The sixth piece in our Polity of Literature series:
Terezín was a purpose-built ghetto the Nazis used as a smokescreen for genocide. 33,000 Jews died there and another 88,000 were sent on to the death camps. More than 7,000 of them were children, many of whom lived apart from their families in “Heims” (homes) under the supervision of one or more adult strangers. In one of these, Heim 1, a 29-year old Communist named Valtr Eisinger inspired the several dozen 13- to 16-year-old boys in his charge to create their own self-government and a secret publication, a zine, called Vedem (Czech for “we’re winning”). Recent scholarship has shed light on the existence at Terezín of at least ten other children’s zines, produced in a lively, deliberate community of resistance that the kids made by hook or crook, despite awful conditions and the near-certainty of their impending death. Matthew Stadler, the editor of the Polity of Literature project, looks at the choices they made, the power of their resistance, the resourcefulness common to children and its possible relevance today. The essay is illustrated by Ken Krimstein.
The Zines of Terezín — or — In the evening I broke a lamp by throwing a pillow.
In the early 2000s I came across a book called We Are Children Just the Same, an English translation of a Czech manuscript, published in 1995 by the Jewish Publication Society.[i] It told the history of something I’d never heard of before: a secret newspaper made by Jewish boys in the fortress-ghetto, Terezín, one of the Nazi’s deadly holding tanks for Jews, during the last years of WW II. These young teenagers, most of them from Prague, called their—it was a “zine,” really—Vedem, a Czech word that means “we’re winning.”[ii] Their story was remarkable in every detail, so it surprised me to find nothing else available about it, only this book, which had originated from a Czech samizdat manuscript that circulated from the 1970s until the 1990s, when it was finally published (in German, Czech, and English).
Vedem’s history came back to me recently as an intriguing example for the Polity of Literature series—an instance of political action via writing and reading together—so I looked it up online and found that, in the fifteen-or-so years since I first encountered the book, Vedem had grown into a vibrant cultural concern. There are now touring museum shows, song cycles setting the poems published in Vedem to music, choral performances, a movie about one of the boys (Vedem’s editor, Petr Ginz), and, soon, a musical about the boy who survived and rescued almost 800 pages of Vedem’s 83 issues. Editor Petr Ginz’s pre-Terezín diaries were also discovered and published in a half-dozen languages, and his visual artworks—truly outstanding linocuts, charcoal and pencil drawings, and paintings—have been preserved, collected, and displayed. In addition, much more of the unusual history of Terezín’s children’s publications had come to light.[iii]
The outline of the story was still the same. Terezín was put together by the Nazis, hastily, in 1941, intended as a “model ghetto” that they could use as a smokescreen for genocide. Rather than a concentration camp, it was a purpose-built ghetto, set within the walls of an old fortification. The Nazis sent Jewish cultural workers there—musicians, writers, actors, as well as a mishmash of intelligentsia and “important” Jews, 7,400 of them children[iv]—and they used it as a stage-set for propaganda films, such as “The Fuhrer Gives the Jews a Town.” Some people were fooled. When the great German composer, Richard Strauss, learned that his wife’s grandmother had been sent there, he drove hundreds of kilometers to Terezín’s front gate and asked the guards to fetch her; Strauss would take her home. The guards laughed him away, and Paula Neumann died of spotted fever within two months.[v] Terezín was, like every Nazi provision for Jewish lives, a deliberate nightmare of malnutrition, disease, and overcrowding. Built to house 4,000, Terezín held 45,000 Jews by August, 1942, and by mid-1943, over 50,000. Without medicines, typhus and scarlet fever swept through the ghetto. 33,000 Jews died there. Of the 111,000 who survived, 88,000 were sent to the death camps. All but one of the hundred-or-so boys who had anything to do with Vedem died at Terezín or were sent to the death camps, where the Nazis murdered all but fourteen.[vi]
Zdenĕk Taussig, who now lives in Florida (his name is Sidney Taussig[vii]), was the only Vedem boy left at Terezín when the transports took the others away. He collected the 800 or so pages that Petr Ginz had saved, hid them in a metal box, and buried it behind the blacksmith’s shed (where he lived with his father), alongside his grandmother’s ashes. After the Nazis were defeated, Taussig unearthed the box and gave it to the mother of one of the boys who had died, and she kept the pages safe. In the 1970s two other Vedem survivors, Kurt Jiři Kotouč and Zdenĕk Ornest, put together the samizdat manuscript with a Czech scholar named Marie Rút Křížková. It told the story that arrived in my hands in 2003, in a used bookstore in Seattle, Washington, as, We Are Children Just the Same: Vedem, the Secret Magazine of the Boys of Terezín.
