DAY 7 PRAGUE / THERESIENSTADT AND LIDICE
Today after breakfast we headed out for the day’s sites of Terezin and Lidice. On our way out of the city, we passed a memorial with 3 paratroopers holding their arms to the sky.. Kamila told us of the 3 paratroopers from the resistance who had parachuted into Czechoslovakia with the goal of killing Reinhard Heydrich. Heydrich was the Deputy Commander of the SS who had organized the meeting at the Wannsee House in Berlin in January 1942 to coordinate the implementation of Final Solution.. The paratroopers’ plan was to ambush Heydrich’s car at a curve along the route in Prague that he regularly took and kill him. 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. The three paratroopers would be hunted down by the Nazis in a Prague church.. They were hiding in the basement and the Nazis decided to flood the basement with water to force them out but they chose to commit suicide rather than surrender. Our last stop today, Lidice, would also be linked to Heydrich’s assassination..
On the bus ride, Mr. Barmore 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 Allies, in particular British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, were pleased with the results of the conference and Chamberlain went home to Britain claiming “We shall have peace in our time.” the German army would march in and occupy the rest of Czechoslovakia without a shot fired and a year later World War II would begin. Slovakia separated and was declared an autonomous state, an Axis ally and the of Czechoslovakia was renamed Bohemia and Moravia and occupied by German forces. 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. Theresienstadt would provide a temporary solution. Mr. Barmore said it could be thought of as a ‘parking lot’.
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 places established by the Nazis during the Holocaust. The garrison town had been constructed for 6,000 people. During the Holocaust it housed at its height, 60,000 people. And the town of Terezin now has about 2,000 residents.
As we arrived in Terezin we were joined by our friend and videographer Evan Eagleson, who flew in overnight from New Jersey, and would be joining us for the second half of the trip. Evan will be taking pictures and videos which he will compile into a documentary of the trip as he has done for the past two years. Our leadership team now felt complete. Standing outside the ghetto museum which had been one of the children’s barracks, Mr. Barmore told us about the paradox of this ghetto. In Theresienstadt, the Judenrat (Jewish Council) decided that families were to be separated, adults from children with the goal of shielding the children from the harsher aspects of life in the ghetto. Children were housed in youth barracks. Their parents were often in barracks not far away and they could see them at night. There was a very special population of adults here, many academics and artists and musicians and they took on the role of educating the children, giving them art lessons and entertaining them with music. The Judenrat decreed that children were to receive double rations of the adults. Except for the fact that occasionally a child or several were suddenly missing, because families were deported together as a unit, many children survivors have said this was a good time in their lives. Perhaps they were an only child and they now had friends; or they enjoyed the special activities planned for them. This would also lead, we were told, to some condescension from the survivors of Auschwitz who felt that those who had lived in Terezin could not possibly understand the survivor experience of Auschwitz.
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 with 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. This propaganda film had been made by the Nazis to show the Red Cross during their visit, about which we would hear later in the museum.
After the film we stood before a model of the Terezin ghetto. “Every time I come here and have to explain these things I understand it less,” Mr. Barmore said. The only way to understand a place like Terezin is to understand the absurd, the surreal. Franz Kafka, who died 20 years before the Holocaust, is revered to as the Father of Holocaust Literature. How can that be? Because Kafka wrote about the absurd.
We were reminded that Terezin had been built as a garrison town to stop invading armies from the north, but, had, in fact never been used for that purpose. In 1941 the Nazis decided to house Czech Jews in Terezin and kicked out the 5-6,000 residents, and moved in Jews. The ghetto was managed by Jews, first under the leadership of Jakob Edelstein as Eldest of the Jews of the Judenrat. Mr. Barmore said it was unusual because he didn’t have to be here. Edelstein had a visa to go to Palestine but the Jews of Prague begging him to stay and help manage the ghetto. He did stay to help his community, with his wife and son, and ultimately would die in Auschwitz. Mr. Barmore said that what the Jewish leadership did was derived from what they knew or understood of their situation at the time. They thought it was a temporary situation and that they would return to their lives, so they needed to make the best out of a bad situation and mst importantly protect the children.
We then walked through the exhibition with Mr. Barmore and Kamila pointing out exhibits of special interest, including the children’s art, video testimony and even a large exhibit which listed all of the transports to and from Theresienstadt..
Mr. Barmore told us that at one point one of the most important facts about this ghetto was the visit by the International Red Cross. Scenes from the film we had seen earlier were from the propaganda film made by the Nazis for the Red Cross. Why did the Red Cross visit? Mr. Barmore said there was no real certainty but most historians believe it had something to do with Denmark. Denmark, we were told, was the only nation to save its Jews. 8,000 Jews lived in Denmark and the nation was able to save about 7,500. In October 1943 the Nazis planned to round up the Danish Jews for deportation, but a German businessman learned of the deportation and warned the leader of the Jewish community and with the help of average Danes they were able to get about 7,500 of them into neutral Sweden. Why were the remaining Jews deported to Terezin and not Auschwitz? The Danish Foreign Minister asked the Nazis where they were taking the Danish Jews. He was told Terezin and you can visit it you want. The Foreign Minister said he would be visiting the camp. So the Nazis knew of the impending visit by the Danish Foreign Minister with the Red Cross so the Danish Jews were sent here. In preparation for the visit the Nazis made some changes: they provided more food to the ghetto inhabitants, they did a beautification process on the town, planting flowers, painting buildings, reduced the number of inhabitants by deporting several trains to Auschwitz, and they made a film showing that all was wonderful in the Terezin ghetto.. When the Red Cross came, led by a 26-year old officer, they hardly saw anything, had lunch, saw the film, were given a tour of certain sections of the ghetto, and they left.. The Red Cross wrote a glowing report about conditions in the ghetto saying that everything was wonderful and the Jews were well cared for and having a good time. The day after the report was issued, 10,000 Czech Jews in Auschwitz where many had been deported at the end of 1943 to make room for the Danish Jews and lessen the ghetto population, but who had been kept together in a special section of Auschwitz-Birkenau known as the Czech family camp, ‘just in case’, were exterminated in the gas chambers. Mr. Barmore said that five years ago the Red Cross wrote a letter apologizing for that report.
