My hope that we never forget ‘The little boy’


Terezin, or Theresienstadt, was not a death camp like Auschwitz or Treblinka or Chelmno.  As a matter of fact, the Nazis even permitted the Red Cross to visit it ... once.  

During that one visit, prisoners – many of whom were accomplished musicians and artists – performed for their visitors and exhibited their artwork. 

Terezin was not a death camp; the Nazis used it as a propaganda tool to show the world how well they treated “their Jews.” The prisoners were willing to play along with their captors because the alternative was death.

The Red Cross failed to see the hunger and filth and disease and brutality just beneath the temporarily prettified surface of the ghetto/concentration camp.  The Red Cross did not know that the vast majority of the residents of Terezin who did not die there were shipped off to Auschwitz or other hellholes for immediate death by gassing or for slow death by starvation and forced labor.  

On an oppressively hot day in August 2001, I boarded a bus in Prague for a 36-mile journey to the northwest. An hour or so later, I stepped onto the baked earth of a Terezin that had been cleaned up and sanitized for tourists just like me. 

I knew what had transpired there during World War II.  Over and over again, I had read with aching heart the poems written by the children of Terezin, and I had seen the pictures that they had drawn – now collected in the well-known anthology “I Never Saw Another Butterfly,” which took its title from a poem written by Pavel Friedman, who was murdered in Auschwitz at the age of 23.  

Standing in the blazing sun, I asked myself: “What right have I to be here on this hallowed ground, a Jew who has been spared the horrors of the Holocaust, who in a couple of hours will retreat to the comfort of my air-conditioned hotel room?”

The 32nd Annual Rhode Island Interfaith Commemoration of the Holocaust, held on May 4 at Providence’s Temple Emanu-El, focused on Terezin.  Judith Lynn Stillman, artist-in-residence and a professor of music at Rhode Island College, has created a multimedia presentation titled “Phoenix from the Ashes: Terezin in Words and Music.” The bulk of this year’s Yom ha-Shoah service was devoted to Stillman’s evocation of the Terezin experience in video clips, recorded music and live performance.  

Stillman served as pianist, composer and narrator, while mezzo-soprano Krista River and tenor Adam Klein sang music that was once performed – and, in some cases, actually composed – in Terezin.

For me, the most poignant moment of the evening came when River sang “The Garden,” a poem written by Franta Bass, a child of Terezin, murdered at Auschwitz at the age of 14.

The poem, set to Stillman’s music, reads as follows: 

The little garden,

Fragrant and full of roses.

The path is narrow

And a little boy walks along it.

A little boy, a sweet boy,

Like that growing blossom.

When the blossom comes to bloom

The little boy will be no more. 

When the blossom comes to bloom

The little boy will be no more.

As the words of this poem appeared on the screen hanging in the front of the sanctuary, a photograph of the young poet appeared briefly – a soft face, an innocent face. The pathos of Franta Bass, just entering his teenage years, daring to acknowledge with courage and with grace the near certainly of his death at an early age. 

Even in the face of death, Bass breathes deeply the fragrance of a little Terezin garden filled with roses. Even in the face of death, he affirms the wonder and the beauty of being alive.  

I would like to think that the little boy who “will be no more” will somehow continue to live in the simple words he has left us.

Of the 15,000 children who passed through Terezin during the dark years of World War II, only 132 are known to have survived.

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at

Holocaust, Stillman