Gidon Lev still remembers the day the Red Cross delegation came to visit Theresienstadt concentration camp, where he had been held for three years. He was nine years old.
It was 23 June 1944. The delegation toured the site, inspected its conditions, and examined detainees for signs of Nazi cruelty.
“There was a central park and we children could never go to it,” he told the JC in Prague ahead of a visit to the camp this week.
“On the day that the Red Cross came, they stood 100 metres away and took photographs.
The guards took children like me by truck from our barracks and brought them to the place and said ‘spielen’, ‘play’.
There were swings there, what do children do? They play.” Unwittingly, young Gidon had been co-opted into a Nazi propaganda exercise aimed at concealing the true aim of the Final Solution from the world.
Mr Lev, today a sprightly 88-year-old, was this week back at Theresienstadt, in the Czech Republic, alongside a delegation of European politicians and Jewish leaders.
Gidon as a boy
The Israeli octogenarian, whose TikTok account featuring Holocaust education alongside dancing videos has accrued hundreds of thousands of followers, was one of just 92 children out of 15,000 who survived the camp. He had been deported from Prague with his mother.
Theresienstadt, built as an Habsburg fort, had by 1944 been transformed into a sprawling internment camp housing tens of thousands of Jews. Publicly advertised as a “spa town” for those too elderly or frail for resettlement in the East, residents soon discovered its conditions to be brutal.
They were housed in barracks that were baking hot in summer and freezing in winter. Dysentery ran rife, and the threat of torture and execution at the hands of the SS was ever-present.
Under pressure from King Christian of Denmark following the deportation of hundreds of his Jewish subjects, the Germans allowed the International Red Cross to tour the camp.
In preparation, Mr Lev told the JC, camp authorities “took a whole street and fixed up the stores. They printed money, worthless money. The same kind of money as Monopoly, the same value.
There was clothing they had taken from the Jews that arrived the day before, [they] ironed them, fixed them, put them on the shelves. The people did what they were told to do because if they didn’t they knew they would be punished, and the biggest punishment was to be sent to the East.”
Following the visit, a propaganda film was made of the camp by the Nazis. It showed members of the Czech Jewish intelligentsia who had been allowed to continue producing art and music. They proved a useful tool to hide the reality of the Shoah.
“The Jews said ‘OK, let us have some instruments, we love to play,’” said Mr Lev.
"'As long as we are playing, acting, singing, dancing we are alive.’"
Never mind that most of them, if not all, the next day, or the next week, or the next month, were sent to the East. And that’s exactly what happened.”
After surviving Theresienstadt, he emigrated to America with his mother before making aliyah and joining a kibbutz in northern Israel.
A TikTok account he and Julie Gray, his book editor cum girlfriend, launched now broadcasts bite-sized chunks of Holocaust education to millions of viewers. “The best revenge,” one recent video proclaimed, “is living long enough to teach.”