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

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