I have been sitting in front of my keyboard for a while now, starting and erasing, starting and erasing whatever I begin to write. How can one summarize visiting a place like Terezin, a concentration camp where thousands of Jews died and from which tens of thousands were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and other extermination camps or even to execution sites to be shot and dumped into mass graves?
All I might be able to do, I believe, is share some of my own experiences. First, I was shocked by the proximity of Terezin to the nearest village of Bohusovice, barely a mile and a half from the gates of the ghetto. How could people living in so close proximity ignore the thousands upon thousands of people arriving day after day, week after week, year after year between 1942 and 1945 to the train station of their village only to walk old and young, infants and pregnant women, that last mile and a half, partly through the streets of the village, to the entrance of Terezin. How did they not wonder about the fate of these people? The military garrison that was Terezin initially, was built to host about 5,000 people; the soldiers and their families. How could they not wonder what was happening within these walls when 10, then 20, and eventually 60,000 Jews—at its peak—came to “live” in Terezin? How could they remain indifferent? Sylvie, our amazing guide, made a point to tell us that the Danish government (with Denmark occupied by the Nazis at the time,) upon hearing of the internment of 400 Danish Jews in Terezin, stood up to their occupiers, sent buses there all the way from Denmark, and got their Jewish citizens out and back to Denmark. She mentioned, as another example of resistance, that when in Berlin’s Rosenstrasse police station the Nazis detained interfaith-married Jews to be deported (most likely to Terezin,) their non-Jewish spouses protested for days on the street in front of the station and forced the Nazi authorities to release them. Why didn’t the local Czech population rise in demonstration in front of the gates of the ghetto to demand the liberation of their compatriots?
The second powerful moment was when we stood in one of the barracks that housed women in Terezin, with bunk beds three levels high, and 80 women packed into one tiny room. The story Sylvie told was of a friend of hers, imprisoned in a similarly crowded room in Terezin during the war. She was about 14 at the time but was allowed to stay with the women and not be separated from her mother to join the youth quarters, after her mother convinced the Nazis that her daughter was older than 15. Sylvie called her friend’s mother a “righteous liar.” She mentioned how, at 14, she took every opportunity to live her life with as much joy as possible in Terezin, even when her “joyful” life was more imaginary than real. She mentioned convincing herself, for example, that beets baked with a little flower and water was, in fact, a strawberry cake. First, that story brought me back to the heartbreaking movie “Life is Beautiful;” and second, I couldn’t help but imagine my own 14 year old, Amalya, and her mother in this situation. Her mother, the righteous liar, lied again to save hers and her daughter’s life once more, on the selection platform at Auschwitz when she declared her girl younger than she was this time, and was able to get them both assigned to the line that was not destined for the gas chambers. They both, mother and daughter, survived the war.
And speaking of Auschwitz, I learned today that a Jewish man named Fredy Hirsch convinced Mengele in the death camp to create a children block out of one of the barracks; and, together with another detainee named Pavel Stransky—a life-long friend of Sylvie, and a holocaust survivor interned first in Terezin—became the clandestine teacher to these children of the Czech Family Camp. There too, by creating a make-believe world and providing an escape for these kids to stay inside “learning” during the harsh weather conditions of the winter months in Auschwitz, the two men probably contributed to saving 80% of these children from the gas chambers. Sylvie told us Pavel’s story through her tears as he had just died weeks before our group arrived and both she and Gerardo (who had known him previously) were looking forward to having us spend today with him.
Lastly, the most terribly moving experience of our day in Terezin was, for me, the visit of the crematorium. Terezin was not an extermination camp, but living in such deplorable conditions with so many people confined to such tiny quarters, exposed to diseases and suffering from malnutrion, the weakest ones, the elderly, didn’t survive long within its walls. 33,000 people died in Terezin between January 1942 and May 17, 1945 (today was the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the camp just as we visited.) Something needed to be done with the bodies. At first, they tried to bury them. But as soon as the spring melted the snow from the nearby mountains the earth became so engorged with water that the corpses floated up from their grave. Cremating was the most humane solution in this case, and the solution that would prevent the further spread of diseases. To avoid disturbing the nearby selectively blind, deaf and mute Czech village of Bohusovice with 24 hours-a-day fumes from high crematorium chimneys, the Nazis built four state-of-the-art ovens with low brick chimneys layered with filters that eliminated most of the escaping smoke, and housed them in a building that looked inconspicuously like a famous Bohemian Glass factory. To stand in this building, surrounded by these four original intact crematorium ovens was more than I could handle at the end of an emotionally trying day.
Tomorrow we travel to Auschwitz. We symbolically follow the path of the Terezin detainees, most of whom were forced onto a “transport” to their death from Terezin to Auschwitz-Birkenau. We will stay there a couple of days. These may be our most difficult days yet.