Their account is fascinating because it is so detailed, helped by the fact that the rescued pages of Vedem contained scores of reports about daily life in their group home, Heim 1, and around Terezín. Fourteen-year old Petr Ginz was, by all accounts, a hectoring and persuasive editor. Today, we can return to witness Terezín by reading Vedem’s “Rambles Through Terezín” column, or, any of their dozens of reviews of the ghetto’s cultural events.[viii] But the most important part of the Vedem story was the choice these children made, facing an unimaginable fate, to assert responsibility for themselves and to take action every day—to live fully and politically in the short time they had left.
For the boys in Heim 1, that choice came on a December evening in 1942. Many children at Terezín lived in group homes (Heims) under the direction of one or more adult prisoners (the older boys and girls separately). Barracks L 417 held ten separate homes. Valtr Eisinger, a 29-year old former teacher, was in charge of Heim 1, where 40 to 50 boys (“the numbers changed as the trains came and went,” one survivor recalled) lived in a room of triple-bunks. Survivor Erik Polák,[ix] recalled it in detail: “Heim 1 was a rectangular room with a narrow space in the middle, surrounded by bunk beds. The bunk heads formed a sort of frontage, so the aisle was transformed into Wenceslas Square [Prague’s main square], which we decorated using paper and colours that we managed to obtain. We painted houses and stores on the bunk heads, and a block of them represented the National Museum. Prague was very dear to us; everything had its meaning here. In front of the Museum, tram number 1 was painted; it didn’t matter, that No. 1 never went there; the painting made it our home.” Boys entered Heim 1 at age 13 and left at 15 or 16, unless the transports took them away sooner.
In most of the Heims, children’s lives were organized by the teachers, the so-called madrichim, many of whom held strict routine as an ideal, a reassurance to otherwise frightened kids that something in the world was reliable and would not let them down. But Eisinger was, by all accounts, unusual. A short, lively man, who gave himself the nickname “Tiny,” he chose to live in the dormitory, alongside the boys. Kurt Kotouč,[x] the survivor who helped prepare We Are Children Just the Same for publication, described Eisinger as, “our great teacher who spoke about the philosophy of Gandhi, translated poetry, played soccer, moved into the dorms with us, sang in the opera ‘Prodana nevesta’ [‘The Bartered Bride,’ by Czech composer Bedrich Smetana], and loved his wife, Vera.” Erik Polák recalled, “Eisinger [was] clearly left-wing communist, although he was probably not formally a member of the pre-war Communist Party. He brought a wealth of equipment…Not only principledness, but also enough patience, tolerance, respect, and understanding for other than one’s own opinions.”
Eisinger conceived a plan of self-government that would put the Heim 1 boys directly in charge of what he called, “The Republic of Škid.” Polák explained, “Professor Eisinger was well-acquainted with the Russian children’s book by G. Bělych and L. Pantějejev about a home for orphan children in post-revolutionary Leningrad, ‘Republiku ŠKID.’” Kurt Kotouč added, “Škid comes from ‘Skola Imeni Dostoyevskovo’ [school called after Dostoyevsky]. We all wanted to be Škids.”
