I wore a long wool coat, Ugg boots, gloves, and a hat. And I was freezing. The wind cut across my face and I could feel the cold through my gloves every time I reached for my camera. A cold winter day in the Czech Republic. I was dressed for it. Imagine what it must have been like for the Jews in WWII.
About 45 minutes outside of Prague is the Terezin (also known as Thereisenstadt) concentration camp. A half day tour will take you there. You’ll see the concentration camp, which was formerly a military fortress, and you’ll be taken into the town which was turned into a Jewish ghetto by the Nazis during the war since it was already a walled military area. The tour includes a visit to the Terezin memorial museum and to the crematorium connected to the Jewish cemetery. It’s all an overwhelming reminder of the atrocities of the Holocaust, but there were some differences at Terezin that I didn’t encounter during my visits to Breendonk concentration camp in Belgium, and my trip to Dachau in Germany as a teenager. The biggest atrocity was almost a non-atrocity. I’ll tell you what I mean.
We stepped through the archway reading ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ that immediately gave me chills.
The barbed wire was rusted, the bricks crumbling, and yet it was as ominous a place as any you could imagine. We walked through the bunk rooms and to the shower where our guide described how inhumane the showering process was. No, no one was gassed here; it was a work camp, not a death camp. But imagine stripping naked with dozens/hundreds of other people as guards watched, and then being herded into a shower room where several people had to stand under a faucet at once, with chillingly cold or scaldingly hot water spraying down on you to the amusement of the guards. Meanwhile, your clothes were being put through a steam cleaner to kill the lice and bedbugs. So when you got out of the shower, your clothes were still wet. And you had to put them on and wear them, no matter how cold it was. Or how sick you were.
I shivered as we stood there. I was so cold already. I thought I might cry thinking of how cruel humans could be to one another.
And then we moved to the next room, and I got a glimpse of something even more despicable to me.
The next room was lined with metal mirrors and new-looking porcelain sinks. This was the shaving room, our guide told us, and he seemed disgusted despite the fact that he’s surely given this tour a thousand times. You see, this room was just a facade. It was set up in preparation for the Red Cross visit in 1944 so they could see how well the Jews were being treated. In fact, the whole ghetto was spruced up for their visit. Flowers were planted. House exteriors were painted. A school was created, though as Helga Weiss described in her memoir Helga’s Diary, there were no teachers and no students to attend. It was all for show. And the Nazis were clever enough to cover up their disguise with a sign on the door that said it was closed for a holiday.
I bought Helga’s Diary in the Terezin Museum gift shop and read it on the plane ride home from Europe. It described how confusing and demoralizing the war was from the perspective of a young girl who spent years living in Terezin and then was transported to Auschwitz. She described the hunger and fear that were part of daily life. None of them knew what was happening. Sadly, they often hoped to be part of a transport, not knowing that the trains were carrying people to their deaths. It was a powerfully detailed account of what it was like to live in a Jewish ghetto and then Auschwitz. It brought Terezin to life for me in ways that touring the grounds couldn’t.
Touring a concentration camp probably isn’t for everyone. I keep visiting them, thinking that somehow it will make some sort of sense to me. But of course, it won’t. How could it? Still, I feel compelled not to turn away; to walk the same paths that these Jews walked. To walk a memorial mile in their steps. To remember and never pretend it didn’t happen.
If you need to ease into that reality, Terezin is probably a good first step. Though tens of thousands of people died there, (some killed outright and others from malnutrition and disease) it was not an extermination camp. Still, I found it almost as disturbing to think of Terezin’s role in the Nazi’s game of presenting Terezin to the world as a “model concentration camp.” As if there could be such a thing.
It was a solemn reminder of a terrible period in world history. Go if you can, but even if you don’t, read Helga’s Diary. I guarantee you will have a much better understanding of what life was like for the Jews and admiration for those like Helga who managed to survive.
UPDATE July 2016:
I had the great fortune to hear from Michael Kraus. He survived Terezin, Auschwitz and Birkenau. You can read my impressions of that talk here.