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Trapped: Essays on the History of the Czech Jews, 1939–1943, by Ruth Bondy. Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2008. 246 pp. $36.00.
Ruth Bondy’s Trapped is a set of beautifully crafted humanistic essays that considerably deepens our understanding of the Czech-Jewish experience during the Nazi occupation of Bohemia and Moravia in the years 1939 through 1943, a subject about which surprisingly little has been written. While Bondy devotes the majority of her attention to strategies of coping with the everyday ordeals of the Terezín ghetto, Theresienstadt in German, she integrates the history of the ghetto into a broader narrative that begins with the gradual removal of Czech Jewry from the surrounding society (“The History of the Closing Gates”), includes special consideration of the inexplicable existence and bearable circumstances of the children’s barracks in the Birkenau family camp (“Games in the Shadows of the Crematoria”), and concludes with a commemorative essay that places the Czech Jews who perished in the Holocaust within the context of the thousand-year history of the Jews in Bohemia and Moravia (“Roll Call”). A brief timeline of events in German-occupied Bohemia and Moravia follows the final essay, and the book is illustrated with carefully selected materials from the Beit Terezin and Yad Vashem archives.
Trapped was originally published in Hebrew for an Israeli audience for whom, Bondy writes in what appears to be an unchanged English-language version of the Hebrew introduction, the Terezín ghetto was but “a negligible footnote, devoid of any rebellion, the sole ghetto in Central Europe, not comparable to the ghettos in Poland, a ghetto for the privileged, as the Nazis presented it and as the representative of the International Red Cross defined it after he visited there in June 1944” (p. 9).
Throughout the essays, Bondy focuses on human concerns and the reality of everyday existence with emphasis on morality, mutual responsibility, the ennobling quality of work, order, and above all on the importance of the attempt to preserve human dignity under the most difficult of circumstances. Terezín was indeed unique for the large number of works of art and music, children’s drawings and newspapers, diaries and notes preserved only there. Nevertheless, she argues, these do not preclude the widespread hunger, distress, and disease suffered in Terezín—a universal feature of the ghettos of German-occupied Eastern Europe. Approximately 150,000 people passed through Terezín, of which only 3,500 survived. Terezín was established as a ghetto by the Nazis in November 1941 in a fortress town built by Emperor Joseph the Second in 1780 in northwest Bohemia. From October 1942, 88,000 were sent to extermination sites in Poland from Terezín, nearly all to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and 33,000 died in the ghetto itself.
Bondy wants to free Terezín from where she considers it trapped in Israeli myth and memory as an unheroic “model ghetto” (p. 137) whose inmates “went from theater play to opera performance, from lecture to lecture” (p. 11) while the Jews in the ghettos of Poland are remembered for their courageous armed resistance against the Nazis. She encountered these perceptions herself as an immigrant to the newly established state of Israel. Bondy was imprisoned in Terezín, and later deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she served as a counselor in the children’s barracks (pp. 156, 160 footnotes) and was subsequently interned in several other forced labor camps before liberation.
How successful is Bondy in her goal of redeeming the memory of Terezín and those who passed through it? The majority of the studies collected in this volume, originally published in German and Czech between 1994 and 2001 in the annual Studies and Documents of Theresienstadt by the Prague-based Terezín Initiative (Terezínská iniciativa), masterfully build a compelling case for the heroism of maintaining one’s honor and human dignity under conditions of extreme duress. Bondy mines archival sources, Czech and German-language Jewish newspapers, including publications created in Terezín, and personal interviews to create self-contained micro-histories illustrating hitherto unknown or unacknowledged cases of everyday heroism. The strongest examples concern the importance of humor in the ghetto, and the previously mentioned essay dealing with the children’s barracks of the Birkenau family camp.
In “Humor as a Weapon: Songs, Skits, Cabaret Shows, and a Satirical Newspaper in the Terezín Ghetto,” Bondy writes that humor in the Terezín ghetto came from deeply rooted sources in both Jewish and Czech culture. “After all,” she explains, “they share a common basis: humor is the weapon of the weak. For hundreds of years, both the Jews and the Czechs contended with forces stronger than themselves that sought to erase their identity” (p. 71). Humor helped inmates to hold on, cast off fear, chuckle instead of giving in (p. 89): “Rideo, ergo sum, I laugh, therefore I exist,” (p. 73); and “I am the master of my own thoughts” (p. 84). Inmates performed a farce about a former prisoner who returned home and kept acting as if he were in the camp (p. 71), fixed the lyrics of well-known songs to poke fun at their reality (p. 86), and imagined the consequences of creating a regular bus connection from Terezín to Prague (p. 88).
In “Games in the Shadow of the Crematoria,” Bondy recounts the improbable story of the children’s barracks of the family camp at Birkenau, in which children and their counselors, under the direction of their beloved Alfred “Fredy” Hirsch, lived, learned, and played for exactly six months from their arrival from Terezín in September 1943 until July 1944 when they were killed. Fredy kept the children on a disciplined schedule: washing and exercise in the morning, three hours of group lessons followed by soup distribution, then time with their parents, two hours of activity, roll call, and back to their parents to sleep (pp. 162–165). Some of the older boys made it through a selection by Dr. Mengele on July 6, 1944, and those who survived the war refer in their memoirs to the edifying experiences of the children’s barracks,
to the importance of friendship, mutual help and the readiness to take a risk to save a friend, and the image of Fredy—all these helped them hold out, keep from despairing, survive, go back to their studies, acquire a profession, start a family and never lose their faith in humanity. (pp. 175–176)
The least successful essay in terms of this collection is “The Holocaust of the Female Gender: Women in the Terezin Ghetto,” which Bondy wrote for a conference at Hebrew University in 1993 (p. 8). It unfortunately sits awkwardly among the essays, dismissed in the first paragraph by Bondy’s pondering of “how justified it is—if at all—to relate separately to the female gender [since Zyklon B did not differentiate between men and women], a trend which belongs to another generation, another era, to the present-day ‘politically correct,’ meant to meet contemporary needs,” (p. 43). Recent work in Holocaust and Genocide Studies, particularly that of Dagmar Herzog, shows how relevant, and indeed essential, it is to examine the separate experiences of men and women in a regime of biological ideology. Bondy discusses gender differences in terms of work, food preparation real and imaginary, and the physical changes brought on by malnutrition, trauma, and disease (i.e., ceasing to menstruate).
This volume is strongly recommended for both specialists and non-specialists for the richness and wealth of insights woven into the texts. The essays can be used as a collection or on their own as an invaluable teaching resource, offering the ideal blend of testimony, solid historical contextualization, and lyrically detailed narrative, written in the best Czech humanistic tradition.