On December 11, during Heim 1’s regular Friday meeting, Eisenger confronted the boys with the need for a “self-government.” Vedem’s inaugural issue includes a report of that evening: “Our home has entered a new era of its…existence by establishing its own self-government. The election was made on Friday evening, December 11, under the direction of the madrichim. The course of voting was quite calm, as the boys were mostly united. The plan of self-government was prepared by Professor Eisinger as follows: The Supreme Council, composed of three boys, has command of the home and responsibility for discipline and order. These boys were appointed: as President, Roth; and as his deputies, Marody and Laub. Six boys were appointed as so-called “strikers,” in charge of specific fields. They are: Chief of Home Affairs, Kraus; commander of the law enforcement service, Zappner; sports clerk, H. Polák; organizer of the theatre and all entertainment establishments in general, Beck; cultural clerk, Kotouč; and editor of our magazine, P. Ginz. At the third level, we appointed six part-time workers, employed in smaller jobs in the home. These include Vielgut (care of the stove), Kauders (appearance and decoration of the home), Goldstein (care of all wardrobes), Lax (supervision of the shoe cabinet), Popper (lost and found), Z. Polák (administration), and Pick (permanent assistant to the Chief of Home Affairs). Skilled jobs were given to boys who had to be elected: Boskovits (electrician), P. Löwy (carpenter), Willheim (locksmith), Kaufmann (draftsman), and Beamt (nurse). In addition, every member of the home can earn the honour ‘Geroj,’ for doing great deeds. As a badge of his rank, members of the supreme council have ‘N’ embroidered on their caps, strikers ‘U,’ part-timers ‘B,’ the skilled workers ‘S,’ and those honoured as ‘Geroj” for their deeds ‘G.’ If each of those selected does their duty, surely (our) home will be a little nicer than before.”[xi]
This is a remarkable moment that deserves our focussed attention. A few dozen teen boys, taken from their families (if not orphaned) after suffering years of bigoted and injurious attacks by Nazis, are gathered in an ill-equipped barracks with a 29-year old man, a stranger put in charge of them, a Communist calling himself “Tiny,” who tells them, you must rescue yourselves. These children are 13, 14, the oldest in the room has just turned 16. The Communist is short and energetic, very certain of himself, but—the anachronism seems apt—WTF? I’m struck over and over by how vividly I experience the courage of these boys as living creatures, as if they were teenagers today. But who among us, at any age, would’ve had the courage and ability to answer Eisinger’s call as the boys in Heim 1 did—affirmatively, by living fully and well in this worst of all possible worlds?
These ordinary children had been radicalized. Not by Valtr Eisinger, but by Nazi hatred. Petr Ginz’s pre-Terezín diary gives a clear picture of the process.[xii] The entries begin in 1941 with a drawn Star of David, saying “Jude” [Jew], about which twelve-year old Petr writes, “when I went to school I counted sixty-nine ‘sheriffs.’” Within a month, playing with Jewish friends, “we were supposed to have a race, but it didn’t happen, because some boy (age 14-15) kept throwing stones at us.” Soon his family’s possessions are inventoried, but not taken. Petr spends the Sukkot holiday at school, helping fill sacks with sawdust for other Jews, “before the journey to Poland. I guess they’ll sleep on the sacks.” Daily accounts of school pivot between Petr’s success on exams and the names of his friends put on the transports to Poland. After entries on a “terrible shelling” at night and multiple explosions of sabotage, Petr writes “I spent the morning at home. I started a fire in the stove for the first time by myself, now it’s burning like crazy.” A cruel new teacher, Miss Lauscherova, shares equal space with Petr’s reports of Nazi violence and increasingly severe restrictions on Jews. Soon, he can no longer ride on trams or attend school, but he doesn’t mind walking. He meets his friends at their usual haunt in Maniny, a neglected scrubland along the Vltava River, and is astonished to see “the church bells of Prague,” piled in vast heaps, pillaged by Nazis to be sent by train to German iron foundries. “They will probably make cannons out of them.” On New Year’s Day, 1942, he writes a remarkable long poem about Nazi mistreatment of Jews, and soon he’s devised a cryptography for putting his most dangerous thoughts down on paper. Late in the diary, before his name has been called for transport to Terezín, Petr writes a sentence that haunts me: “In the evening I broke a lamp by throwing a pillow.” Is this the moment a child feels both the power he might have, and the necessity of summoning it? Kurt Kotouč recalled, “Everything that happened to us made us grow up faster, at least psychologically. We’d witnessed the destruction of our homes, the helplessness of our parents. Marked by stars and numbers, in quarantine and in the Schleusen [transport stations], we saw conventions destroyed, and witnessed the ardor and fragility and finiteness of human relationships…And this is how Valtr Eisinger found us.” Whether gradually, as with Petr Ginz, or suddenly, as in the case of countless Jewish children who watched their parents or siblings shot or sent away, these children were radicalized.
