Monday, April 28, 2014

Day 20: Oh Canada!

It's a good thing I can sleep well on planes, as - after landing at Pearson this morning - I continued on to a day at work. Thankfully there are showers at the office! By the end of the day I was pretty exhausted.  Well worth a visit to Cairo last night, and the stellar adventures of this trip through seven countries spanning two continents. What an amazing experience, and what an amazing world!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Day 16: I can also sleep on a bus during the day

I don’t expect any sympathy or concern from anyone, but this trip is starting to tire me out!  Short nights and long days with lots of walking seems to be more fatiguing than high mileage and long work hours. On the topic of my “first world” problems, today was remarkably uneventful.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed starting my day in Vienna and concluding it in Budapest, it’s just that not much really happened.

I left the hotel fairly early to walk back to the bus station.  Once again I opted to walk to soak in a little more of the city as I was departing.  I knew the walk would take me along the Ring road and past the State Opera House, and also through Stadtpark; a worthwhile trade-off for lugging around fifty pounds of luggage.

Call it fatigue, a confusion city layout, or perhaps just boring old overconfidence, but I learned the hard way that the way back to the bus depot was....a little less direct than I had hoped.  Or, at least it was via the route that I took!  In any case, all's well that ends well, and just as I was looking around for a taxi, I emerged from the park and knew (somewhat) where I was.  I was pretty certain I could get to the bus in the 8 minutes I had before the scheduled departure time. It took about 6 minutes.  Other people arrived to catch the bus AFTER I got on......

For some strange reason, the bus stopped for about forty minutes at the Hungarian border – isn’t the EU supposed to eliminate this kind of thing? Then on to Budapest!  Having snoozed through most of the trip, I was pretty lethargic when we arrived in the city.  A long walk (once again) from the bus to the hotel didn't help with the energy levels, but it did help me see the city!  It's a dirty city.  A noticeable change from Vienna, Prague, and the Benelux, Budapest still seems weary from its Soviet days. Even with that, there are silver linings.  Accommodations, food, tours...even the currency is all cheap! (227 Hungarian forints per Canadian dollar.  Of course, that makes it FEEL as though prices are expensive...)

Once I checked in at my hotel, I mustered up enough energy to go to dinner, but that was all.  According to the recommendations on TripAdvisor, Rosenstein’s has the best Hungarian food in the city!  It was very good, though a few items on the menu made me wonder:

Hungarian gulyas (more of a stew than the Czech meat with gravy) rounded out with some palinka (Hungarian fruit brandy) sated me, and then I wandered back to my hotel.  Before falling asleep I reviewed (again) some of the cool things I wanted to do while in Budapest - a walking tour (of course), Buda castle, and the Hungarian symphony orchestra.  Onward!

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Day 15: La Vie en…Vienna

The walk to the Prague bus station may have felt a little dicey at 10pm last night.  Walking through the woods at 4:30 this morning?  Is this really a good idea??!!

As per schedule, the bus arrived in Vienna at 4:30am.  I’m not sure I really slept at all, as the bathroom and coffee machine were right behind my seat – a surprising amount of traffic on the bus for a short overnight trip.  With the guidance of Google maps, I had a 7.5km walk ahead of me with my 50lbs of backpacks.  I know.  I’m splurging on a trip to Europe, I could afford a taxi or a transit ticket.  I figured I couldn’t show up at my hotel even to drop my bags off until 6am or so, and walking would allow me to see the city.  Besides, I’m not running these days…. Anyway, Google knew I was walking, so it took the most direct route – through the park.  It turns out that the park is extremely safe and seemed totally bereft of bums.  All I knew at that point was that I was on a gravel path with no lights and no people, and I was in no condition to run away if danger presented itself.  And then there were people; runners, no less!  It turns out that park is a very popular place to run at 5am. (Crazies!) When I saw the woman running alone, I figured I was as safe as I could be.  My sleepy stress level went down.

The sky was light as I reached another park – this one (Stadtpark) right on the Ring road that encircles the old city-centre of Vienna.  I gratefully put my bags down on a bench and examined some of the statues dotting the park – Strauss, Schubert and Schindler.

I was more than halfway to my hotel, so I decided to rest for a bit; it was still before 6am.  Although I would not trust the Viennese to the point of closing my eyes (and risking falling asleep), I felt refreshed after sitting on the bench for a time, leafing through Canadian Running and Impact magazine.

