A Visit to TEREZIN
by Simon Robertson
Before leaving the shores of New Zealand
to venture off into Europe seven and half years ago, I was only
able to find out about the Nazi death camps, what the Nazis did
in Europe and learn about them through reading books and watching
documentaries. Thus, I hoped by my move into Europe, that I would
learn more and to see for myself, what previously I could only
find in books.
As I have traveled, I have met some wonderful
people throughout Europe and seen some very interesting places
as well. I was extremely lucky earlier this year when I took
a 9-hour over night train with my girlfriend, Magdalena, from
Krakow through to Praha (Prague) in the Czech Republic. We had
never been to Praha and I knew that Terezin (known as Theresienstadt
in WW2) was close to the Czech capital.
So the following day we organized ourselves
the bus to take us out there. The day was dull, gloomy with the
threat of rain, which considering the oncoming experience I was
about to embark upon, I thought was rather apt.
We were dropped off in the town square,
which is in the middle of the main fortress, just around the
corner from "The Ghetto Museum," which was the former
school of Terezin and also a boy's home. There was a slight wind,
which was cold; my first thoughts were "what happened here,
what was it like?" So we decided to go and see the museum
first. This was an insight into what I was about to go and see,
also in some way a visual experience. Inside is an exhibition
on Terezin's history as the Ghetto, which existed between 1941
and 1945. You can also see films, organize guided tours of the
former ghetto, which can be in Czech, English, German, or French.
There is also a visitor's shop where I bought a few books and
DVDs to add to my collection. There was, at the time, in the
foyer of the cinema, a temporary exhibition, which included pictures
the children had drawn of what they experienced and saw during
those dark years before many of them met their fate either in
Theresienstadt or in the many other death camps in which they
were shipped to. These pictures had the name of the child who
drew them and also their birth date, and in most cases, their
date of death.
I also learned a bit about why Terezin
was built and its purpose. The fortress of Terezin was built
way back in 1780 to protect the access roads against hostile
armies, which invaded Bohemia during the Prussian-Austrian wars
in the 18th century. Although it was never used in its duty and
lost the fortress status, it still remained a garrison town with
the smaller fortress serving as a jail in the early 19th century
for those who opposed the Hapsburg monarchy, both military and
political. Some of the prisoners kept here included the Sarajevo
Assassination plotters which kick-started WW1 (most of them died
here). It was only after Hitler's Nazi hordes invaded, that Terezin
became notoriously well known in the pages of history. For in
the summer of 1940, the Prague Gestapo set up in the small fortress
(Mala Pevnost) with the Ghetto being set up in the main fortress,
which is now the town of Terezin.
The ghetto was only set up to be the
reception place for the Bohemian and Moravian Jews, but then
also received prisoners from the many Nazi-occupied countries
including Germany itself. One of the three purposes of Theresienstadt
was that of an image of a self-governing Jewish settlement. This
was done to cover up what was really going there to people abroad,
which included "The Red Cross" (via propaganda which
included films that you can see in the cinema) and not let them
see the Nazi's answer to the "Final Solution of the Jewish
The other two purposes were, one, to
serve as a transit camp and two, to be a decimating camp; according
to the figures, one fifth of all prisoners died there.
From 1940 through to 1945, approximately
140,000 prisoners (men, women and children) from all over Europe
got deported to Theresienstadt. In the final days of the war,
as the German Armies were in full retreat, Theresienstadt started
to receive thousands of prisoners from other camps. These people
arrived totally exhausted from their long travels; a lot were
dead upon their arrival and many died soon after. Typhoid ran
rife throughout the camp and after liberation in May 1945, it
was very hard to let them go home straight away, as they needed
medical attention first. The Russians, along with the people
of Terezin, helped the former prisoners; many of them caught
the disease themselves and some even died from it.
Once I'd taken all this in, I felt I
was better prepared for what lay ahead in the day to come. So
Magdalena and I set off to the small fortress, which is about
a 10 to 15 minute walk (depending on what you want to stop and
look at on the way).
