Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Flexible Schedules are the Best

Visiting a place one time is all that is possible on many occasions. However, if you can go back to a place a few times it is generally worth the trip.

In the Czech Republic, I've been to Cesky Krumlov, Karlovy Vary and now Kutna Hora twice. They are beautiful places all. Czechs usually poke a little fun at Kutna Hora though. There isn't a lot of industry there, save a giant Phillip Morris factory that you're not going to get a tour of. I personally think it is a fairly underrated place.

From what I can see Kutna Hora depends a lot on tourism and the main attraction is the Sedlec Ossuary which isn't technically in Kutna Hora, but rather Sedlec -- funny that.

The ossuary is a small chapel with a graveyard. The basement of the chapel happens to be decorated with the bones of tens of thousands of people who were buried there. Ossuaries and catacombs aren't really something we have in the US. There is enough land to throw bodies in for eons. However, considering the fact that there are more people alive on Earth right now than the sum total of those who have died in the entire course of human history it is easy to see how some places might run out of room to keep corpses.

A friend of mine had a summer job at the Lexington Cemetery in Lexington, Ky when he was in high school and he once asked the head grounds keeper if anyone was worried about running out of space for graves. The reply was that if people were to die at roughly five times the rate they are now the owners of the cemetery would start to think about solutions in 100 years. I don't think one can build a parking garage in Europe without unearthing some sort of ancient graveyard. As such, ossuaries are a novelty for Americans.

This is clearly evident by the unending line of tour busses lining the road in front of the Sedlec Ossuary. I recommend getting to the place before 10a.m. if you'd like for it to not be packed with idiots who don't understand the meaning of the word "reverence." It just so happens the place is still a church, and a graveyard. Take off your hat and use your inside voice. I'm talking to you American kids on your senior trip. Yelling to your friends who are on the complete other side of the building, however small it may seem, is just not acceptable.

Ranting aside, the ossuary hasn't changed much from when I was there a year ago. I'm pretty sure they still had the same light bulbs. If you do go, do yourself a favor and take a look at the chapel upstairs, no one else does. You will be alone and there is lots of extra information about the history of the ossuary and town.

Pretty much your standard fare here with skulls and bones stacked on top of each other. The light was nice inside the basement part of the chapel though and someone had placed a small flower arrangement on one of the corner areas. I won't bore you with a multitude of stacked-bone photos. If you really want to see those you can look back to my first post about the place.

The one thing I did forget to do last time I was here though was photograph the outside of the chapel. You really get to see that it is a functioning, although it really isn't difficult for a grave yard to function, graveyard. I did wander around a bit and learned a new Czech word "rodina." It means family and at first I thought, "wow, there sure are a lot of people with the same last name buried here. I'm slow sometimes.

There weren't a whole lot of other photos for me to take of the place that were different from when I was there last time and really it was getting so crowded that I just wanted to escape. So I worked on a few things and decided to make my way into town.

I was a little hungry so I went to a krcma (pub) that was not near the center and had some beer and lunch. The pub was also pretty empty except for the wedding that was happening in the garden. As far as city centers go, Kutna Hora's isn't exactly exciting. You could skip it and not miss anything. 

My plan after lunch was to visit the silver mine and take the tour, mainly because there is no other choice. For hundreds of years Kunta Hora was a center for silver mining. I thought this tour would be pretty cool. I waited patiently in line behind a elderly Ukrainian couple whose understanding of Czech was worse than mine and even worse than their understanding of English. The frustrated girl at reception was trying to explain something to them and all I could get from it, because she got pissed that they only understood Russian, was that something lasted one hour. 

When it was my turn at the counter I immediately told the girl I didn't speak any Czech. I lied, but in this case it was the right move. Czechs aren't really used to people who aren't native Czech speakers. Sometimes it is best to pretend you don't speak it at all, because if you say a few things you are answered with a rapid-fire completely impossible to understand fusillade of language and then you have to apologize and explain that you're an idiot and only understand a little Czech.

She told me the tour that goes down into the mine was sold out and that I should have made a reservation online in advance, oops. The only option was a tour of the museum, completely in Czech, that lasted an hour and started at 16:00. I'm not going to pay 150czk to have someone show me a museum and read signs to me in a language I can't understand. I can wander around and look at those signs and not understand them by myself thank you very much. I was a little disappointed by this, but my schedule was flexible so I decided to head over to the Church of Santa Barbara.

The light in the church was fantastic. I came across this great scene that spoke to me about breaking away from the pack and doing your own thing and thought it would be a fun photo.  

The upper gallery of the church was open and I decided to venture up there. If you can I think it is worth seeing. There is a lot of information about the history of the place and how the construction progressed from 1380 or something. The place is OLD. My favorite part of the history was a story about how the monks at the Jesuit college next door took over the church for a while and replaced the baroque roof with a renaissance one. Everyone hated it, except the monks of course, and as soon as the town got control back the first thing they did was replace the baroque roof. The church also happens to be one of the only ones in the world, if not the only one, with dual flying buttresses. I couldn't really find any information on it on the internet. You can see in the photos the double buttresses, and baroque roof.