It is an awful violence—to be radicalized is to be forced back to the root. For a growing thing, the shock is complete, and the injury is permanent, if it is not fatal. The slow process of culturalization into the norms of a society is still under way when history arrives to irrefutably break it—like an infant’s still-pliable leg being broken.
Eisinger’s Republic of Škid was the superstructure that shaped these radicalized children into a political collective, birthing a new identity and agency where they’d had none before. Another article in the inaugural issue of Vedem (under the headline, “Škid Boys”) described their hopes: “Since now you have a self-government, each one of you is in fact a double person, I and We. You have your anthem; sing it with an honest and virtuous soul. You have your banner and shield; keep it unblemished, so that you can be the true successors of the original Škid boys.” The actions of writing and reading each new issue of their publication, Vedem, sited their politics.
The problem of how and with what resources this new republic could act had to be solved through sheer obstinacy and guile. As another Terezín survivor, Gerty Spies,[xiii] recalled of the ghetto, “After the [Germans] looted our hand luggage they took us to our quarters…It was a shed in the back of a courtyard…no furniture, no oven, no stove—only the floor, the roof, and rags hanging from the walls. Here our existence in camp began.”
Children in the Heims were better off; they arrived to find furnished rooms supplied and organized by an adult leader. There were triple bunks (sometimes two boys to a bed), straw mattresses and blankets for most of them, electricity and running water, and the reliable provision of food and basic hygiene. Kurt Kotouč described the daily routine: “The wake-up call was at six or seven in the morning, then we washed under cold water, cleaned the living quarters, and divided the daily duties: that is cleaning the rooms, the halls, the WC, and the courtyard. Then we had breakfast and roll call.” Erik Polák encountered a familiar social structure in the Heim: “At Heim 1, there were two groups of boys: those who worked and those who studied and stayed at the Heim. Sometimes, the older boys avoided work and stayed home to study in one of the hobby groups. Working in the garden, however, carried some material advantages: it was possible to smuggle out vegetables, and vegetables could be bartered for anything. I was happy working in the garden. We also had skilled apprentices among us, for instance, Honza Boskowitz, who had trained to become an electrician. I worked, but I had no training. Those who worked returned to Heim 1 more tired, while the others who stayed home were hungrier.” Kurt Kotouč began as a student. “The teaching happened in the individual homes, but because of lack of space it mostly occurred in the attic, where it was also less likely that we would be barged in on by the SS. Wherever we were taught, one boy was always on guard duty. Each class was prepared to immediately start doing something different, like cleaning, in case the SS came to check up on us.”
Kotouč described the evenings: “After supper, the homes became separate worlds, where the children would entertain themselves differently, depending on their age and their caretakers’ abilities. We, the older ones, would stay up later. We even got to see the famous Terezín performances—cabaret, theater recitals, and concerts. I also remember expeditions, where after dark we would go to steal coal. Once I almost paid for it dearly because I couldn’t crawl back out of some basement. ‘Lights out’ was at ten, but we chatted after that until even the hardiest fell asleep. Those were magical moments, when the lights were out and we spoke to each other from the bunks.” Polák added, “Eisinger would climb on the bunk bed and start to tell stories. The atmosphere was intimate and the boys dared to ask more. He would talk about things that mattered to us, about sexual problems, about the problem of masturbation among the boys. All these things he managed to discuss with delicacy…An important feature of Eisinger’s character and political inclination was true internationalism. For instance, Heim 5, Vlaštovky [the swallows], was a Zionist home, full of rivalry and competition. But Heim 1 had a more Bohemian-Jewish spirit.”
