My knowledge of history is lacking in big places. Facts and dates, names of places even, sift through my sieve brain. When it came to World War II and the holocaust – the “final solution” – I was notably deficient in perspective.
With a few days back in Prague, I signed up for a tour of Terezin. The Nazi “gift of a town” it was a neighborhood turned ghetto-concentration-camp-holding-pen of disease, death and misery… and art.
Terezin was unique for the community and culture within the camp. Story and history abounded, my guide was fantastic, but I can’t do the whole tour justice here.
One must simply take the journey and experience it firsthand, I can only share what leaves the most lasting impressions.
Particularly with the events in the US over the last weeks, it was the children’s stories that most affected me; the innocence and innocents betrayed, harmed, and lost.
In the last museum we visited, there was a display of artwork by the kids of Terezin. They were able to create their pieces because of the actions of one artist: Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. When forced to go to Terezin, she apparently packed her suitcase full of art supplies. In a book from which our guide read about her life and story, there is this quote:
“If we are only given a day, we have to live it.”
Amidst all of her own trauma and pain, with all of the other concerns of food and clothing and housing and the hierarchy of needs, Friedl understood the importance of creating art to express experience and make something of each day and moment.
Encouraged apparently to draw, collage, paint, sketch or otherwise document both what is scary and then what is happy, the kids’ art are little rectangular windows into their lives which show the best and the worst of what exists on the planet. Horrifying and hopeful, mundane and surreal, the squares of paper give voice to the small voices who were, for the vast majority, forever silenced.
Above the names of all of these most vulnerable victims was this:
“Thus this lasting art is an indictment against those who took part in these horrible crimes”
I cannot yet, even after weeks and miles of distance, adequately express what I thought and felt. Or what I am feeling now. If for no other reason, for this I know it was absolutely the right tour to take and place to go.
End with hope
Our guide took us to a statue at the end of one of the platforms and told us the story of Nicholas Winton. A 20-something Brit traveling in Prague, Winton managed, from the dining table in his hotel room, to arrange transport and safe homes in Briton for 669 children.
“I have a motto that if something isn’t blatantly impossible there must be a way of doing it.”
His story remained unknown for almost 50 years until his wife found a scrapbook of names and pictures in their attic. You can read more, watch the moment where he is reunited with some of the lives that he saved on a tv show, or a rather dramatic movie trailer for his life wherein he says this:
“I never thought what I did 70 years ago was going to have such a big impact as apparently it has… if it now has got a story that helps people to live for the future, well that would be an added bonus.”
Sir Nicholas Winton saved 669 lives. He was just a dude who saw something that needed doing and he did it.
If that isn’t a call to action, to do something however imperfect, I don’t know what is.
Living for the future
Terezin was and is a hard reminder of why I travel: to witness the lives of others and be challenged to make something of my own life and experience. A little ironic as I was just telling a friend the other night how I organize my list of priority places somewhat to avoid being faced with too much injustice and gap between the “haves lots” and “have lesses.”
As much as I desire to go and gather authentic stories, be off the beaten tourist path, eat and share locally… I have a line that I’m still tenuous to test. I’m still recognizing and reconciling the boundaries within myself and encouraging myself to break through and past them.
I’m still trying to work through my own feelings of inadequacy and do as much as I can for as long as I am able.
For here is my selfish takeaway from Terezin: we must undauntedly do. These adults and children – kids grown up too soon – created art and lives with lasting effects on paper and in saved souls under the most horrendous conditions.
These regular, ordinary individuals showed the best that we humans have to offer while dealing with the most inhumane.
What excuse is there in the face of that?
People sometimes wonder why I travel and this, if for no other reason is the “why?” Travel reminds us life is beautifully, painfully, incredibly, surprisingly challenging and is therefore exceptionally precious.
We must take advantage of each moment, each vista, each difficulty, each corner, and each opportunity to appreciate our gifts and use them to create something meaningful.
Big or small, lasting as a testament or transient with effects are hard to identify, we must create. Our piece can be art, laughter, consolation, a meal, a picture, a memory, a insufficient blog post, a connection, or an action that becomes a far-reaching story of survival and hope.
Whatever our piece is, it is a part of life only we can do so we must live it and do it.
We are the only agent standing in our way.
If it isn’t blatantly impossible, we must do it.
A version of this post appeared previously on coffeebooksbeer.com