As I was wandering around the church I noticed that people were setting up for some sort of symphonic concert. I didn't think a whole lot of it and I assumed that whatever event it was would begin long after I left. Then something started to happen about 16:00.

They started warming up. It was loud and chaotic and yet still impressive and beautiful. The acoustics in the place during the warmup were absolutely amazing. It was so loud that the above flautist was forced to play mere inches from this pillar to even have a chance of hearing himself. The funny thing was this tumultuous cacophony of noise was anything but an assault. It really did sound beautiful thanks the the design of the church. Then about 16:30 this happened.  

The warmup changed into a rehearsal of one of the pieces in set for the performance, complete with violin soloist. While the piece itself was beautiful, it wasn't really the most amazing composition I've ever heard. The sound however, was nothing short of moving. There really isn't any way to describe it with mere words. It was all around you and literally the most amazing "concert" I have ever seen in my entire life. The only thing I could think to do was try and record it at least a little bit. There is a video at the bottom here that I took with my phone. Watch it, listen to it. The sound is still impressive even though it was recorded with a crappy phone microphone. It was so moving and inspiring that I was actually glad the mine tour was sold out, because if it weren't for that unfortunate inconvenience I never would have experienced this beautiful moment. 

Monday, June 16, 2014

A Short Hike

Sometimes it's really nice to get out of town and go for a hike. When I first started to plan my hike I just wanted to go see the castle in Karlstejn. It is a very nice looking castle about 30 kilometers southwest of Prague. It's a very popular day trip and many people will ride their bikes there and take the train back.

I had mentioned to a few friends that I wanted to go to Karlstejn and a few of them said the same thing: "It's nice, but what is really nice is to go to Beroun and hike to Karlstejn." So I took their advice and decided that I would do that. I can say that I think starting in Beroun is definitely the best idea. When you start there you're rewarded with the castle at the end of the trip and you can tour that -- maybe. I spent so much time hiking that the castle was closed to the public when I got there.

The village around the castle looks pretty nice too. At least the part just under it. It might be a little touristy but it is very pretty. It wasn't packed with people when I got there, maybe because it was so late in the day, and it felt very quaint and relaxed.
As soon as I got off the train in Beroun I started my hike. There isn't really a "trail" that goes from the train station. Not in the traditional dirt-path-through-the-woods sense at least. There are some signs and blazes painted on utility poles and things. Near the town's hospital the trail hits the dirt and it's still pretty well marked. It's not very difficult to follow through the town, but I did take at least one wrong turn and had to double back.

I took that with my phone and you can see the blazes clearly marked. As I said, when you're traveling through the woods the trail is really easy to follow and if there are other trails it's not hard to stay on the one you want because the blazes will have arrows under them telling you which way to go.

The hike was fantastic. Evidently I went at the right time of year because I'm told the trail, which is really just a fire road for the most part, gets crowded during the summer. It had also rained for most of the week and that may have dissuaded some people who didn't want to hike on muddy trails. There was mud in spots, but not much. The temperature was pretty much perfect and the forest is so thick that not a lot of direct sunlight makes it to the floor, keeping things cool and temperate.

After I made it into the woods I was happy and alone and nearly forgot that I was in a forest in a foreign country. I might as well have been hiking in the Shenandoah National Park along a leg of the Appalachian Trail. There were birds singing and the trail isn't technical or strenuous so I was able to just relax and walk. I even heard Cuckoos. I had never heard one that wasn't in a clock before.

I had been walking in the forest for about thirty minutes when I passed what looked like a very red log of dog feces. It's a trail, scat is pretty commonplace along them, so I just remember thinking "that dog needs to go to the vet" and just kept walking. Then I saw the same thing again and looked closer. Not because I'm fascinated with dog logs, but because there is no way this unhealthy pup could produce so much crap in such a short distance. It turns out it was not poop at all, but rather some species of MASSIVE slug. Any slug that looks like exhaust from a labrador is a big slug. And these things must be tough as nails. I don't know what they are called, but I have given the species the name Czechoslovakian Murder Slug. I realize Czechoslovakia doesn't exist anymore, but the added syllables make the name sound more menacing.

I hope you can see what I mean with this photo. This particular Murder Slug has a substantial hole in his body. I can tell you right now, if I had a hole in my torso that had removed a similar percentage of my body I would not be calmly walking along a trail. I'd probably be dead.

I kept walking after photographing the slug for evidence and just enjoyed being in the woods and not the city. I like Prague, it's great, but there are times when not hearing the noise of traffic and sirens and everything is very refreshing and rejuvenating. Most of my day trips are to small towns or villages with other people there and this hike with almost no one else around was also a welcome change.

Not long into my hike I came to a junction in the trail and a nice rest shack. I sat and enjoyed the solitude and then continued on after a few minutes.

