Day 7 – Prague – Terezin

Today after breakfast we headed out on a cool, rainy day for Terezin and Lidice,  accompanied by a Czech survivor, Doris Schimmerlingova Grozdanovicova who would  tell us her story in Terezin, a garrison town which became a concentration camp, renamed and known during the Holocaust as Theresienstadt.  Doris had accompanied us last year and we were thrilled to again have her join us and share her story.  Today was Doris’ 91st birthday, she told us.  “I did not think I would be spending it in Terezin”, she said, “but I’m so happy to be with you.”

 

On our way out of the city, we passed a memorial with 3 paratroopers.  Shalmi told us of the Czech partisans from the resistance who had parachuted into Czechoslovakia with the goal of killing Reinhard Heydrich in a mission called Operation Anthropoi.  Heydrich was a top level Nazi who had helped organize Kristallnacht, was responsible for the Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units in Eastern Europe], had chaired the Wannsee Conference in January 1942 to plan the implementation of the Final Solution, and had been placed in charge of this part of Czechoslovakia, known as Bohemia and Moravia.  The plan was to ambush his car at a curve along the route in Prague that he regularly took and kill him.  On May 27, 1942, one paratrooper jumped in front of the car as planned but his machine gun would not fire, a second then lobbed a hand grenade into the car, killing the driver and mortally wounding Heydrich.  He would die of his wounds on June 2, 1942.  So the man in charge of the Final Solution died at its very first stages, we were told, and all that remained of him was his name.  The eliminated of the Polish Jews would be called Operation Heydrich.

 

The three paratroopers would be hunted down by the Nazis where they were located in the crypt of the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius, an Eastern Orthodox church in Prague .   The Nazis tried to smoke them out and even tried to flood the crypt in an effort to take them alive.  The resistance fighters chose to commit suicide rather than surrender.  Later, the bishop of the church and all top level clergy would be arrested and executed as collaborators, for hiding the paratroopers.  Our last stop today, Lidice, would also be linked to this event. 
On the bus ride, Shalmi gave us some historical context for what we would be seeing.  Terezin was one of those sites which was part of both Phase 2 ‘Concentration and Ghettoization’ and Phase 3 ‘Annihilation’ about which we had heard at the Wannsee House in Berlin.  Germany had been given the Sudetenland section of the country in September 1938 at the Munich Conference  because it was largely populated by ethnic Germans.  The National Socialists in Slovakia led by Josef Tiso were told they would be supported by the Nazis if they separated Slovakia from Czechoslovakia which they did in March of 1939, becoming an Axis Power ally.  The German army then marched into and occupied the remainder of Czechoslovakia which they renamed Bohemia and Moravia.   There were 120,000 Jews in Bohemia and Moravia and the Nazis needed a place to concentrate them until they decided what to do with them.  Terezin would provide this temporary solution. Shalmi said it could be thought of as a ‘parking lot’.  Czechoslovakia was different from Poland, also, in that while Polish Jews were concentrated in multiple ghettos, here there was but one:  Terezin.
Terezin was an existing walled in city outside of Prague which had been a garrison town established under Emperor Joseph II and named after his mother, Maria Theresa, to house the families of the soldiers who would be stationed at the Small Fortress nearby.  Under German occupation, Terezin would be renamed Theresienstadt, the town would become the ghetto and the small fortress would become the concentration camp.  Theresienstadt would last from its establishment in October 1941 until its liberation at the end of the war, making it one of the longest lasting institutions established by the Nazis during the Holocaust.  Jews would be gathered in Terezin, guarded by Czech police and monitored by Nazi officials,.  Internally, the ghetto would be under Jewish management, with a Judenrat (Jewish Council) and Jewish police. 

 

At the ghetto museum we watched a film which included video clips of the propaganda film created by the Nazis called “A Gift of a Town” in which they had tried to dispel rumors of deplorable conditions in the ghettos which had been created by the Nazis.  These scenes were juxtaposed wth powerful artworks secretly drawn by artists in the ghetto depicting the true conditions of overcrowding and hunger, while a narrator reads transport records, such as “Transport AA, Auschwitz, 1,000 people, 2 survivors, Transport AK, Treblinka, 1,000 people, no survivors,” etc.
At a model of the town, Shalmi showed us the layout and talked about the organization of the ghetto.  Terezin was different in that families were not housed together.  One of the first decisions of the Judenrat was to keep men and women and children separated, both for space reasons, and, in the case of the children, to protect them.

