Terezin. Even the sound of its name isn’t as clinical and pain-inducing as Auschwitz. It’s lilting, almost poetic, and doesn’t give away any of the pain it holds. Bereft of the wire fences, spotlights and gas chambers, it wasn’t an extermination camp. Naturally, I had never heard of it before we began our itinerary research for Prague & the Czech Republic. I skipped into the bus excited to get out of Prague and get a peek at the countryside on the way, completely oblivious to the contrasting state in which I would sit through the return journey later that day.
The hour-long bus ride from Prague’s Holešovice train station took us 40 miles northwest, past lush meadows and fields on a surprisingly sunny day. We alighted in the main square of Terezin town. A quiet, leafy and rather matter of fact square sat surrounding our bus stop. First things first, we perused the list to double check on the return journey departure timings. This pretty little square was to be our first of a series of signs created to give the impression that Terezin was a model town, showing the outside world just how well the Jews were living. All part of Hitler’s early propaganda. So many of the things we were about to see, had been created for the sole purpose of impressing the Red Cross Inspectors back then, and none of them gave away any of the atrocities they were created to commit. We crossed the street to a small yellow building.
Museum of the Ghetto
As we stepped in, we expected to see artefacts, but nothing could have prepared us for what we were about to discover over the next two floors. We began with the memorial, a never ending pile of suitcases, and a list of names. The blow had been softened by our visit to the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague where we’d seen the names of the victims neatly filling the walls. As we climbed the stairs, we saw drawings depicting ghetto life, and plunged into a short series of exhibits, stopping to read the fine print on historical documents, peruse personal effects and watch videos of testimonies by survivors.
Armed with a perspective on history, we made our way to the next stop on our trail – the barracks, for a peek at what life was like in the camp. This was where it began to hit me. Seeing row after row of bunk beds, with personal items strewn about, as if the occupants had just stepped out for a meal or so, was unnerving to say the least. It was like if I stepped beyond that doorframe, I’d be stepping into another world, another time. I would cease to be a viewer, and place myself in the midst of the atrocities. I’ve since watched several documentaries and talks about holocaust survivors, and one in particular claimed Terezin was one of the most free and creative places among the various Nazi camps. We discovered how in the next few rooms. We walked through exhibits on the various composers, artists, writers. I marvelled at their creativity despite the odds, and as a writer myself, compared it to the luxuries like “writer’s block” that we concoct today. We even had a peek at a cabaret stage, reproduced for visitors.
Walking towards the outskirts of town, we pulled our jackets closer, as the cold began to bite, the dried fallen leaves lay untouched, as if mirroring the fact that here on in, the sites got more grim. In the cold, we shuffled along an old railway line with grass growing all over it. A railway line that ran nowhere. Terezin has been described as a waiting room. An awfully deluded waiting room, for people who were bound for Auschwitz and other concentration camps across Nazi Occupied Europe. But having trains full of Jews arrive and leave through the neighbouring town of Bohušovice wasn’t discrete enough for the Nazis, who had the prisons build a railway line to Auschwitz right from within Terezin.
Colombarium And Memorial Halls
Taking a winding road out of town, we arrived at the memorial halls, where Nazis would deposit cardboard boxes containing prisoner’s ashes, with the lie that they’d be buried properly after the war. Instead, the ashes were dumped into river. Seeing memorial plaques instituted by various families, the mood was once again turned sombre, as we put names to the numbers.
Crematorium and Cemeteries
As we walked up towards the crematorium, through a line of perfectly symmetrical, conical poplars emerged a school group, all wearing their kippah, walking in a straight line, respectful and quiet. Of all the spots in Terezin, this was where we had the warmest conversation. We stepped into the main chamber, with its imposing ovens. Staring at the distressed metal, we couldn’t tell how much of it was the effect of time, and how much from wear and tear. It was chilling to say the least. The caretaker, probably picking up on my visibly disturbed expression, stepped forward and smiled. He appeared to know plenty about India, Gandhi and the weather, distracting me from what I was feeling there. I couldn’t help but wonder, if a caretaker, who sits all alone, surrounded by death and ghostly and ghastly memories of the past could be so cheerful and forthcoming with a stranger, whatever stops us when we cross paths with people on our travels. I mulled over this as we trudged back past neat rows of graves in the Jewish Cemetery, the Russian Cemetery and then the Memorial to the Soviet Soldiers with its unmistakeable hammer and sickle. A bittersweet story hides within this last group of graves. While the Soviets liberated Terezin when the war ended, an epidemic took scores of soldiers and medical workers’ lives.
Any trail that leads us in search of something hidden normally excites me. The chase is always so interesting when there are no signs spelling it out. But not this time. It was a quiet walk, discovering every single clue, every step of the way, till we arrived at an unmarked door, rang the bell, and waited. We were ushered in, in almost the same way I imagine practicing Jews would have been, back when this erstwhile bakery acted as a front for a synagogue. Downstairs, we were led to a small room, with chipped paint on the walls. It is the only surviving one of the 8 secret synagogues within Terezin. We saw the Hebrew captions, one of which translates to “If I forgot Jerusalem, may my tongue rot and my right arm fall off.” This was a zionist view, and certainly the largest of the Nazi targets. We climbs the narrow staircase to the top, where a small room lay, recreated to show us the cramped quarters that were considered a luxury when contrasted against the cramped ghetto bunks. And we complain about Mumbai being crowded.
As we began walking towards the prison, we passed a moat, long since dried up. This was where the Jews were made to tend to vegetables, for the SS.
Terezin Prison Camp
Terezin was originally a fortress, built under the name of Maria Theresa of Austria, to guard Prague against invasion. A strange irony, is that this fortress had been built in the shape of a star. (Check it out on Google maps, it’s incredible!) While this wasn’t an extermination camp, (It was used primarily for the old people, and to hide the act of clearing the Czech lands of all Jews, since they couldn’t send them directly to Poland) the number of prisoners it saw in its 4 year existence ranged from 7000 to 55000 at a time. There weren’t too many deaths (when compared to the extermination camps) and most were a result of starvation, disease or old age. As we walked up to the entrance, obsessively neat rows of 10,000 gravestones dotted the green grass, giving us an idea of the level of atrocities in one clean sweep. We passed under the black and white striped gate, into a neat courtyard. Above us, an evil sign stood witness. The ultimate lie the Jews were told during the holocaust, “Arbeit Macht Frei” which means “Work will set you free”, was a symbolic feature across all camps.
Model Prison Cells
We stepped into the model prison cells, and felt like we were on the set of Life is Beautiful. The same rows of bunk beds, where prisoners were stacked sat as empty, worn and silent witness to what transpired here. We found our way to a model washroom. The reason I call it a model washroom, isn’t because it’s been created today for visitor-display. This was created back then, to be displayed to the Red Cross Inspectors. A neat row of sinks that never had a water supply, shower rooms to acclimatise the Jews to communal bathing so they wouldn’t raise alarm when sent into seemingly similar gas chambers at Auschwitz.
A small museum held a veritable treasure of art. Endless exhibits of sketches, paintings, compositions and literature that proved Terezin was indeed a hive of creativity.
We walked through a dark tunnel, into a wide open space. Lined with prison cells on the sides, a large empty ground stood before us. Several hundreds were executed here. I thought back to all the movies, where that scene is replicated faultlessly. Hands tied, gunshot, they fall to the ground in a clean thud. I shut my eyes, hoping the images would go away.
As we walked back, in silence, I remember reading the words, “Never Again” – that later echoed through my head on the drive back to Prague. As I write this today, over a year after our visit, it echoes once again, louder, more relevant and more urgent.