When I’ve raced overnight relay races, and even back to when I was working night-shifts, I found that my body gets feeling more wakeful and refreshed as the sun rises – even when I haven’t slept a wink.  Same thing this morning.  I pulled my backpack back on and set out at full speed toward my hotel. (Admittedly, my “full speed” grew progressively slower as I walked.)  The people of Vienna were already at work!  7am and shops were open, construction crews were busy, and window cleaners were finishing up their work on storefronts.  Impressive!  A very different approach from the Czechs, it seems.

After what felt like hours, I arrived at the Arcotel in Vienna.  What a relief! I dropped off my bags and cleaned up in the lobby washroom. (One of the hotel staff gave me cut-eye as I brushed my teeth.  I’m not some kind of vagrant!  Well….maybe a little bit this morning… I did spend half the night in a park.) A few minutes later, I was off to explore the city.  First on the list?  A coffee shop!

Fueled by caffeine and excitement, I found myself at the State Opera House to begin a walking tour.  No tour guide this time, just the Frommers instructions downloaded for free from TripAdvisor.  I would do my best to live up to the standard of Sandeman’s….who don’t have a presence in Vienna, anyway. 

It is as though the entire city-centre in Vienna was built in a single fit of architectural exuberance.  Every building is massive and ornate to the extreme, and with a few exceptions they all look more or less the same. The Opera House could be mistaken for the museum, except the primary museum complex is the size of a small town.  Of course, there are all kinds of other museums dotting the city.  Surprisingly, given the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Hungarian embassy is in a non-descript (by Viennese standards) building.   I loved that this was a stop on the Frommers tour, as Hungary is my next destination!

The Church of the Capuchin Friars actually looks less impressive, or at least less imposing, than many of its neighbours. Not what one would expect, given that this church houses the remains of every Hapsburg ruler since 1633.

As Roman Catholic churches all are, it was awe-inspiring on the inside.

Karntner and Graben streets are pedestrian thoroughfares or outdoor malls.  If I had more than a day in Vienna, I could see myself settling in on one of those patios and watching the world go by for hours.  But time is limited, and I want to make the most of it! (Also, I expect that if I sat down the lack of sleep might catch up with me….)

When Vienna emerged from the Black Plague, the Austrian leaders erected the Plague Column to commemorate the 150,000 dead. Strikes me as a bit of a strange thing to commemorate, but what with Stadpark and every second side-street in the old city core, the Viennese seem to love statues.

They love their churches too, as demonstrated by St. Stephan’s Cathedral.

The model included details (I presume) in Brail.  An innovative nod to the blind.

With respect, the real thing is a little more impressive!  Strange, too, though.  One gothic tower, and one mostly gothic tower with a baroque cupola. A strange insistence on aligning to “current” building styles even when construction spans hundreds of years.  The roofing tiles really drew my attention!  I have never seen such a decorative roof!  With their high-gloss, they were hard to actually see when the sun was shining.

The final stop on the walking tour was another set of statues and a fountain, but I suspect they were in some way hidden by the extensive construction going on in the city.  I walked up and down the designated street, but never found them.  I did, however, find myself back in Stadtpark. The sun was beating down, and scores of people were lazing about on the grass.  Time for a picnic lunch, I think!  I pulled out some leftover Czech cheese and some fruit, and finished the “meal” with some absinth-infused chocolate.  I even closed my eyes for a moment and enjoyed a little nap in the grass.  A short time later, surprisingly not weary, I headed back to the State Opera House to begin the second Frommers walking tour of Vienna. 

This second tour focused on more of the contemporary aspects of Viennese culture, and consequently explored beyond the Ring road.  Vienna was home to the secessionist movement; painters like Gustav Klimpt who broke away from the norms of the Vienna Fine Arts Academy.  Ironically, the Secessionist “headquarters” was in a building just around the corner from the Academy – the product of geographic availability.

Adolf Hitler was twice declined acceptance into the Vienna Fine Arts Academy.  Makes you wonder how history might have changed if his enthusiasm had been directed toward art rather than administration.

