Saturday, April 8, 2017
Day 7 - Prague - Terezin
Today after breakfast we headed out on a cool, rainy day for Terezin and Lidice, accompanied by a Czech survivor, Doris Schimmerlingova Grozdanovicova who would tell us her story in Terezin, a garrison town which became a concentration camp, renamed and known during the Holocaust as Theresienstadt. Doris had accompanied us last year and we were thrilled to again have her join us and share her story. Today was Doris’ 91st birthday, she told us. “I did not think I would be spending it in Terezin”, she said, “but I’m so happy to be with you.”
On our way out of the city, we passed a memorial with 3 paratroopers. Shalmi told us of the Czech partisans from the resistance who had parachuted into Czechoslovakia with the goal of killing Reinhard Heydrich in a mission called Operation Anthropoi. Heydrich was a top level Nazi who had helped organize Kristallnacht, was responsible for the Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units in Eastern Europe], had chaired the Wannsee Conference in January 1942 to plan the implementation of the Final Solution, and had been placed in charge of this part of Czechoslovakia, known as Bohemia and Moravia. The plan was to ambush his car at a curve along the route in Prague that he regularly took and kill him. On May 27, 1942, one paratrooper jumped in front of the car as planned but his machine gun would not fire, a second then lobbed a hand grenade into the car, killing the driver and mortally wounding Heydrich. He would die of his wounds on June 2, 1942. So the man in charge of the Final Solution died at its very first stages, we were told, and all that remained of him was his name. The eliminated of the Polish Jews would be called Operation Heydrich.
The three paratroopers would be hunted down by the Nazis where they were located in the crypt of the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius, an Eastern Orthodox church in Prague . The Nazis tried to smoke them out and even tried to flood the crypt in an effort to take them alive. The resistance fighters chose to commit suicide rather than surrender. Later, the bishop of the church and all top level clergy would be arrested and executed as collaborators, for hiding the paratroopers. Our last stop today, Lidice, would also be linked to this event.
On the bus ride, Shalmi gave us some historical context for what we would be seeing. Terezin was one of those sites which was part of both Phase 2 ‘Concentration and Ghettoization’ and Phase 3 ‘Annihilation’ about which we had heard at the Wannsee House in Berlin. Germany had been given the Sudetenland section of the country in September 1938 at the Munich Conference because it was largely populated by ethnic Germans. The National Socialists in Slovakia led by Josef Tiso were told they would be supported by the Nazis if they separated Slovakia from Czechoslovakia which they did in March of 1939, becoming an Axis Power ally. The German army then marched into and occupied the remainder of Czechoslovakia which they renamed Bohemia and Moravia. There were 120,000 Jews in Bohemia and Moravia and the Nazis needed a place to concentrate them until they decided what to do with them. Terezin would provide this temporary solution. Shalmi said it could be thought of as a ‘parking lot’. Czechoslovakia was different from Poland, also, in that while Polish Jews were concentrated in multiple ghettos, here there was but one: Terezin.
Terezin was an existing walled in city outside of Prague which had been a garrison town established under Emperor Joseph II and named after his mother, Maria Theresa, to house the families of the soldiers who would be stationed at the Small Fortress nearby. Under German occupation, Terezin would be renamed Theresienstadt, the town would become the ghetto and the small fortress would become the concentration camp. Theresienstadt would last from its establishment in October 1941 until its liberation at the end of the war, making it one of the longest lasting institutions established by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Jews would be gathered in Terezin, guarded by Czech police and monitored by Nazi officials,. Internally, the ghetto would be under Jewish management, with a Judenrat (Jewish Council) and Jewish police.
At the ghetto museum we watched a film which included video clips of the propaganda film created by the Nazis called “A Gift of a Town” in which they had tried to dispel rumors of deplorable conditions in the ghettos which had been created by the Nazis. These scenes were juxtaposed wth powerful artworks secretly drawn by artists in the ghetto depicting the true conditions of overcrowding and hunger, while a narrator reads transport records, such as “Transport AA, Auschwitz, 1,000 people, 2 survivors, Transport AK, Treblinka, 1,000 people, no survivors,” etc.
