light rain fell as I stood at the Martin Tours booth on one corner
of Prague's Old Town Square, waiting for the tour bus to arrive
to take me to Terezin. Originally built in the late 18th century,
Terezin's Small Fortress served as a prison for military and political
opponents to the Hapsburg monarchy in the early 19th century. But
the most tragic part of Terezin's history came after the Czech lands
were occupied by Nazi Germany.
Small Fortress was converted to a police prison of the Prague Gestapo
in June 1940; in November 1941, a ghetto and concentration camp
for Jews was established in the Large Fortress and town of Terezin.
of the many things that intrigued me about Terezin is that it had
been used during the war as a facade: it was tarted up by the Nazis
to look like a spa town to the International Red Cross. The ruse
worked and the Red Cross backed off, allowing the death camps to
continue their horrific work.
started up a conversation with a pair of attractive young women
who were also on the tour. Eileen and Jessica were students from
the University of South Carolina who'd been studying in Germany.
Eileen was a dual German/Music major, researching Terezin for her
got on the bus around 9:45 for the hour-long journey north. Our
guide introduced himself and began telling us the history of Terezin.
Much of his story came from personal experience: he'd been a prisoner
there, and had buried his own mother in one of Terezin's mass graves.
noted that one of the goals of the Nazis was to "concentrate" the
Jewish population in controlled locations, hence the term "concentration
camp." Terezin wasn't an "extermination" camp like Auschwitz, though
it served as a way station to the camps and ghettos in occupied
Eastern Europe. However, that doesn't mean there weren't atrocities
committed at Terezin; far from it, as we would soon discover.
fact, of the nearly 140,000 men, women and children deported to
Terezin from the Czech lands, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands,
Denmark, Slovakia and Hungary, 34,000 died. From 1942 to 1944, transports
carried 87,000 people from Terezin eastward; of those, 83,000 were
murdered, tortured to death, or perished on forced marches.
visited Terezin's Small Fortress first; just outside the walls lay
the cemetery where thousands of political prisoners are buried.
Our guide noted that many of the dates on the tombstones were later
than May 1945; many of Terezin's prisoners were beyond medical help
at the time of the camp's liberation by the Russians, and died before
they could be repatriated.
first stop once inside the walls was at a row of "isolation cells,"
rooms big enough to hold a pallet about the size of today's twin
bed, and not much else. It took me about three steps to walk the
length of the cell. I did so several times and tried to calculate
how long it would have taken me to go crazy in such a place.
we saw some of the common rooms for women prisoners, perhaps the
size of a two-car garage, which held 25-30 people and provided no
electricity or running water.
as they were, neither of these places prepared me for what came
next: a room where the SS gave prisoners "extra treatment," as our
guide put it. The most appalling example he told us was that the
SS would lock 100 or so people in a space the size of your average
suburban living room, without food or water-and simply wait for
them all to die.
the corner was the shower room. Our guide must have seen our stunned
expressions and read our minds: "These were actually showers, not
gas chambers. In fact, one way that the inmates of Terezin found
out about the gas chambers in the camps to the east was from a group
of children who'd been shipped back to Terezin from Auschwitz. The
children were to be deloused and began crying at the sight of the
shower room, screaming, 'Gas! Gas!'"
continued past the house where the camp commander and ranking guards
lived to the target range. Prisoners would be forced to run from
one side of the yard to the other, providing moving targets for
the SS guards.
walked through an opening in a high wall and the sight of a gallows
knotted my insides. Our guide pointed out the two sets of steps
resting on the platform of the gallows, upon which the condemned
stood. He worked as a carpenter in the camp and had himself made
the steps, not knowing their purpose.
came a "newer" section of the fortress, added during the war to
house the growing number of prisoners. The common cells here actually
provided electricity and running water at certain times of the day.
The cells surrounded a courtyard where all the prisoners would be
brought together on occasion. For example, our guide told us about
the time three prisoners escaped from the camp. The prisoners were
assembled in the courtyard and watched as three other prisoners
were chosen and stoned to death. Later, when the surviving escapees
were captured, the prisoners were reassembled and the escapees stoned
to death as well.
left the Small Fortress and drove to the Large Fortress and the
Terezin ghetto. As we rode along the streets, I mentioned to Eileen
and Jessica how weird it would be to live in the town today, as
over a thousand people do, knowing the history of the place. On
our way to the Jewish cemetery, we stopped to look at the cavelike
enclosures where Jews and Christians were given their last rites
rain had come and gone throughout the day, but as we got out of
the bus to walk to the Jewish cemetery, it began to come down in
guide explained that these were mass graves, and pointed out one
monument that had been placed there. I can paraphrase the inscription:
those for whom it was not possible to rest in their own land."
climactic moment of the tour was a visit to the crematorium. A small
anteroom displayed prisoners' drawings of the crematorium, as well
as Nazi propaganda art praising the efficiency of the site and examples
of records kept at the camp. One of our group pointed out a meticulously-kept
list of prisoners' names and said, "This is why I can't understand
why anyone can deny there was a Holocaust. The Nazis wrote down
could hear sheets of rain falling outside. Our guide ushered us
into the crematorium itself with a sentence that ended in the word
"death." As this word left his lips, a thunderclap struck outside
and I didn't know whether to shake or jump-so I did both. An intensely
walked back to the bus and our guide said, "Now we will have lunch."
Eileen and Jessica and I all looked at each other as if to say,
"Yeah, right, we're really hungry now."
three of us were joined by a pair of Swiss-German guys, Martin and
Yves, on leave from military service. I felt like I wasn't ready
to discuss any of the things we'd seen; I needed time to reflect
on it. It turned out that we were all eager to lighten the mood
a little, so we talked about life in Switzerland and Germany, South
Carolina and San Diego. The women spoke good German, and Martin
and Yves fairly good English, leaving yours truly as the only monolinguist
in the crowd. My companions were gracious enough to translate anything
said in German that made everyone laugh.
levity was short-lived, though; the next stop was the Jewish museum.
We watched a film and saw displays chronicling the history of Terezin.
the most heart-wrenching exhibit was for me the collection of children's
drawings. These were slices of life in Terezin as expressed as honestly
as only a child could; each picture was noted with the child's name
and whether or not they survived. Most didn't. An example: Daniel
Stern, b. 1933, d. 1944 Osvetim (Auschwitz).
kept my composure most of the day, but one of our guide's closing
remarks on the way back to Prague caused me to lose it. He told
us that we had a responsibility to tell our family and friends about
what we had seen. As I was making a silent vow to remember everything
I could and share what I'd learned with people back home, he said:
"Even after all I have experienced, I cannot hate." My throat tightened
and tears welled up in my eyes and spilled down my cheeks.
a concentration camp is not an enjoyable experience, yet I believe
it is an intensely valuable one. It provides you with a focal point
for everything you've seen in films and read in books about the
Holocaust. It also helps you to view events in your own life with
a new perspective: as a copywriter and graphic designer, I'll never
look at the "life-and-death" arguments we have about grammatical
correctness and font size the same way again.
you visit Prague, tear yourself away from that beautiful city to
spend a day in Terezin. As the woman who signed the Jewish museum's
guest book ahead of me wrote, "We must never forget."