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I started writing this post over a week ago but then stopped. I felt it was becoming too much of a recap which is what I didn’t want since I was writing about a concentration camp, one of the 20th century’s most heinous “testaments to inhumanity.” No words can ever adequately describe a place such as Terezin concentration camp, or the Theresienstadt ghetto as it’s known in German, where thousands of people died and where more than 150,000 (including tens of thousands of children) were sent to their deaths to camps in the East. So it finally came to me to write about Terezin via the emotions I felt while visiting one hot September day.
I had always known Terezin was different from other concentration camps. Terezin was known as the “propaganda camp,” a place that was meant to fool outsiders, and fool them it did when Red Cross personnel came to visit the camp during the war after the global community became concerned that something more sinister was happening to the imprisoned Jews there. But the representatives were completely deceived by the Nazis’ elaborate trickery, whether it was the playgrounds for the children that had been built, the beautified grounds throughout the camp, or the leisure activities that were taking place. But of course all of these things vanished as soon as the visitors were gone, or in the case of a washroom that was built for the Red Cross visit, no pipes were ever installed to bring in water through the faucets.
Upon getting out of the van we entered the garrison (Terezin was originally built as a military fort by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 18th century). I was surprised by how serene a setting it was, how pleasant everything looked. It had almost a sleepy feel to it. But then I was taken aback when I was told that before World War II the fort was home to about 7,000 people. At its most crowded time during the war, there were 60,000 imprisoned there.
A heavy heart
They’re just train tracks you might say. But in the Czech Republic, train tracks serve as a memorial to those who perished during the Holocaust since the majority of them never came back, their bodies forever gone, if not their memories. It was the trains that took Czechs east to places like Auschwitz and Treblinka. My heart grew heavy when I looked east. I couldn’t even begin to imagine what it would have been like for them.
Before the Nazis had their Jewish victims build train tracks that went right into the camp for transports east, the Jews had to walk from the train station in the town nearest to Terezin. My heart grew even heavier when our guide said that on the days Prague Jews arrived, local residents had to keep their curtains drawn and not go outside, although a few brave souls took photographs even though the global community didn’t yet believe what was going on. They actually thought that Jews were being taken there for their own safekeeping.
Anger over seeing all of the names of Terezin’s victims written on the walls of a room that today serves as the ghetto’s museum but during the war was the boys’ dormitory.
Anger over hearing how the park that immediately greets you upon entering the fortress was for Nazis and their families and that during the war, a wall was built around it so they wouldn’t have to look at the Jewish prisoners.
Anger over learning that the playground was only built for propaganda purposes and that shortly after one Red Cross visit, a huge transport of children was sent east where they died.
Anger upon being told that the starving Jewish prisoners were forced to grow vegetables in the dry moat outside the fortress’ walls for the well-fed SS officers.
Anger when being told that after the liberation of the camp, a severe typhus epidemic struck; liberated prisoners from camps in the East returned to Terezin bringing sickness and disease with them, and hundreds of people who had survived the entirety of the war in the camp ended up perishing after the war’s end.
I had never visited a concentration camp before and was simply numb when I saw the crematorium. At first, the Nazis buried the bodies of those who had died at Terezin but as in the camps in the East, the number of bodies began stacking up at too fast a rate and so a crematorium was built to burn them, to destroy any evidence of what was taking place there. In all 30,000 victims were cremated, their bodies erased from the earth.
Numb that a place like Terezin and all the other concentration and death camps could have ever existed.
Visiting a place like Terezin isn’t easy. There’s nothing fun about it, nothing remotely happy, for even the silver linings are attached in some way to sadness (a playground built for the amusement of children didn’t save them from death). But a visit to Terezin and other places like it is necessary. It’s necessary for understanding one of the 20th century’s most horrific periods. It’s vital to learning about the past so that it may never be repeated.
Gavrilo Princip, the man who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie and brought about World War I, was imprisoned at Terezin (remember, it was a military fortress and prison before World War II) and died there in 1918. An even sadder tidbit is that a Jewish military doctor who treated Princip was eventually imprisoned here himself during the Holocaust.
Tips for visiting:
-Terezin is only located about an hour away from Prague and while you can visit on your own via public transportation, I recommend going on a small guided tour or with a private guide. If you’re making the effort to visit, then make the effort to fully understand the enormity of such a place as it was the only one of its kind during the Holocaust, a propaganda camp.
-I booked a group tour with Wittman Tours. The company was founded by a Jewish Czech woman whose family perished in the Holocaust and hers was the first company to give tours to the former Terezin concentration camp. Our guide Martina was excellent and on the day of our tour, there were 14 participants which allowed for a more intimate experience.
-Terezin is a large place (it was a military fortress at one time after all) and if your time is limited, I recommend visiting the following spots: Main Square, the epitome of what made Terezin a place to fool the outside world with its music pavilion and flower boxes; the railway tracks; the crematorium and cemeteries; the hidden synagogue (there were eight hidden synagogues in Terezin during the war, this is the only one to survive); the Magdeburg Barracks, to see the horrific cramped conditions the prisoners lived in with no privacy in a restored dormitory; and the prison camp which includes the National Cemetery, the final resting place to 10,000 victims. The prison camp was home to a majority of Czech Resistance and communist prisoners, although the Jewish people imprisoned here particularly suffered.
I read a slew of books written by child Holocaust survivors and I highly recommend each and every one I list below:
Upon the Head of the Goat by Aranka Siegal
I Have Lived a Thousand Years by Livia Bitton-Jackson
We Are Witnesses: Five Diaries of Teenagers who Died in the Holocaust
The Cage by Ruth Minsky-Sender
And one I learned about on the tour that I hope to read soon-Helga’s Diary: A Young Girl’s Account of Life in a Concentration Camp by Helga Hošková-Weissová, who was imprisoned in Terezin before being transported to Auschwitz and eventually Mauthausen, where she was finally liberated. Today she lives in the same flat as she did while growing up in Prague.