Svaty Jan Pod Skalou, Czech Republic

I had two "goals" for this hike and while the main one was to get to the castle in Karlstejn a very close second was to visit Svaty Jan Pod Skalou. It translates to Saint John Under the Cliff. You can google your heart out, but you won't find a ton of information on this place. I didn't find out more about it until I was talking to a friend about my trip there. She's been there dozens of times and out of all the people I talked to about it she knew the most. She told me enough to make me want to go back. You can see from the sign up there that I was only 1.5 kilometers away.

As a side note: I love kilometers. I still think in miles and when I see a number that I know is related to distance my brain automatically calculates the estimated time to travel that distance in miles. At a leisurely pase I was making about 3km an hour.

I wasn't really sure what to expect when I got to Svaty Jan. I popped out of the woods in someone's back yard and the trail basically followed his driveway to the road about 20 meters down the road I saw this:

Svaty Jan Pod Skalou, Czech Republic

Basically all I knew about the place at this point was that it existed and that there was a monastery there. This clearly wasn't the monastery and I was a little worried about where I would pick the trail back up, but it was more of a logistical curiosity rather than a complete, "oh shit where am I going" panic. Hell, my plans were so open I would have walked back to Beroun and caught the train back to Prague from there if I needed to.

So I photographed the town cemetery and its chapel from another angle and followed the road.

Svaty Jan Pod Skalou, Czech Republic

The town isn't really even a town. I'd have to call it a village or better yet a hamlet. There are less than 20 buildings there. It seemed it was pretty popular for Czechs to go and visit. There were quite a few cars at the monastery and the local (read only) pub/restaurant was packed to the rafters. Lots of Czechs had ridden their bikes to the hamlet.

The whole place was built because there is a spring there that has healing water in it. I wish I'd known this before I went. I saw the spring and a spigot for getting a drink, but I don't really read any Czech so I just thought it was there for thirsty people. There is even a little outdoor chapel on the spring. It's the chapel of St. Ivana.

Svaty Jan Pod Skalou, Czech Republic

You can see a little of the spring on the right of the photo. It's a pool in the chapel. There is a system of caves that the monastery is connected to with rooms that have been converted for religious purposes. So the spooky faces you see behind that barred window on the right are people touring the caves, not ghosts.

What I did know about the place is that the monastery sits under a 300 foot cliff and you can hike to an overlook at the top of it. The trail to the top is 1 kilometer and it's pretty steep. When I got there I remembered something very different between Americans and Europeans (or at least Czechs) when it comes to things like scenic overlooks.

For many Americans the scenic overlook is a wonderful thing, but not really a destination; it's a detour as part of a larger journey. Think of a roadside vista point there an American family pulls up, gets out of the car, checks things out and then it's "alright kids back in the car. We've got 500 more miles to go before we get to Disneyland."

When I reached the top of the overlook there were maybe 20 Czechs just hanging out with the view. They were all relaxing and chatting and taking it in. A few were enjoying a cigarette and a beer and chatting while sitting a few meters from the edge of the cliff. I can't think of many places in the States where Americans would hike up a strenuous hill for a kilometer, get to the top and say to themselves, "this is really beautiful. I'm going to relax with a cigarette and just drink it all in." Heck, I didn't even stay that long up top. There wasn't any reason to, which I think is precisely the reason one would want to stay there for a while. When you can derive purpose from an absence of purpose you have reached a point of existential relaxation I'm just not ready for yet. Or maybe you're a smoker and you need to take a pretty long rest after a hard climb.

Svaty Jan Pod Skalou, Czech Republic

As you can see it is a beautiful view of a tiny hamlet. The monastery dominates the town. My friend tells me the monastery was used to house political prisoners during the communist era.

As you can see from the photo the forest is pretty dense. From here I went back down the hill and started hiking in the direction of Karlstejn. The trail wandered though the woods and it was the same quiet, restful solitude I'd had for the first part of the trip. The rolling clouds made the sunlight that broke through the forest canopy dance on the leaves around me and it was like walking through a Robert Frost poem.

Svaty Jan Pod Skalou, Czech Republic

The trail goes though a management-free section of forest that is being used as an experiment. I guess they don't have many unmanaged forests in Europe. They don't have a lot of wildfires either. You'll know you're entering and leaving the management-free zone when you see signs warning you of the possibility of falling trees. I didn't see much deadfall, but there was some.

Shortly after you exit the management-free area on your way to Karstejn you come to some vodopady or waterfalls. They aren't treacherous dives off terrifying precipices, but rather gentle runs down some sloped rock faces.

Karstejn, Czech Republic, waterfalls, vodopady

Karstejn, Czech Republic, waterfalls, vodopady

There are a few of them in a row and they are about 4 km outside of Karlstejn. I saw a few people who had just hiked up to the waterfalls and back.

At this point I knew I wasn't far and I thought I might be able to catch a distant view of the castle at some point. There was really only one view of the castle along the way and it wasn't what I expected -- it was better.

