Take a deep dive into the history of the so-called “secret synagogue” at Terezin, the town and historic fortress north of Prague that the Nazis turned into a ghetto/concentration camp — Theresianstadt.
Along with JHE Coordinator Ruth Ellen Gruber, the architectural historian Samuel D. Gruber visited Terezin in July, while the two were on a road trip to Jewish heritage sites in the Czech Republic and Poland. On his Jewish art and monuments blog, he posts a lengthy discussion of the so-called “secret synagogues” — clandestine spaces where the inmates of Terezin could gather to pray.
Only one of these survives with its painted decoration somewhat intact.
This space was created by Artur Berlinger, a German WWI veteran, religious teacher, and artist who was imprisoned at Terezin with his wife Berta from the fall of 1942 until their deportation to Auschwitz in the fall of 1944. During that time Berlinger created the prayer room in an old storage space and conducted regular religious services there [,,,] There are very few places where art made by Holocaust victims remains intact and in situ, and where the intent can be so clearly understood. We have many surviving artworks – mostly small sketches – made by various artist prisoners of some of the impromptu prayer spaces in the Ghetto, but this is the only such space that survives at all intact.
In his post, Sam Gruber discusses the artwork and the inscriptions that are found in the “secret synagogue” — which was rediscovered only in 1989.
It was probably one of several clandestine prayer spaces in Terezin, and he includes examples of the pictures made by prisoners showing people worshiping in them.
He also provides a lengthy discussion of Berlinger and his life, noting that in Terezin Berlinger also “illustrated a calendar for the Jewish Year 5704 (1943-44) with printed zodiac symbols on the front cover that was created by Avraham Hellmann and is now in the collection of Yad Vashem.”
Given his skills as an artist it is assumed that he worked in one of the artisan workshops where he was able to get materials to paint the walls which he decorated with carefully chosen plaintive and affirmative inscriptions, and where he conducted religious services. Besides the care given to the placement and calligraphy of the inscriptions, it is the intentionality of scriptural and prayer passages (Amidah, Tahunun) that is especially poignant.