To publish Vedem, the boys first had to assemble the supplies and machinery necessary for production. And here the record had changed since I first read the account in We Are Children Just the Same. The book makes no mention of the typewriter used to prepare the issues. An earlier Shoa Center interview with Sidney Taussig included his recollection that, “someone found us, someone brought us a typewriter,” and from that fragment a story grew online, depicting the boys secretly typing each issue in the shadows of their crowded room. But Erik Polák’s memoir, Tři kapitoly, published in 2006, complicated this beguiling image: according to Polák, the notes for many of the issues were given to the mother of another Heim 1 boy, Rudolf Laub, and Mrs. Laub typed them while at work in the ghetto’s school office.
This oddly domestic turn, in what had hitherto been a boys’ adventure story par excellence, made more sense when I read Czech scholar Lenka Šteflová’s 2010 PhD thesis, about children’s publications at Terezín.[xiv] Šteflová documents that, while Mrs. Laub was typing Vedem at the school office, nearby, in the office of records, another mother of another Terezín boy was typing the issues of his Heim’s secret magazine, Domov. Meanwhile in the Hamburg barracks, boys from Heim 7 were typing one of their three secret magazines (Rim Rim Rim) on a typewriter, which they eventually broke (the other two zines, Nešar and List Sedmičky, were handwritten); at the same time, in the girls’ Heims, a resourceful tutor called Gertruda Sekaninová-Čakrtová had brought a typewriter to Heim 11 in barracks L414, so the teenagers under her charge could type their zine, Bonaco (an acronym for “Mess on Wheels”), to complement its meticulous hand-drawn covers. Šteflová (whose thesis still exists only in its Czech original) documents eight different zines made by children at Terezín, and confirms that there were at least three more.
“We can’t know how many, because so much was lost,” she wrote to me recently by email. Her thesis was accepted in 2017, by which time she’d married (she is now Lenka Geidt) and moved to London, where Arts Everywhere editorial coordinator Justin Kiersky found her working as an assistant librarian at the Middle Temple Library. “There are existing issues for eight of them, in a few cases, hundreds of pages; and three more are mentioned in survivors’ accounts, but for those we haven’t yet found any issues that survived.”
Geidt’s account was so different from the image I had formed of a solitary group of boys hiding their secret activities from the SS, that it took me some time to notice how consistent it was with all the survivors’ accounts of children’s lives at Terezín. Sidney Taussig took pains to remind his interviewer that Terezín, “was a ghetto, not a concentration camp,” and the difference was important. Taussig never discounts the inhumanity and omnipresent danger of the Nazis, but he points out that at Terezín prisoners could go freely from place to place. Children who lived in different Heims played against each other in sports and mixed while at work or attending the ghetto’s many cultural events. For Rudolf Laub to pass a manuscript of Vedem to his mother to be typed each week involved the risk of taking some pages with him on his frequent visits to his parents, in another building at Terezín. Each issue of Vedem was produced in an edition of one, which Petr Ginz brought to Heim 1’s weekly Friday evening meetings, where the boys who wrote the articles read them out loud to the group. Ginz hid the accumulating archive among his possessions by his bunk. “As with everything at Terezín,” Lenka Geidt explained to me, “none of these things were easy, and none were without risk. Getting paper or pens or pencils, let alone finding a typewriter that could be used, depended on who you knew and who you could trust.”
At Terezín, any activity offensive to German guards would be punished, possibly by death. Gerty Spies, whose well-being depended on her ability to write and share her poetry, reported that in early 1944, “it began to be dangerous to write. Several painters whose pictures of [Terezín] were found during a search by the SS—due to the carelessness of a prisoner—had to pay for their courage either with the transport or with their lives. What to do? …my friend Herta implored me to bury or even to burn the written evidence of my camp experience. I could not bring myself to do it…[but] no hiding place was safe. And so…I went to work each day with a heavy travel bag over my shoulders, and at night I switched between different hiding places—between wall and plank, at the bottom of a knapsack, in a sack of straw—and in the morning I recovered them and took them with me. This I did every day until the day of the liberation.” In Heim 1, Petr Ginz and his comrades had not only the accumulating pages of their work (which would ultimately number almost 800) but also the means and activities of production to hide from any guards. The same held true for all the children making zines, but it didn’t stop them from trying.