 

 

As we walked up the stairs to the exhibition, we stopped on the stairs which were surrounded by pictures drawn by the Terezin ghetto residents.  Shalmi pointed out two which he found particularly telling.  In one there was a woman in a fur coat, digging in a pile of dirt, looking for potatoes.  This pointed out the ‘absurd’, he said.  In another, a room is shown with family members gathered, playing instruments.  In the corner, an older man sits, with an expression of “What is this all about?”  In all this uncertainty, his family is playing music — a paradox – as Shalmi has so often mentioned to us.

 

We then walked through the exhibition with Shalmi and Kamila and Doris pointing out exhibits of special interest, including the children’s art, a picture of Doris with her sheep (her story will be told later) and even a large exhibit which listed all of the transports to and from Theresienstadt.  Doris showed us where her transport was listed, Transport U arriving January 28, 1942.  She was 16 years old and would spend her next 3 birthdays in Terezin.   

 

 

Shalmi also told us of the Red Cross visit to Terezin because of the Danish Jews.  In October 1943 the Germans were planning to round up the Danish Jews, but news of the impending roundup was leaked and of its 8,000 Jews, Danes were able to smuggled all but 400 into Sweden and safety.  The Germans did find 400, however.  The Danish Foreign Minister wanted to know where they would be taken and the Germans told him Terezin.  The Danish Foreign Minister then told the Germans he would be visiting the Danish Jews in Terezin along with representatives of the Red Cross.  Knowing of this impending visit and taking it seriously for some reason (Shalmi noted the absurdity that they would be concerned by such a visit while at the same time they were murdering thousands of Jews each day in Auschwitz), the Germans proceeded to prepare the ghetto for their arrival. They began a ‘beautification’ process up sprucing up the ghetto:  painting the buildings, planting flowers, providing more food, and making the propaganda film we had seen.  They also reduced the ghetto population, sending two transports of 5,000 Jews to Auschwitz where, instead of being gassed, they were held in a special area, known as the Terezin or Czech Family Camp.  The Red Cross visit happened – a very superficial visit in which there was no effort made to find out the real conditions in the camp.  The Red Cross then issued a report saying there was basically nothing wrong happening in Terezin.  A day after the visit, we were told, the Czech Family Camp in Auschwitz was liquidated and all were murdered in the gas chambers.  Fifty years later, Shalmi said, the Red Cross officially apologized for its report on Terezin.
We then walked to a building in the ghetto, a hidden prayer room which had been constructed by the Danish Jews who had been sent to Terezin in October 1943.  Known as the Danish synagogue, it was discovered about 15 years ago.  Shalmi told us that the prayers on the walls reflected the heartbreaking dialogue of the Jews with their God.   Verses such as “We beg you, turn back from your anger and have mercy on the treasured nation that you have chosen” and “But despite all this, we have not forgotten your name.  We beg you not to forget us” were written on the walls.  Shalmi said it was known from testimony that there were at least 5 such prayer places for Jews and 5 for Christians in the ghetto.  Why Christians?  Because many people had been labeled as Jews who did not consider themselves Jews.  Many people had converted, but if they had one Jewish grandparent, the Nazis considered them Jewish still. 

 

 

 

 

 

Next we walked to the Magdeburg Barracks which had housed the Jewish Council, leaders of the ghetto administration.  Here, Doris told us her family’s story.  She was born in the Czech town of Brno, and in 1942, she, her mother and father and older brother were all sent to Terezin.  Her mother would die in Terezin;  her father and brother would be transported to Auschwitz where her father would be murdered.  Three months after the end of the war she would be reunited with her brother.  Doris  said she was lucky because she was assigned the role of herding sheep.  This kept her outdoors in fresh air and she was housed in separate quarters from most of the girls.  She believes her working with sheep kept her alive.  “I have a collection of sheep today,” she said.  “Over 900.  People are always giving me sheep.  Not alive of course.” 

 

 

 

Shalmi then led us through the exhibition, which included a typical dormitory room, and sections devoted to the art, music, literature and theatre which ghetto residents left behind as their legacy.  We listed to the victory song from the children’s opera, Brundibar,  written by Hans Krasa and performed by children in the ghetto, viewed pictures by ghetto artists, and read some of the poetry and literature left by residents of the ghetto, their legacy to us.  Shalmi asked us to think about this.  Daily life could include soccer games, a children’s opera, a newspaper, Vedem, written by the boys in Terezin, art lessons, and concerts, and yet every day individual people disappeared.  How do you reconcile these two things:  the creation of culture alongside the destruction of people.  We reminded of the term ‘Kafkaesque’ that we had discussed previously.  Kafka was considered the father of Holocaust literature although he died in 1924.  Shalmi said that Kafka wrote about the absurd and that the Holocaust was not only about brutality, it was also about the absurd and surreal, especially from the point of view of the victims.  He told us of one of Kafka’s short stories, The Trial, in which a man is arrested, tried, convicted and executed without ever being told what crime he was being accused of having committed.  The Jews, similarly, could not understand what they were guilty of.    In the music room Shalmi translated a page from the diary of Rafael Schachter  [1904-1944] in which he spoke of the cold, food, a concert performance, transports to the east, and his room becoming nicer.  “Beyond Kafkaesque”, Shalmi said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Terezin we walked through the crematoria where they cremated bodies of ghetto residents due to malnutrition and disease.

