The Protectorate, the War and the Holocaust.
Since 1941, the town of Terezín was gradually transformed into a fortress where thousands of people, classified under the Nürnberg laws as Jews or Jewish Mischlings (mongrels), were being assembled. Women, little children, men, boys, girls and old people suffered ever increasing inhuman conditions, soothed by the lie that this town belongs to them and is meant to protect them as a temporary home until the end of the war.
The shadow of hunger, disease, restrictions, desperation and trains to the alleged labor camps in the East hovered above the everyday life. In a former school, now building L417, in room “Heim 1” lived forty boys between 13 and 15 years of age. Under the leadership of their beloved warden Valtr, these boys had their own government, organized and frequently held evening lectures and debates and wrote reports from every corner of the town. In the struggle of everyday life, this community presented a real home for the boys, where each one of them had a place of his own and where friendship and sincere interest in the good of the others were not hollow notions, devoid of meaning.
The main thing though was the magazine VEDEM (“we lead”), run by the chief editor Petr Ginz, consisting of over 800 pages, typed or simply handwritten in a boy’s handwriting. Hundreds of articles concerning the life at the Heim, the organization of the ghetto, the troubles and joys, words of approval, as well as reproach. Moreover, there were short stories, essays and poems, which became the legacy of many boys who mostly died a couple months later in the gas chambers of Birkenau. It took over 45 years before at least some of this material could be published under the title Is my homeland the wall of ghettos?
All of us from the Nature School in Prague were thrilled by the discovery of this book in spring 2009, and later also with the whole magazine. Much of what the boys from Heim 1 were occupied by, what troubled them, or what they looked forward to and created, reminds us of the life in our school. Although the general situation might seem entirely different, what they wrote about felt intimately familiar. As we plunged deeper and deeper into the lives, pursuits, joys and sorrows of these friends of ours, who for the most part suffered a tragic death, we had a growing feeling that what they created, was meant not only for them, but that it speaks ever louder to new generations more than 50 years later.
This was a big challenge, which is why we decided to carry the torch for Petr, Kurt, Zdeněk, Valter and many others and pick up the threads of their work. To send their messages to everyone who might be willing to listen. That is how the web pages “VEDEM 2010” came about. Step by step, you will find here the most interesting pieces that appeared in the magazine, as well as other recollections and materials connected to the life in the ghetto. The pages should not be, however, only a collection of texts, but a gateway through which each one of you can enter the realm of the human hearts that were able to radiate light and friendship despite the surrounding darkness.
Some of these texts were taken directly from a book by Marie Rút Křížková; others were copied by our children from the magazine itself taken from the Terezín Archive.
Thus, the magazine VEDEM will be coming out again. The Terezín boys might wonder at the form, but I believe they are watching over our work and keep their fingers crossed. I find no better words than those of the chairman of the government of ŠKID, Jiří Kurt Kotouč, in the preface to the book Is My Homeland the Wall of Ghettos?
I flip through the pages of Vedem. In places I recognize my own children’s handwriting. That was when the editor, our dear little Petr Ginz, made me do a sort of errand boy of the magazine, to make rounds of the reluctant contributors and neatly rewrite their opuscules into the final form. He never entrusted me with more dignified editorial tasks; although a child, he was already a refined personality and was reluctant to let anyone enter his realm.
I can see Petr even now. Again, he is sitting on crossed legs, crouched in the low bunk bed, surrounded by papers, pencils, pens, scrapers and crayons, as well as the remains of packets from parents. “See, Petr, Vedem is about to come out again... though it did take us some years...”
Petr is smiling: “Mei-fa-zu!” (Petr claims this to be a saying of the famously indifferent Manchu, which means: “What can you do?” I do not even know, whether it is true, or whether Petr made it up, I did not have time to ask him).
“Go on! Get the articles from the boys, so we can come out on time...”
“Alright, alright, Petr, I’m on my way...”
THE VEDEM MAGAZINE
In December 1942 the then 14-year-old Petr Ginz started the magazine, which was also a reaction to the relative autonomy the occupants of the boys’ dorm within the L 417 building (the present-day seat of the Ghetto Museum) had only recently acquired. In the following two years the magazine would come out weekly – mostly hand-produced – over the time containing texts written by several dozens of the boys who had spent some time in the dorm. The sensitive work of the imprisoned pedagogue Valter Eisinger together with the relentless enthusiasm of the many zealous boys enabled the formation and existence of a true home for the interned young people in spite of the atrocious conditions of the ghetto. Apart from Petr Ginz – the editor of the magazine as well as a skilled organizer, who stimulated many of his friends to write articles and take part in other activities, organized and gave lectures, and as a leading figure in the self-administration management of the group successfully manoeuvred the orientation of the community in a spontaneous, non-violent way – other names worth pointing out include those of Jiří Kurt Kotouč, Zdeněk Ornest (the poet Jiří Orten’s brother), the gifted poet Hanuš Hachenburg or Jiří Brady, whose sister, Hana Brady, has become well-known thanks to the Hana’s Suitcase project. The VEDEM magazine contained not only a large number of short stories, poems and essays, but also reflections on the self-administration processes and the life in the dorm, its cultural events and collective experiences and adventures. A feature that stood out among the rest was the section entitled “Rambles through Terezin” that in a series of reports described various spots and institutions within the ghetto from the “teen” point of view, thus providing a unique and eye-opening insight into the circumstances in the ghetto.
The main topics and features to be found on the website include the so-called “SKID Republic” – the self-administration of the Home 1 barracks in Terezin where the interned authors of VEDEM lived; “Rambles through Terezin” – an interactive map providing information on various places in the ghetto using texts from VEDEM and photos from the 1940s and the present; and a selection of poems and stories written by the boys, most of whom did not live to see the end of the war. The website will be available in Czech and in English.
We hope that it might prove useful not only to history enthusiasts, witnesses and their families, but also to schools and youth clubs. The latter might make use of the material that will gradually be posted online, such as worksheets, games and contests concerning the topics of holocaust, the life in Terezin and in SKID. The purpose of these materials is for the visitors to get to know the ghetto from the viewpoint of the youngsters, to enrich their holocaust related instruction with what are hopefully more enjoyable methods, and to help them find their way into places they would hardly come across on a regular visit.
CONCERNING THE PROJECT AND NATURE SCHOOL
When we – that is, the students and teachers of the Nature School in Prague – first came across the texts from VEDEM in the spring of 2009, we were excited. So much of what the boys from “Heim 1” lived for, so much of what worried them, what they looked forward to, or what they created was surprisingly close to our present-day experiences from our school collective. Despite the stark differences between their and our life circumstances, all these facets of their lives seemed only too familiar to us. As we gradually gained a deeper and deeper insight into the lives, the quests, the joys and the wounds, and – for the most part – the tragic deaths of our friends, we felt ever more distinctly that all the work the boys had created half a century ago was not meant for them only; their message is more and more audible and comprehensible also to new and new generations.
You can find more about the Nature School and our projects on www.prirodniskola.cz.