Lenka Geidt’s account shows us a busy landscape of similar, but distinct, projects, always defined by home address, each zine the product of children who shared a Heim. Most were made by older kids living in group homes apart from their parents. One exception was Hlas půdy Q 306 (meaning Voice of Q 306), which was made by tweens living with their mothers in the attic of barracks Q 306. As a rule, the zines were the work of the kids themselves, the few exceptions coming later when parents or madrichim intervened and the range and style of the articles became narrower and more “correct.” The children typically wrote under nicknames or pseudonyms well-known to their comrades. At Vedem, George “Jiři” Brady was “Bear Brady;” Herbert Fischl was “Don Herberto;” child actor Hanus Beck was “Primadonna Beck;” Jiři Bruml was “Abscess” (a nickname he earned with his clumsiness), and a core group of writers signed their articles simply “The Academy.” Vedem, Rim Rim Rim, Nešar, Kamarád, and Domov all seem to have relied on the driving force of a single editor, who either inspired the others to write, demanded it, or simply wrote the articles himself, using pseudonyms. Bonaco, from the girls in Heim 11, worked differently. It was enabled, if not led, by their tutor who gave them the typewriter, Gertruda Sekaninová-Čakrtová (a fascinating figure, like Valtr Eisinger, but different from Eisinger in that she survived the death camps; in 1968, Sekaninová-Čakrtová was one of four Czech parliamentarians to vote to condemn the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia; she was later a signer of the country’s Charter of 77), but it seems to have been written and produced co-equally by a core group of eight girls, six of whom survived the war. These girls were older than the Vedem boys, seventeen or eighteen mostly, and they all worked. Just as Vedem linked to the Republic of Škid, Bonaco linked to the communal arrangements that these young women voluntarily formed. Their third issue described the goal of the zine: to be “a faithful reflection of the experiences and opinions of each of the inhabitants of the home. The circle of contributors should be as wide as possible and the content and scope as well.” As at Vedem, the Bonaco writers expressed their hope, “to convince ourselves that no one can beat us.” Lenka Geidt wrote, “I would argue that there were differences between the boys’ and girls’ magazines,” pointing to the contents in Bonaco, which included “articles about children and their upbringing, ideas about how to make their ‘home’ nicer and more comfortable, and the question of women’s place in the society.”
A vigorous, shared political life among the children at Terezín is evident in the frequency and variety of the zines they produced. In Thelma Gruenbaum’s excellent account, Nešarim: Child Survivors of Terezín,[xv] we get a first-hand view of Heim 7, where the boys who called themselves “the Nešarim” (the Hawks) produced at least three different zines, the longest running of which was Rim Rim Rim (their sporting cheer for the Nešarim). Gruenbaum interviewed ten survivors, including her husband. Her book is a superb model for the task of remembrance, written plainly with little sentimentality, and mostly devoted to the words of the survivors. They recall the founding of Rim Rim Rim in February, 1944. The spirit of competition was keen between the boys, not only within Heim 7 (where Nešar, started by twelve-year-old Pavel Weiner, ceased publishing in the face of what Weiner saw as Rim Rim Rim‘s superior performance), but also with Heim 1, about which Weiner remarked, in his Terezín diary, “I have strong competition in Gans [sic, meaning Petr Ginz].” Rim Rim Rim was exceptional in its own way, producing up to six copies per issue (for circulating), and publishing two special editions for boys called to the transports, to take with them “to the East.”
