Terezin

I wanted to go, and at the same time I didn’t want to go. I imagined that it was one of those experiences that I would remember, or that would move me, but wouldn’t necessarily be fun. I hadn’t planned to visit a concentration camp; the opportunity snuck up on me. In my limited understanding of world history, I assumed all the concentration camps were in Germany. While perusing tourist opportunities here in Prague, I came across an ad to visit Terezin, the Czech concentration camp. I decided to go.

We drove an hour north of the city. We entered a museum of sorts, filled with memorabilia and documentation in Czech, German, English, and Hebrew. There were photos. Drawings. Diary entries. Yellow Star of Davids with “Jude” written in them. Video clips. Rosters. Quotes. Two floors of history. And a showing of a propaganda film, “The Gift of a Town.” I took all this in, interested, curious, realizing my knowledge of World War II has  significant gaps.

Next, the cemetery. We walked down a long road flanked by trees losing their leaves. The first thing we saw was an oversized menorah, surrounded by hundreds of identical tombstones. The day was cold and grey, fitting for visiting a cemetery. I walked among the tombstones, noticing that small rocks had been placed on top of many of them. The tour guide called me to join him near a building.

“We’re now entering the crematorium,” he said as he walked ahead of me. Oh, wait. Crematorium? I didn’t remember reading that on the brochure. I hesitated. Was this really something I wanted to do? Not sure, I followed.

As I entered, I felt as though the air had been sucked out of my lungs. Even after 65 years, death was present. I quietly walked around, lit a candle, said a prayer of remembrance, then waited outside.

Our next stop was the Small Fortress. This was where political prisoners, Jewish and non-Jewish, were imprisoned. Because I was the only English speaker in our French tour group, I had my own guide, Camille. She led me through various blocks, group cells, solitary confinement cells, the sick room with only 12 beds (more people were sick than that, she explained, but most stayed in their group cells, infecting the others), and the arch which read “Arbeit Macht Frei” – work will make you free. She leaned over to me in a confidential stance. “Of course,” she whispered, “that was a lie. Once you entered the Small Fortress, you were never free.” We continued walking.

We walked through more blocks of cells, then came to an opening in the wall. We stopped. “This is a happy place. This is where three prisoners were able to escape.” Camille then explained that others attempted escape, were caught, and were executed, in addition to a few prisoners selected at random, to act as a warning to the other prisoners not to attempt escape.

“Are you claustrophobic?” I shook my head no and she motioned for me to descend stairs to a tunnel. The ceiling was barely six feet; I could feel how close the top of my head was to the rough stone. “Walk,” she said. I walked; she followed directly behind me. I assumed that at the end of the tunnel there would be another staircase leading back outside. Instead there was a turn. And another long tunnel. And another. After about ten minutes of walking in silence, I began to second guess my confident answer claiming I wasn’t claustrophobic. This would be the ideal place to commit a murder. Camille wouldn’t kill me, though, right? I mean, surely the Frenchies would notice I was missing. The tunnel became more and more narrow.

Why wasn’t she sharing tour information with me? She had been quite chatty up until that point. “So, what were these tunnels used for?” “The Germans blocked them off. They weren’t used for anything during WWII. Before, however, when this was a fortress, they would lure enemies into the yard outside then shoot them through the small gun holes.” Oh. After what felt like an eternity, we emerged from the darkness. Into the execution yard.

Stories of execution were followed by a tour of the officers’ quarters (they even had a swimming pool and a cinema) then another cell block. Towards the end of the war the Germans didn’t want any prisoners near the advancing front, so they transferred prisoners to an already crowded Terezin. Group cells that were meant for 50 people contained up to 400.

And with that, the tour was finished. Not fun, but forever etched in my memory.

10 thoughts on “Terezin

  1. I know exactly how you feel-last year my husband and I went to Germany and went to Dachau…it was the first camp that was built and all the rest were replicated from that one. It was so sad, emotional but at the same time I’m glad that we went. It too will forever be in my mind. xo

  2. I’ve been to Terezin many times with my school when we used to visit Prague. Every time I found it a very moving place. The guide, affectionately called Mad Hannah, would tell us the stories of what it was like when she was there during the war and of the nearby village of Lidice. She always said it was nice to hear the sound of children laughing there as it made it easier to forget the horrible things that were done to her people.

    • Wow – how incredible to have a guide who had lived at Terezin. Many of the exhibits focused on how the adults in the concentration camps tried to make life as normal as possible for the children, through school, songs, art, and plays. Even though I was hesitant to go, I’m so glad that I did.

  3. As a child, I read and re-read the Diary of Anne Frank, which my mother bought me for y tenth birthday. I visited the Secret Annex my second year living in Europe, and Terezin my third. It was right before Easter, and I was one of the only people in the entire place. I will never forget the forlorn tone of the man at the crematorium. Though it was much different than I imagined, being a ghetto and all, it prepared me to go to Sachsenhausen with a German friend a few months later. Definetely sobering, but necessary.

    • That was one of my favorite childhood books as well. I’ve never been to any of the concentration camps in Germany, but would like to after this recent visit to Terezin.

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