Editor’s note: another soul searching piece for me from Sam, our traveling rabbi. Powerful, emotional, Sam captures the essence of a place I haven’t had the guts to visit. For more of his work here at The Royal Tour, click here to visit his index.
On January 27, I wrote an article on visiting Auschwitz for International Holocaust Remembrance Day. This day is observed annually by the global community on the date that Auschwitz was liberated. However, though the world marks that date to remember the Holocaust, the Jewish community marks a day in the spring called Yom HaShoah (falling sometime in April or May), and today (as I’m writing) is that day this year. Yom HaShoah is a painful day that can be observed uniquely in many places, occurring on the Hebrew calendar date of the Warsaw Uprising. While the January date focuses on the terrors of Nazism and the profound loss of the Holocaust, Yom HaShoah recalls not just the loss but also the acts of heroism and resistance against the Nazis. At Auschwitz, there are ceremonies that include a fly over from the Israeli military, symbolizing how if there were a mass genocide against the Jewish people today, we would have a strong army that would fight for us. In Israel itself, there are also touching ceremonies. Israeli media shows Holocaust-related programming throughout the day and a siren goes off across the country, during which the entire country comes to a standstill for two minutes, including standing on a train or pulling cars over on the highway to pay respects. The day also includes a somber ceremony led by the Israeli president and Holocaust survivors at Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and Museum.
In my travels, I have been to numerous Holocaust-related sites, memorials, and museums. Though it might seem as though these various locations and stories would blend together, they do not. Each one is painful, unique, and memorable in its own way. Thinking of the totality of the Holocaust, six million people is a number so large that it becomes a statistic, but when visiting the places where the Holocaust occurred, seeing the pictures and hearing the stories of the victims, you realize that each place and each person who was there was different than anywhere and anyone else. Each person contained their own individual holiness and each location contains its own distinct horror. Though many of us have heard of the most notorious camps like Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Dachau, most camp names are not commonly known. Researchers believe that including all Nazi locations for slave labor, concentration camps, ghettos, and forced sex slave brothels, there were over 42,000 camps and ghettoes where the Holocaust took place. Today, I will focus on the place that I visited that I found the most interesting of the various camps that I have been to.
Possibly, my favorite city in Europe is Prague, the beautiful Central European capitol with incredible nightlife, architecture, history, and where the beer is cheaper than water. For these reasons, the Czech Republic’s largest city is on the tourist path for many travelers, and while there, it is important to visit the incredible and well-preserved Jewish quarter and also the nearby Jerusalem (Jubilee) Synagogue. The Nazis fortunately and purposely did not destroy Prague’s Jewish quarter nor the 400 Torah scrolls of the region that have now been distributed to synagogues throughout the world. The reason that these areas were spared destruction was that it was the intention of the Nazis to make the area a museum for an extinct people once they had made Europe what they called Judenfrei, free of Jews. One of the synagogues, the Pinkas Synagogue, has written on the walls the names of the 78,000 Czech Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Many of these Jews died at the nearby camp of Terezin.
Terezin is about an hour bus ride away from Prague. There are numerous organized tours that leave from Prague, but when I went, I took a bus for a couple of dollars. If you go the public transit route, be sure to stare out the window and when you see the mass cemetery, holler at the driver to stop. The town of Terezin today has a population of approximately 3,000 residents. As I noted in my article on Auschwitz, there are a lot of complexities with being a tourist at this place with its sad history. Terezin is located in the beautiful region of Bohemia. There are plenty of trees, Austro-Hungarian architecture, and the Ohre River running right through the town. There is also a gorgeous golf course, and about one hundred yards from businessmen relaxing and golfing, there is a statue erected next to the Ohre River. At the statue, there is a plaque that states that it was at this spot that as the war was coming to an end, the Nazis dumped the ashes of approximately 20,000 of their victims into the river to hide their crimes.
