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.

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