Israel's Holocaust Remembrance Day

Yom Hashoah is a day when Israel – and Jewish communities in other countries – remember the Holocaust and its victims. The date is April 19th.

A small group of performers has been recreating songs written in the ghetto of Theresienstadt – the prison community near Prague where the Nazi authorities gathered Jewish families from Czechoslovakia and beyond between 1941 and 1945. Around 160,000 Jews passed through the ghetto in its four years of operation – 36,000 died there of malnutrition, mistreatment and disease. Of the 90,000 men, women and children who were sent east to death camps like Auschwitz only 4,000 returned.

New exhibitions in Israel of photographs of football matches played inside the ghetto underline that perception. Games were played in front of substantial crowds with some spectators looking down on the seven-a-side matches from balconies high above the courtyard that served as a pitch. Search on the internet and you will easily find the unbearably poignant footage of the doomed players – most had been transported to the death camps within weeks or months of the film being shot.

One of the few who survived was Peter Erben – now 91 and living in the Israeli Mediterranean city of Ashkelon with his wife Eva, who also lived through the nightmare of Theresienstadt. He survived a period in the slave labor camp at Mauthausen in Austria too, his personal story an extraordinary odyssey of good luck woven into a tapestry of despair and depravity.

Of his days playing football in Theresienstadt as he waited through the long months for the inevitable transfer to Auschwitz he says simply: “Football was very important in Theresienstadt – there was a game every week and thousands of people came. Even the SS men were there in civilian clothes. They liked it too.”

We have grown used to the over-arching narrative of the Holocaust with all its cruel destruction – but we know little of its grim subtleties, and perhaps struggle to find the words to describe them.

The truth is that Theresienstadt was a place of death but it was less brutal than the ghettos of Poland or Lithuania. It’s not clear exactly how that came about – it may have been determined by the character of local commanders, or it may have been that the Germans drew ethnic distinctions between Jews from Central Europe and Jews from countries to the East.

The Czech ghetto was still a gateway to hell but because it was less brutal and squalid than the others it also came to play a role in one of the most extraordinary of all the German propaganda operations of World War II.

In an attempt to disguise the true nature of the Holocaust, the Nazi authorities consented to a request from the Danish Royal Family to allow a visit by Red Cross inspectors. The results were a shameful farce – the inspectors seem to have agreed to speak only to the guards and commanders and not the malnourished inmates who were ordered to sit around in fake cafes drinking water dyed black so that it resembled coffee. Peter was one of those inmates.

Oded Breda, director of the Terezin House – a museum set up by survivors to commemorate and study the ghetto – says the film remains a powerful piece of propaganda for Nazi apologists and Holocaust deniers to this day.

“That film is still working. Look at it on YouTube and look at the comments that are left. People are saying, ‘Look at Jews during the war, how they even played football. There was nothing [sinister].'” If Oded Breda is right to claim that Holocaust-deniers are still reinforcing their grotesque perversions of historical fact with Nazi propaganda films then there are worrying signs for the future.

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