Today after breakfast we headed out for the day’s sites of Terezin and Lidice. Our good luck with the weather didn’t hold and today was bitterly cold and often quite windy.
On our way out of the city, we passed a memorial with 3 paratroopers holding their arms to the sky.. Shalmi 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 be linked to Heydrich’s assassination.
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 by Britain and France in September 1938 at the Munich Conference because it was largely populated by ethnic Germans. Czechoslovakia was not represented at this conference which dealt with the fate of the nation. Kamila had said once that the Czechs refer to the Munich Conference as “Politics about us without us!” 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.”
Six months later 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. Shalmi 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.
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,” Shalmi 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 referred to as the Father of Holocaust Literature. How can that be? Because 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.
Shalmi 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.
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. Shalmi 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. Shalmi 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 most importantly protect the children.
Shalmi 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? Shalmi said there was no real certainty but most historians believe it had something to do with Denmark. Denmark, we were told, was one of the two nations 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. Shalmi said that about ten years ago the Red Cross wrote a letter apologizing for that report.
We then walked through the exhibition with Shalmi 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. Kamila also pointed out the picture of Doris tending her sheep in Theresientadt. We would be having dinner with Doris later.
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 hidden 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.
Next we walked to the Magdeburg Barracks which had housed the Judenrat or Jewish Council, leaders of the ghetto administration. Shalmi 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 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? In the music room Shalmi translated a page from the diary of Rafael Schachter [1904-1944] in which in one short entry he spoke of the cold, food, a wonderful concert performance, transports to the east, his sister’s letter for deportation with her children, his need to go to the Committee on Appeal, and his room becoming nicer because of a girlfriend. “Beyond Kafkaesque”, Shalmi said.
Our bus took us to the cemetery and the crematorium in the ghetto. Kamila explained the sections of the cemetery. To the far right were many headstones which had been placed there by families of people who had died in Terezin. There were no bodies buried there, just the headstone. In the center were hundreds of markers which were constructed like the trunk of a tree which had been cut off before it had a chance to grow, to symbolically mark the mass graves. 9,000 Jews were buried here from November 1941 until six months later when the crematorium was built. There were no gas chambers here; the crematorium dealt with the cremation of those who had died in the ghetto. There were also two maples trees next to the crematorium. A young girl had smuggled a maple tree seedling into the ghetto and planted it. The tree grew. After the war it was relocated to the cemetery. It died during the flood of 2002 which had all of Terezin under water. But there were other sprigs of this tree which had been taken and planted all over the world and one of those was brought here and planted by Israel and the tree now is growing next to its ‘mother’.
Next we drove a short way to a parking lot where we ate our boxed lunches, then walked to the Small Fortress, next to the ghetto town, which had been used as a concentration camp. Shalmi 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. The concentration camp system was also about power. Shalmi said that it was important for inmates to be invisible, to not stand out. If you stood out by challenging something or not conforming, the person in charge of the group could be especially cruel. Here Shalmi mentioned a phrase many of us had heard before: Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
After walking into the camp under the iconic phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei”, Shalmi 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, a few 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. Kamila said the Czech people were especially happy that the memorial had been constructed from material from all of the statues to Soviet and communist leaders.
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 to be met by 3 Mercedes vans which Dana, our travel agent, had arranged for us to take us to our diner at 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 three years ago and had accompanied us to Terezin where she told her story. After a wonderful dinner with great panoramic views of Prague in the background, because it was so cold, the students gathered around Doris inside the restaurant, and she told them her story.
Doris, along with her mother and father and older brother were all sent to Theresienstadt arriving on January 16, 1942. She was 15 years old and would spend her next 4 birthdays there. Her mother would die in the ghetto, and 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 1,200 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, and changes in life in the Czech Republic. One of the most interesting stories we heard involved Otto’s diary. Lici in 1945 had finished Otto’s diary and many years later it was published. One of the last things in the diary that she had written was that she was trying to get on a bus, after the war, and was told “We don’t take Jews.” The diary was published many years later and Lici received a letter in Florida from the family of the bus driver. There was only one bus line in the town she wrote about so it was not hard to discern the identity of the driver. The family had tracked her down in the United States and written that she could not lie about their family member. Tony took charge of responding and wrote that the diary had been written in 1945 and that there was no reason for Lici to have invented this story to hurt the reputation of the bus driver. That was the end of the threat from the bus driver’s family.
After several stories about experiences Tony and Eva related about life under communism – and some of the practices developing under communism that still continue today, such as the practice of all hotel guests having to register their passport numbers and addresses – Shalmi reiterated something we had heard before: It’s easier to drive communism out of the country than communism out of the individual.
We learned also that Tony and Eva had in February just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.
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 tomorrow morning for Lostice and Trsice.