I didn’t know what to expect when I decided to visit the Terezín Ghetto and Concentration Camp, near Prague in the Czech Republic. But whatever it was, it wasn’t what happened to me there.
Feeling the Sun
When I step off the tour van in the parking area to visit the Terezín/Theresienstadt concentration camp/ghetto and prison, the sun is shining brilliantly and the sky is a piercing blue. I hadn’t paid much attention to the weather when we left Prague an hour ago. But now I notice that the sun is making everything vivid, alive, almost sparkling.
Walking from the parking area to Terezín’s “Small Fortress,” I stroll beneath a row of trees in full leaf—although every now and then a butter-yellow leaf drifts towards my feet, signaling the onset of autumn. If I were wearing one-sided blinders, I could imagine I was walking in a peaceful park on a sunny day, for then I could not see the rows and rows of stone tablets beyond the trees to my right—thousands of them—set into the lush grass to mark the resting places of so many who died earlier than they should have. Most of the plaques have names; some do not. A few are marked only by a number, just a few digits to sum up an entire life.
Seeing the number on one gravestone takes me back to a day in 1971, the first time I lived abroad. I was standing in line at the post office in Amsterdam, fanning myself with the letter I was waiting to mail. It was summer, and hot. Everyone was in short sleeves. Uncomfortable and impatient, I counted how many people were before me. And glancing down, I saw the arm of the woman standing directly in front of me. It was a freckled arm, I remember, dusted with soft light hairs. And among the freckles there, on the outside of her left arm, were the blue-black marks of a tattoo. Five digits. Etched into the freckled skin of her arm. She had been at Auschwitz, the only concentration camp where the Nazis, with their so-German efficiency, marked their victims in this way, the better to maintain their meticulous records of life and death.
I do not know what to expect here, in Terezín, which the Germans called Theresienstadt. I have never been to a Nazi concentration camp. I suppose I hope to see in reality what before had been only old and cracked black-and-white photos of Auschwitz, Dachau, and Treblinka, of gaunt prisoners in striped uniforms clinging to wire fencing. I did not expect to see grass and flowers and a yellow leaf floating down under a bright blue sky.
The Small Fortress Prison at Terezín
The walls of the star-shaped Small Fortress at Terezín are built of rusty red brick topped with grassy mounds. It was not built as a concentration camp. It was used as a political prison for more than 150 years before the Nazis came. But they knew how to make what they considered very good use of it.
We cross a bridge over a moat, dry now, filled with grass, and enter through an arched entryway. Soon after, we walk through a second portal, the entrance to the prison itself. This one is adorned with that favorite bit of Nazi camp irony… the ubiquitous Arbeit Macht Frei painted over the portal, the motto that greeted those who entered so many of the camps. “Work Will Make You Free.”
A well-informed guide shows us around the camp and tells us what we are looking at. I see rooms lined with three-tiered wooden bunks. I see tiny isolation cells just big enough for a cot. I am shown the showers where prisoners and their clothes were de-loused. I see dead-bolts on doors and barbed wire atop walls.
What I do not see are gas chambers, for Terezín was not an extermination camp, like Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Small Fortress was used by the Germans as the Prague Gestapo prison. It held political prisoners, trouble-makers, Czech resistance fighters. Jews from the town who were caught stealing paper to make art or write music on were sent here. But no, there are no gas chambers.
Which is not to say people did not die here. Thousands did, from poor conditions and from murder. I am led to the execution grounds. There on the ground, beside the grass and shaded from the sun, are three cement forms, looking exactly like crosses, where marksmen laid with their rifles aimed at a grass knoll a few meters away. Here prisoners could be shot and the hill behind them would conveniently absorb the bullets.
At one corner of the area stands a gallows, almost insignificant looking, a feeble wooden framework with two steps leading up from the platform, crude and easiy pulled away. It seems far too small to be so lethal. It looks like something built in the back yard by children to play a particularly sick game.
Off to one side of the execution grounds is another grass-covered hill. Here, some 600 bodies were found in a mass grave after the war.
But no, there are no gas chambers. No spot where the local equivalent of Dr. Mengele stood and casually divided fresh arrivals, pointing these to the left and those to the right, these to slavery and hard labor and starvation and those to a more immediate death. Terezín, you see, was not a “death camp.”
And I am shocked to realize that I am disappointed.
Disappointed that it was not more cruel? More inhuman? Disappointed that I will not be able to see face-to-face how barbaric we as a race can be to each other? Sorry that I will not get the entire effect of the brutality of war thrown in my face?
