‘Dancing Under the Gallows’

by tobybee

There’s a new doco coming out called Alice Dancing Under the Gallows. Here’s the preview for it (hat-tip to Michelle A.)

Movies like this point us somewhat to the interplay between individual stories and broader stories: the ways in which trauma is productive of both individual subjectivities and group identities. In that vein, to accompany the exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Melbourne, “Theresienstadt: Drawn from the Inside”, I had a piece in the September edition of the Jewish Museum Journal. Here it is:

Women of Terezin: Towards a More Nuanced Understanding

In the Jewish collective memory the concentration camp and ghetto at Theresienstadt (or Terezin) was a ‘model camp’. Musicians were brought in and encouraged to play; prominent Jews were brought there in order to ensure their partial protection; the Red Cross came to the camp so that the Nazis could demonstrate their ‘care’ for Jews (which we also remember to be a tragic falsehood). What about those aspects of Theresienstadt that have not entered into our collective memory?

For example, that in 1944 there was a poetry competition in the camp, and of the 37,000 people who were incarcerated at that time, 3000 submitted poems. And that in the barracks the women would talk about food and warm baths incessantly, remembering things they had eaten, and conjuring up ideas for what they would cook once the horrors were over. As Susan Cernyak-Spatz tells us, ‘[t]he funny thing was that many of us were of an age group that had never been to cookery classes, but we had the wildest imagination about what we would cook. I don’t think I ever became so good a cook as I was with my mouth.’

Perhaps our collective memories have failed to remember the divisions within the concentration camp and ghetto. Rosa Salomon, a German Jew, has written about the divide between German and Czech Jews. ‘The Czechs’, Rosa wrote, ‘are a very different breed of people. The women have a proud bearing and are enormous, regular valkyrie. I have never seen such large people, not even in Sweden, Siegfried and Günther types. One would have anticipated a certain bonding and solidarity, since they too had been robbed of home, possessions and an existence, had been separated from loved ones just as forcibly as we, had also to live in a concentration camp. But nothing of the sort happened. For them we were not persecuted fellow-believers but hated Germans.’

From these glimpses we get a greater sense of the complexity of life in Theresienstadt and the importance of incorporating that complexity into our memories of what Theresienstadt was, and should stand for. Historian Ruth Schwertfeger reminds us that there was a very specific ‘community of women’ within Theresienstadt, and to tell the story of that camp one must pay careful attention to them. Through the diversity of those women and their stories, we can be reminded that there is never one story, never one established memory, of a camp, a ghetto, a group of Jews.

We learn from historian Ruth Bondy that women in Theresienstadt ‘tried to convert their place on the three-tiered bunks into a surrogate home, by covering the mattress with a colored sheet, hanging photographs on the back wall, or laying a napkin on the plank that housed their possessions,’ so that when women were deported from there to the camps further East (that striking and overwhelming euphemism), they ‘los[t] a home again.’ She writes that ‘in April 1942 about 1,000 women were sent to the forests of Krivoklát for six weeks to plant saplings’, despite some of their husbands’ protests. That when money was introduced into the ghetto ‘in May 1943, in preparation for the visit of the International Red Cross, the salaries of women were on average 30 percent lower than the salaries of the men.’ That Gerti Redlich, among other women, was allowed to continue her pregnancy in the camp and on March 16, 1944 had a son. That Hana Muller Bruml’s grandmother ‘was bedridden most of the time, but her mind was fine. She had a very orderly closet in which she kept a bag with her white shroud. According to Jewish custom, she wanted to be buried in this shroud, in the same grave as my grandfather.’ This shroud was, in the end, not be used.

When I consider the women we refer to as ‘the women of Theresienstadt’, I am reminded of the words of Primo Levi, who cautioned us that words, mere language, cannot convey the horrors, the traumas, and the resilience of the concentration camp and ghetto worlds. Why then pursue this task of committing the lives, and deaths, of these women to the written word and the blank page? Because without it we fail to remember the diverse lives of these women: that they were not merely figures caught up in death, but that they lived full and rich lives, as individuals and as members of communities. That to read of their lives in the Theresienstadt ghetto and camp is, sometimes, to be filled with dread and horror, and sometimes to be surprised. And thus to have our collective memories of Theresienstadt made, importantly, gendered and thus more complex.