I have written before about how I find the rapeseed fields very beautiful. They are like oceans of yellow paint, their waves crashing on green shores. I have been hoping to find a place where I could capture one of these fields in just the right way. A came around a corner and saw the trail skirted one of these fields with the castle peeking out of the trees behind it. The light was perfect and the whole thing was like a shot from a Boz Luhrmann film. As a side note I really hate Boz Luhrmann's films, but he does a great job of capturing beautiful scenery.

Karstejn, Czech Republic, Karlstejn Castle, Rapeseed, field

To me it looked like a painting. So, I applied a photoshop filter to make it look more like an oil painting. It's about as close to actual painting as I will ever get. I'm not usually a heavy photoshop filter user, but in this case I really like the results.

From here I was at the castle in about 20 minutes. I hiked up the trail to the back door of the place and made my way to the rear gate, I think.

Karstejn, Czech Republic, Karlstejn Castle

This isn't "inside" the castle it's a path that follows the outer walls. When I got to the gate there was a sign saying that the last tour of the day had already started and the castle was now closed to the public, it was a little after 17:00. I made my way to the town to get some food, then caught the train back to Prague. The whole hike was a little over 15 kilometers and I was plenty tired after. It looks like I'm going to have to make a special trip just to see the castle.

Karstejn, Czech Republic, Karlstejn Castle

Karstejn, Czech Republic, Karlstejn Castle

Karstejn, Czech Republic, Karlstejn Castle

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Sometimes History is too Recent

For about the last year I have wanted to get to a small town about 60 kilometers (or 37 miles) north of Prague. I knew it wouldn't be a happy-look-at-the-pretty-Czech-village kind of trip and I suppose there is never exactly a "good" time to go, but it is a place that needs to be visited. It is the town of Terezin.

It is a fortress built in the late 1700s, complete with citadel, designed to protect the region from the Prussians. In 1943, after "annexing" the region because of a large population of ethnic Germans (not entirely different than Russia's stance on the Eastern Ukraine), the Nazis decided to make use of the citadel as a ghetto for Jewish "prisoners." All of that basically translates to the place being a concentration camp. The Germans called it Teresienstadt.

I have been in a few fortresses. I think they are amazing. They are testaments to the ingenuity of the period when they were built. Built to withstand the intense conditions of cannon-based siege warfare, many of these things will be around for centuries to come. As far as I can tell, I have never been in a fort with the specific "star" design that Terezin has. Take a look at it on Google Maps if you look at the stream surrounding the city and citadel you will see the placement of the walls. The stream is basically a moat surrounding the structures.

It was an easy trip out and back, but I will break from my general rule of not describing exactly how to get to a place because there are some things that will make it a lot easier if you know them. The easiest, and biggest ripoff, way to get there is to book some tour bus ride from a stand in Prague. This is easy, but will likely cost you four times what the trip is worth. The best way is to go to this website and book some round trip bus tickets. There is no train going to this town. You will want to leave from Nadrazi Holesovice in Prague. Buses leave about every hour. Your destination will be Terezin Autobusove Nadrazi, which basically translates to Terezin bus station. There is no bus station in the village, unless you count four parking spots with signs as a bus station. It will cost you roughly 65CZK each way. There is a bus stop across the street from the concentration camp, but the bus has to go through the town and to Litomerice before it drops you across from the camp. It is actually faster to stop in the town and walk the 800 meters to the camp. Also, it is best to catch the bus in town for your return trip.

If you go in the spring you will be able to see all the fields of rapeseed or řepka (I think). I was told what you see there is the Czech word for it, Google Translate tells me it just means "rape." I don't know, what I do know is the fields full of yellow are beautiful to me. 

Here is the deal with the buses: You can take your chances and buy a ticket from the driver on the platform, that will cost you 70CZK, but I wouldn't; especially when it comes to the return trip. These buses are basically public transport. You might get a direct bus from Prague, but the last bus for the day, which I took back from Terezin, stopped in a few small villages to take on new riders. The trip there took an hour. The trip back took a little over 90 minutes. Also, if you have a ticket; muscle in and show it to the driver before he sells all the seats to the people standing on the platform. The driver doesn't have a way to know if he has pre-sold seats or not. This is particularly important if you want to catch the last bus back from Terezin and why I suggest catching it at the "bus station" in the town. A group of Chinese tourists caught the bus at the stop across from the camp and it was a close call for them to have seats.

After I got there I was pretty amazed at how depressing the town was. The main square in the center was uninspiring to say the least and the whole town felt like it was trapped in a state of remorse. I figured it was because it was early in the day on a Saturday, but that just wasn't so.

Terezin, Czech Republic

I made this panoramic photo with my phone before I left and you can see how barren the square is. There is this modest fountain, some patchy grass and occasionally a few people wandering through. I think if the town didn't have such an evil past it might have seemed a bit happier. The sordid past combined with the effects of years of less-than-stellar economic movement have left this place in perpetual state of mourning. Later in the day I walked by a playground with lots of kids playing in it and honestly, their laughter seemed muffled in the air. The air really does seem to be heavy with sorrow -- still.

