Monday, April 13, 2015
Day 7 - Prague - Terezin
Today our itinerary called for us to visit the concentration camp of Theresienstadt [Terezin] and the Lidice memorial. First, however, we made a stop at the Olsany Jewish Cemetery to pay our respects to our very dear friend, Pavel Stransky, who had been accompanying us since 1998 when Ms. Tambuscio started the Holocaust Study Tour. Each year he met with our group and spoke to them about his experiences during the Holocaust, being interned in both Theresienstadt and Auschwitz and how he met and married his lovely wife, Vera. “The Holocaust”, he would always say, “was for me also a love story.” Pavel would then ride with us to Terezin and walk with us through the ghetto and the fortress. Pavel passed away a few weeks ago and this would be the first group of students who would not have the privilege and honor of meeting this gentle and wonderful man, so we wanted to have a chance to pay our respects and say goodbye at his gravesite. Ms. Tambuscio told all the students about what Pavel had been to the Holocaust Study Program over the years, and Shalmi told us a little of his story and how Pavel, as such a gentle and kind man, personified the term “perseverance”, holding on to life through many difficult and horrific circumstances.
We stopped briefly by the grave of Franz Kafka where Shalmi told us that Kafka was considered the father of Holocaust literature although he died in 1924. Shalmi said that Kafka wrote about the absurd and that the Holocaust was not only about brutality, it was also about the absurd and surreal, especially from the point of view of the victims. He told us of one of Kafka’s short stories, The Trial, in which a man is arrested, tried, convicted and executed without ever being told what crime he was being accused of having committed. The Jews, similarly, could not understand what they were guilty of.
Theresienstadt was one of those sites which was part of both Phase 2 ‘Concentration’ and Phase 3 ‘Annihilation’ about which Shalmi had spoken to us at the Wannsee House. When Germany invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939 there were 120,000 Jews in Bohemia and Moravia and the Nazis needed a place to concentrate them until they decided what to do with them.
Terezin was an existing walled in city outside of Prague which had been a garrison town established under Emperor Joseph II and named after his mother, Maria Theresa, to house the families of the soldiers who would be stationed at the Small Fortress nearby. Terezin would be renamed Theresienstadt, the town would become the ghetto and the small fortress would become the concentration camp. Theresienstadt would last from its establishment in October 1941 until its liberation at the end of the war, making it one of the longest lasting places established by the Nazis during the Holocaust.
At the ghetto museum we watched a film which included video clips of the propaganda film created by the Nazis called “A Gift of a Town” in which they had tried to dispel rumors of deplorable conditions in the ghettos which had been created by the Nazis. We then walked through the exhibition with Shalmi and Kamila pointing out exhibits of special interest, including the children’s art, video testimony and even a large exhibit which listed all of the transports from Theresienstadt. Kamila showed us on this exhibit, that Pavel’s transport which took him from Prague to Theresienstadt was Transport IV/3 Designation AK Left November 24, 1941 with 342 Jewish men.
After lunch, we went into the Magdeburg Barracks which had housed the Jewish Council, leaders of the ghetto administration. Shalmi led us through the exhibition, which included a typical dormitory room, and sections devoted to the art, music, literature and theatre which ghetto residents left behind as their legacy.
In June 1942, Heinrich Heydrich was assassinated in Prague and the Nazi leadership wanted someone to pay. Lidice was a small town outside of Prague with about 500 inhabitants. On June 10, 1942 the Nazis descended upon this small town in the mistaken belief that the residents had aided the paratroopers responsible for Heydrich’s assassination. The men were all shot, the women were sent to Ravensbruck, very young children who could pass as Aryans were sent to Germany to be raised by German families, and 82 children who were older or who looked non-Aryan were transported to Lodz and then later to Auschwitz where they were murdered.
The Lidice memorial is to the memory of the 82 children. It is a bronze monument which depicts the children in each of their images, from photographs. There are 42 girls and 40 boys who look out over what used to be their village. It is an extremely powerful memorial that made a significant impact on our group members.
We returned to the hotel to get ready for our special dinner at the Restaurant Neboziezek which is on Castle Hill overlooking Prague. Riding up to the restaurant on the funicular provided us with spectacular views of the city. After a sumptuous dinner we returned to the hotel and said goodbye to our local guide Kamila as we will be leaving Prague tomorrow morning.
Visiting Terezin today, we got to explore the lives of different individuals within the camp and by doing that I felt that the Holocaust stopped being a story and became a reality.
Today was surreal because when I was in the Small Fortress at Terezin, I felt like I was in a place where I was powerless. In a huge place where people couldn’t control anything, I just felt so small.
Visiting Pavel’s grave first thing this morning was saddening to me because we didn’t get to hear his story. But seeing everyone bring a stone to his grave to show respect felt like such a strong testament of our love.
Visiting Terezin filled me with all different emotions from disbelief that these horrible things could even happen here to human beings just like us, to shock of how it almost looked like a normal town.
I got a sick feeling in my stomach when I stood before the children’s memorial. The different expressions and emotions shown in the children’s faces left me with a pit in my stomach.
I felt an emotional connection to the memorial to the children from Lidicie. I saw a boy and a girl standing next to each other and I thought of my brother and I and started to cry. I cannot imagine my life changing that much within seconds.
As we walked past the graveyard in Terezin, I noticed that instead of names, there were numbers. I realized just how much the identities of the victims were stripped from them, as even after death they did not have a name.
Today made me realize how faith in God can act as a catalyst for hope.
Today was filled with all types of sadness, but one that struck my heart was Pavel’s grave. Standing over him and never getting to meet him tell his love story almost had me in tears, as I put the stone on the tombstone to say my goodbye. But now he is reunited with his true love and I want to thank him for everything he has done for this group. RIP, Pavel.
Today overall was very emotional and overwhelming. The most touching part about today was seeing each individual face on the children’s memorial because they were each unique and realistic.
The Small Fortress in Terezin was not a museum. People were once living here and suffered, but now I’m standing here. This was very surreal to me to imagine how the Jews were in these rooms before me.
Visiting the memorial for the 82 children murdered in 1942 made a strong impression on me. As I sat and thought of those children I became emotional thinking of each future of a child that never had the chance to grow up.
When I was looking at the children of Lidice, I felt they would come to life because they looked so real.
The crematorium was a cold room, seemingly calm, but it could never mask how efficiently they burned bodies here.
I had a very uneasy feeling while looking at the children’s memorial. It really made me question, “How could someone hurt a child?”
Today, visiting Terezin showed me how the nature surrounding the concentration came made it full of both life and death in the same spot. This blend made the atmosphere of the area seem very surreal.
Outside the crematorium is a maple stump – the seed given to Jewish children from a soldier. Throughout the field are unmarked tombstones shaped to resemble tree stumps that I thought could symbolize children that had their lives taken. 9000 unknown burials, 9000 Jewish children deceased.
The fact that most of the concentration camp had bright colors to it gave off an eerie and surreal feeling because the events that occurred in such a place was the complete opposite of the bright and cheery appearance the ghetto gave off.
I was taken aback by the crematorium and standing in the doorway made me realize how many people the Holocaust really affected.
Watch today's eight videos at our YouTube Channel