This competitive spirit saturated the boys’ magazines, from their partisan sports reporting to their intellectual one-upmanship. Petr Ginz was a tough and interested critic of the arts and letters at Heim 1 and in Terezín generally. His review, in issue 48, of the Škidites lecture series shows the sparring style of the boys’ zines. “Two lectures were given last week: Hanuš Weil on The History of Chess and Pepek Taussig and Nora Frýd on Gogol. The first lecture was extremely well-prepared and little Weil delivered it faultlessly from memory. But I’m afraid it wasn’t very original. It is not the task of the lecturer to spew out the text of a book he used for research, but to gather material and, like a bee turning nectar into honey, suck out the most relevant material from his reading, digest it, and deliver a lecture in his own words. The second lecture was one of the best ever given in the Home. But I must still take Pepek Taussig to task over something. I am sure you noticed that whenever he got stuck he reached for a joke as though it were a life preserver. Mass produced jokes and anecdotes are like ready-wrapped presents with the inscription: ‘Wishing you all the very best…’ Whenever he was hard up, Pepek managed to shake one out of his sleeve. Pepek’s lecture was most instructive, and told us a lot not only about Gogol, but also about the era that contributed to his formation. I would criticize Nora for overacting while reading his excerpts, and a little less gesticulation would not have hurt either. But the conclusion of his lecture was impressive and fiery…On the whole it was successful. We are greatly looking forward to the lecture cycle on Russian writers.” The vitality and triumph of these children is evident in every page of their writing.
Reading Vedem, and the testimony of survivors looking back at their adolescence, it’s not surprising to find that the desperate circumstances they endured are conveyed as a kind of adventure story, full of risks and victories. They were raised on Jules Verne and the heroism of their Czech past. Verne’s fictional space capsule, rocketing across the sky, forms one of the Škid shield’s three main elements, alongside a book and a five-pointed star, towards which the rocket flies. The Škid anthem was written down by Erik Polák and can be heard in a recording made by children of the Přírodní škola (Nature School) in Prague:
Oh, what glory; all are cheering
The whole of One is on its feet
Government has come to being
Of the Republic of Škid
Every man is our brother
Christian or Jewish kid
United we march under the banner
Of the Republic of Škid
Insult us no one shall dare
No one shall dare to hit
To work hard we swear
To honor the Republic of Škid.
Their heroism is not diminished by the childishness of its expression, not in the least. They were children, just the same. Forced by Nazi hatred to live their full lives—most of them—before they’d reached adulthood, the shocking victory is that they did so, fully and well. But the task of remembrance is complicated by this fact. To recast them as grown-up heroes risks robbing them of their childhood a second time. And to exaggerate or colour their experience, in service of our own emotional needs, would be a regrettable usurpation.
It’s fortunate that scholarship has caught up in the last decade to relieve the Vedem boys, especially Petr Ginz, of carrying the unbearable weight of our need for heroes. As the stories of the Nešarim and Kamarád, Bonaco, Noviny, Domov, and the many other children’s publications from Terezín become better known, the full ecology of hope and action will be seen—and seen as an element of childhood, therefore forever renewable, even in our desperate present. As “Kakina,” one of the Nešarim survivors, recalled to Thelma Gruenbaum, “There is something in a child’s makeup allowing him to play, no matter what. I used to think that maybe I was insensitive, but the other boys were the same. You just block things out and concentrate on playing.” And what is politics, but a sustained commitment to play?
An ordinary child is an extraordinary thing. No one is more capable of what Hannah Arendt called “action”—of beginning again, anew, and breaking the grip of the past—than are children. They do it by instinct and their fierce refusal to die. While adults can make accommodations to death (“minor things,” we’ll say), and are always ready to make more, children cannot. They know only life. The claims death makes, even the “minor” ones adults accept, in children trigger vomiting, screaming, and refusal.
Sometimes history destroys them. I think of 17-year-old Jonathan Jackson, in 1970, his older brother George imprisoned since Jon was seven, entering the Marin County Courthouse with four semi-automatic weapons to take a judge hostage—to free his brother, and the “Soledad Brothers” who were on trial that day. He died in a storm of rifle fire. Jon Jackson came of age in an armed struggle that continues to this day, and used the tools he was given in a hopelessly asymmetrical war. The children of Terezín had no guns, either before or after their capture. Many were pacifists, Ginz a student of Buddhism. The tools given to them were Prague’s deep culture of books and learning, and they brought those to bear, just as childishly and bravely as did Jon Jackson with his four semi-automatic weapons. All these children affirmed the power of “the powerless”—to be political, even when you’ve been erased; to live fully when your enemy has declared you dead.
