paint the walls which he decorated with carefully chosen plaintive and affirmative inscriptions, and where he conducted religious services. Besides the care given to the placement and calligraphy of the inscriptions, it is the intentionality of scriptural and prayer passages (Amidah, Tahunun) that is especially poignant. 

Unfortunately for the visitor, the multi-lingual translation of these texts are only available in an accompanying book, and not in the prayer hall or immediately adjacent, so that most visitors lose this important aspect of the experience.

This space was rediscovered in 1989 and restored in the 1990s, but then seriously damaged in the floods of 2002, before being restored again. Parts of the inscriptions were irrevocably destroyed and are now documented only in photos. 

Terezin, CZ. "Secret Synagogue".Courtyard from where the synagogue is entered (door on right)
Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Terezin, CZ. "Secret Synagogue". Entryway from courtyard to synagogue.
Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
There were other prayer spaces at Terezin that we know only from surviving drawings by some of the ghetto's many artists. Unlike Berlinger's prayer house, most of these spaces would have been contemporary - adapted as needed for services or holiday ceremonies.Jews at prayer were depicted by many of the camp artists. The following illustrations come from a number of sources.

Bedrich Fritta. Jews at prayer.
Leo Haas. Religious Services, Terezin. Source: Art of the Holocaust, fig 750.
Leo Haas. Religious Services. Artists of Terezin.
Moritz Nagel, Prayer, Terezin, 1943.
Jan Burka (b. 1924, Prague). Prayers in the attic, Terezin. Pencil. Source: Yad Vashem.
Ferdinand Bloch. Terezin Services in the Attic. Source:  Jewish Customs and Traditions Jewish Museum of Prague), 34.

Karel Fleischmann. Torah Reading on the Sabbath. Source: Artists of Terezin.

The guidebook Prayer Room from the Time of the Terezin Ghetto by Ludmila Chladkova published by the Terezin memorial and available for sale at the synagogue site was extremely helpful in preparing this post.

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