Commentary by Michael Nevins, M.D., author of Jewish Medicine: What it is and Why it Matters and A Tale of Two “Villages”: Vineland and Skillman, NJ. This commentary written in conjunction with an exhibit at New York University School of Medicine, Sept. 24-Oct.19: Art and Medicine in Terezin.
All of us felt a sense of sliding helplessness, again and again, day after day, night after night, you descended toward the abyss whose bottom was unfathomable….you felt only the downward movement, the fear, what next?
These chilling words, reminiscent of an earlier Prague resident Franz Kafka, were written in April, 1942 by Bohemian dermatologist Karel Fleischmann. With the Nazi takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1939 the situation for Jews had deteriorated and anti-Semitic racial laws restricted the doctor’s ability to practice. Now at age forty-five, Dr. Fleischmann (b. 1897) awaited deportation to Terezin, the recently established ghetto town some forty miles to the north.
The morning of our deportation was pitilessly cold. The clouds as black as ink, the rising sun blood red in the background…darkness on earth, darkness in our souls…a nightmare. We arrived in Terezin in the evening. Really, you did not arrive, you were consigned. Someone managed for us for we no longer were we – we had become an object, a number, a ground substance, a kneaded mix of humans….Tired to the bones, sick, longing for quiet and sleep, we came into the cellars and dark holes of the barrack…still the mass was mixed, kicked and reduced to nothing, dirtied, put on the floor, kneaded and rolled till we became a formless porridge, a heap of rubbish….poisoned with the taste of the stable.
Dr. Fleischmann had been advised that upon arrival in Terezin he should look up the head of the ghetto’s Health Department Dr. Erich Munk, but making contact was difficult. Known for his scrupulous integrity and organizational ability, the thirty-eight year old radiologist Munk (b. 1904) had been selected by Zionist leaders to direct what would become a massive medical apparatus.
Whereas Karel Fleischmann was prolific with more than a thousand of his diary notes, poems and art work surviving the war, only a few fragments of Dr. Munk’s words remain. The following probably written during his first year at Terezin describes his first unpleasant impressions:
We had not yet freed ourselves from the needs of comfort, social norms, social stratas, prejudices…We had not yet realized that we have been set apart for an unknown length of time into an uncertain future. The impressions are as damp as the weather had been. Muddy like the mood of us all. Was I desperate? No. I was only deeply touched. I needed two nights and two days to overcome my deep depression, to be able to overcome my own self. I was unable to concentrate my thoughts on work….It was at noon of the third day that I suddenly succeeded in breaking through and submerged myself straight into work. Work saved me…ever since then I haven’t stopped working.
As they endured their personal metamorphoses, Drs.Fleischmann and Munk learned a crucial survival technique – they could help themselves best by helping others.
In 1780 Emperor Franz Josef, the emperor of Austria, built a garrison town in Bohemia which he named Theresienstadt – the city of Theresa, after his mother Queen Maria Theresa. After the formation of Czechoslovakia in 1918 the town was called in Czech Terezin. Then with German occupation during World War II, again it was officially designated as Theresienstadt. In later years both names were used depending upon the perspective of the speaker or writer. English language references tend to prefer the shorter Czech version which is used in this essay.
The Terezin ghetto was euphemistically described by the Nazis as “a city of refuge” or sometimes as “Hitler’s gift to the Jews.” In truth it was an assemblage camp where Jews were concentrated for varying periods until they were deported to “the East” – another euphemism for death camps, particularly Auschwitz-Birkenau. At first,Terezin was intended for Czech Jews but, before long others mainly from central Europe were shipped there – affluent, privileged, older people — rabbis, scientists, war veterans, musicians, artists — as many as 58,491 in September, 1942, all sharing space with rats, lice and fleas. Few of them suspected what lay ahead; many felt fortunate to be in this safe haven – some even paid for the privilege. Famously, in June, 1944, a delegation from the International Red Cross visited and couldn’t, or wouldn’t, appreciate the masquerade. They reported favorably to the world on conditions in what Nazi called the “model city” — in truth it was a Potemkin’s Village – a place of false facades.
Terezin is often remembered as the concentration camp where guards turned a blind eye to cultural activities that were put on by the prisoners. Perhaps these were permitted for the purpose of propaganda or to temporarily appease the doomed inmates. There was a cabaret of sorts with a jazz band and performances of Verdi’s Requiem and the children’s opera Brundibar were sung by doomed choruses. Hundreds of lectures were given by famous scholars. Why did they do it? For some it may have been an escape into a semblance of normalcy; for others it represented a proud act of defiance – of being able to act human in the midst of depravity. Yet, few prisoners actually could attend the cultural events – most were too exhausted from work or were literally starving. Although technically Terezin was not a death camp, between November 1941 and May 1945 of nearly 160,000 people sent there, some 36,000 died of illness or starvation; the rest, about 88,000, were deported to extermination or work camps with only a few thousand of these surviving the ordeal. When the Russians liberated Terezin in May 1945, there were only about 30,000 survivors, more dead than alive. Within weeks many more died of a typhus epidemic. Of more than 12,000 children who passed through Terezin, only 325 survived.