Then again, the Vienna art scene clearly does have a knack for administrative efficacy – the rival of Toronto’s MLSE.  The Vienna Philharmonic sells out years in advance, thank to the season ticket-holders. The home of the Vienna Philharmonic is the Friends of Music Building:

Across the square from the home of the Vienna Philharmonic is the Charles Church.  Built by Emperor Charles VI in the early eighteenth century, this church was not named after him, but after St. Charles Borromeo.  The people were not fooled.  This ode to imperial majesty was a response to Marie Theresa’s disappointment at the loss of the empire’s presence in Spain.  The Romanesque columns and massive cupola are singularly meant to impress. 

On the steps of Charles Church, I was approached by someone selling tickets to the orchestra for this evening. I had already inquired into a concert at Stadtpark, but decided that it was a little farther from my hotel than I wanted to go.  This one was only a mile or so away from my hotel in the other direction (a part of the city I hadn’t yet seen), in a palace.  Besides, as the salesman smoothly intoned: “Vienna is the home of music and culture.  You can’t come to Vienna and not see a concert.”  Ok, I’m getting there...  He followed with: “Is the price the problem? What if I sell it to you for half price?”  Sold.  I’m going to the orchestra in Vienna tonight! J  The genuinely kind salesman then explained a good restaurant near the palace where I would find authentic Viennese food, and then the walking tour proceeded.

The Naschmarket, a food market that sold (among many other things) red olives, and the road that originally connected Vienna and Venice rounded out the walking tour.  After six hours of touring today, I was starting to lose interest.  I returned to my hotel to freshen up and maybe catch a short nap…

Viennese food is a little less exciting than, say, Czech food.  Turkey schnitzel is nicely seasoned and flavoured, but it sort of reminds me of a really big chicken finger.  The potato dish that was served with it was very tasty, and breaded camembert is always a treat! The restaurant was a little overwhelmed (it was short-staffed, and both waiters were glistening with sweat as they ran all over trying to keep up), and so I was told that I couldn’t get the labour-intensive Viennese dessert I wanted. (“No, not tonight.  I’m sorry.” was the waiter’s reply.) All in all, I enjoyed my meal in every respect, and I got quite a kick out of the waiter’s stunned and grateful response when I gave him a very normal (by Canadian standards) tip.  He didn’t know he had a stacked deck – I was eating in Vienna, out in a garden patio, and counting down to a Viennese symphony!

The concert was great.  Some singing and some ballet, both of which I could happily do without, but they successfully accented the orchestra as opposed to being the focus of the evening.  After the string quintet the other night, it was a treat to get the full orchestra sound.  Did I mention it was also a treat to see an orchestra in Vienna? :)

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Day 14: Storming the Castle

My time in this city is “Prague-tically” over! (Ok, I know that was terrible…) Nevertheless, it’s true.  I woke up this morning to my last morning in Prague.  Thankfully I have some exciting times planned to make the most of this last day!

I started my day wandering along the Vltava River to get to the Dancing House.  In a city that showcases old architecture, this structure is extremely modern.  Very fun to see!

I didn’t actually bother going in, as I expect the effect is pretty much non-existent from the inside.

A little farther along the street brought me to a different kind of “architectural effect”.  Specifically, the effect of bullets on several-hundred-year-old brick.

Reynhard Heidrich was one of Hitler’s most esteemed senior leaders.  Hitler, himself, referred to Heidrich as the man with an iron heart; Heydrich is apparently the brains behind the “final solution” to the “Jewish problem”, and was given the overall charge of carrying it out. The “Butcher of Prague” was a merciless and evil man. He was also extremely confident in the strength and efficacy of the Nazi soldiers under his command.  As a show of confidence, Heidrich often drove around in a convertible vehicle with only a driver as protection.  It was as though he was daring someone to try to assassinate him. 

The dare was accepted.  The Czechoslovakian government-in-exile and British special forces trained a Czech and a Slovak to carry out the assassination.  Once these two were secreted into the country, they determined that the best possibility of carrying it out was at a steep curve (which would force Heidrich’s car to slow down) on the route of Heidrich’s daily commute to Prague Castle.  On the fateful day, the car slowed, as expected.  A soldier stepped into the road in front of the car and opened fire with a machine gun.  It jammed. For some reason, Heidrich ordered his driver to stop the car and began to return fire with his handgun. This gave an opportunity for the other would-be assassin to step out from behind the car and throw an anti-tank grenade at Heydrich.  Despite the open roof of the convertible, the grenade fell to the ground beside the car. (Really?  What kind of bad luck did these guys have??!!)  When it exploded, shrapnel injured both Heidrich and the would-be assassin.  Both soldiers got away, though Heidrich’s driver gave chase (and ended up being shot a couple of times, himself). Heidrich went to the hospital with severe injuries, but was soon patched up.

