“Floating Melodies and Memories” of the Terezín Memorial

in Transfers

Terezín Memorial Principova alej 304 CZ-411 55 Terezín http://www.pamatnik-terezin.cz

As Andrea Huyssen observes,1 since the 1990s the preservation of Holocaust heritage has become a worldwide phenomenon, and this “difficult heritage” has also led to the rise of “dark tourism.”2 Neither as sensationally traumatic as Auschwitz’s termination concentration camp in Poland nor as aesthetic as the forms of many modern Jewish museums in Germany and the United States, the Terezín Memorial in the Czech Republic provides a different way to present memorials of atrocity: it juxtaposes the original deadly site with the musical heritage that shows the will to live.

Terezín (also known as Theresienstadt in German), an eighteenth-century garrison town situated one hour north of Prague, was turned into a Nazi transit concentration camp site in 1941 and is now a heritage site. Terezín was chosen as a Naz i prison because of its strong fortress building and its good transportation connections between large Czech cities such as Prague and Brno and the extermination camp of Auschwitz, as well as another nearby camp, Litoměřice (known in German as Leitmeritz). During 1941–1945, around 35,000 people including many Czech elites, perished in Terezín, and another 83,000 died after deportation to Auschwitz.

In 1996, when Terezín was no longer in use as a military garrison, the town itself was in recession. In 2002, the deteriorated Terezín fortress was listed in the World Monuments Watch by the World Monuments Fund and the conservation project started. The Terezín memorial complex mainly includes the Small Fortress, the National Cemetery, and large ghetto areas, which include a museum, barracks, prayer room, and many cemeteries. It attracts visitors from all over the world to witness the dark Holocaust memories. Visitors are attracted by the field of the massive National Cemetery before entering through the arch of the Small Fortress where the museum displays the history of the site and its role in the Holocaust. The remnants of the site of the concentration camp vividly preserve the narrow courtyards and solitary cells, showing the gender-divided dormitories, sanitary facilities, kitchens, working places, administrative areas, and clinics. Also preserved are the torture and execution rooms and the grand field where prisoners waited to be sent to Auschwitz. The sparsely decorated sites leave the bleak atmosphere of life in this concentration camp to be imagined. Some cells are used as exhibition spaces for Holocaust-themed exhibitions and films. The large ghetto area preserves the living Jewish ghettos of that time, from youth dormitories and workshops to funeral rooms with columbarium. One small gift shop displays books, photographs, CDs, and DVDs as well as some souvenirs related to Terezín and the Holocaust. Terezín is now an important tourist site in the Czech Republic: a day trip from Prague often combines transportation and five hours of guided tours that take in the Small Fortress (Figure 1), National Cemetery, and ghetto areas in the town.

Apart from the preservation of the original site of the concentration camp, current interpretations also place more emphasis on the complexity of immobility and mobility. On the one hand, images of small crowded chambers where disease was rife embody the limited mobility in the concentration camp. The regulated activities signal the constraints on freedom, now vividly preserved. On the other hand, the site shows how transportation played a significant role in the choice of the town for the ghetto and camp. However, whereas most transportation is considered to represent mobility and freedom, the journey to and from Terezín implied trauma and death. The remaining heritage—from postcards, mail, drawings, illustrations, and paintings to the railway station itself—depicts haunting visions of atrocity.

However, instead of portraying the lives in Terezín concentration camps as silent and still as a “scopic” heritage, recent preservation projects reexamine

Figure 1
Figure 1

The entrance gate of the Small Fortress, Terezín. Photograph by author.

Citation: Transfers 6, 2; 10.3167/TRANS.2016.060211

life in the concentration camp from another angle: art and cultural activities were regularly held to be used as propaganda, while composers and musicians still had rooms of freedom in which to compose and perform, leaving traces of art as the will to survive against atrocity.3

Terezín imprisoned an entire generation of Czech music elites, including the composers Viktor Ullmann (a pupil of Schoenberg), Pavel Haas (a pupil of Janáček), Erwin Schulhoff, Carlo S. Taube, Hans Krása, Gideon Klein, and Adolf Strauss. Jazz musicians included Martin Roman and guitarist Coco Schumann. Other musicians included Rafael Schächter, the conductor who led Verdi’s Requiem in Terezín, and his pupil pianist Alice Herz-Sommer. Nurse and poet Ilse Weber wrote sixty poems in Terezín, including the touching lullaby “Wiegala,” which she sang for Terezín children before they were sent to the gas chamber. Karel Švenk’s Theater of Needless Talents performed cabarets regularly in the ghetto and his composition “Terezín March,” which spoke to the prisoners’ situation in the camp and to their hopes for a brighter future, was an unofficial anthem of the camp. Of these artists, only Coco Schumann and Alice Herz-Sommer survived as witnesses of the camp’s history. The creative works of these artists, shaped under such severe conditions and propaganda control, provided power to unite the community and sustain the hope to live.

Since 1991, Terezín’s musical heritage has been noticed by the classical music world. The Hawthorne String Quartet initiated a project to record the work of Terezín composers, which resulted in a CD, Chamber Music from Theresienstadt that received international prizes. In addition, the Defiant Requiem Foundation, founded in 2008 by conductor Murry Sidlin showcases performances of Verdi’s Requiem, as a tribute to Rafael Schächter and other musicians at Terezín. The Terezín Music Foundation, established by Terezín survivors, is also devoted to rescuing music from this terrible history, presenting concerts and education on the Holocaust. In 2012, a larger scale music preservation project was launched by famous musicians and Holocaust survivors. A 2012 concert by violinist Daniel Hope, pianist Bengt Forsberg, accordionist Bebe Risenfors, and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter proclaimed the artistic achievement of Terezín musicians and drew mainstream attention to the musical heritage of the Holocaust. This attention has resulted in additional concerts and recordings as well as a documentary film and concert DVDs. It also inspired Turner Prize winner Susan Phillipsz’s sound installation Study for Strings, which reimagined Pavel Haas’s 1943 composition in Kassel’s old train station as part of Documenta 13 in 2013.

The artistic heritage left by the lost generation of Czech talents who created music despite their suff ering in Terezín has added haunting sonic memories of life, giving a new dimension to the presentation of the Holocaust, whose atrocities should never be repeated or be forgotten.


Andrea Huyssen, Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003).


Sharon MacDonald, Difficult Heritage: Negotiating the Nazi Past in Nuremberg and Beyond (London: Routledge, 2009); John Lennon and Malcolm Foley, Dark Tourism: The Attraction of Death and Disaster (London: Continuum, 2000); Mimi Sheller and John Urry, eds., Tourism Mobilities: Global Places to Play, Global Places in Play (London: Routledge, 2004).


See Anne D. Dutlinger, Art, Music and Education as Strategies for Survival: Theresienstadt 1941–1945 (New York: Herodias, 2001).

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Interdisciplinary Journal of Mobility Studies

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    The entrance gate of the Small Fortress, Terezín. Photograph by author.