Tuesday, 19 May 2015

The Candy Cane Tour 3.1: Terezín

It's been over a week since I had the opportunity to visit Terezín Concentration Camp. I'm feeling a little less emotional about the whole experience, so I'm hoping that I can start to actually put 'pen to paper' so to speak, and share it with you.

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.
Next, we visited the isolation cells. The Nazi's in charge of the cellblock had the means of placing the prisoner in complete darkness...no lights from any source including windows, which each room had. We were told about how the Nazi's would often punish those who found themselves in one of these rooms by covering up the windows. It sounded terribly lonely and well, isolating.

The isolation cells
We walked throughout the various parts of the fortress. We learned of the attempts to escape, and how there was only ever one successful escapee. We also learned about the hidden tunnels that were intended for escape routes when Terezín was a military base. When the Nazi's took over Terezín, they closed these tunnels up, so that the prisoners could not escape. A few years ago, a few of these tunnels were reopened, and we were able to walk through one. It was really creepy, but to add a little light-heartedness to this experience, the 15 month-old had fallen asleep about 3 minutes into the tour, only to wake up while we were walking in the dark, cold tunnel. I'm pretty sure that child will have nightmares for life!

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. 
From the arms-style of execution, we walked to the spot were people were hanged. Hangings were usually more of a public event, used as one of the many measures to obtain control over the prisoners.  Most were used to teach the others a lesson. In this spot stands a heartbreaking statue/memorial. This followed a quick visit to the courtyard outside of the Nazi living quarters - a massive step up from what I saw in Block A.

The memorial 
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...
Our final stop of the tour of the smaller fortress was a visit to the newest part of the compound. As the war raged on, the need for more space resulted in the construction of a new cellblock. The design of the Block was so efficient that only one guard was needed to oversee it at any given time. This, of course, led to several attempts at escaping, all of which failed. Two attempts by three prisoners in total have been recorded from this Block. The first attempt was by two men. To set the example of 'why they shouldn't try to escape' they were stoned to death by their friends - their friends of course, forced to perform this horrific action for fear of the consequences of resisting. The second attempt, was by another man, who upon getting caught was executed. But, again, to set the example he was forced to choose two others to be executed along side him. How are humans capable of doing such repulsive and inhumane things to other humans - or other living things, for that matter. I cannot grasp it. Nor do I want to understand.

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. 
At this same spot, we also had the opportunity to look though the rooms. Here, the rooms were much larger, and had two toilets. However, there were anywhere from 400-600 people living in each room at any given time. I cannot imagine.

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
When we left the smaller fortress, we made our way to the larger one. This was used as a ghetto, and was where the Jewish prisoners were held. Here we made three stops, to the museum to watch a quick film, a former residence to see what the living conditions would have been like, and to the crematorium.

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
Surrounding the crematorium was another, and much larger, massive grave site. There were graves for many who had been identified, either as individuals or by family name. There were also a number of mass graves, for those who were not identified. It was pretty somber departing.

Graves upon graves...

In the far background are some of the mass unidentified graves.
When I returned back to Prague, I was pretty drained, emotionally. All-in-all, I was really glad that I made the decision to go, even though it made for one difficult day. However, upon reflecting further on this experience I keep coming back to one thing (and this is not to make light of the situation - because it would have been unimaginable horrific). Despite seeing the conditions and hearing about the treatment, when I (unfairly and incomparably) compare the experience of Terezín to that of my visits to Cape Coast and Elmina castles, I can't help but think how humanly the treatment was in Terezín. I realize this is probably horrible of me to say, but I just remember learning how awful the conditions of the slave trade were. And, once again, I realize it is incredible unfair to even entertain the idea of attempting to compare the two, but I think it might be true nonetheless. Yet, that being said, I don't want to imply that they should be compared or that one makes the other more justifiable, because regardless of if one was truly worse than the other, neither should have taken place. Why and how are these massively public events able to take place with such acceptance? And better still, why and how haven't we (as a global society) learned from any of it?!

-the Orange Canadian

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