About a week later, Heidrich was recovering in hospital when he suddenly collapsed, descended into a coma, and died.  The assassination had been successful. The most likely theory is that horse-hair from the upholstery in the car was not fully cleaned out of the wound, and Heidrich died of septicemia.

The Nazis reacted swiftly and brutally.  Two towns, believed to be involved in the plot, were razed.  Five thousand Czechoslovakian citizens were executed.  Finally, someone tipped the Nazis off that the assassins were hiding out in a church in Prague.  Nazi forces were overwhelming, but the seven rebels (the assassins and colleagues) held out in the crypt until their final bullets.  They used their last bullets on themselves. The bullet holes and damage from that battle has been left at the church, along with a memorial to the soldiers who gave their lives in order to weaken the Nazi hold on Czechoslovakia.

I walked back to my hotel (to check out) by way of Wenceslas Square.  Last time I’ll be here in a while.  I believe this is the last that Wenceslas will play into this trip, too.

Prague Castle is not, technically, a castle; at least not anymore.  Now it is the largest palace complex in the world, which makes it more like a small town overlooking Prague than anything else.  Prague Castle remains the seat of authority in Prague and the Czech Republic.  It houses the office of the Prime Minister, who still formally receives this office in St. Vitus church, in tribute to the Roman Catholic history of the country.

Although not one of their free walking tours, this was yet another Sandeman tour.  What can I say – I like their product! John Paul Franke, our tour guide, grew up all over the world; 8-10 countries, I think. Maybe more.  A German father and an American mother.  His accent?  American.  Go figure.

Our first stop on the tour actually wasn’t about the castle per se.  Just a really great view!

See that large antenna?  The ugliest thing in the sky?  That’s a radio jamming device built by the Soviets.  It was completed shortly before the Soviets withdrew from the Czech Republic, and it was never put to use.  Rather than tear it down, the Czechs realized it could be used as a very powerful broadcast antenna. Making lemonade, as the saying goes! The dark bumps on the side of the antenna are a sculptor by a prominent Czech artist.  These babies crawling up and down the antenna are the artist’s critique of our culture’s infatuation with television.  The babies have no faces; only barcodes where their faces would be.  The artist’s perspective on the integration with the electronic world (at the expense of the “real” world) as a result of this obsession.

There are reproductions of these statues in a park in Prague.  They were very smooth! ;)

Ever heard of St. Norbert?  He’s the patron saint of a monastery up in Prague Castle.  The founder of the monastery was the kind of priest who drank too much (and apparently even chased the ladies, but that might have been hyperbole on the part of John Paul).  One day, while stumbling home, a fork of lightning hit the ground just ahead of him.  He was thrown from his horse, and lay unconscious on the ground.  When he came to, he determined that God had given him a warning, and so he turned around his life, and founded this monastery.  The monastery is best known for the beers that it brews.

For someone who doesn’t like beer, I think I’ve done pretty well.  I drank Amstel in Amsterdam, two different lambic beers as well as a wheat beer from Belgium, Gambrinus in Prague….I didn’t bother trying this monastery’s beer, so I can’t say how it compares. 

Our next stop on the tour was St. Vitus Cathedral.  St. Vitus Cathedral is the most prominent building in Prague Castle.  I’m a little embarrassed to admit I thought the large gothic building at the crest of the complex WAS Prague Castle. (I thought it was bigger than it was.) It’s pretty damn impressive as a church!

