Trapped: Essays on the History of the Czech Jews, 1939-1943

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Trapped: Essays on the History of the Czech Jews, 1939-1943, by Ruth Bondy. Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2008. 246 pp. $36.00.

Ruth Bondy s Trapped is a set of beautifully crafted humanistic essays that considerably deepens our understanding of the Czech-Jewish experience during the Nazi occupation of Bohemia and Moravia in the years 1939 through 1943, a subject about which surprisingly little has been written. While Bondy devotes the majority of her attention to strategies of coping with the everyday ordeals of the Terezin ghetto, Theresienstadt in German, she integrates the history of the ghetto into a broader narrative that begins with the gradual removal of Czech Jewry from the surrounding society ("The History of the Closing Gates"), includes special consideration of the inexplicable existence and bearable circumstances of the children's barracks in the Birkenau family camp ("Games in the Shadows of the Crematoria"), and concludes with a commemorative essay that places the Czech Jews who perished in the Holocaust within the context of the thousand-year history of the Jews in Bohemia and Moravia ("Roll Call"). A brief timeline of events in German-occupied Bohemia and Moravia follows the final essay, and the book is illustrated with carefully selected materials from the Beit Terezin and Yad Vashem archives.

Trapped was originally published in Hebrew for an Israeli audience for whom, Bondy writes in what appears to be an unchanged English-language version of the Hebrew introduction, the Terezin ghetto was but "a negligible footnote, devoid of any rebellion, the sole ghetto in Central Europe, not comparable to the ghettos in Poland, a ghetto for the privileged, as the Nazis presented it and as the representative of the International Red Cross defined it after he visited there in June 1944" (p. 9).

Throughout the essays, Bondy focuses on human concerns and the reality of everyday existence with emphasis on morality, mutual responsibility, the ennobling quality of work, order, and above all on the importance of the attempt to preserve human dignity under the most difficult of circumstances. Terezin was indeed unique for the large number of works of art and music, children's drawings and newspapers, diaries and notes preserved only there. Nevertheless, she argues, these do not preclude the widespread hunger, distress, and disease suffered in Terezin - a universal feature of the ghettos of German-occupied Eastern Europe. Approximately 150,000 people passed through Terezín, of which only 3,500 survived. Terezin was established as a ghetto by the Nazis in November 1941 in a fortress town built by Emperor Joseph the Second in 1780 in northwest Bohemia. From October 1942, 88,000 were sent to extermination sites in Poland from Terezin, nearly all to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and 33,000 died in the ghetto itself.

Bondy wants to free Terezin from where she considers it trapped in Israeli myth and memory as an unheroic "model ghetto" (p. 137) whose inmates "went from theater play to opera performance, from lecture to lecture" (p. 11) while the Jews in the ghettos of Poland are remembered for their courageous armed resistance against the Nazis. She encountered these perceptions herself as an immigrant to the newly established state of Israel. Bondy was imprisoned in Terezin, and later deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she served as a counselor in the children's barracks (pp. 156, 160 footnotes) and was subsequently interned in several other forced labor camps before liberation.

How successful is Bondy in her goal of redeeming the memory of Terezin and those who passed through it? The majority of the studies collected in this volume, originally published in German and Czech between 1994 and 2001 in the annual Studies and Documents of Theresienstadt by the Prague-based Terezin Initiative (Terezínská iniciativa), masterfully build a compelling case for the heroism of maintaining one's honor and human dignity under conditions of extreme duress. …