Dan Ornstein

Why Terezin should be a World Heritage Site

I toured Terezin (Theresienstadt) this past week with members of my synagogue on the last leg of our extended mission to Israel and Prague. The well documented artistic and spiritual resistance of its mostly Jewish inmates to their Nazi torturers’ program of systematic dehumanization fulfills this specific criterion – one of ten possible criteria – set by UNESCO for acceptance of a locale on its List of World Heritage Sites:

[The site] was directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance.

Terezin’s history is so powerful and of such universal significance, it should be nominated and accepted to UNESCO’s list.

The camp, the first one I have ever visited, lies about an hour north of Prague, in the middle of the quiet, bucolic town of Terezin, in the Czech Republic. More than 150,000 people, most of them Jews, along with gay people, socialists, anti-Nazi activists, and people accused of crimes, were imprisoned there during the Holocaust. The camp served as a transit stop for subsequent deportations to the larger death camps, yet thousands of its inmates languished there for years and died as a result of starvation, forced labor and other physical abuse, and unsanitary living conditions.

Because of its high concentration of Jewish intellectuals, artists, writers and musicians, the Nazis used Terezin as a propaganda and public relations tool to deflect rumors and accusations in the international community about concentration camp atrocities. They allowed the inmates to create a rich cultural life for themselves, which included plays, musical performances, published writings, and lectures by thinkers and scholars. This allowed them to deceptively present the camp as an area for Jewish self government and cultural autonomy.
Auschwitz-Birkenau is already a World Heritage Site, thus making it unlikely, I presume, that a second Nazi death camp would also be accepted on the list. However, Terezin is a unique camp. Auschwitz is the ultimate example of human civilization’s darkest capacity for brutalizing and destroying other human beings, and it therefore needs to be preserved for the sake of worldwide remembrance and testimony. Terezin, however, bears witness to human beings’ refusal to let go of their dignity and worth, even as their oppressors robbed them of freedom and life. The Terezin inmates expressed this adamant resistance precisely by employing the best tools and values of human civilization that the Nazis cynically manipulated to perpetuate their enslavement. Three examples of this resistance demonstrate my point.

Helga Weissova was ten years old when she and her family were incarcerated in Terezin. Though separated from her father in different barracks, she managed to secretly get one of her drawings to him, whereupon he sent back word to her to “draw what you see.” Helga’s drawings of camp life were hidden by her uncle, and she and her artwork survived the war. An extensive wall panel of her work during her years at the camp before deportation to Auschwitz is on display at the Terezin Ghetto Museum, and her work as a form of artistic resistance to oppression is explored in the book, Draw What You See.

Bauhaus artist, Friedl Dicker-Brandeisova was deported to Terezin in 1942. Until her final deportation to Auschwitz, she taught art to the girls of Barrack L 410, producing 4,500 pieces of work that survived the war and were the subject of numerous documentaries, museum exhibits and a renowned children’s book about her student, Hana Brady. Brandeisova saw her art teaching as a way of helping her students to confront and overcome these horrible challenges in their lives.

The young musician, Rafael Schachter conducted Verdi’s massive and complex Requiem Mass sixteen times at Terezin based upon one score smuggled into the ghetto and with a 150 voice chorus that shifted constantly as people died or were deported. It is now well known that Schachter did this as a symbolic form of protest in the absence of physical power, as well as to provide his fellow inmates with a way to survive through total involvement with the performance of the music. Conductor Murry Sidlin, who rediscovered Schachter’s efforts, explained in a Huffington Post interview that, “Schachter told his chorus: `We will sing to the Nazis what we cannot say.’ This was their way of fighting back, their form of resistance, defiance.”

Rather than be the exceptions to the rule, these are a tiny fraction of the well documented works of the Jewish inmates which can be found in Terezin, the Prague Jewish Museum, and the Czech State Archives. They include music, poetry, drawings, paintings, essays, and other forms of expression that, whether overtly or covertly, demonstrated defiance to the reign of terror under which these innocent people suffered. Their art served as a steadfast refusal to let the Nazis destroy them spiritually, as the Nazis were using and murdering them. They represent the best of what humanity has to offer, even and especially under the most dehumanizing of conditions, and as such their inspiring, tragic legacy bears outstanding universal significance.

Making Terezin a World Heritage Site would send the message that Humanity’s finest impulses toward life and liberty, particularly as made manifest in its artistic works, cannot be extirpated by Humanity’s ugliest impulses toward death and hatred. Every person in, and of, every age can and must learn this lesson, if we are to ever succeed in civilizing our collective heart of darkness once and for all.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama (The Jewish Publication Society, 2020. Check out his website at
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