We then walked to the Danish prayer room which had been constructed by Danish Jews who had been sent to Theresienstadt in October 1943. Known as the Danish synagogue, it was discovered about 15 years ago. Mr. Barmore 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. We asked Kamila if anything else had been discovered in Terezin in recent years and she said some paintings had been found on the walls of an attic about a year ago in a private apartment house. We asked if she could see if we could gain access to the attic today and she started making calls.
Next we walked to the Magdeburg Barracks which had housed the Judenrat or Jewish Council, leaders of the ghetto administration. Mr. Barmore 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.
Mr. Barmore 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 were reminded of the term ‘Kafkaesque’ that we had discussed outside the ghetto museum. In the music room Mr. Barmore 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 because of a girlfriend. “Beyond Kafkaesque”, Mr. Barmore said.
Kamila had been successful in being able to contact the owner of the apartment building with the attic drawings so we walked to the Pizza Restaurant where the key had been left. Climbing into the attic we were able to see the faint drawings on the wall – there were eclectic drawings of the Charles Bridge and Prague, diary-like entries about individuals, and coal mines in Kladno, a nearby town, among others.
Our bus picked us up in front of the apartment and we drove a short way to the crematorium and cemetery. 9,000 graves are here of the 15,000 that died at Terezin. Students placed stones at some of the memorials. We also saw the tree which had been planted by one of the children at Terezin but which had died during the 2005 floods which had water up to the roof of the crematorium. The President of Israel had come to Terezin and planted another tree next to it. Students then viewed the crematorium, several lighting a candle there.
We next drove to the Small Fortress, next to the ghetto town. We ate lunch in the parking lot and then walked into the Small Fortress, which had been used as a concentration camp. Mr. Barmore spoke to us of the purpose of concentration camps. He told us the Nazis had learned about them from the Soviet system of its gulags. The function was to create conformity. The Nazis, once in power needed a system parallel to the prison system. You had to commit a crime to have a trial and be put in a prison. Prison was punitive. The camp system was to “straighten you out”. It was punitive but also educational and its goal was rehabilitation. 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”, Mr. Barmore showed us a barracks, the shower room and shaving room, and then we walked back to the bus to head for Lidice.
In June 1942, Heinrich Heydrich was 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 visited the Lidice museum where we watched a film summarizing the events of Lidice and Czechoslovakia from 1918 to the destruction of the town in June 1942, and then toured the museum which included video testimony of surviving children.
We then returned to Prague and had a bus tour of a residential area of the city before arriving in the city center where we were met by 5 Mercedes vans which Dana, our travel agent, had arranged for as the funicular to our restaurant was not operating and she wanted to save us the hike up the hill. So our tandem black Mercedes vans drove us up through the park to the Restaurant Nepozizek which is on Castle Hill overlooking Prague with spectacular views of the city.
We were joined at dinner by our friend and travel agent, Dana, who brought with her Holocaust survivor Doris Schimmerlingova Grozdanovicova, who we had met two years ago and had accompanied us to Terezin where she told her story. We presented her with a picture book we had made with photos from those meetings and she was thrilled. She had told us last year that she had given many talks to students and other groups but she didn’t have any pictures of those meetings, so we wanted to make sure she had a photo record of her meetings with us. She was thrilled!
After a wonderful dinner with great panoramic views of Prague in the background, because the weather was so mild and warm, we were able to sit outside the restaurant and the students gathered around Doris and she told them her story.
She, along with her mother and father and older brother were all sent to Theresienstadt arriving on January 16, 1942. She was 16 years old and would spend her next 3 birthdays there. Her mother would die in the ghetto, 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 believed she was lucky because she had been 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. We had seen a picture of her with her sheep in the Terezin Ghetto Museum. She tells us people are always giving her sheep and she has a collection of about 900 now.
We said goodbye to Doris and Dana as our vans picked us up at the restaurant and drove us back to our hotel where we met again with Tony and Eva Vavrecka in a discussion in which students asked question they had discussed and prepared last night at our debriefing. Eva was asked about her uncle, Otto Wolf and his diary, and her mother, Lici. Students asked Tony about life in Prague in the Communist Era, why they had emigrated, the Velvet Revolution of 1989 and changes in life in the Czech Republic. After a very informative evening we said goodbye to Tony and Eva until next year and headed to our rooms to pack as we were leaving early morning for Lostice and Trsice.
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