Recently, for a graduate class on the history of libraries I read a fascinating article by Miriam Intrator titled,“People were literally starving for any kind of reading”: The Theresienstadt Ghetto Central Library, 1943-1945. Intrator, currently the Special Collections Librarian at Ohio University, explores the story of the Theresienstadt (or Terezin) Jewish Ghetto Central library in Prague, asserting that,”reading functioned as a crucial tool of comfort, learning, and escape” for the inhabitants.
Ironically, this means of resistance was enabled by the Nazis’ attempt to make the ghetto a “model camp” to deceive human rights groups and disguise their true genocidal intentions. The Czech town of Terezin was itself an ancient fortress, just outside of Prague, complete with walls and a moat, as well as a prison and barracks. (You can learn more about Terezin at the Jewish Virtual Library.) The Jewish population of Terezin grew as Jews from all over Europe arrived; eventually they were shipped further east to be murdered at death camps. Many individuals imprisoned in this camp originated from the ranks of the elite, and were wealthy, highly educated, and talented, including prominent artists of all disciplines, from music, to painters to sculptures to dramatists. (Intrator notes that the group was intentionally selected because their sudden disappearance might be more noticeable than the gradual extermination they eventually suffered. Sadly, this was not the case.) Intrator writes that Terezin served multiple purposes, first as a “model camp” and second as a transit point, or holding station used for Jewish prisoners soon to be sent further east to the death camps such as Auschwitz. Its very name is confusing as it was neither a standard “ghetto” or a concentration camp, (at least initially), but was instead a walled fortress town designed to keep invaders out in the 18th century and Jewish Holocaust victims in during the 20th century. She observes in her master’s thesis on this topic,”Ordinarily, a ghetto was a section of a town or city that had been isolated and separated from the rest of the town or city, usually by walls the ghetto inhabitants were forced to build.” Howeve, in June of 1942, after turning out the remaining non-Jewish Czech population, “Nazis took Terezín over completely and turned the entire town into a concentration camp. It remained so until its liberation by the Russians on May 5, 1945.”
Because the Germans wanted to present the town as “normal”, despite its horrific conditions, a facimile of “normal life” was allowed to go on, complete with cultural activities, including a library. Intrator uses primary sources, such as poetry, writings, reports, diaries, and memoirs, to illustrate the signficant demand for library materials and the ways it facilitated “intellectual and spiritual resistance” (p. 515). She writes, “Through its very normalcy as an institution of leisure and learning, the library provided a means for prisoners to resist Nazi attempts to completely humiliate, dehumanize, and annihilate them” (p. 513).
This article prompted me to learn more about Terezin, or Theresienstadt as the Germans called it. Intrator provides intriguing insights into the lives of those touched by the library, from patrons who wrote such lines of poetry as, “I am lying abed and would like to read something…” to library staff.
The library director was Emil Utitz, a professor of philosophy and psychology. Intrator writes that, “upon opening, the one-room library held about 4,000 volumes and had a staff of six, three men and three women, at least one of whom, Else Menken, had been a professional librarian in Hamburg before the war”(p.516). Another librarian(described in some sources as the chief librarian) was Hugo Friedmann. The majority of the books in the collection were in German or Hebrew, and of a scholarly and spiritual nature, which caused consternation for readers who preferred their native language, “often Czech” and desired fiction to take their minds off their torment. Intrator quotes Friedmann, “Alas, the stock of Czech books is… insufficient and unable to meet the minimal demands of the public” (p.516). Of the many library staff, only Utitz and his assistant (sometimes described as a librarian also) Kathe Starke survived. Thanks to Utitz, an opera composed by two artists in the camp survived though its authors did not, as the Nazis quickly ascertained the production was a brutal satire of the Nazis and Hitler.
“Hugo Friedmann, a frequent lecturer said “One has to create an oasis in this joyless environment where one can breathe.”
-Miriam Intrator, “Avenues of Intellectual Resistance in the Ghetto Theresienstadt: Escape Through the Ghetto Central Library, Reading, Storytelling and Lecturing.”
Hugo Friedmann, chief librarian at the Theresienstadt Ghetto Central Library, is according to this Wiki credited with helping to save 64 watercolors and drawings from the Theresienstadt camp which he, “had been gathering them secretly with the knowledge of library director Emil Utitz. He passed these works to Starke-Goldschmidt in September 1944, right before his deportation through Auschwitz. The collection includes only a small part of the drawings and watercolors produced by artists within Theresienstadt to document daily life.”
Watercolor painting on paper created by Zdenka Eismannova while she was interned in Theresienstadt. Found at United States Memorial Holocaust Museum.org. Artists depicted the reality of the camp, not the false Nazi version of a haven for European Jews portrayed in the Nazi propaganda film about the “model camp” of Terezin. Many artists risked their lives to record the truth of their experiences.
Friedman was also among the many teachers and lecturers documented to have given educational lectures to the inhabitants of Terezin. One such lecture given by Friedmann was titled “Excursions Through Theresienstadt.” According to Intrantor’s thesis, “These were tours that he led through the town, describing its history, architecture and art history”(p.76).
This video created by the World Holocaust Remembrance Center contains a brief clip of the library from the never shown Nazi propaganda film featuring two men in the still photograph used to illustrate the library earlier in the blog. They can be seen midway though this first clip. I discovered this clip in my search to learn more about the people of Terezin, an appropriate use of my time on this day of remembrance. By the time the camp was liberated in May 1945, the collection of the Ghetto Central Library (GCL) had grown to 100,00 books, but the staff, who had once overseen multiple branches and human powered book mobiles had dwindled, falling to fifteen by the summer of 1944, then to five by the end of that year, depleted by increasingly frequent transports to the death camps, until in 1945 only two library staff members remained alive (Intrator, p.520). Seeing the moving image of the above still photograph spring to life was chilling for me personally, as it brought the people of the library to life once again.
To learn more about Terezin, check out this brief video by Rick Steves.
Intrator, M. (2007). “People were literally starving for any kind of reading”: The Theresienstadt Ghetto Central Library, 1943-1945. Library Trends, Volume 55, Number 3, Winter 2007, pp. 513-522.
Miriam Intrator. Avenues of Intellectual Resistance in the Ghetto Theresienstadt: Escape Through the Ghetto Central Library, Reading, Storytelling and Lecturing. A Master’s paper for the M.S. in L.S. degree. April, 2003. 97 pages. Advisor: David Carr