At a model of the town, Shalmi showed us the layout and talked about the organization of the ghetto. Terezin was different in that families were not housed together. One of the first decisions of the Judenrat was to keep men and women and children separated, both for space reasons, and, in the case of the children, to protect them.
As we walked up the stairs to the exhibition, we stopped on the stairs which were surrounded by pictures drawn by the Terezin ghetto residents. Shalmi pointed out two which he found particularly telling. In one there was a woman in a fur coat, digging in a pile of dirt, looking for potatoes. This pointed out the ‘absurd’, he said. In another, a room is shown with family members gathered, playing instruments. In the corner, an older man sits, with an expression of “What is this all about?” In all this uncertainty, his family is playing music --- a paradox – as Shalmi has so often mentioned to us.
We then walked through the exhibition with Shalmi and Kamila and Doris pointing out exhibits of special interest, including the children’s art, a picture of Doris with her sheep (her story will be told later) and even a large exhibit which listed all of the transports to and from Theresienstadt. Doris showed us where her transport was listed, Transport U arriving January 28, 1942. She was 16 years old and would spend her next 3 birthdays in Terezin.
Shalmi also told us of the Red Cross visit to Terezin because of the Danish Jews. In October 1943 the Germans were planning to round up the Danish Jews, but news of the impending roundup was leaked and of its 8,000 Jews, Danes were able to smuggled all but 400 into Sweden and safety. The Germans did find 400, however. The Danish Foreign Minister wanted to know where they would be taken and the Germans told him Terezin. The Danish Foreign Minister then told the Germans he would be visiting the Danish Jews in Terezin along with representatives of the Red Cross. Knowing of this impending visit and taking it seriously for some reason (Shalmi noted the absurdity that they would be concerned by such a visit while at the same time they were murdering thousands of Jews each day in Auschwitz), the Germans proceeded to prepare the ghetto for their arrival. They began a ‘beautification’ process up sprucing up the ghetto: painting the buildings, planting flowers, providing more food, and making the propaganda film we had seen. They also reduced the ghetto population, sending two transports of 5,000 Jews to Auschwitz where, instead of being gassed, they were held in a special area, known as the Terezin or Czech Family Camp. The Red Cross visit happened – a very superficial visit in which there was no effort made to find out the real conditions in the camp. The Red Cross then issued a report saying there was basically nothing wrong happening in Terezin. A day after the visit, we were told, the Czech Family Camp in Auschwitz was liquidated and all were murdered in the gas chambers. Fifty years later, Shalmi said, the Red Cross officially apologized for its report on Terezin.
We then walked to a building in the ghetto, a hidden prayer room which had been constructed by the Danish Jews who had been sent to Terezin in October 1943. Known as the Danish synagogue, it was discovered about 15 years ago. Shalmi told us that the prayers on the walls reflected the heartbreaking dialogue of the Jews with their God. Verses such as “We beg you, turn back from your anger and have mercy on the treasured nation that you have chosen” and “But despite all this, we have not forgotten your name. We beg you not to forget us” were written on the walls. Shalmi said it was known from testimony that there were at least 5 such prayer places for Jews and 5 for Christians in the ghetto. Why Christians? Because many people had been labeled as Jews who did not consider themselves Jews. Many people had converted, but if they had one Jewish grandparent, the Nazis considered them Jewish still.
Next we walked to the Magdeburg Barracks which had housed the Jewish Council, leaders of the ghetto administration. Here, Doris told us her family’s story. She was born in the Czech town of Brno, and in 1942, she, her mother and father and older brother were all sent to Terezin. Her mother would die in Terezin; her father and brother would be transported to Auschwitz where her father would be murdered. Three months after the end of the war she would be reunited with her brother. Doris said she was lucky because she was assigned the role of herding sheep. This kept her outdoors in fresh air and she was housed in separate quarters from most of the girls. She believes her working with sheep kept her alive. “I have a collection of sheep today,” she said. “Over 900. People are always giving me sheep. Not alive of course.”