 

 

 

 

 

 
Next we headed to our last stop in Terezin, the  Small Fortress where Shalmi spoke to us  of the purpose of concentration camps. Its function was to create conformity.  People who were political opponents of Nazism were brought here to re-educate them and bring them into line. In these places your identity was taken away, you were never given enough food so there was constant hunger.  The camp was about submission and survival until one had undergone the change from a person to an object.  Jews were not placed in concentration camps for the most part, because the Jews, according to Nazi ideology, were a race of people and there was nothing that could be done to change that through a process of re-education.   After walking into the camp under the iconic phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei”, Shalmi showed us the military barracks room, the delousing room, shower room and shaving room.

 

 

 

 

In June 1942, Heinrich Heydrich had been assassinated in Prague and the Nazi leadership wanted someone to pay.  Lidice was a small town outside of Prague with about 500 inhabitants. On June 10, 1942 the Nazis descended upon this small town in the mistaken belief that the residents had aided the paratroopers responsible for Heydrich’s assassination.  The men were all shot, the women were sent to Ravensbruck, very young children who could pass as Aryans were sent to Germany to be raised by German families, and 82 children who were older or who looked non-Aryan were transported to Lodz and then later to Auschwitz where they were murdered.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Lidice memorial is to the memory of the 82 children. The memorial was designed by sculptor Marie Uchytilova.  It is a bronze monument which depicts each of the 82 children from photographs.  There are 42 girls and 40 boys who look out over what used to be their village.  The last child sculptures were unveiled in 2000 so that the memorial is now complete.  It is an extremely powerful memorial that made a significant impact on us.  We next walked through the Lidice museum which depicts the assassination of Heydrich, the hunt for his killers, life in Lidice, and the massacre and destruction of the town.  One of the most haunting items in the exhibit was a school picture taken of the children eight days before the tragedy.  Before exiting, there were powerful video testimonies of both mothers who had survived but lost their children, and children who had been orphaned. 

 

 

 

 

We then returned to Prague and had a wonderful dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, Restaurant Nebozizek which is on Castle Hill overlooking Prague with spectacular views of the city.  We were joined by Doris and  Dana Brichtova who is owner of DAIDO travel agency in Prague and who has been such a wonderful organizer of our trip for us and become such a dear friend.  Our trip would never be as successful as it had been without all of her assistance and we are so indebted to her for her expertise and kindnesses.  After another outstanding dinner and a birthday celebration for Doris, with our gift of another sheep to add to her growing collection,  we said goodbye to her, thanking her for graciously spending the time with us and enriching our understanding of the events in Terezin and returned to the hotel to debrief and start packing as we were leaving Prague early the next morning. 

 

 

 

 

29 comments

  1. It's so sad they did not get to hear Pavel's story from him. RIP Pavel you are missed and remembered. This is really the turning point of the educational journey, when knowledge and sites become more emotional. Just remember it's okay to cry or smile or be emotionally confused it's very heavy information to take in. Just remember don't let the saddness blind you from the knowledge that you will be taught.

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  2. As I read yesterday's post, I was thinking that it was nice that you had a light day in Prague, as I knew you were building to the heavy emotional material in upcoming days. Judging from the photos and reflections posted today, those emotions are now quite apparent.From the picture alone, the Lidice memorial was a powerful and mesmerizing reminder that made me reflect for some time. I can only imagine the impact it had on everyone that was there in person today.Vinny Criscenzo

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  3. To what Henry recalled, the crematorium is just a room, but what happens in there is unbelievable for those who had passed away, each with their own story that had ended too short.

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  4. It was really sad to read about the 82 children who were killed. And it was sad to see that you weren't able to meet him.

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  5. It's terrible to see that 82 children were killed. The children's memorial makes me really sad. I can't imagine how terrible the people were that took away 82 children's lives.

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  6. Just looking at pictures of the memorial for the 82 children makes me emotional and almost ashamed to be human, if humanity willingly or not let such a cruel and unthinkable tragedy take place. I cannot imagine what it would be like to actually see the memorial in person.

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  7. I'm sorry to hear about the passing of Pavel Stransky and I see how involved he was with this trip in years past. It was also interesting to see the passages on the walls of the Danish synagogue, the same ones that we studied in class. The loss of eighty-two children is heartbreaking and unacceptable for another person to commit such ruthless behavior.

