Everything about Terezin was a fraud. The ghetto was a Potemkin Village, a Nazi masquerade to sucker the Red Cross (it was the only ghetto or concentration camp that the Nazis allowed the Red Cross to visit). Even Jews, often coming from more hellish circumstances, might think that this surreal place for “special” prisoners, the elite, the elderly, artists and children, was better, at first glance, than it was. The elderly were told it was a “spa,” where they could retire. The young were given paper to write poems like “I Never Saw Another Butterfly,” and even that was not true, either; butterflies would have loved Terezin. After all, butterflies love flowers, and Terezin (called Theriesentadt by Nazis) was the only ghetto or concentration camp with flower beds. It had a bakery with fresh-baked bread in the windows, a candy shop with bonbons, a soccer field with a grandstand, orchestras, theater troupes, inmates wearing civilian clothes, a coffee house, even a cabaret. Even crematoria.

Kurt Gerron, a once-rotund Jewish actor getting slimmer by the day, had appeared with Marlene Dietrich in “The Blue Angel,” and played Mackey in the original cast of “Threepenny Opera.” The original “Mackey” was often summoned to the cabaret to entertain the SS with his rendition of “Mack the Knife.” In Bertolt Brecht’s original German lyrics, the great actor would sing, “On the sidewalk Sunday mornin’, lies a body oozing life. Someone sneakin’ round the corner, is that someone Mack the Knife?” 

Terezin had a film company. Gerron directed “The Fuhrer Gives The Jews A City,” a film about Terezin intended for audiences not only in Germany but neutral countries, such as Switzerland, Ireland and Sweden (though wartime precluded distribution to the neutrals). The film was a musical, with Jewish children singing “Brundibar,” and jazz by the Ghetto Swingers. After the film wrapped, Gerron, the child singers, the Ghetto Swingers, the whole cast was sent to Auschwitz in boxcars.

To use the butterfly poem, written by a doomed Jew as an inclusive image for all children killed in those deadly years is particularly off-kilter when dealing with Terezin where non-Jewish children were seen even less than butterflies were.

A Holocaust exhibit recently opened in the United Nations lobby here in New York (free to the public, through Feb. 26), consisting of several placards explaining the 1942 Wansee Conference (where Nazi leaders planned the logistics of the “Final Solution”); 15 large photos of survivors, with brief captions detailing their Holocaust itinerary; and a colorful exhibit, inspired by the famous “I Never Saw Another Butterfly” poem, written in Terezin. The exhibit, hundreds of handmade butterflies in six large display cases, made by children around the world, was to memorialize “the 1.5 million mostly Jewish children who perished in the Holocaust.” The exhibit is part of the U.N.’s “observance of the International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust.”

An exhibit in “The Butterfly Project” exhibition at the United Nations. Courtesy of Holocaust Museum Houston

Wait. Did the exhibit say “mostly Jewish children” died in the Holocaust? According to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Museum, not “mostly” but “only” Jewish children died in the Holocaust. If non-Jewish children died in the bombing of Warsaw, those children died in the war, not in the Holocaust. Yad Vashem has photographs of Jewish toddlers, as young as 2 years old, wearing yellow stars, the babies risking death if they didn’t. No non-Jewish babies had to wear identifying tags. No non-Jewish children were sent to ghettos. Other groups, particularly Roma (gypsies), were sent to concentration camps, but not all Roma. The Holocaust, according to the Wansee Conference, was a “Final Solution” for Jews, the only group that the Nazis sought to destroy entirely. To use the butterfly poem, written by a doomed Jew as an inclusive image for all children killed in those deadly years is particularly off-kilter when dealing with Terezin where non-Jewish children were seen even less than butterflies were.

Edward Rothstein, who has reviewed numerous Holocaust exhibits and museums for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, has noted that modern museums have an “almost reflexive urge to universalize the Holocaust,” an impulse that wreaks havoc “with both history and moral clarity.”

A sign advertising “The Butterfly Project” exhibition at the United Nations. Courtesy of Holocaust Museum Houston

The lesson plan prepared for “The Butterfly Project,” in which each arts-and-craft butterfly is supposed to represent a child in the Holocaust, does not even mention Jews. Instead, the lesson plan tells teachers, “Make sure your students understand that many dreams died with the children of Terezin … . Point out that one of the children (a butterfly) could have been a LeBron James or Miley Cyrus.”

Might the lesson plan have suggested that one of Terezin’s dead children might have become a Jewish scholar, or a Hebrew poet, or dare I say it, an Israeli soldier who might prevent a future Holocaust? Or is that uncomfortably particularist? Well, the Holocaust was particularist, too.

The lesson plan prepared for “The Butterfly Project,” in which each arts-and-craft butterfly is supposed to represent a child in the Holocaust, does not even mention Jews.

The exhibit has not a single photo of Terezin. “I Never Saw Another Butterfly” was written in Terezin by a Jew, Pavel Friedman, on a summer Tuesday, June 4, 1942. The poem was first published in 1959, 15 years after Friedman was killed in Auschwitz. The poet wrote, “For seven weeks I’ve lived in here, penned up inside this ghetto. But I have found my people here. … Only I never saw another butterfly. … Butterflies don’t live in here, in the ghetto.”

Friedman found his Jewish soul in Terezin: “I have found my people here.” But not only does the exhibit de-Judaize, it infantilizes. The butterflies and the poem are associated with, and memorialize only children, although the poet was an adult, 21 years old.

Butterflies were more of a widespread Holocaust image than the exhibit lets on. In 1945, Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, author of “On Death and Dying,” visited the liberated Majdanek concentration camp and found butterflies scratched with pebbles or fingernails into the barracks wooden walls. Years later, in her interviews with dying patients, she heard of butterflies again. “Death is simply a shedding of the physical body like the butterfly shedding” its caterpillar skin, wrote Kubler-Ross. When death is imminent, when your options and organs are breaking down, the “caterpillar” body may be perceived as unattractive, a burden to escape: “It is no different [than] taking off a suit of clothes one no longer needs. It is a transition to a higher state of consciousness.” Butterflies were an image, wrote Kubler-Ross, “that I would use for the rest of my career to explain the process of death and dying.”

Edward Rothstein: Museums have an almost reflexive urge to universalize the Holocaust, an impulse that wreaks havoc with both history and moral clarity.

Another hardly-childish usage of the butterfly (also unmentioned in the U.N. exhibit) is the painting, “One Spring,” created in 1941 by two Jewish artists in the Gurs concentration camp in the French Pyrenees, 50 miles from the Spanish border. Their painting depicts a butterfly on barbed wire, with the hills of Spain in the background.

Terezin was constructed as a fortress-city in 1780, with a prison that later held Gavrilo Princip, the assassin of the Archduke Ferdinand in 1914. By the time it became Hitler’s “city for the Jews” in 1941, the population swelled from 5,000 pre-war to more than 55,000 Jews (though thousands were sent to Auschwitz to avoid over-crowding when Red Cross visitors came). Over time, more than 141,000 entered; 23,000 walked out.

When not in slave labor, Jewish artists managed to create more than 6,000 drawings and writings, and musicians could keep their instruments. On June 23, 1944, Red Cross visitors were entertained by Jewish orchestras playing Verdi. The visitors were introduced to Paul Eppstein, the Jewish mayor of the town, except he wasn’t. The visitors were taken to a courtroom where a thief was on trial, except he wasn’t.

It was all a fraud, but even the hoodwinked visitors to Terezin got a better sense of it than visitors to the U.N. lobby.