Vitus was a twelve-year old boy in and around the year 300 AD who converted to Christianity from paganism.  The story of how he converted was left out but in any case, his pagan father was none too pleased.  He tried everything to dissuade the boy from this Christ fellow, including beating him.  That prepubescent stubbornness held on, though, and Vitus remained a Christian. Escaping from his father, Vitus made his way to the emperor’s court, where the emperor's son was possessed by an evil spirit.  Vitus exorcised him with the power of God; the miracle that welcomed him to sainthood. The emperor, though undoubtedly appreciative, was a little less welcoming.  He invited Vitus to convert back to paganism, or to be tortured to death.  Young idealism.  Somewhere along the way (after he was tortured to death), Vitus' arm was rescued, and King Wenceslas got a hold of it the better part of a century later. The arm is entombed in Vitus church.  The bas-relief on the doors tells the story of Wenceslas acquiring the arm, and setting out to build this church to celebrate it:

Wenceslas never saw the completion of the church, nor did several generations after him.  The structure remained unfinished as more palaces sprouted up around it.  When it was finally finished, the interior was incredible.  However, note the difference in columns from dark to light.  The same stone was used.  The dark sandstone was exposed to the elements for hundreds of years before the roof was installed.  Makes a leaky skylight seem rather insignificant….

Though Prague Castle may no longer be what we think of as a “castle”, some of the battlements remain.  Just as the skies opened up a deluge of rain, we retreated into the hallways of the ancient fortifications – the remaining walls of Prague Castle.  There is something fantastic about walking in hallways built in a thousand year old stone wall while vicious thunder roars outside, and hail pelts the roofing tiles.  The ingenious “windows” of the day (logs that were hollowed out such that they could be turned one way to afford a view of the outside, or the other way to close off the view, wind, and rain) demonstrated their efficacy (and their shortcomings, as they are not airtight), and the stone echoed the thunder.  The tour continued, but I opted instead to stay in the dry hallways lined with armor of every era from Roman times to the nineteenth century.  I tried to shoot a crossbow, but the man running that attraction was tired or something.  He wasn’t closing for almost another thirty minutes, but he preferred no more customers, it seemed.  

The armor and – in another room – torture devices from medieval times eventually lost their interest; coincidentally when the rain let up.  I made a dash to the nearest coffee shop for something to warm me up!  They only accepted cash.  Good thing I didn’t shoot the crossbow!  I only had enough on me for a cup of grog (rum with hot water and a slice of orange) – perfect when one is wet and cold! I nursed that until the rain had nearly concluded, then wandered back down through the lower town that surrounds Prague Castle in search of dinner.

On Sunday, tour guide Martin had recommended the restaurant U Parlamentu for traditional Czech fare.  It made for a delicious Easter dinner, so I returned to U Parlamentu for my last dinner in Prague.  I even ordered many of the same things, though I skipped the absinth this time. (At most I’ll get 4.5 hours of sleep tonight.  No need to complicate things with the green fairy.)

I dashed from the restaurant to finally witness the workings of the astronomical clock.  You see, my description earlier this week was based entirely on Martin’s description.  Since that time, I have walked through Old Town Square numerous times – anywhere from a few minutes after the hour, to quarter to the next hour (but with somewhere to be on the hour).  Three days in Prague, and I still hadn’t actually seen it! I witnessed it “at the eleventh hour”! (Really, the ninth hour, I think…)

The walk to the bus station in the dark of night (the street lights on many of those streets were out, so it really was dark) seemed dicey, but I had been assured that it was safe, so I ploughed on.  Then I noticed two well-dressed, middle-aged women strolling along the sidewalk on the other side of the street.  I guess it really is safe! 

Around 11:30pm, the staff at the bus station began shooing us outside.  The station was open until midnight (actually, until “12pm” as the recorded announcement kept repeating), but I guess they wanted to close early.  Sort of like the Laundromat this morning that opened at 7:30. Except it didn’t actually open until nearly 8am.  A different approach.  My bus did board on time, and so a few minutes before midnight, we set forth toward Vienna.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Day 13: “Peace in our time”

Let me emphasise that – “peace in OUR time”.  Specifically, for certain countries in Western Europe and beyond the oceans.  The appeasement strategy in the time leading up to World War Two paved the way for atrocities in Czechoslovakia.  Tijo Knoll, another Sandeman’s guide, taught us of one of these in particular today: Terezin. (Tijo is not a local Czech.  However, whatever he may lack in personal perspective for this tour is compensated by his professional area of expertise: Psychology.  A very interesting person to guide us through a former concentration camp!)

Terezin was originally a fortress town built in the late 1700s as a defensive structure for the Austrian Empire.  Though built to be impenetrable according to the military standards of the day, Terezin was obsolete shortly after it was built – the result of the dramatic changes in warfare.  Though no longer useful as a defensive fort, Terezin was nevertheless used as a garrison for approximately three thousand soldiers, as well as a prison for the likes of Gavrilo Princip (who assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, providing the most proximate cause for the start of World War One).  The town of Terezin – inside the fort – included an additional two thousand civilians. When the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia, they turned Terezin into a concentration camp for Jews from Czechoslovakia, Denmark, the Netherlands…from wherever it was convenient.