It's too bad. I saw people leading normal village lives. People riding their bikes back from the grocery store. People enjoying sidewalk beer gardens. Teenagers joking and carrying on in front of the grocery store on the main square. If it had just always been a fortress it would have been a really amazing thing to see. Not that it wasn't amazing, it's just that the impressiveness of the structure was stifled by the tens of thousands of deaths that happened there. It's as if pain and grief has seeped into every stone.

I looked around the square after arriving and walked to the citadel, or small fortress. It's really easy to know when you are outside the old fortress city because you will see the gates, long since disused. 

Terezin, Czech Republic, fortress

This is one of the old city gates. One of the roads into town is next to this gate. I suppose it was easier to build next to it where the bridge was. A little further and I came to the cemetery that is placed outside the walls of the citadel which comprised the bulk of the ghetto. There is no way they could make a grave for each person who died there and they most likely haven't found everyone because they were tossed in mass graves and later cremated, their remains dumped in thin paper boxes and left to God knows what fate.

Terezin, Czech Republic, cemetery

Everyone got a number. Not every grave had a name.

Terezin, Czech Republic, cemetery

In the first photo of the cemetery you can see the walls of the citadel in the background. It's a very short, solemn walk to the main gate, where the ticket window for the camp is.

Terezin, Czech Republic, ghetto, concentration camp

You can take a guided tour, but if I can avoid it I usually do. The pamphlet they give you for the self-guided tour is plenty. There is actually a lot of information in it and each part of the camp is numbered. They start you off slowly and you think a little bit to yourself that "this isn't so bad." I wish I could say it stays that way. I think every person will have the gravity of what happened here hit them at a different point of the camp. For much of the first half of the tour it was just surreal and felt more like touring an old movie set. That might have something to do with the fact that the Nazis also used Terezin as a place to show the world that the "ghettos" weren't so bad and were just a bunch of Jewish folks living in discomfort. Maybe no worse than how the Japanese had it in the U.S.

Terezin, Czech Republic, ghetto, concentration camp

See, this doesn't look so bad. It's the initial processing area. This is where you were registered and logged when you first arrived at the camp. It just looks like an old office from the 1940s. There is a room off to the right side where all the records were kept and that was a bit more depressing, but there was a glass door barring entry so I just peaked in. All the records were kept in open cubbyholes. There were thousands of them. 

Terezin, Czech Republic, ghetto, concentration camp

Then you went to another pretty innocent looking mid-century office. This is where everyone was issued their clothing. It doesn't even have a prison feel, let alone a genocide feel. Things go downhill pretty quickly from here, but everything still felt like it wasn't real.

Terezin, Czech Republic, ghetto, concentration camp, Arbeit Macht Frei

"Work makes you free" these famous words appear in iron over the gates at Auschwitz in Poland. They are probably most infamous for their placement above that gate, but they still have a powerful effect here. Not wrought from iron, but still powerful. Keep in mind that many people from Terezin were sent to Auschwitz and Buchenwald to die. Directly behind this gate you can see the open door and barred windows of one of the dormitories. 

Terezin, Czech Republic, ghetto, concentration camp

To me, this looks like a movie set. It is the dormitory you can see just behind the arch. The only things that brought the gravity of what I was looking at to me were the flowers laid on the bed as a memorial and the "toilet." It was an indoor outhouse with a window in the door so you could see if it was occupied. There were definitely more than 20 people living in this room, that must have been pretty terrible. In the dorm across the hall someone had lain a few roses on the bed a long time ago.

Terezin, Czech Republic, ghetto, concentration camp

I don't know who made the decision for minimal maintenance here, but I get mixed feelings about it. I'm not sure it would be right to clean the place until it was spotless. At the same time, there were cobwebs and bird's nests all over the place. The open doors are left that way, perhaps forever. Maybe it's good to leave the doors open for the rest of time, they were closed for too many for too long. There are of course some sections of the camp with chained, padlocked doors. I am guessing that is because they are in a state of dangerous disrepair. On the other hand, this is a memorial and a grave to thousands. Some reverence is in order, maybe try to keep the birds out.

Terezin, Czech Republic, ghetto, concentration camp

This was the doctor's office. A local Czech doctor from the village was assigned to be the doctor for the ghetto. I can only imagine it was the worst job on earth.

Near the doctor's office was a block of solitary confinement cells. These were fairly luxurious compared to the ones I saw later. Then again the situation was the same with the dormitories. The ones added the latest were definitely the worst, albeit larger.

Terezin, Czech Republic, ghetto, concentration camp

Here you can see two of the solitary cells next to the "bathroom." You can also see that the tub is covered in bird shit. The barn swallow living in cell 14 sits on the shower head an looks out the open door. These cells by the door were in the part of the block with the most light.

Terezin, Czech Republic, ghetto, concentration camp

The photo above doesn't really show that the wall was covered in dirt and cobwebs, but it was. This is inside one of the solitary cells in the same block as the bathroom. Each one at least had a window. They were cold, as were the dormitories. The dormitories each had a small stove. The solitary cell block had a small stove for the whole block. I can only imagine how cold it was during the winter.