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  8. What an amazing experience you are all having together. It is so difficult to imagine anyone ever harming a defenseless and trusting child. Stay strong gang, and let the feelings that you felt today remain with you always. Those children will now live on through your memories. See you soon! xoxo Mrs. Groff

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  9. It’s amazing to see how much ground and history you can cover in just seven days. I find it very moving that you all paid tribute to Pavel Stransky , who sounds like he was an unbelievably positive gentleman despite his suffering and had a good heart who used it to educate others. I also didn’t know that they had a ghetto museum and am excited that my classmates are going to be bringing back experiences and stories to share with us. I can’t even begin to imagine the feeling of standing in that much history as those students who stood in Danish synagogue and Magdeburg Barracks. It is also invaluable to be able to have the opportunity to be educated at the Small Fortress. I had no idea that the idea of the concentration camps came from the USSR. I can’t imagine the unimaginable grief that those 82 children who lost their families over a mistake and then were sent to their unjustified murders— their families did not assist the paratroopers responsible for Heydrich’s assassination. Even viewing the picture of the monument, I get a hollow feeling that causes tears to spring to my eyes.

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  10. Overall, from reading the information, reflections, and responses on the trip to Prague and Terezin, I was very emotional, disturbed, and shocked. More specifically, the prayers on the walls of the Danish synagogue and the bronze monument of the children really caught my attention.From reading the short quotes of the prayers that were written on the walls of the Danish synagogue, I was very surprised at how strong the faith of the Danish Jews/ Jewish people were at times of distress and horror. Even though they were being humiliated, tortured, persecuted, and even killed, they still seeked forgiveness and mercy to their God. It really opened up my eyes in terms of faith. Along with that, the sight of the bronze monument of the 82 children really caught my attention. To think, 80+ innocent children were murdered for not being physically acceptable to the Aryan race/ Germans. I cannot imagine the feeling of their family members or even being in their place. Honestly, I would not have the guts or power to physically look at the destruction caused by the Nazis.

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  11. The Prayer Room sounds so powerful. It must have been very hard to read all of the prayers on the wall that the people were writing to God. It is truly heartbreaking to hear about those messages that were never answered.

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  12. Pavel Stransky and his wife sound like a beautiful example of how Jews brought life and happiness into even the bleakest circumstances. That they found love when they were surrounded by hatred and prejudice is heartwarming and emphasizes how the Jews managed to remain human even as Nazis persecuted them and tried to strip them of their identity. What is the state of Terezin currently? It seems similar to several cities taken over, renamed, and repurposed by the Nazis. Has the site been presereved as a monument to the awful things that happened there, or has the land been returned to the people of Prague who lived there before the Holocaust?The Lidice memorial is so beautiful. I find it interesting and powerful that each of the children were molded accurate to pictures of the child, rather than the faceless memorials that you have visited over the past few days. This type of memorial seems to speak to the humanity and individuality of each child.

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  13. The Children's Memorial was just heartbreaking to see. Doris is a very special lady to share hernstory with our kids. I loved all of your reflections. So much feeling and compassion.

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  14. Awww,what a special experience you all had with that very kind survivor, Doris. I personally would like to thank her for being so selfless and wanting to share her story despite the deep pain for her. I am so happy for Justin who made a special bond with such an amazing person! I found the Children's Memorial to be so devastatingly sad. Although I saw this 4 yrs. ago when my daughter went it still made me sob=(.

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  15. I have been reading the experiences you have been sharing and the pictures you have been posting. I recall some of the same experiences the students from last year experienced. What a fantastic learning opportunity! Continue be good observers of your surroundings and listen of Mr. Barmore's stories. It will help you recreate a history that should never happen again. It is your responsibility to take what you have learned and be the future leaders of tomorrow. Give my best to Colleen, Mr. Barmore, Bonnie, and Olaf.

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  16. The sculpture of the children have a depressing look on their faces and It looks like they lost hope and the will to live while inside the concentration camps. In my opinion it shows the victims inside these camps accurately the way the artist sculpts the children facial expressions and it is sad just looking at it.

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  17. It is terrible that so many innocent people had to suffer for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, and visiting the Lidice memorial must have been a very powerful experience. The Nazis made a pattern of responding to violence with further violence, and the repercussions of Heydrich's death seem similar to how the Nazis organized Kristallnacht, destroying countless Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues, and claimed it was in response to the assassination of the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath.

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  18. I remember standing in front of the Lidice memorial like it was yesterday. Hard to believe it was 2 years ago, but I'll never forget the emotions and insight I walked away with. Catching up on all the posts and I feel like I'm reliving my own experience. Looking forward to reading the days to come!!

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