Today, Terezin once again houses some two thousand civilians, but the garrison is gone.  With no military infrastructure, the town lacks investment, economic opportunities, and purpose.  The decay is evident where resources are simply insufficient to maintain the crumbling buildings.  However, for the people who live there, it is still home.

Apparently natural, these giant rats that congregate around the streams in the old fort moat.  These things are the size of small dogs!

Our trip to Terezin, although under incomparable circumstances, followed the path of the Jews who were forced there.  We disembarked from the main train station and walked the mile or so to the fort.  In time, the Nazis extended the railway right into the fort itself.  This was not an act of generosity toward the Jews; the Nazis simply did not want the locals to see what was going on.  (With respect to the circumstances…the very first Jews transported to Terezin were older people who had been “sold” a retirement residence in the picturesque setting of Terezin.  They sold their properties, packed their belongings, and arrived expecting a quiet and peaceful life.  Their shock began when they were told they had to walk, carrying all of their belongings, from the station to the fort.) Though I knew what I was getting into, I couldn’t help but notice the serene surroundings; naturally beautiful landscapes and birds singing.  It is strangely juxtaposed against what took place there less than a lifetime ago.
I don't normally get too caught up with my own photography, but I love this photo.  This is where the tracks end just inside the gates to Terezin.  This Jewish man was on our tour; relatives of his had faced the concentration camps in World War Two. The symbolism really gets me.

According to Nazi propaganda, Terezin was a town that was “gifted to the Jews”.  A place they could call their own.  This gross distortion of the truth was validated by the Red Cross when they examined the camp to ensure it was fit.  Somehow, the rest of the world was satisfied that forcibly moving people from their homes and relocating them to a confined camp was acceptable, provided that this prison included a used clothing store (where the prisoners could purchase their own clothes that had previously been confiscated) and had its own Jewish money. (The bank notes had the face of Moses.  The original graphics were changed by the Nazi authorities to make the faces more “Jewish”; Moses’ nose was made longer and more crooked.) Ingrained anti-Semitism may have been the immediate cause for this acceptance, though we didn’t do much better in the face of Rwanda.  Perhaps most cruel for the purposes of propaganda was the fact that Jewish prisoners were filmed tending vegetable gardens for the rest of the world to see.  Though the gardeners smiled and laughed as they weeded and hoed, they were never to enjoy the fruits of this labour.  Those vegetable gardens were to feed the Nazi SS.

The propaganda was that Terezin was a Jewish idyll.  The reality is that this fort, made to house seven thousand people, reached a peak population of 58 000 prisoners.  Death was a reality every day, not only due to horrific abuse at the hands of the guards, but also to over-crowding and a lack of the basic necessities of life.  
As per Jewish custom, those who died in the early days at Terezin were buried in coffins made of wood. 

In time, as the death rate increased, mass graves were implemented and coffins were deemed superfluous; burial sites were identified only by the approximate placement within a grid outline. 

Finally, as even this system was overwhelmed, a crematorium was built.  The crematorium had a capacity for up to 180 bodies per day. 

In the end, over 20 000 bodies are buried in the graves around Terezin.

Conservative Jews are opposed to cremation, as they believe their bodies are to be buried in the ground – untouched – after death.  Consequently, it was a new horror not only for these Jews to face cremation at Terezin, but also for the Jewish inmates to have to build and operate the crematorium, themselves. Further, upon direction from the Nazi SS, the Jewish workers of the crematorium had to sift through the ashes of the bodies to ensure that gold fillings and such were retrieved before the ashes were disposed.

I should clarify something when I keep referring to the Jews at Terezin.  The peculiarities of the Nazi definition of Jewish meant that there was a substantial population of non-Jewish (according to self-identification) prisoners in Terezin.  The Nazis deemed that anyone with three out of four grandparents identified as Jewish was also Jewish, irrespective of practice, belief, or self-identification.  Think about that.  People who were several generations away from practicing Judaism could be sent to Terezin simply because of the cascading effect of this “three out of four” principle.  As a result, Terezin not only hosted a majority Jewish population, but it also imprisoned Christians, Atheists…and anyone else who had the misfortune to be sent there.

