Friday, April 11, 2014

Day 7: Prague


Our day began with an early morning visit from our friends Tony and Eva Vavreka, who spoke to us about their experiences growing up under communism in the former Czechoslovakia.  High school sweethearts, Tony and Eva immigrated to the United States in the late 1960's.  We are lucky to learn from them and to have them as part of our program.
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Our good friend, Holocaust survivor Pavel Stransky, met us at our hotel and accompanied us by bus to the Terezin camp where accomplished, prestigious Jews from Prague, Berlin and elsewhere were sent. This former garrison town of Terezin, was renamed Theresienstadt by the Nazis. Despite the crowded conditions and lack of food, these Jews, who didn't know where they were going or how long they were going to have to "wait it out," composed operas like Brundibar, wrote literary journals like Vedem, and painted beautiful works of art.  Pavel worked as a teacher in Terezin, where he married his lovely bride, Vera, in order to go with her and her family to Auschwitz.  At that time, they had no idea what that meant.  Luckily, both Pavel and Vera survived and were reunited in Prague after the war. 

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As we toured the museum at Terezin, Shalmi and Pavel shared information about what we were seeing, including the propaganda film made by the Nazis for the Red Cross visit. The Nazis forced the Jews in Theresienstadt to beautify the ghetto. 

The reason for the Red Cross visit? In what was known as "The Artists' Affair," five ghetto artists were able to smuggle drawings out of the ghetto which depicted the deplorable living conditions. A local art dealer was able to get them to Switzerland to the Red Cross. About the same time, when the Danish Jews were taken, their foreign minister demanded to know where they were going, and the Nazis told them they could visit them. The Red Cross came as a result of the concern of the Danish foreign minister and increasing international pressure to view conditions in the camps. Shalmi pointed out that the Nazis, again as the dictator, are very sensitive to criticism. Therefore, they clean up the ghetto and make a propaganda film, for a visit that lasted only two hours, and ended without the Red Cross going out of their way to find out what was really happening there.

 
We went to the hidden Danish synagogue that until ten years ago was used as a garage to store potatoes. Inside this synagogue, Shalmi read the Hebrew prayers still visible on the walls: "May it be your will, O God, that we return to Zion and see it once again." 
"Please God, abstain from your anger and take pity on the people you have chosen."
"Despite everything O God, we did not forget you. Don't forget us.”

After lunch we went to the small fortress, the concentration camp or prison, ¼ mile north of the ghetto. Shalmi explained that the concentration camp was intended for prisoners who could be rehabilitated to enter into society again, and weren't intended for Jews who were a destructive element in any society and could not be rehabilitated. However, because of the need for labor, many Jews were sent to concentration camps,with the intention that they would be worked to death and not survive. This military fortress, used for hundreds of years before World War II, housed many prisoners, including the Jews of the ghetto of Terezin, when they were being punished. The guards of this camp, as well as others, were not only SS, but also included prisoners, primarily criminals. Most were extremely cruel, showing that "brutality is made by human beings."
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After a sunny bus ride looking out at yellow canola fields and pink blossoming apple orchards, we entered the parking lot of the Lidice Memorial site, where the Nazis razed the Czech village as a reprisal for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich. Because of the mistaken Nazi belief that the villagers of Lidice harbored the Czech resistance fighters who threw a grenade into Heydrich's convertible when their machine gun malfunctioned, the Nazis made a lesson of Lidice. They shot all the men of the village, and sent the women to Ravensbruck in Germany, and most of the children were sent to Chelmno, where they were killed in the gas vans that had carbon monoxide channeled into the enclosed vans.
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After our first attempt at a Google Hangout with New Milford High School and St. Thomas Aquinas High School, we went to dinner overlooking this beautiful city on our last night here.

8 comments:

  1. What an intensely moving day. How wonderful that Tony, Eva and Pavel came, along with Shalmi, to help you understand what it was like living there at that time. The sculpture of the children at the Lidice Memorial is heartbreaking. Then we see our children; another great group photo! Enjoy your last night in Prague! :)

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    1. Wow, beautiful place! It just hurts to think of the fact that these innocent kids that were killed by the Nazis could have had a wonderful life.

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  3. What a powerful day you all had. I'm sure your emotions were running high both during Pavel's story, which was very moving as well as at Lidice. Hearing Pavel's story was a unique look into the Holocaust, as he experienced it, and the thought that there are so many other victims who never got to tell their story will forever haunt me. Standing in Lidice, feeling the emptiness of what once was a thriving village, is something I will never forget. It was so hard looking at the statues, because these children were so innocent. By seeing that it enforced the fact that the Nazis showed no mercy and were willing to kill even innocent children. Hearing your reactions to the day on the Google Hangout was very interesting, because I remember feeling the exact same way when I was in those places last year.

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  4. Pavel Stransky's story, is a story I will never forget. His story moved me, and from seeing your reactions on the Google Hangout he seemed to have moved you all too. Standing in Lidice, is very powerful, and to think the whole village was taken. What could have those people been? They all had goals and ambitions just like us. It was hard to stand in front of those innocent faces knowing how scared they must have been. This truly shows how merciless the Nazi's were and how power caused so much brutality.

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  5. "...Most were extremely cruel, showing that 'brutality is made by human beings...'"
    There is very little German presence in Otto's diary. Sure, we see glimpses of it—like when they were forced to abandon the attic to hide in the bitter-cold forests because of the Gestapo—but mostly, the Germans are a sidenote. The hardships the Wolf family endure are caused by the Nazis, but are mostly done at the hands of the neglectful and bitter Slavek, or the paranoid Mr. Zborils.

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    1. This post shows the complexity of the relationship that the Wolf family had with the very same people who saved their lives. Reading Otto's diary highlights the story of one family whose rescuers were also, at times, hurtful.

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  6. You are very lucky to have met and heard Pavel's story. The world needs to continue to hear the stories of survivors while they are still around to tell them.

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