Student Photographic Reflections:
Sunday, April 10, 2016
Day 7 - Prague - Terezin
Today after breakfast we headed out for the day’s sites of Terezin and Lidice and were accompanied by a Czech survivor, Doris Schimmerlingova Grozdanovicova who would spend the day with us, telling her story in Terezin.
On our way out of the city, we passed a memorial with 3 paratroopers. Kamila told us of the 3 paratroopers from the resistance who had parachuted into Czechoslovakia with the goal of killing Reinhard Heydrich. The plan was to ambush his car at a curve along the route in Prague that he regularly took and kill him. One paratrooper jumped in front of the car as planned but his machine gun would not fire, a second then lobbed a hand grenade into the car, killing the driver and mortally wounding Heydrich. The three paratroopers would be hunted down by the Nazis in a Prague church where they would commit suicide rather than surrender. Our last stop today, Lidice, would also be linked to this event.
On the bus ride, Mr. Barmore gave us some historical context for what we would be seeing. Terezin was one of those sites which was part of both Phase 2 ‘Concentration and Ghettoization’ and Phase 3 ‘Annihilation’ about which we had heard at the Wannsee House in Berlin. Germany had been given the Sudetenland section of the country in September 1938 at the Munich Conference because it was largely populated by ethnic Germans and six months later the army would march in and occupy the rest of Czechoslovakia. The National Socialists in Slovakia led by Josef Tiso were told they would be supported by the Nazis if they separated Slovakia from Czechoslovakia which they did in March of 1939, becoming an Axis Power ally. The German army then marched into and occupied the remainder of Czechoslovakia which they renamed Bohemia and Moravia. 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. Theresienstadt would provide a temporary solution. Mr. Barmore said it could be thought of as a ‘parking lot’.
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. Under German occupation, 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.
Before getting off the bus in Terezin, Mr. Barmore reminded us all that this day was going to be incredibly special and would greatly impact each of us. “Many, many years in the future”, he said, “You will tell your grandchildren that you visited the Czech Republic and went to Terezin with a survivor of Terezin. You will see it with someone who was there. This will be one of the more unique things about you.”
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. These scenes were juxtaposed wth powerful artworks secretly drawn by artists in the ghetto depicting the true conditions of overcrowding and hunger, while a narrator reads transport records, such as “Transport AA, Auschwitz, 1,000 people, 2 survivors, Transport AK, Treblinka, 1,000 people, no survivors,” etc. We then walked through the exhibition with Mr. Barmore 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 to and from Theresienstadt. Doris showed us where her transport was listed, Transport U arriving January 16, 1942. She was 16 years old and would spend her next 3 birthdays in Theresienstadt.
We then drove to a building in the ghetto the prayer room which had been constructed by the Danish Jews who had been sent to Theresienstadt in October 1943. Known as the Danish synagogue, it was discovered about 10 years ago. Shalmi told us that the prayers on the walls reflected the heartbreaking dialogue of the Jews with their God. Verses such as “We beg you, turn back from your anger and have mercy on the treasured nation that you have chosen” and “But despite all this, we have not forgotten your name. We beg you not to forget us” were written on the walls.
Next we went into the Magdeburg Barracks which had housed the Jewish Council, leaders of the ghetto administration. Here, Doris told us her family’s story. She, along with her mother and father and older brother were all sent to Theresienstadt. Families were not housed together because that would take room so they would be separated. Her mother would die in Theresienstadt, her father and brother would be transported to Auschwitz where he father would be murdered. Three months after the end of the war she would be reunited with her brother. Doris said she was lucky because she was assigned the role of herding sheep. This kept her outdoors in fresh air and she was housed in separate quarters from most of the girls. She believes her working with sheep kept her alive. “I have a collection of sheep today,” she said. “About 500. People are always giving me sheep. Not alive of course.”
Mr. Barmore then 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. We listed to the victory song from the children’s opera, Brundibar, written by Hans Krasa and performed by children in the ghetto, viewed pictures by ghetto artists, and read some of the poetry and literature left by residents of the ghetto, their legacy to us. Mr. Barmore asked us to think about this. Daily life could include soccer games, a children’s opera, a newspaper, Vedem, written by the boys in Theresienstadt, art lessons, and concerts, and yet every day individual people disappeared. How do you reconcile these two things: the creation of culture alongside the destruction of people. We reminded of the term ‘Kafkaesque’ that we had discussed previously. Kafka was considered the father of Holocaust literature although he died in 1924. Mr. Barmore 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. In the music room Mr. Barmore translated a page from the diary of Rafael Schachter [1904-1944] in which he spoke of the cold, food, a concert performance, transports to the east, and his room becoming nicer. “Beyond Kafkaesque”, Mr. Barmore said.
After lunch in the courtyard of the Magdeburg Barracks, we headed to our last stop in Terezin, the Small Fortress where Mr. Barmore spoke to us of the purpose of concentration camps. Its function was to create conformity. In these places your identity was taken away, you were never given enough food so there was constant hunger. The camp was about submission and survival until one had undergone the change from a person to an object. Jews were not placed in concentration camps for the most part, because the Jews, according to Nazi ideology, were a race of people and there was nothing that could be done to change that through a process of re-education. After walking into the camp under the iconic phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei”, Kamila showed us the shower room and shaving room, and walked through the fortification tunnels before getting back on the bus to head for Lidice.
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. The memorial was designed by sculptor Marie Uchytilova. It is a bronze monument which depicts each of the 82 children from photographs. There are 42 girls and 40 boys who look out over what used to be their village. The last child sculptures were unveiled in 2000 so that the memorial is now complete. It is an extremely powerful memorial that made a significant impact on us.
We then returned to Prague and had a bus tour of a residential area of the city before getting off the bus to take the funicular to our restaurant, Nebozizek to get ready for our special dinner at the Restaurant Nebozizek which is on Castle Hill overlooking Prague with spectacular views of the city. After another outstanding dinner we said goodbye to our new friend, Doris, for graciously spending the entire day with us and enriching our understanding of the events in Theresienstadt, and returned to the hotel where we were met by Tony and Eva Vavrecka again, who then joined us in a discussion about life in Prague in the Communist Era, the Velvet Revolution of 1989, and changes in recent years.
Tony talked about how his life changed under communist rule and the power of the government over your life, including the expropriation of assets by the government with no warning and often with no compensation. Mr. Barmore wanted to make sure we understood that in the United States, the important thing is the people and the government is supposed to work for the people. In Europe the important thing is the state. Tony said when you were able to leave with an exit visa and visit your relatives abroad or attend an international business meeting, upon your return you would be required to give a report on the specific people you visited, giving information to the state police about your relatives or business contacts. The power of the state was so strong. For example, there was a point in Tony’s life where the government decided that he could not come to Czechoslovakia and see his mother. When the question was asked, “how did you feel when communism fell?” it was apparent that the full circle back to democracy for the Czech Republic was so important to them and such a cherished concept.
Shalmi reminded us that on day one he had said Americans are naïve. Again, he said, this was not meant in a negative way, but Americans have not experienced the turmoil that people in Europe have in the last 70 years. Tony and Eva during their lives experienced democracy, communist takeover, life under communism, and the fall of communism, and all the life changes that these entailed. Shalmi said for example, we were fortunate to live in cities where street names never changed --- while here, in the last 75 years, street names may have changed 5 times depending on the regime in charge. We were reminded that citizens in a democracy have a responsibility to be participants in government and be watchdogs ensuring that our government continues to be the servant of the people.