Terezin, Czech Republic, ghetto, concentration camp

This massive device was in the delousing and bathing center. It's a giant autoclave for clothes, not an oven for burning bodies. This building also had two very large public shower rooms, like what I've seen in a few films. They consisted of a network of pipes overhead with shower heads hanging down. There was a pretty large boiler in the building, so I assume there was a chance for some hot, or at least warm showers. The showers were only hooked up for water, as far as I've read they were not used to gas people.

Terezin, Czech Republic, ghetto, concentration camp, fortress tunnel. fortress

After looking at all these things the gravity of what happened in Terezin was starting to hit me. I came to the mortuary, where many of the dead were held for a brief while and then cremated or thrown in some mass grave. It was tiny, the bodies can't have been kept there for more than a few hours. Next the the mortuary was the door to this tunnel. It leads to the execution grounds. The information pamphlet says the Nazis didn't use it during the occupation. I find that a little difficult to believe, even though there was a much faster way to get to the same place. This tunnel is one of the things I love about forts. It was a little overshadowed by the whole concentration camp thing.

Terezin, Czech Republic, ghetto, concentration camp

Then there was this. This plaque basically says, in Czech, that it stands on the site of a mass grave. At some point in the summer of 1945, 601 bodies were pulled out of it and buried in the national cemetery, the one just outside the citadel walls. The statue you see at the top left is a memorial marking the place where the executions happened. I have a pretty strong feeling that there are a few more mass graves in this earth that will remain covered. Six hundred one bodies is barely a fraction of the total number of people murdered here.

Terezin, Czech Republic, ghetto, concentration camp, gallows

This is where everything came together for me. The literature says only three people were hanged here one time and that was it, but the gallows brought it all home to me. Up until this point the place was just a shitty prison. I've been in a lot of prisons, because I studied corrections in college not because I'm a criminal. I've seen execution facilities before. I've sat in a gas chamber where people were executed. I've lain on a lethal-injection table where people were executed. I've even seen a prop gallows before. None of those things can compare with this simple structure. This bleak machine kills humans, that is all it does and the three people whose lives it ended most likely didn't deserve it. I can't say that about the other two execution chambers I've been in. From this point on I really didn't want to be there anymore. I've never seen a ghost, but I feel things and I can tell you with 100% certainty -- this place is haunted. It started to happen when I was in the tunnel leading to the execution grounds, but once I was there I realized that I could almost feel the suffering.

Terezin, Czech Republic, ghetto, concentration camp

Not far from the execution grounds were more cells. These solitary cells were worse that the first ones. Colder, with smaller windows. Each one had a stove in it though. I stood in one of the cells and outstretched my arms. I could not extend them all the way, two meters. I didn't see anything that could be used for a toilet.

Terezin, Czech Republic, ghetto, concentration camp

Across the yard from the solitary cell was were more dormitories. This is a photo of one of the large ones. There were some smaller narrower ones. There was white mold growing on the beds and walls in them. I can't imagine what living in here was like. Once again it looks like what I've seen in films. No film can make you feel the way this place does though. The most striking thing to me, and the reason I took this photo, was that the light switch was on the outside.

There was more to see here, but I had been there for almost four hours and I needed to leave so I walked back to the town. There are a few museums there and some more memorials. Some female prisoners lived in the town too. The barracks they lived in was turned into a museum. One room had a mock up of a dormitory. With possessions in it I thought to myself, "this doesn't look so bad." I was very wrong and will not ever forget it. I stumbled around the town for a short while and noticed that at one point it must have been pretty beautiful.

Terezin, Czech Republic, ghetto, fortress

Then I had some more time to kill and decided to make my was to the crematorium. It was closed because it was Saturday. I'm not sure if it was a sabbath thing or just the weekend, but it was another graveyard and memorial.

Terezin, Czech Republic, ghetto, concentration camp

There were hundreds of these, randomly placed with no names; all facing the same direction. The yellow building in the background is where tens of thousands of bodies were turned to ash and then placed in paper boxes.

On my way back from the crematorium I saw some horses grazing between the fortress walls. This place was used for troop encampments and could be flooded for protection. Why not put your horses there to graze?
Terezin, Czech Republic, fortress, fortress moat, fortress walls

You can see the impressive design of the walls and imagine that this place would have been nearly impossible to take. I remember reading a story from WWII where American troops found a fortress with Germans inside. A place like this, designed to withstand cannon-based siege warfare. The Germans had locked the doors and took up defensive positions. The Americans shot the doors with horizontal 155mm artillery from the minimum safe distance, maybe a little inside it, and didn't even scratch the doors. Terezin was once such a place and the Nazis stained it with the blood of tens of thousands of Jewish people.

On my way back I happened to see a group of people reenacting Freikorps troops from the Austro-Hungarian army. These were basically the volunteers who lived in the city and were ready to defend it. The 1800 equivalent of the army reserve. At least someone is trying to preserve some of the glory of this place.

