As you’re about to see, there aren’t many photos of this day in the Czech Republic, so I apologise for that.
We arose early because there was a full day ahead. Today was the day we left Prague itself and ventured towards the former Sudetenland, discovering the Czech countryside, today was the day we learnt of the horror which occurred in the not so distant Czech past. Today was the day we visited Terezin.
Now, during the second world war, The Czech Republic was occupied by German and Nazi troops early on, as a result much of the country (Prague in particular) was untouched by bullets, bombings and other destruction (hence why so many historical and beautiful buildings exist to make up the city today). However, as with everywhere the Nazis went, there was still horror, murder, and evil occurring in the beautiful land; a hotpot of this horror was Terezin, a former garrison town which became a concentration camp for intellectuals, politicians, and Jews.
Although one can take photographs there, I didn’t. Out of respect for all that went on there, I didn’t want to take photographs like some senseless tourist.
I would however, in today’s post, like to tell you all what I discovered there, and why you should visit.
Many tour companies offer a coach & tour combo package- we looked into this, but for the four of us, it would have been around the £100 mark. My brother is an avid traveller, and quite rightly knew when he saw a tourist trap. We took a public bus there, and went on the free tour once we arrived- It was easy, and we probably saved 80% for the exact same experience.
The bus trip took about an hour, and I say bus, but it was a coach with wifi. The journey passed quickly, through the simplistic, green countryside.
Terezin was originally built to station the Czech army. They were worried about an invasion, and so built this garrison town and stationed troops there. It has a wall around it, and is the shape of a five pointed star, a large river runs through it and upon entering the town, people still live there. It is poor, and a lot of the buildings are empty and vast- like dormitories, factories, or other rectangular shapes. During WWII it was known as Theresienstadt concentration camp.
One of the reasons this town was chosen to house prisoners, was because of the star formation and walled fortifications. Only not to keep out an invasion; but to keep in these ‘undesirable’ citizens. The town became a Jewish ghetto, where low-risk prisoners were kept. The ‘dangerous’ individuals were in a separate, smaller fortress.
To get there you walk along a tree-lined boulevard. There are cobble stones underfoot, and to your left are hundreds upon hundreds of white crosses. Perfectly symmetrical. Staked into the well kept grass.
It’s quiet, apart from song bird and faint water rushing. It is a sad place.
Once there, we were guided on a tour by a charming elderly gentlemen who referred to us all as his “dear visitors”. I’ll guide you through the setting now.
It is a hot day.
You have been travelling in a hollowed train compartment for the best part of a day, body wilting but still, somehow, standing, smothered amidst a sea of several hundred other bodies. The stench of some corrosive cross between vinegar and rotten organic matter is not only in the air, but in your mouth, in the contours of your teeth, the bumps of your tongue, and roof of your gums.
You can’t sweat, but the sweltering heat is destroying you. The innards of your throat is sandpaper and cotton. You have forgotten what a fresh breeze feels like, and do not have it in you to even try and remember.
Sometime later, the carriage judders, jerks to a stop, and with a crunching squeal, the metal door slides open. The strength of the sun imprints and scars your eyes, marring the sudden movement and listlessness around you purple and fuchsia. You sweep forward, stumbling, and pour out into the daylight not as a person but as one of a swarm.
If you are lucky, you will be classed as a low level risk. You will be funnelled into the ghetto; where mainly Jewish people have been placed. You will have a terrible standard of what life is; but it will still be better than the alternative.
If you are unlucky; if you have given cause for concern, through violence, or revolt, through your politics, or your beliefs- then you will be taken to the small fortress, over the river Ohre, where a prison, not a ghetto lies. Some 32,000 people will pass through here, many to go on to other concerntration camps; for the majority, this is a stepping stone to their inevitable exhaustion.
Let’s say you are not a lucky person. You are taken to one side, and find yourself in the dusty courtyard of the small fortress. The terracotta earth, tinged sienna, shifts and creates plumes of umber dust as your feet carve footprints. The sky overhead is still blue, the sun is still burning bright; it is all too calm for a place so bad.
If you are a special case, you are taken to the Kommandants office. Here you are registered. From there, you are taken to one of four courtyards- although one is strictly for female population.
The heat is beyond scalding. Your neck is raw. And as you are lead to the long, stable-like building, made of heavy stone with high, slitted windows, you try not to cough, or vomit, or think of how it hurts to breath.
The heavy door is unlocked and opened, by a faceless guard in a dreary uniform, and you shuffle inside. And suddenly…
It is cold.
It could be Winter in the dark, sullied cavern in which you have been placed. Sun does not breach the foot-thick walls. There is a heaviness in the strangely placid air, a smell of something damp, of old shit and unwashed skin. There are at least a hundered others in this room, yet the movement is minimal. Some are lying three bodies deep in the lone, long four tier bunk bed- made up of wooden planks, shreds of material for blankets, and mattresses two inches thick. Others are at the equally long table, spines jutting out in knobbled silhouettes as they haunch over nothing in particular.
There is one sink, connected to nothing. One toilet. And a bucket in the corner. The smell is acidic and hazardous in that part of the room.
If you are complacent, you will get fed: watered-down broth twice a day, a chunk of bread and coffee for the working prisoner. And you will work. Prisoners are hired out to local businesses, to build railways, or cut down forests. Labour away until they are bone, sinew and little else.
If you are a bad prisoner. Or were bad in order to have become a prisoner, then you will be sentenced to death. There is a route every prisoner knows; under the arch, beyond the wall, along the gently sloping path. You know this route, and fear it. Because it is the final route.
Some will face the firing squad.
But just a little further, almost hidden behind the grey, moss strewn wall, there is a rustic, basic gallows. The Nazis do not waste bullets on Jews.
It is such a still, peaceful, and desolate place. But I urge you to visit if you are ever in the vicinity, in Prague, or in The Czech Republic.
To be blunt, this is a place desperately short of funds to restore and keep up the camp in presentable conditions (as it is at present). It was not full of tourists, as one might expect of somewhere so steeped in history, but in fact if I saw more than fifty people during my whole time there, I would be surprised. There are two museums full of artefacts related to the camp, on the individuals who were imprisoned here, and Nazis who were in charge, and there is also a little cinema which shows footage from the era including a propaganda video shot in the ghetto as well as the Kommandents house still intact.
This camp deserves to stay open to the public so that people can see the atrocities committed by our own hand. It is easy to brush over the darker aspects of humanity seen in the past, but that is wrong. The acts committed in camps like Terezin were disgusting, inhuman, and evil. These were people, real people, and for all those who were murdered- thousands upon thousands of whom were children, deserve to be remembered.
So, again, I do urge you to visit yourself, take a moment and pay your respects.