Wandering through the cemetery outside of Terezin is a reminder of what atrocities one human can inflict upon another; however, our guide Tijo ensured that the theme of the day remained that some good exists in even the most terrible circumstances. (There’s that Psychology training coming through…)  To one side in the Terezin cemetery, there stands a memorial crowned with the Soviet hammer and sickle.  The Soviets reached Terezin during a mass outbreak of infectious disease.  To avoid worsening the reach of this outbreak, the Soviets quarantined the camp, releasing only those prisoners who were given a clean bill of health.  Soviets clinicians tended to the sick and dying in Terezin, knowing that the outbreak was deadly.  This memorial is dedicated to those Soviet clinicians who died while tending to the sick prisoners at Terezin.

Bad as things were at Terezin – and they were horrific – conditions were better than some other camps.  Terezin was the “model camp” used for Nazi propaganda purposes.  Though a prisoner might be beaten to death for breaking some trivial rule such as throwing paper on the ground, the inmates as a whole were granted a modicum of self-governance through the establishment of a Jewish Council.  This council allowed for the development of an artistic culture at Terezin – primarily theatre, though also some clandestine art.  A few of the pieces of theatre have survived the camp and the war.  Some of the art that survives provides an honest glimpse into the terrors of Terezin.  That there was such an artistic scene indicates a glimmer of hope. It's tough to say whether the hope was warranted.

This was one of two billboards of children's artwork on display in Terezin.  This one had the higher survival rate of the two. Only six of the seven children whose art is displayed here died in Auschwitz.

This is but one section of a heartbreaking series of walls listing all the children who died in the concentration camps.

Even though several members of the governing council met their ends in Auschwitz or elsewhere at the hands of Nazis, members of this council were criticized after the war for their collusion with the Nazi oppressors. In their defense, the council had the nearly impossible balancing act to manage of minimizing the atrocities of the camp, while providing a subdued and cheap labour force.  Jewish prisoners at Terezin were worth more to the Nazis alive than dead provided the camp was a source of slave labour.  Consequently, the inmate of Terezin did everything from mending Nazi uniforms, to sort belongings confiscated from other Jews, to rudimentary manufacturing.  All of this was in addition, of course, to the creation of basic infrastructure for the town (waterworks, sewage, etc.). 

Due to overcrowding and lack of sanitation, bed-lice were a constant at Terezin.  Some inmates were tasked with de-lousing mattresses using a pesticide on the outskirts of camp.  This pesticide was the same chemical used in the gas chambers in the death camps. A most troubling and cruel parallel reflecting the Nazi perspective on Jews.

This exploration of the concentration camp at Terezin made for a somber day.  At one point, I overheard Tijo comment that he actively avoided conducting this tour more than once per week, lest the connection become disjointed; the delivery become too clinical.  Whatever he was doing, it was working.  He provided a balance between the honest realities of the horrors of the camp, and the single candlelight that can chase away the most complete darkness.  Then….there was once that it wasn’t Tijo who injected levity into the day. As the tour walked slowly back to the train station after departing Terezin, a motorcyclist came motoring down the road toward us.  I then witnessed what I have never seen outside of TV or the movies: the driver popped a “wheelie” and maintained it for at least a hundred metres beside us.

Tijo had one more stop for us before sending us back to our own lives in Prague.  In case the motorcyclist’s antics weren’t enough, Tijo had one final message of hope to counter the heavy content of the day.  Back at Prague train station, we stopped at platform number one.

Nicholas Winton found himself at a Jewish refugee camp in Czechoslovakia just before war broke out in 1939. He was troubled by the number of women who attempted to press their babies upon him to take with him back to England.  Touched by their effort to give their children a better life – any better life – Nicholas Winton proceeded to arrange for the adoption of 669 mostly Jewish babies from Czechoslovakia refugee camps to English families in the first eight months of 1939.  Given the odds of babies in these refugee camps, the “British Schindler” most definitely saved their lives.

What do you do after a day like that?  I thanked Tijo for an incredible, emotional and memorable exploration into the concentration camp at Terezin, and life in Czechoslovakia during the war.  Then I made my way back to my hotel, had a quiet dinner, and wandered down to the Vltava River.