Terezin, Czech Republic, fortress, Freikorps, Austro-Hungarian soldiers

Friday, May 16, 2014

Thank you America

Just two days before Germany surrendered to Allied troops on May 8, 1945 the U.S. 16 Armored Division and Second Infantry Division rolled into Plzen in the Czech Republic, at the time Czechoslovakia. While Patton's Third Army was liberating most of Western Bohemia the Red Army was busy kicking Nazis out of the eastern part of the country. After 1948, when the communists took over in Czechoslovakia, all mention of the American liberation of Plzen stopped.

Evidently elements of the Third Army hung around in Plzen helping people rebuild the town until about November. It turns out the Czechs have a long memory because in 1989 when the communists were removed from power the people of Plzen organized a festival to celebrate what the U.S. Army did for them. They also erected monuments thanking the U.S.

The appreciation hasn't waned, even in the 25 years since the good people of Plzen started celebrating. The event has grown bigger and has even had to move parts of it to a city park a few hundred meters from the square in the city center. I thought it sounded like a good time, me liking military history and all, so I went.

It had a little bit of a Fourth of July parade type feel. Every light pole on Klatovska Trida (the main drag through town) sported Czech and American flags, there was a parade with soldiers and lots of people wandering around carrying little American flags. There were even lots of WWII era military vehicles. It was really nice, almost like home.

I took the train down from Prague. It's easy and cheap at 100CZK each way. I strolled over to Namesti Republiky for the end of the parade. Along the square the vehicles and soldiers stopped for a while so spectators could inspect them. Then after a short while they rolled out to the nearby city park for a more permanent display. The square was better because the vehicles were roped off in the park, which also doubled as a reenacted military camp -- for several armies.

WWII, Plzen, World War II, U.S. WWII soldiers, 16 Armored Division, Liberation of Plzen, Czech Republic, Czechoslovakia

As you can see some of these guys worked pretty hard to make things authentic. What I thought was the most interesting thing about the whole situation was that there were people participating in what I can only describe as cosplay for several generations of soldiers. I even saw a unit of Czechs dressed up in VERY accurate modern U.S. Army class B uniforms, so that was a little strange. There were some people who just took "playing army" to a whole other level and I don't know if it freaked me out or made me feel good that someone, or a lot of someones, in a place so far from where I used to see this stuff for real every day would appreciate and love it so much to work so hard to emulate it. Shoot, there were so many "2ID soldiers" in ACUs that in certain areas I could have sworn I was in the Killeen, Texas Rosa's Cafe on a Tuesday at lunchtime -- or a DEFAC whatever. 

At one point while I was walking across the square to check things out I saw a squad of MARSOC Marines posing for photos with children. It was really, really, really surreal. I stepped away from the hubub around the square after taking a few photos and wandered around the town for a short while. I was a bit hungry and maybe a little hungover and I needed some food (read beer) before wrapping my confused brain around things like a reconstruction of an ISAF FOB gate sitting in a park in the Czech Republic. 

WWII, Plzen, World War II, U.S. WWII soldiers, 16 Armored Division, Liberation of Plzen, Czech Republic, Czechoslovakia

This dude was totally in character, so I took a few photos of him. He is the right age for the part and fortunately in one of the few places in the world where you can still smoke and not have people vilify you. I even gave this kid an artistic desaturation to make the photo look more "authentic" plus, he looked like he spent a lot of time working on his "thousand yard stare" so I figured some creative editing was in order. It was really cool to look at the scene and imagine that it looked almost exactly like this at some point nearly 70 years ago.

WWII, Plzen, World War II, U.S. WWII soldiers, 16 Armored Division, Liberation of Plzen, Czech Republic, Czechoslovakia

WWII, Plzen, World War II, U.S. WWII soldiers, 16 Armored Division, Liberation of Plzen, Czech Republic, Czechoslovakia, Army Jeep

As I was leaving the square on my quest for "lunch," just before this jeep, I passed a Corvette Z06. This is a pretty rare car to see in Europe, not as rare as the 1969 Dodge Coronet R/T I saw a little later in the day, and didn't photograph, but still pretty rare. While I was walking past the Vette to this Jeep an American family was going the other direction on the sidewalk. They couldn't figure out what the Corvette was and were all quite impressed by its beauty. "What kind of car is that?" One said. "Oh that thing is cool," said another. Finally, "I think it's a Corvette." I just laughed. Then took pictures of this Jeep. You can see the Corvette down the street a ways, it's yellow. These army Jeeps have a special place in my heart because the first car I ever "drove" was my Uncle Bob's 1945 Navy Jeep. It's still around.

WWII, Plzen, World War II, U.S. WWII soldiers, 16 Armored Division, Liberation of Plzen, Czech Republic, Czechoslovakia, Czech soldiers, Czechoslovak soldiers, Czechoslovak army

After lunch I wandered to the park to see what the mock encampment had to offer. There were a few things to see, like the dapper-as-hell Czechoslovak paratrooper trying to rock a Mae West like it was comfortable. That is where I saw a few other generations of soldiers represented and something I really don't think I will ever see again.

