October 6, 2013
On our last morning in Prague, I took a quick walk around the Jewish quarter and ended up in the Robert Guttmann Gallery to view an exhibition on propaganda films made in Theresienstadt. Watching the films, seeing the faces, often close-ups, of the young and old people who would soon, most of them, be murdered in Auschwitz, was heart-breaking. Of all the memorials and cemeteries I had seen on the trip, this made the most impact on me. Perhaps it was also because I left Nathan in the hotel and went there alone. When you are alone with your won thoughts, it is easier to connect emotionally with the material. I see this also in our Holocaust museum, when people have the audio guides on and in their eyes you can see the emotion as the story hits them.
These propaganda films have naturally been criticized for not showing the truth about Theresienstadt. But there is something actually quite subversive about them, and I can understand why the Nazis never released them. The town was prettied up for the film and all of the old and sick people were taken out of sight. Instead, the film shows relatively happy-looking, fit and comfortable people just going about their daily business, watching a concert or a soccer match, reading a book on a park bench, hanging out in the dormitory-like bunks. In all, they look perfectly normal — which of course raises the question: what the hell are they doing being locked up in a prison-ghetto? Why are all of these nice, normal, well-mannered, happy people being treated like criminals. The Nazis could never have released the film because it would have undermined the entire premise of their extermination campaign. This film is the absolute opposite of the the stereotyped anti-Semitic caricatures of Der Stürmer and of the Nazi propaganda films like Jud Süß.
Perhaps the prisoners realized the subversive nature of the film and played along, with the hope of demonstrating to the Nazis how good and normal they were. But the performance was too good. Rather than demonstrate how well the Jews were being treated in this supposedly “model” ghetto, the film put the lie to the entire Nazi enterprise. Of course, one would need to know the context these days to understand the film in this manner. All one needs is the coda, used also at the end of this exhibit, that 60% of the people remaining in the camp in the Fall 1944 were deported and murdered at Auschwitz, as many as 24,000 in one month.
I do not want to end this blog on a downbeat. The trip itself was fabulous, the weather was perfect, the people were universally friendly. Really, the whole thing could not have been better. Nathan really loved the trip and loved spending time with me, and I know I will always remember this trip I took with him. I think he got a sense of where he came from and how he got to where he is today. You can’t ask for more than that.