Terezin is divided by the Ohre River; on one side is the town and on the other side is what is called the Small Fortress, though during the war it became known as Theresienstadt concentration camp. The Small Fortress was built in the 18th century as a military fortress, but in the 19th century was converted into a prison. The prison became particularly notable due to one inmate during World War I, Gavrilo Princip, the Bosnian Serb assassin of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose death sparked the war. Visitors can see the cold dark cell where Princip lived and died of tuberculosis at age 23 inside the fortress. Around the fortress you will see an archway that reads the infamous words often inscribed at concentration camps, Arbeit Macht Frei, “Work will set you free,” a cruel, misleading joke by the Nazis. It was at the small fortress that a few thousand people died as a result of torture, being shot to death, or by hanging at the gallows. The most painful site at the Small Fortress is a rocky courtyard surrounded by barracks. When a prisoner of the camp tried to escape, the Nazis would force the other interned people to stone the would-be-escapee to death. The pain of the escapee – but also his executioners – is unimaginable. Outside of the walls of the fortress the disparity between the captives and their captors are easily visible. On one side of the camp are Bavarian-looking mansions and swimming pools where the Nazis and their families lived in luxury, a world away from the atrocities they were committing. On the other side of the fortress are the silent homes of thousands of dead, buried in two cemeteries, a Jewish one featuring a Star of David and a Christian one with a giant cross, with a mass grave between the two cemeteries. Across the river is another Jewish cemetery with a large menorah sculpture, paying homage to the Jewish victims of the camp.
The other part of the Nazi internment of Jews in Terezin was the town itself, which was turned into a massive ghetto. In stark contrast to the torture chambers, execution sites, and cold cells of the Small Fortress, the town, upon first glance, appears lovely. The museum is housed inside the schoolhouse and library of the ghetto and shows artwork by children who lived in the ghetto, as well as their sports uniforms and a Monopoly-type boardgame the kids made. Most notably is artwork from a 14-year-old child with a thirst for science and learning named Petr Ginz, who practiced Christianity but had a Jewish father. Petr’s artwork shows that while the Nazis could imprison his body, they could not confine his sense of wonder and mind. Also in Terezin was a burial society where the Jews could perform their sacred rituals for burying the dead. From all outward appearances, the town of Terezin does not seem too terrible – a beautiful place where children could play, learn and perform the arts, and where Jews could practice their faith. However, this image was exactly what the Nazis used Terezin for, for their propaganda. International observers would be brought to Terezin to watch the sports competitions, see the children in classrooms, and listen to choirs sing. German Jews were often sent to Terezin, including the elderly and veterans of World War I, where the Nazis would take footage of them and show people that their treatment was not that bad.
The appearances of Terezin as a model camp, though, were misleading. When the cameras were not rolling, the people still suffered there. A quarter of the Terezin’s prisoners, approximately 20,000 people, died of disease there. Terezin was also largely known as a holding camp for Auschwitz, where most of Terezin’s residents were deported and killed upon arrival in a gas chamber that was nicknamed the Theresienstadt Family Camp. It was at that chamber that tens of thousands from Terezin met their death, including Petr Ginz. At Terezin, you can see inside the burial society room hundreds of boxes, which are full of ashes, that the Nazis did not get an opportunity to throw into the river. These boxes look like shoe boxes, but you have to remember that inside these boxes are the remains of thousands of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters, and that these boxes contain what once were people’s entire worlds, and nearby the society are the crematoriums that still remain.
The most moving site in Terezin is underneath a cellar behind an alleyway. There, a cantor named Arthur Berlinger, would sneak into the cellar with red and black paint, the only colors he had, and create a beautiful prayer room. The vaulted ceiling contains Stars of David, the walls display psalms written in Hebrew, including the verses “May our eyes behold Your return to Zion in compassion” and “But despite all this, we have not forgotten Your name. We beg You not to forget us.” Yet another reads, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill.” He even created a self-portrait with the inscription, “Know before whom you stand.” This room was undiscovered until 1989, and sadly, the paintings below waist-level were destroyed in 1997 by a flood, but the higher ones still remain. I had the privilege of leading a prayer service for a group of teenagers in this room, and I imagined Cantor Berlinger and his friends sneaking into the room to pray and maintain their Jewish faith and traditions in secret and at risk to their very lives. Though I have certainly been to far more opulent synagogues, I challenge anyone to have a more meaningful worship experience anywhere else.
A visit to Terezin will leave you with more questions than you had when you arrived. It will touch and move any visitor. Unlike other camps that were largely destroyed after the war, Terezin and the Small Fortress are one of the best-preserved concentration camps to give you an insight into life for those who were imprisoned there. Your day there and seeing the reality compared to what was portrayed by Nazi propaganda will be a reminder to never accept anything based off of first glance.
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