In full disclosure, I had a mega internal debate (and not-so internal to the few people I spoke with leading up to my trip) about whether to not I should even go. On the one hand, I felt that it was an important thing to do, a tangible piece of the remnants of an ugly history. On the other hand, I don't like the tourist-aspect of such places. I felt the same way about this as I did with visiting the Anne Frank House, although in that case I ultimately decided not to go. I take real issue to pay for access to these areas, but knowing that for the most part the funds are put towards restoration, upkeep, and various other not-for-profit channels, I can semi-justify paying for the experience. In the end, I made the decision to go last minute, but without my camera. As you will see as you read along, I didn't follow the latter part of the decision. When I arrived I felt that in order to do this post justice, and to truly attempt to convey the experience, it was necessary to fully describe it all - and that had to include visuals.
Getting to Terezín from Prague is a bit of a journey. By bus it was just short of an hour, and there were beautiful landscapes along the way. There were eight of us in total, including one 15 month-old child and his father from Australia, 3 hockey boys from Sweden, and an older couple from the US somewhere (they told me, I can't remember). It was an interesting mix.
Throughout the drive, our guide gave us a history of Prague, the Jewish population (both past and present), and about the basic background of the Camp. We were told that we'd be making two stops - one at the smaller fortress, and one at the larger one.
To fill you in, Terezín was created as a military fortress in 1780. It's made up of two fortresses, which are about a 10 minute walk away from each other. It transitioned from military fortress to concentration camp during WWII. In all of Terezín's existence, it has never been used as a proper town/village. Even today, there are few people who live there. The current population is so small, that the one hairdresser in town had to take on a second job (working at the museum) because there simply wasn't enough work! The Czech government even attempted to put a university there, but no one was willing to attend!
Anyway, we arrived first at the smaller fortress, and this is where we spent the bulk of our time. During the war, this was used as a camp for prisoners of war, or non-Jews. The first thing you see when you de-board the bus is a massive grave site. Instantly, the gravity of this place hits you. Hundreds of graves. We took a few minutes to try to take it all in before we moved towards the entrance of the fortress, and the start of our tour.
Entering the compound, it felt strange. I almost instantly felt the same heaviness as when I visited Cape Coast and Elmina castles, only it was different. This time the experience was attached with names and faces of actual people who had lived through these events. Plus, I had the added bonus of the morning's experiences and emotions still looming around.
Anyway, Terezín was used mainly as an administration point. In fact, it was the largest administration camp of all. Basically, this means that Terezín was more of a short-term facility, for those awaiting their (in many cases) final destination. Most only resided in Terezín for four to six months. When you first enter, you walk through the offices, which are all furnished with lavish desks, bookcases and such (not like that cheap stuff we get now!). Then, you walk into the living quarters of the victims of the camp. Big difference.
In the first section of the smaller camp (part of the original fortress) you see several rooms in 'Block A.' In all, there were 17 rooms, with an additional 20 isolation rooms. Men were housed separately from the women and children. Within these 17 rooms, there were large bunk-style beds, which were intended to house no more than 40 people at a time. Towards the end of the war, these rooms housed up to 100 people in each. It's hard to imagine sharing the room with 40 people, let alone 100. Oh, and to make things even more dehumanizing, these 40-100 people had to share one toilet facility. On top of that, there were so many instances of disease and lice, that the prisoners ended up pitching their mattresses, because that was a better option than having infested mattresses. Standing in the middle of these rooms you are struck with the most awful feelings, grasping to understand just how horrible these conditions would have been. And, what's more, these were once again, for the non-Jewish prisoners, so their conditions were ever so slightly better than that of the Jewish camps.
|The outside of 'Block A'|
|Half of one of the 17 rooms in Block A. |
These beds were intended to house 20 people, but ended up with approximately 50.
|The isolation cells|
Anyway, when we came out of the tunnel, we found ourselves in the execution area. Before our guide said anything, we all knew, just from looking at the wall. It looked like something out of a movie. Unfortunately, I did not write down the number of people executed, but the largest group to be killed in this manner at one time was 32. One thing we noticed here were a bunch of cross-like beds a fair distance in front of the wall. Actually, it looked like a putting green, in a sense... These were not for perfecting your golf swing, though. They were where the gunmen would lie on these crosses, as the cross-like shape provided a more comfortable resting position for them.
|The wall straight ahead is were many lost their lives.|
|One of several living quarters of the Nazi's residing in Terezín. Included in their quarters |
was a massive swimming pool, a tennis court, and a cinema to name a few of their many perks...
|The cellblock courtyard. The far left-hand corner is where all three of the men lived.|
|The entrance into the cellblock. |
Note the guard tower, and imagine how visible everyone would be from there.
|One half of one of the larger rooms. |
Note the sunroof, which sounds nice in theory, but imagine how hot it would get in
the summer in addition to all the body heat from so many people in such a small space.
|The isolation cells|
Below is part of the film we viewed at the museum in the larger fortress. It is called Propaganda, and and features many clips that were used to spread the idea of the "excellent living conditions" provided to the Jewish people living in these ghettos. Parts of this film were discovered many years after the Camp was closed. It featured a lot of the artwork created by prisoners during their time in Terezín. After the film screening, we were given a few minutes to walk around the museum. Here we saw a collection of identification cards, and other personal belongings that were collected from those who lived in Terezín. Now when I say 'collection' I mean they were small samples - nothing like the displays I'm told you'd find at Auschwitz.
The second stop was a former residence. This is now a museum also. Along with the recreations of the rooms, there were displays of newspapers and journals, music, paintings and other artwork created during the Camp's operation. It was pretty incredible to see. Some of what was on display was similar to what I had witnessed during my visit to the Old Jewish Town in Prague that same morning.
The final stop was to Terezín's crematorium. I don't really know how to describe this. Pictures were not allowed inside, and I was kind of okay with not capturing it. There was a small group of offices inside, one of which was used as an examination room were autoposies were performed. But, as the Nazi's didn't have the funds to do this, they were often carried out by those imprisoned. To give you a better understand of just how brutal this was, it took 15 minutes to kill around 200 people using chemical asphyxiation. But to really drive it home, it took 2 hours to burn just 1 body. Think about the kind of operation required here. Additionally, we were told that often women's hair was used to make clothing, and the bones and fat from the deceased were used to make soap. I find it odd that it was believed that Jewish people were of no use, but that their body parts were an acceptable, dare I say, ingredient. Again, I don't understand how this was a thing - especially how recent it took place.
|The outside of the crematorium|
|Graves upon graves...|
|In the far background are some of the mass unidentified graves.|
-the Orange Canadian