Shalmi then led us through the exhibition, which included a typical dormitory room, and sections devoted to the art, music, literature and theatre which ghetto residents left behind as their legacy. We listed to the victory song from the children’s opera, Brundibar, written by Hans Krasa and performed by children in the ghetto, viewed pictures by ghetto artists, and read some of the poetry and literature left by residents of the ghetto, their legacy to us. Shalmi asked us to think about this. Daily life could include soccer games, a children’s opera, a newspaper, Vedem, written by the boys in Terezin, art lessons, and concerts, and yet every day individual people disappeared. How do you reconcile these two things: the creation of culture alongside the destruction of people. We reminded of the term ‘Kafkaesque’ that we had discussed previously. Kafka was considered the father of Holocaust literature although he died in 1924. Shalmi said that Kafka wrote about the absurd and that the Holocaust was not only about brutality, it was also about the absurd and surreal, especially from the point of view of the victims. He told us of one of Kafka’s short stories, The Trial, in which a man is arrested, tried, convicted and executed without ever being told what crime he was being accused of having committed. The Jews, similarly, could not understand what they were guilty of. In the music room Shalmi translated a page from the diary of Rafael Schachter [1904-1944] in which he spoke of the cold, food, a concert performance, transports to the east, and his room becoming nicer. “Beyond Kafkaesque”, Shalmi said.
In Terezin we walked through the crematoria where they cremated bodies of ghetto residents due to malnutrition and disease.
Next we headed to our last stop in Terezin, the Small Fortress where Shalmi spoke to us of the purpose of concentration camps. Its function was to create conformity. People who were political opponents of Nazism were brought here to re-educate them and bring them into line. In these places your identity was taken away, you were never given enough food so there was constant hunger. The camp was about submission and survival until one had undergone the change from a person to an object. Jews were not placed in concentration camps for the most part, because the Jews, according to Nazi ideology, were a race of people and there was nothing that could be done to change that through a process of re-education. After walking into the camp under the iconic phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei”, Shalmi showed us the military barracks room, the delousing room, shower room and shaving room.
In June 1942, Heinrich Heydrich had been assassinated in Prague and the Nazi leadership wanted someone to pay. Lidice was a small town outside of Prague with about 500 inhabitants. On June 10, 1942 the Nazis descended upon this small town in the mistaken belief that the residents had aided the paratroopers responsible for Heydrich’s assassination. The men were all shot, the women were sent to Ravensbruck, very young children who could pass as Aryans were sent to Germany to be raised by German families, and 82 children who were older or who looked non-Aryan were transported to Lodz and then later to Auschwitz where they were murdered.
The Lidice memorial is to the memory of the 82 children. The memorial was designed by sculptor Marie Uchytilova. It is a bronze monument which depicts each of the 82 children from photographs. There are 42 girls and 40 boys who look out over what used to be their village. The last child sculptures were unveiled in 2000 so that the memorial is now complete. It is an extremely powerful memorial that made a significant impact on us. We next walked through the Lidice museum which depicts the assassination of Heydrich, the hunt for his killers, life in Lidice, and the massacre and destruction of the town. One of the most haunting items in the exhibit was a school picture taken of the children eight days before the tragedy. Before exiting, there were powerful video testimonies of both mothers who had survived but lost their children, and children who had been orphaned.
We then returned to Prague and had a wonderful dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, Restaurant Nebozizek which is on Castle Hill overlooking Prague with spectacular views of the city. We were joined by Doris and Dana Brichtova who is owner of DAIDO travel agency in Prague and who has been such a wonderful organizer of our trip for us and become such a dear friend. Our trip would never be as successful as it had been without all of her assistance and we are so indebted to her for her expertise and kindnesses. After another outstanding dinner and a birthday celebration for Doris, with our gift of another sheep to add to her growing collection, we said goodbye to her, thanking her for graciously spending the time with us and enriching our understanding of the events in Terezin and returned to the hotel to debrief and start packing as we were leaving Prague early the next morning.