Friday, July 3, 2009

Terezin

Terezin is name to both the concentration camp and town-turned-ghetto where the majority of Czech Jews were sent during WWII. Although Terezin was not an extermination camp per se, it was a place of transit from which Jews were sent on to the death camps. Figures: 80% of Czech Jews died in the war. Of the 15,000 kids that were sent to Terezin and then onto the death camps only 132 survived. 132. Children's drawings from Terezin hang in a synagogue within the Jewish quarter. The images show kids trying to make sense of what was going on around them. They begun picturing the mundane aspects of day to day life in the ghetto - but these depictions began to grow strange as unknown evils produced more fear and uncertainty - something bad was happening, but what? Heartbreakingly, one teenager had meticulously drawn a Mickey Mouse film reel as a birthday present for her kid sister. So much love had gone into that simple paper roll.

I know it seems strange to want to see such a place, but for me, this is a requirement to facing the past, I need it in order to try and get a better handle on what happened... I wanted to make such unimaginable historical abstraction meaningful and present. Visiting such a place requires the visitor to do one thing: tell others what they saw there. We must keep talking about what happened. Such violence continues now after we all promised each other "never again".

The first picture (above) shows the 1780s fortress in which the camp was built. Below, as our bus flew past, the cemetery where both Jews and Christians are buried appeared silently, shockingly. Everyone grew quiet.



The majority of people buried here are identified only through number. It's really fricken sad that they lie in an anonymous grave.


Below, the gates to the camp.



"Work will set you free" - Nazi propaganda

Inside one of the bunk rooms. Inmates would sleep head to wall, feet pointing into the middle of the room, crammed like sardines along these bunks. At the height of winter they had a handful of coal per day to keep the room warmed. It was impossible.


One of the more chilling aspects to Terezin was that it was used as a Nazi cover-camp. The ghetto was referred to as a "spa town" to the international community, and was beautified in time for a one day Red Cross visit where every minute of the elaborate hoax was finely orchestrated to show off the clean and happy living quarters of the Jewish population. Once the team had gone, the Nazis resumed deportations to the death camps. In the concentration camp (or prison camp as the Red Cross team knew it) the Nazis installed a large bathroom to showcase the quality of the facilities (below). In reality the actual plumbing was never installed - it was never used by the prisoners.


This was the "hospital" ward within the concentration camp. Jewish inmates with medical experience cared for their fellow inmates with no medication or equipment. Our guide pointed out they were lucky to be cared for by their own, as we all know how Nazis in other camps conducted "medical care". Original beds.


Execution grounds. The rough patches in the bricks behind show where weapon-fire landed.


This pool was built for Nazi families running the camp - for their children to play in. 60 Jews died in its construction.


The abuse, torture, living conditions were utterly intolerable. Although this was no "death camp" over 35,000 prisoners died here from starvation, disease, overwork and other violent deaths. One cell we visited - maybe 8x10 feet - held 60 prisoners. There would not have been any room to lie down. There was one bucket. One small window. They were kept in there for weeks. Every night there would be deaths. People would have to wait out the night side by side with corpses growing cold.

Every morning the prisoners were forced to stand still for 2-3 hours as they went through roll call. They ate a thin gruel breakfast and were then were forced to walk for miles to their labour details.



Visiting this place was utterly profound. I could actually cry for hours over this. But I want to leave Jewish Prague in my blog with this thought. One thing rose above the absolute soul destroying horror. Amongst this insanity, the majority of Jews kept in this place never lost sight of their humanity. The stories of individual and community courage, creativity, resourcefulness, generosity to those around them during the worst of times are so utterly utterly powerful. These people accomplished the greatest of things within the place that ended up destroying most of them. That is what I feel like celebrating. That is what I leave with. That and bearing witness.

2 comments:

  1. i read kingdom of auschwitz when i lived in berlin. walking around my neighborhood seeing old men that would have been in their 20s in the war made me feel really weird. you never knew what they were responsible for or part in. took me a while to shake that feeling off. europes haunted x

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  2. dearest jessica, such a beautifully written observation of this place and time in history...

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