Located approximately 40 miles north of Prague, Theresienstadt was a unique ghetto within German-occupied Europe. Theresienstadt was a transit camp for Czech Jews en route to concentration camps and killing centers, but it was also a ghetto and forced labor camp where German authorities imprisoned many prominent German, Austrian, and Czech Jews. In June 1944, German authorities arranged a carefully choreographed tour of Theresienstadt to deceive representatives of the International Red Cross.1 A propaganda film was also created there later that year.2
Because German authorities imprisoned many prominent Jewish educators, artists, musicians, and intellectuals there, Theresienstadt had an especially active artistic community. Even the children of Theresienstadt produced notable artwork, much of which has survived.3 Performances and other organized cultural activities flourished—to varying degrees—throughout the war. Ghetto inhabitants organized liturgical performances, recitations, parodies, folk songs, orchestral performances, and original compositions. According to an account from the time from Rabbi Eric Weiner, during the month of November 1942 alone there were ten plays, two concerts, one opera, and twenty-two "fellowship evenings."4 Rabbi Weiner also recorded a great secret in the ghetto—the clandestine acquisition of a piano.5 This juxtaposition of a vibrant cultural life amid starvation and overcrowding is a defining aspect of Theresienstadt.
This illustrated poem celebrates the birthday of Moritz Henschel, a member of the Theresienstadt Jewish Council (Judenrat). Prior to the outbreak of World War II, Henschel had been the last head of the Jewish community in Berlin and was a graduate of the Berlin Rabbinical Seminary, a lawyer, and a decorated World War I veteran. These qualifications classified Henschel as one of the so-called "prominent" Jews that German authorities confined to the Theresienstadt ghetto. The featured piece consists of a seven page, full-color, illustrated poem composed on the occasion of Henschel's 65th birthday in February of 1944.
The poem assumes a relatively light-hearted outlook on daily life while noting the various deprivations and differences between life inside and outside the ghetto. The poem imagines an extravagant birthday meal in contrast to the meager cabbage available in Theresienstadt. It also celebrates Henschel's role as head of Theresienstadt’s cultural association and the many artistic and theatrical productions the group organized. Therefore, the poem serves as both a gift to Henschel and as a record of the extraordinary cultural life of Theresienstadt. Henschel and his wife survived Theresienstadt and immigrated to Palestine, but he died of ill health in 1946 as a result of his imprisonment. His wife Hildegard lived to testify at the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961.