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Terezin: Where Horror Masqueraded as Beauty

Holocaust survivor Lisl Bogart remembers Terezin as a 'make-­believe village' where concerts and lectures cloaked a world of death and disease

Lisl Bogart 2 image
Terezin Holocaust survivor Lisl Bogart at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie. Photo credit: Amanda Berrios

Few survivors of the concentration camp at Terezin remain. Even fewer know that 150 of their fellow prisoners, in a courageous act of defiance, once performed Verdi's Requiem Mass for senior officers of the Nazi SS. 

Lisl Bogart is one of those few. She never saw a performance. Was never part of that chorus. But she remembers the stories she heard there of "Rafi," the young conductor--Maestro Raphael Schächter--who took a single smuggled score and taught his chorus of exhausted, abused inmates how to say through music what could never be said in words.

In the process, he delayed, though he could not prevent, the final journey virtually all of the singers would face. 

"He was a master at protecting the musicians from transport" to the death camps, Bogart said. 

Half a century later another maestro, Murry Sidlin, created the concert-drama "Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin" to keep alive the memory of that act (see story on the March 23 Chicago premiere of that work.) Through his research, Sidlin said, "I learned that the Requiem was a code. The Latin liturgy talks about the end of the world and what happens to those who commit evil. Even as they were facing their own destruction, the Jews in that choir were telling the Nazis how the Third Reich was doomed."

The chorus in Terezin performed Verdi's Requiem 16 times, mostly for fellow prisoners, and finally for the SS officers, who used the concert to convince visiting Red Cross officials that the Nazis had created a "model Jewish settlement" there. All of it was part of what Bogart called "the make-believe village" they wanted to show the world.

Terezin was a place of extremes, reality and illusion existing side by side. It was a picturesque Czech village transformed into a hell of death, disease, and enslavement, cloaked in an idyllic and utterly imaginary world created for the Red Cross inspectors. Prisoners wore civilian clothes marked with a yellow Star of David. There was a vibrant cultural underground filled with classes, concerts, and lectures, most of them officially forbidden and punishable by death, yet paradoxically encouraged by SS officers hungry for entertainment or determined to create their mythical haven.

Bogart, who today lives in the northern suburbs, retold some of her experiences at a January showing of the film version of "Defiant Requiem" at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie.

She was transported from Prague to Terezin when she was 16, three years after the Nazis marched into Czechoslovakia.

"When you entered the gate, you were yelled at by the SS," she said. The Germans would take just about everything from those who had suitcases.

She was separated from her family, most of whom were transported with her, and assigned to a small room with 27 girls. That number varied as transports from Czechoslovakia, Austria, Germany, and elsewhere arrived, and others to Auschwitz or other extermination camps left.

The bunks were more like shelving, Bogart said, and at first she slept on the floor next to another girl, Rita.

"We became best friends," she said, "and still are, 72 years later."

Although Terezin was not officially an extermination camp, tens of thousands died there of sickness, starvation, and abuse, and many more than that were sent on to the death camps. Inmates worked long hours at what Bogart described as slave labor, and often were fed little more than a thin soup, bread, and "black water" (coffee)--or nothing, if they didn't get back from their work assignment in time for the meal. Everyone had lice or fleas.

At the guards' whim, prisoners could be sent to the punishment center. Almost no one returned, Bogart said.

An estimated 15,000 children were transported to Terezin. Perhaps 1,500 survived.

And yet, amid the horror, there was culture, life, and hope.

Education was "the most important part of underground life," Bogart said. "The stress was on keeping the older people and younger people going."

Older children would teach the younger ones from memory. They made up games to teach the alphabet and numbers. "Anything to keep our minds busy."

One teacher taught children how to write and color. They created art, poetry, stories. The book, I Never Saw Another Butterfly, is a collection of some of them.

They also performed the children's opera "Brundibar" for the SS and Red Cross. The Nazis, Bogart said, considered it a children's story. But its message of how helpless children triumph over a tyrant was not lost on the prisoners.

You would survive better, Bogart said, by remembering things-stories, jokes, music. Her father told jokes in his barrack after a long day of work. Another inmate sang opera.

For the prisoners of Terezin, every detail of life, from an aria performed to a sugar cube stolen, was about survival.

Rafi Schächter tried to save lives as best he could, Bogart said. "All of this was saving lives."

"Terezin was a place of extremes, reality and illusion existing side by side"

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