Health Care in the Ghetto
Terezin’s main hospital was located in a large barrack which had been built in 1780 to service military and civilian populations of about 7,000 people. It was ill-suited to care for the needs of 40 or 50,000 prisoners at a time and although solidly built with high vaulted wards and a huge attic, it was a hospital with no beds or bandages, no sterilizing equipment or instruments. Nevertheless, there was an abundance of knowledge and resourcefulness among the physicians. Dr. Munk’s Health Department was able to collect some antiquated or broken equipment; glasses, orthopedic shoes and trusses were fitted and repaired, test tubes were manufactured and eventually a central pharmacy was stocked from medicines confiscated from new arrivals. Later this was supplemented by supplies brought in from the defunct Jewish hospitals and clinics of Europe. And so, gradually, a semblance of a functional hospital emerged.
Fleischmann’s Portrait of Dr. Munk
Concerning his art work at Terezin, Dr. Fleischmann once wrote “I wanted to see the world differently and I could perceive it by making many hundreds of drawings.” His subject matter frequently was mundane while at other times his art hauntingly depicted life in the ghetto. He was especially intrigued by the thought of drawing “the Munk.” Here Fleischmann considers how he might develop the boss’s portrait in geometrical terms according to Cezanne’s cubist style:
I have repeatedly tried to draw him. It’s not easy. ..I made a whole lot of drawings with little success. Dr. Munk says about himself that he does not have a photogenic face. Maybe he is right. [But] from a painter’s point of view his face is not only most interesting, but his entire stature and movements which are like counterpoint in a subconscious composed symphony movement
I’ll have to set up two, slightly upstanding but beautifully formed ears, above the ears a wreath of shining dark brown hair on the crown of the head something that once had been a bushy mane – without being impertinent…[now] a head which can be called bald.. It should not be [overemphasized] because this is a weak point of the otherwise brave Maccabee…The head, although small is proportional to the upper part of the body [and] establishes symmetry and almost a monumental impression. Yet the most remarkable are the eyes – dark, deep, seemingly with no transition from the pupils to the iris, shadowed by the sleeplessness of long nights, supported by some striking crossbeams under the sunken cheeks.
The center is marked by an aristocratic finely-cut nose betraying a strong spirit, a proud person; it is a brave man who is facing you. In the physically small head lies a mighty brain. This small head is not the way a puppet’s head is put on. It is a real organic entity, an integral part of the rest of the body. It’s also the hands that impress you so. They are big, much too big for the small face but not malformed or clumsy, quite the contrary. They are strong and betray knowledge and feeling for what they hold… These are the hands of an energetic, yet gently touching surgeon.
When you see the gaunt man with his inflamed eyelids and tired mouth, how relentlessly he works for the welfare of the Ghetto inmates… then you can’t lag behind him. For me personally, Dr. Munk has become a real experience. Rarely have I met people of his stature. It will be an honor for us all to be able to say that commissioned by the Health Department of Ghetto Terezin we were permitted to work together with Dr. Munk.
(Karrel Fleischmann’s drawing of Dr. Munk is in the collection of the Art Museum at Yad Vashem.)
Remembering Karel Fleischmann
Karel Fleischmann began one of his last poems with these words:
Nobody will hear my song
The world of my time ends behind these walls.
But the doctor was mistaken. After the war’s end, more than a thousand of Fleischmann’s drawings, written notes and poems were found and collected in archives in Czechoslovakia and Israel. They provided valuable testimony because as doctor-artist-writer he was able to see and record the entire panorama of suffering including hunger, fear, overcrowding, sickness and brutality. Gradually the world became aware of Karel Fleischmann’s unique contribution but only a small amount of written material was translated into English. Then in 2004 an article appeared in the International Journal of Dermatology which described the doctor’s life. The authors Leonard Hoenig of Florida and Tomas Spenser and Anita Tarsi of Israel concluded their review by noting that although Karel Fleischmann perished, his dream for a better future endured, declaring that it is up to each of us to help make it a reality.
This blog essay has been adapted from a longer paper.
References and Acknowledgements
Primary material that has been reproduced here in italics was extracted from unpublished documents found in files of the Theresienstadt Martyrs Remembrance Association, Beit Theresienstadt (BT) at Kibbutz Givat Haim-Ihud in Israel. These had been translated by others into English and, in turn, I have slightly edited or resequenced portions for the sake of coherence. If in the process, factual errors may have inadvertently occurred, they are my own responsibility. Lydia Shmolka of BT translated some documents into English from their Health, Altestenrat and Erich Munk files. Several of Dr. Fleischmann’s journals and poems which depicted the doctor-writer-artist’s prewar work were translated into English by Hana Houskova and reproduced an unpublished biography Rack of Time (BT Karel Fleischmann File No. 601.) Other useful sources were Vera Schiff’s memoir Theresienstadt: The Town the Nazis Gave to the Jews (Toronto: Lugus, 1996) and Ruth Bondy’s Jakob Edelstein. Elder of the Jews (New York: Grove Press, 1981.) The best English language biography of Dr. Fleischmann is the reminiscence Dr. Karel Fleischmann: The story of an artist and physician in Ghetto Terezin by Leonard J. Hoenig, MD, Tomas Spenser, FRCGP and Anita Tarsi of Beit Theresienstadt (International Journal of Dermatology 2004: 43. 129-135) and the accompanying Commentary by A. Bernard Ackerman, MD The Importance of Remembering Karel Fleischmann. I wish to acknowledge Oded Breda, the manager of Beit Theresienstadt, and historian Dr. Margalit Shlain for their constructive suggestions.