And here’s the elephant in the room. It hasn’t stopped. The sheer violence done by nation-states crashes in waves over children who’ve lost the protection of citizenship, and often of their families. Today, tens of thousands of children who were forced to flee war or poverty are locked in something like Terezín—overcrowded camps that lack sufficient food or medical care, mostly in Greece, Libya, and Turkey, because nation-states must “protect their borders.” The scale of their suffering and the crimes we commit against them is unthinkable, and so it goes largely unthought. Children who are radicalized, if they are not killed by it, will act. They should act. The question is by what means, and what we should do so they survive and we can join them in the new world birthed by their actions.
Unless otherwise credited, images of the zines are used with the kind permission of Památník Terezín in Terezín, Židovské muzeum in Prague, and Přírodní škola in Prague, which hold the original items in their archives.
[i] Marie Rút Křížková, Kurt Jiři Kotouč, and Zdenĕk Ornest, eds., We Are Children Just the Same: Vedem, the Secret Magazine of the Boys of Terezín (Jewish Publication Society: 1995) is now published in English by the University of Nebraska Press (2013).
[ii] Most English-language commentary on Vedem translates the name as “in the lead.” But George “Jiří” Brady, a survivor who contributed to it, said that Vedem actually meant “we’re winning” (in an interview for a documentary film, at https://vimeo.com/168195206).
[iii] In 2010, faculty and students at the Přírodní škola (Nature School) in Prague, made a website showing four of the children’s magazine of Terezín, Vedem, Rim Rim Rim, Kamarád, and Domov. http://Terezínskastafeta.cz/ The site is both a digital archive and “a free forum for all those who are interested in the life and work of young people in the Terezín ghetto.” Most of it is in Czech, but sections on the Vedem and Kamarád magazines also have English translations.
[iv] The common number cited is 15,000, but Karen Weiner, in the footnotes to her father Pavel Weiner’s Terezín diary, A Boy in Terezín: The Private Diary of Pavel Weiner (Northwestern University Press: 2011), makes a convincing argument that this is incorrect, and 7,407 is the correct number of Jewish children who were sent to Terezín.
[v] This story is told in Michael Kater’s Composers of the Nazi Era (Oxford University Press: 2000).
[vi] In We Are Children Just the Same (1995), Kurt Kotouč, and Zdenĕk Ornest list the Heim 1 survivors they’re aware of as: Juda Bacon, Jan Boskovic, George “Jiři” Brady, Toman Brod, Adolf Bunzel, Mendel Kopelovič, Kurt Kotouč, Pavel Kummermann, Felix Kurschner, Leopold Löwy, Miroslav Neumann, Zdenĕk Ornest, Erik Polák, Sidney “Zdenĕk” Taussig, and Jaroslav Žatečka.
[ix] Erik Polák’s recollections are from the Přírodní škola website for Vedem: http://www.vedem-Terezín.cz/en/home_en.html (copy edited for clarity), and his memoir, Tři kapitoly (Sdělovací technika: 2006).
[x] Kurt Kotouč’s recollections are from his Centropa interview online at https://www.centropa.org/biography/kurt-kutouc and We Are Children Just the Same (1995).
[xii] The Diary of Petr Ginz 1941- 1942 is published in English by Grove-Atlantic Press (2008)
[xiii] The recollections of Gerty Spies are taken from her book My Years in Theresienstadt (Prometheus Books: 1997).
[xiv] Lenka Šteflová’s PhD Thesis, DĚTSKÁ ČASOPISECKÁ TVORBA V TEREZÍNSKÉM GHETTU (Children’s Magazines of the Terezín Ghetto) (Masarykova University, Brno, 2010) is online in Czech: https://is.muni.cz/th/okuvn/DP_historie.pdf
[xv] Thelma Gruenbaum, Nešarim: Child Survivors of Terezín (Vallentine Mitchell: 2004)
Matthew Stadler is a novelist (Landscape: Memory, Allan Stein, Chloe Jarren's La Cucaracha, and others) and essayist. He was the literary editor of Nest magazine and a co-founder of Publication Studio, where he now edits the Fellow Travelers Series. He is the editor of the Polity of Literature project.