One day while Hynda attended her meeting in Prague I went to visit Terezin which is located about 1 hour from Prague. Terezin is one of the concentration camps of WWII. Although many people died in Terezin, it was not built as a `killing' concentration camp so it is unique.
A brief-brief history of Terezin. In the 18th Century the town of Terezin was built on a very strategic crossroad and was designed to protect Bohemia from invasion. Two fortresses were built at the town - a large one and a small one. The town turned into a garrison town for the soldiers of Czechoslovakia. In 1940, the German Gestapo made the Small Fortress a police prison and the large fortress - actually the entire town of Terezin - was turned into a ghetto. The Czech population was moved out of Terezin so the only inhabitants of the town of Terezin were the prisoners - Jew and non-Jew in the small fortress prison and Jews and the Nazi guards and families in the large fortress.
The world was beginning to learn of the Holocaust and the final solution and the Germans told the world that there were no concentration camps but just resettlement/work camps for the Jews. They invited the International Red Cross to visit Terezin. They fixed up Terezin to look like the ideal city. The Germans entertained the IRC for six hours and showed them the Jews playing soccer, playing in orchestras, children painting, etc. The IRC went away thinking they had seen a real functioning town. In fact, all the `prisoners' at Terezin were there only temporarily before they were shipped to the concentration camps to be exterminated. Nearly 140,000 people passed through Terezin on their way to the concentration camps - a large number of them were older people and children. Over 75 percent of them died and an estimated 34,000 never made it out of Terezin. These included Jews from Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark, Slovakia and Hungary.
This is one of the gateways at the Small Fortress. I have probably seen this sign, which translates `Work Will Make You Free', one hundred times in Holocaust films. It was in more than one concentration camp and was another of the Nazis sick attempts to deceive the prisoners. The impact of seeing it in person and actually walking under the same sign that thousands of Jews, not knowing their fate, walked under is chilling.
This room contained 600 prisoners at a time. There were only two bathrooms located to the right of the door in the far background. When the prisoners had to shower they got naked, walked across the courtyard, showered together in cold water, and walked back. There were no towels. There was no heat in these rooms. The guide said there was no medical care for the prisoners and that when there was an outbreak of disease, such as typhoid fever, people had diarrhea and often could not make it to the bathroom where they were lines. Each day the floor was covered with a mixture of feces and urine. The prisoners were made to use their one prison outfit to mop the floor, wring it outside and then put their uniform back on.
In part of the small prison was an area where executions took place. Evidently the Gestapo used if for target practice also. Instead of just having the prisoners stand still and be shot, they often had them run back and forth so they could practice their marksmanship with moving targets. In the far right corner, almost hidden, is the gallows - they did hang people also.
The large fortress was really a town within large walls. This is where the Jews lived until they were transported to the `killing' concentration camps. Today the town is again occupied by Czechs and looks like your normal small town. This first picture is of a typical street in Terezin. It probably looks just like it did in the 1940s. It was a pretty cold, damp day and matched the feelings I had as I walked around the town.
This picture is of the main square. During the time it was a ghetto Jews were not allowed in this main square. This was only for the Nazis and their families who lived and worked here. It was actually quite pretty and I imagine that in the spring with the plants and flowers in bloom it is very nice.
This picture is the building where art classes were held. This is where the famous drawings, paintings and poetry of the children of Terezin were created. Towards the end of the war, one art teacher, before she was deported to Auschwitz, managed to hide drawings, paintings and poetry from the children in two suitcases. The suitcases containing the work of 4,000 children were found after the city was liberated. Today they are on display in various museums throughout the world as an example of the beauty that can be created during even the most brutal of times and also as a reminder of the brutality of the Nazis. It is estimated that 10,500 children who passed through Terezin died.
This is the building that was set up as a school for the children of the Ghetto. It is now the Terezin museum and has movies, testimonials, and other typical Holocaust exhibits. There is one room in the museum that has the names of 10,500 children who died written on the walls and the artwork from several of them. For five or six of the children, they have pictures and their story. When I entered this room I heard the sound of children laughing and playing and I thought that the museum had done this for effect. I then realized that the windows of the museum room were open and the sounds I was hearing were from the children who live in the town and who had just gotten out of school and were playing in the town square. This was probably the most emotional part of the visit for me.
When Terezin first became a ghetto the Jews were buried in a cemetery within the large fortress. As the death rate at Terezin climbed, the Nazis decided that they could no longer bury the Jews so they built a crematorium. This is a picture of the cemetery and the crematorium.
Hynda had indicated to me that another of the scientists at the meeting wanted to go to visit Terezin so I went with Benjamin Sredni who lives in Israel. Sredni is typical of almost every Israeli I have met whose family has a horrific story of survival which would make a good movie. Sredni's father lived in a small village in Poland. He was returning from another village and approaching his own when a friend came running up to him and told him that they could not go back to the village. The Polish people in the village had rounded up all the Jews of the village, put them in the synagogue and burned it down. (This was during WWII but the Germans had not arrived at this village yet!!!) The entire Sredni family (there were 12 children) had been killed in the synagogue according to this friend - so they ran away and made it to Russia where they were arrested and thrown in jail. They bribed a guard and escaped and made it across Russia to Shanghai. They hid aboard a boat that was going to the United States. When the boat arrived in the US they were not allowed to get off the boat and enter the US so they remained on the boat until its next stop which was Mexico where Benjamin was born. Benjamin moved to Israel when he was 17 years old. I am notg sure how many languages he speaks but he knows Polish, Spanish, Hebrew, and Yiddish. He is a very funny, friendly guy and we had a great time getting to know each other.
There was a woman and her daughter on the bus from England. The mother had MS and was in a wheel chair. They had told them that Terezin was wheel chair accessible. This was a 1940s concentration camp so you can imagine just how accessible it was. (Even being in Prague with a wheel chair must have been very difficult.) Sredni and I spent some time helping them get around the site. They were not Jewish and in fact as near as I could tell Sredni and I were the only Jews on this tour. Sredni is Orthodox and wore his yarmulke so he was asked questions by others on the tour. I was very glad to see non-Jews visiting Terezin. There is not way you would ever to be able to have any doubts about the Holocaust after you visit a site like Terezin.