I disgust myself with this observation, with its overtone of pining for the sensational. But disgust is the strongest emotion I allow myself to feel. Mostly, I feel numb. I look at the cells and the bunks, the meager toilets and the barbed wire, and even the feeble little gallows; and I feel numb. I concentrate on the settings of my camera. I look up at the blue sky. I frame a shot just so and wonder if I should print it in black and white for better effect. I have detached myself completely from what is in front of me, unable to let the horror all the way in.As we leave the Small Fortress, I watch my feet step across the square stones of the path. I pick up a mahogany-colored chestnut fallen from one of the trees, full and lush overhead with their deep-green leaves. I polish the nut on my pants leg and drop it into my pocket, not knowing why. (Later, when I return safe and whole to my own comfortable home in central Mexico, I will decide to place it carefully on the table altar in my meditation niche, beside a Buddha figure, a Mayan carving and a Virgin of Guadalupe.)
The Terezín Ghetto
We leave the prison and move on to the town itself, the fortified village of Terezín. Once again, the Nazis had a new use in mind for the old village, realizing that the high walls and sturdy gates designed to keep people out also made it perfect for locking people in.
Built to hold some 5000 residents, at its height during the war the ghetto at Terezín enclosed more than 58,000 Jews behind its fortified walls. In the over-crowded conditions, here they died—some 34,000 of them—of malnutrition, disease and stress. But most of those who were sent here, thousands of Czech Jews but also those from Austria, Hungary, Germany, the Netherlands, stayed here only until they were chosen for the next transport east…usually to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Almost 90,000 of them left here, packed into the cattle cars of the transport trains. 15,000 of them were children. 90% of them never returned.
The town was doubly useful to the Nazis—as a “holding camp” for Jews on their way to be used up or disposed of elsewhere, and as a “picture-book” resettlement area that could be used to show the world how well the Jews were being treated. For a while, it even worked.
When the International Red Cross insisted on sending a delegation to the ghetto, they were shown a nice façade—cleaned up, dressed up, whitewashed and filled with luscious baked goods in the bakery, children’s soccer games and temporarily well-dressed and forcibly smiling Jews. They were treated to a brilliant concert of Verdi’s “Requiem” performed by some of the hundreds of professional Jewish musicians sent to Terezín. And after they left, they gave the ghetto a clean bill of health. While the people behind the walls starved.
We are shown briefly around the town. From the outside, it looks not so different from any other small Czech town, with its 18th-century façades and neatly cobble-stoned courtyards. But behind the walls, I do see more barracks full of multi-tiered wooden bunks and tiny wood-burning stoves. A wall is covered with the names of the dead. Photographs, documents, and the yellow stars embroidered with “Jude” that were sewn to clothing are on display. They are in showcases, behind glass, a barrier that not only protects them from me but also me from them. I find it all… “interesting.”
We go into the museum. And it is here, finally, the numbness lifts. The change is sudden and violent, a sucker-punch to the gut, and I feel as though I am about to throw up.
Why here? The crematorium did not do it, that ugly room where the bodies of the thousands of dead were burned, their ashes stored in urns only later to be dumped into the river when the Nazis saw the end was near and tried to cover up the scope of the deaths. No, for all its ugliness, the crematorium did not make me feel sick. The rows of bunks, the barbed wire, the execution grounds could not lift the veil of numbness and make me nauseous.
No, it is the drawings—hundreds of drawings made with colored pencils, crayons, charcoal. Drawings made by the children, who were protected as far as possible, both physically and psychically, by the Jewish elders in the town, given better food and access to sports and music and art lessons. It is the drawings of home, of nature, of happier times and future hopes. That is what makes me feel sick, because I, unlike the children, know what their future held.
Here is a drawing of a house covered in red hearts to show the love inside, there a charcoal sketch of a beloved black dog, a crayon picture of a carrousel, another of a rainbow, flowers, butterflies. Below each drawing is a note: Name of child artist, date of birth, date and place of death. Most were between 10 and 14 years old.
I try to hold my camera steady, to concentrate on framing a picture, exposing it correctly, eliminating glare from the glass in front of it. But my hands are shaking and I realize I can’t breathe. I need to leave. I need to leave now. I am afraid I will be sick here on this nice clean marble tile floor.
I walk out of the museum and cross the street to the park. I notice again that it is a beautiful day. I can smell the flowers and hear the soft breeze rustling the leaves of the chestnut trees.
I sit on the cool soft grass, close my eyes and turn my face up to the sun.
Terezín ghetto and concentration camp lies 40 miles west of Prague. Several companies offer day tours from Prague. Tours run around $50-60 and last about 5 hours. I took my tour from Prague to Terezín/Theresienstadt Concentration Camp and Ghetto with Viator.