“Food feeds the body, but art feeds the soul”
The words of Holocaust survivor Michaela Vidláková during a 2 hour talk – where the inspirational octogenarian spoke with a strength that could rival someone half their age. Teenagers from around the world listened, silently, absorbing every word, whilst sat on the floor in the garrison town’s theatre that itself had witnessed such horror. All were captivated by Michaela’s testimony.
In March this year myself, Emily and Sarah spent an emotional 2 weeks in Terezin, leading a residency with ISTA – the International Student Theatre Association. The work resulted in an original, moving physical theatre performance and festival to commemorate the town’s troubled history.
Terezin, or as it has also been known, Theresienstadt Ghetto, was the scene of some of the most horrific of crimes during the Holocaust. The small town near Prague in the Czech Republic housed 144,000 prisoners during its 4 years, with only 19,000 surviving. The small town, used to housing 3,000-5,000 people, held at its peak 59,000 prisoners, with just 1.65 sqm per person.
Held in beautiful looking buildings from the outside, the inside told a very different story. Prisoners left to share 3 tier bunks, separated from husbands, wives, and children with nothing but 200 grams of bread per person, per day, to live on. All desperately keeping to the rules, in fear of either being transported to Auschwitz, or being interrogated and tortured in Terezin’s small fort, a prison whose memory screams loud in my mind weeks on from my visit, and eighty years on from the atrocities.
Michaela shared memories of living in Terezin as a child and spoke of her mother, Irma. Irma was a Jewish “educator” – unable to be called a teacher due to Nazi law. She secretly taught children in their barracks, knowing that to be discovered would be a certain death sentence. We heard of her role in ‘The Children’s Tree’, a story based on the events surrounding a sapling that was planted against the knowledge of the Nazi guards to celebrate the holiday of Tu B’Shevat, also known as the “New Year of the Trees”.
I had the privilege of joining Mark and Emily for Highly Sprung’s second ISTA international student festival in Terezin. I attended the festival as its Artistic Director and bought with me an artistic vision which explored how we would respond to the story of ‘The Children’s Tree’. The vision was shaped around the concept of a forest, as an analogy and provocation, a place to locate the horrors of the Holocaust, of loss and ill treatment, and simultaneously a place of growth, new beginnings and importantly hope.
The incredible young people were invited to explore their imagined forest and make connections about what it might mean to them, shaped by their response to the events in Terezin. Students felt compelled to take themselves and their performance making to a new level in order to pay tribute. Many commented on the world in which we find ourselves in, a world still full of hate, with so many forgetting tragedies of the past.
During my stay, I was shocked to find that what remained in a place so full of loss was actually spirit and life. Art became “an urgent need to express their feelings in what was an absurd situation, in an incomprehensibly changed world.” This powerful provocation fuelled the creation process. A reminder to us all of the significance of the arts. A reminder of its power to help us explore our experiences and find meaning, even hope. And that’s certainly what happened.
During the residency, we also discovered how lessons were learnt through drawing, poetry, and performance. As we walked through the museums and gallery in the town, we saw drawings and images created by both adults and children. They resonated beyond language barriers and transcended the years separating the imprisoned artist with the privileged viewer today. Some of the artwork depicted the horrors. For others, it showed their hopes and dreams for the end of the holocaust – a time many did not see.
I was standing next to a student from a school in Brussels in the Magdeburg Barracks Museum, we were reading the same poem. We caught each other’s eye and realised we were both crying, both feeling the immense sorrow of the little boy who wrote the poem. These experiences of connecting to individual people galvanised the young people and strengthened their purpose.
We had not travelled all this way to just passively experience Terezín. This was a call to action. We were being tasked with the responsibility of carrying the message forward. We must not ever allow this to happen again, we must not hate, we must call out injustice when we see it. To carry that message and pledge of action forward into the future, we created raw, human, physical theatre. And then, these brilliant young people, scattered back across the globe carrying the message with them.
As the International Festival came to a close and performances were shared, tears rolled down the cheeks of teachers, students, and artists. For a uniquely special moment in time, we were united – not only in the room but across the decades. We connected to those who had had their lives cut short – united in art, united in performance, united in our humanity.