U.S. Cavalry, German Soldiers, WWII, World War II

Yes -- That is a U.S. Cavalry trooper photographing a Nazi SS officer on a horse. I really don't have words for this. In America, people don't cosplay Nazis. Well, people do, but they aren't seen in public often. I suppose there is some variety of excuse for dressing like a Nazi at certain events in Europe, or North Africa. What gives this guy even bigger balls is that I'm pretty sure he was German. But he wasn't alone, which either made it better or worse, I'm not really sure.

WWII, Plzen, World War II, Czech Republic, Czechoslovakia, German army

This was a little more palatable for me. There were a few German vehicles and a couple of guys dressed as normal Wehrmacht soldiers, which I also didn't find anywhere near as disturbing as the SS dude. I suppose there is a bit of a stigma surrounding the SS and considering that about 2,000 Jews from Plzen were sent to a nearby concentration camp it wouldn't have been my first choice of costumes.To his credit though, it is a really good costume.

So all this reenacting was just a bit surreal to me and I'd love to tell you that I haven't ever seen anything like it, but that would be a lie. I've been to Civil War reenactments where people actually act out battles. I suppose compared to that, this is fairly tame. This is more like a living museum. To me though this time period isn't far enough in the past. I know people who lived this. By all accounts I met at least one man who I know was in Plzen on May 6, 1945. He got blowed up pretty good during the war and his mind was a patchwork quilt of clarity, but he knows he was Patton's driver during the whole war. All of these things makes it a little more real for me and in some way it bothered me.

WWII, Plzen, World War II, U.S. WWII soldiers, 16 Armored Division, Liberation of Plzen, Czech Republic, Czechoslovakia

So I left the camp and went to look at the memorials. You may remember this monument from and earlier post about Plzen. If not, go look. With the sun up and some flags flying it is much more impressive. The theme is still the same, "Diky America" or "Thank you America."

Honestly, that isn't something I hear very often at all anymore. If I do it's with sarcasm. My social media feeds are crammed with posts about how this politician is an idiot or that action was stupid. I have friends on both sides of the aisle saying the same thing about different people.

Czechs don't usually bother me too much about U.S. politics. It does happen from time to time, but I've had people from many European nations ask me what I'd consider to be rather rude questions about my country's policies. To their credit, I've had people from many European countries say something like, "yeah, it works in my country but such and such policy would never work in yours."

It was really nice to see a message of thanks on such a huge scale in a place so far away. It made me realize that at least in some corners of the world some people still appreciate it when a nation sends people to die for them. It's also nice to hear the words "U.S." and "military" without any mention of oil. So many people think America has only ever wanted to invade countries to take oil, and rape and kill innocent people. That is only about 40 years of our military history and a lot of it has been spend fixing what England screwed up -- and maybe a little trying to be like daddy in that respect. Look at all the oil we got out of Europe -- twice. Okay, my political rant is over. Like I said, the message and atmosphere were excellent. I would even encourage other Americans who are going to be in Europe around May 6 next year to plan on making a stop in Plzen. Honestly, you'll never see anything like it at home, Corvettes aside.

WWII, Plzen, World War II, U.S. WWII soldiers, 16 Armored Division, Liberation of Plzen, Czech Republic, Czechoslovakia

Down the street from the Thank you America memorial is this more modest memeorial to European soldiers, I think. My Czech still isn't that good. It's a memorial and it's for soldiers. Then just a bit further is a memorial to the 2nd Infantry Division.

WWII, Plzen, World War II, U.S. WWII soldiers, 16 Armored Division, Liberation of Plzen, Czech Republic, Czechoslovakia, 2nd Infantry Division

I'm not sure how I missed this last time I was in Plzen. I doubt the flags are flying all year long. The nice, and maybe not so nice, thing is that there was a strong police presence at each memorial where there were flags. While it made me think that maybe the "Thank you" message isn't shared by everyone it also impressed me that the city would bother to post at least one officer, sometimes, two at each station to keep things from being messed with. 

After a long, but quick, day of wandering around Plzen I had to make my way back to Hlavni Nadrazi to catch the last train home. The awesome thing about Plzen is once you have visited the first time you never need a map. It's that small and easy to get around. Sure it's no American grid-based town, but I was able to get to the train station with no trouble. As I was crossing the mighty Vlatava for the last time I saw a man fishing. I realized I see a man fishing here every time I go to Plzen, which I realize is exactly twice but anyway I took a photo.

I'm pretty sure I wouldn't eat anything I caught out of the Vlatava.

When I got to the train station I realized how much I like it. I think it is beautiful. In fact I haven't seen too many train stations in Europe that aren't just epic. They are the beautiful impressive structures designed to do be the first great thing travelers see -- Vienna excluded. Plzen's station is one of my favorites.

I had enough time to grab a beer before I left, from the platform on the left side of the photo up there, to take the hour and a half ride back home. Of course everyone wanted to leave Plzen and I had to sit on the floor in steerage but it was a nice German train so I didn't mind.