Monday, July 16, 2012

Day 9: Terezin

Ladislav Chochole, "nameless"
On our last full day in Europe, most of the group took a day trip on the bus an hour north of Prague to Terezín, originally a garrison town, then a Jewish ghetto, and now a tourist attraction. Emperor Josef of Austria did not trust his neighbor to the north, so from 1780-1790 he had a fort built on the Ohře River near Bohemia's border with Prussia/Germany. You can see the grassy dry moat on the left; I think our guide said it would take 24 hours to completely fill the ditches from the river. He also took us through about a mile of some of the subterranean tunnels designed for communication, storage, and defense. However, the fort was never used defensively, because 15-20 years later, the enemy became France, first under the Revolution and then under Napoleon Bonaparte.

Instead, the fort was used as a military prison, all the way into the 1930s. The photo on the right shows Dear Husband exiting a dark, solitary confinement cell next to the famous one (#1) in which Gavrilo Princip died of tuberculosis in 1918. He did not survive the war he "started" by assassinating Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914.

Sometime after the Anschluss of Austria into the Third Reich, the Nazis began using the fort at "Theresienstadt" as a concentration camp, mostly for political prisoners, later for POWs, and also for Jews. We saw the simple wooden bunks and scant toilet facilities dozens or hundreds of prisoners shared. The newer solitary confinement cells (which were lit) seemed positively luxurious by comparison. Below is the shaving room that was specially constructed for a visit by the International Red Cross and was used exactly once for that purpose.

We were also shown the embankment used for executing Gentile prisoners and the gallows for the Jewish prisoners. I found that extremely disturbing and chose not to take any photographs. I did leave a stone at the gallows, though, as I learned to do on my first visit to Buchenwald. 
Around the corner was the memorial by Ladislav Chochole, "nameless," the photo at the head of this entry.

Theresienstadt is of course most famous for the Jewish ghetto on the other side of the river from the fort. The SS removed the 7,000 Czechs who were living there and turned the town into a way-station on the way to the extermination camps. The population at any one time was easily 50,000 internees. Here are some other numbers:
Total number of inmates: 150,000+
Died of disease, malnutrition, mistreatment: ~33,000
Deported to Auschwitz, Treblinka, etc.: ~88,000
Survivors: 17,247

While at the visitors' center, we watched a documentary about the ghetto that included excerpts from the propaganda film the Nazis made about the village Hitler had given to all those happy Jews. The center also has a display of the children's artwork and poetry, and a very long list of the names of the ones murdered. The museum, meanwhile, displays artifacts, with one room set up like a women's quarters, one room devoted to the musical scene in the ghetto, and quite a few rooms showing artwork by prisoners, both that commissioned by the Nazis for reports and illicit artwork depicting the realities of life in Theresienstadt. One of the most chilling was an official illustration in the style like many I find in my research on the German Hygiene Museum, only this one champions the removal of unproductive mouths (i.e. those belonging to anyone over the age of 65). The children's opera Brundibar is only the most famous piece produced in the ghetto, as many talented artists passed through, as well as engineers, doctors, lawyers, and other educated Jews.

Back at the fortress across the river, one room has been turned into a chapel of sorts (left). I believe the statue in the background is of a grieving woman or mother. In each of the recesses along the wall, a little dish holds ashes from one of the six extermination camps: Auschwitz, Chelmo, Belzec, Majdanek, Sobibor, Treblinka--and Theresienstadt. I didn't notice it at the time, but the lighting and the gold lining produces the glow of seven furnaces in the photo. Finally, the cemetery: a large cross was erected shortly after the liberation, but the Communist propaganda erected after that has since been taken down. The star of David mounted on a pile of stones is relatively recent.

It was a short hour's ride back to the city, but DH and I were glad I had pilfered little sandwiches from breakfast that morning, as no plans had been made for lunch. I will conclude my narration of our trip in the next post.

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