The album “Working in a Trap” was launched at Beit Theresienstadt on October 20, 2009, in a festive ceremony in the framework of the fifth international meeting “Women and Holocaust”. The album published recently by Beit Theresienstadt in Hebrew and English contains essays on ghetto Theresienstadt and on the “Labor Center”, a timeline, biographies of the album’s creators and the artists, and a facsimile of the original picture album AZ – drawn by Leo Haas in ghetto Theresienstadt, at the conclusion of the first year since the “Labor Center” started its work, 1941 – 1942.
The original picture album, bound in beautiful wooden covers was given in the beginning of December 1942 as a present to Yaakov Edelstein, the first Jewish elder of the ghetto, by his close friends from “Hehalutz”, who led the “Labor Center”. They had prepared the album to encourage him as a “gesture of friendship and appreciation for his courageous support of our clandestine activities, after one year of our struggle in the ghetto”.
The Album AZ contains drawings by Leopold (Leo) Haas, titles and remarks were written by Dr. Edith (Dittl) Ornstein and Dr. Robert (Vinczi) Weinberger. The letters were drawn by the artist Fred Kramer. The album was signed by 6 leaders of the Labor Center: Dr. Erich Oesterreicher, head of the Center, Dr. Ornstein, Dr. Weinberger, Erich Kohn and Harry Tressler (Ari Tarsi) and the two artists: Leo Haas and Fred Kramer.
Under the conditions of imprisonment in the ghetto it was impossible to document its history by photographs and for this reason Leo Haas’ drawings are so important, documenting day-to-day life in the ghetto: arrival of a transport, separation of families, the despair of the old people from Germany and the fear of transports to the “East” since such drawings are rare. On purpose, the album does not contain drawings by Leo Haas showing the distress in the ghetto: hangings, the horrible crowding, hunger, diseases and detailed descriptions of transports to the East; as Dr. Ornstein said, the friends wanted to create an album with a rather optimistic note. The album shows the story of the first year from the viewpoint of those tasked with the organization of “normal life”. It details their activity and successes and also their positions in the internal autonomy of the ghetto, under the leadership of Edelstein. The focal point of the album is the Labor Center, it describes the dilemmas accompanying the men and women who established the center, its development and growth from a small group to a ramified apparatus with 24.000 workers at the end of 1942, headed by Dr. Erich Oesterreicher, as shown in the caricature of the title page.
Work was mandatory for all ghetto prisoners, men and women alike, between the ages of 14 and 65. The drawings in the album reflect the huge effort made at the Labor Center for registration, categorization and selection of people for different occupations, both for the Germans – like building the railway siding to Bohusovice, work in plants and workshops – and for the internal need of the ghetto: renovation of houses and adaptation of attics as living quarters, construction of bunks, burying the dead and also provision of food and its distribution. Special attention was given to the condition of women in the ghetto
and to Dr. Edith Ornstein (Dittl), head of the Department for the Employment of Women at the Labor Center, who organized the women to go out to work in services, important for the well-being of the prisoners. She encouraged the women to work in productive occupations like forestry outside the ghetto. The humoristic drawings describe the camp’s workers and the work conditions and stress the strength of the human and Jewish spirit in days, difficult as never before.
Edelstein’s belief that salvation will come through work, which made him strive to establish a productive ghetto, which would work for the war economy or the German civilian industry, was seen by many as the correct approach. Most of the Jewish prisoners recognized the importance of their work in the ghetto, work that gave meaning to their day, opened opportunities to improve their nutrition and conditions of their life and, mainly, gave them a chance and hope for survival.
All the album’s pages radiate the direct and warm connection and even adoration of the members and artists at the Labor Center towards their leader Yaakov-Yekev Edelstein, his personality and standing. The gesture encouraged and excited Edelstein, who was disappointed by the German’s deception and desperate because of the difficult situation in the ghetto and the huge transports to the East:
“Do I have to point out specifically how much your friendship and devotion touched me and filled me with satisfaction? That your gift really gladdened me?” In his word of thanks to his friends that are attached to the album, Edelstein did some kind of accounting regarding his activity as Jewish Elder of Theresienstadt and came to the conclusion that he was right in his decision to go to the ghetto in spite of all his misgivings, to try to realize there the goals of Zionism – to lead the people in their difficult hour, to train young people as future pioneers:
“Our pioneering worldview taught us always to be in the place where fate of the Jews is tragic and at the same time renews its form. Who, if not we, is ready to volunteer and to stand in the first line at a moment of hardest suffering and of gravest fateful decisions?”
After Edelstein was arrested and deported in December 1943 to the Auschwitz extermination camp, the album was hidden under the mattress of the bed of Dittl, Dr. Edith Ornstein, who was a member of Edelstein’s staff. She watched over it
Until the liberation and in the years to follow. In 1985 she donated the album to the archives of Beit Theresienstadt; in 2000 it was displayed there in the exhibition “Working in a Trap” opened in her presence and a large audience.
Prof. Hanna Yablonka wrote about the historic importance of the album “Working in a Trap”:
“When historians think about historical sources they usually mean written materials. This album is a most important historic source though it does not belong to the written sources. It is a visual-graphical source. This fact does not lessen its historic importance both for the researcher or the casual viewer”.
Kudos belong to Anita Tarsi, to Dani Singer and all who helped to publish this special album that enables everybody to view this primary source from the Holocaust and to experience directly, though only partially, the flashes of ghetto life.