As we approached the small fortress,
I came across the Terezin town sign, so being the traveler that
I like to be, I stopped for the photo opportunity. It was there
that I got my first sight of the cemetery, which lay in front
of the small fortress. It didn't seem to be the biggest that
I have seen; however I later found out that there were about
10,000 bodies buried here at the Nation Cemetery with 2386 of
them buried individually, and by the dates shown, some died post
WW2 from illnesses such as typhoid.
So we walked up to and through the black
and white striped gates. Once through the gates, we headed up
to the left into what was called the third yard, where the women
were kept. These cells were very small indeed; "you'd go
crazy being cooped up in here" was one of my first thoughts
as I sat in the doorway trying to imagine. Further along, there
were some larger rooms, which held 15 to 20 prisoners. Whilst
looking in these, I found no evidence of there being running
water or electricity. After pondering my thoughts, we walked
back towards the main entrance.
As we wandered down into the first yard,
we passed the reception office, (I noted here that I was not
checking into a hotel and neither were the prisoners) then the
office of Heinrich Jockel, the prison commander, and on past
the clothing warehouse where the new prisoners had to hand in
their clothes in exchange for uniforms of armies that the Nazis
This brought us up to a particular arched
gate that so many had traveled through, yet never returned. Above
it is written the infamous inscription "Arbeit Mach Frei,"
which roughly translates to "Work Makes Free." This
inscription can be found throughout the many death camps in Europe.
Looking back, I thought it only freed them from their sanity,
their pain and their suffering once their lives were so needlessly
wasted, their life's flames extinguished.
The first yard was not so big; there
was no way you could get enough decent exercise here. It was
divided up into 2 blocks: A & B. These housed some 17 so-called
mass cells along with about 20 single cells. It was said that
there were up to 1,500 prisoners living here in this yard.
We had read in the guidebook about the
execution ground and mass graves outside the fortress and headed
toward the corridor, which led from the yard; however it was
not be, as it had been closed off. So we headed back out through
the inscripted gate and up to the left towards the gate known
as "The Gate of Death." (So named, as it was where
the prisoners were taken out to the execution grounds.) The heavens
had now decided to shed tears over this place of horrors, as
it started to rain.
It was here that I was to have the most
amazing meeting of all my travels. Ahead of us were four people,
one of whom walked with a cane. At first I took no notice, but
as I continued to head toward the gate to go through, I went
to ask Magdalena something and got no answer; as I turned I saw
that she was speaking to the group of four tourists. So I walked
up to say hello and get their thoughts on the day's findings.
They were from America, on a trip to recall and find things out.
It turned out that the elderly gentleman, who was in his eighties,
was showing his son, the son's wife and a friend where his wife
of 58 years (who passed away 2 years ago) had been imprisoned
all those years ago. He himself had been a prisoner of Auschwitz,
the most notorious death camp of all.
All of a sudden my heart skipped a beat,
oh my God, not only was I in a place of historical importance,
here I was actually speaking to living, breathing survivor. He
looked good for his age and was very talkative to us. It transpired
that they hadn't known each other during those darkest years
of their lives and that his wife had ended up in Theresienstadt.
He was heading to the place where, years before, his wife was
forced to help build the swimming pool for the camp's staff.
As we walked, he explained to me that
both he and his wife were from northern Poland and had been caught
up in the roundup of all the Jews by the Nazis. He had been in
a few camps before being sent to Auschwitz, though he did not
name them; however his wife had been in Theresienstadt more or
less from the outset. He said that they were on their way through
to Krakow, Poland to visit Auschwitz. He and Magdalena started
to chat about today's Krakow (as Krakow is Magdalena's home city)
and what he remembered it to be, then about Auschwitz.
As we found the pool, we walked up to
the wooden picket fence and as I looked at it, he asked if I
could see the window of the building, which was to the right
of it, as he pointed to it. He said his wife said that the Germans
used to shoot the prisoners, who were building the pool, from
there, for not working hard enough. I tried to imagine it but
all I could see was Amon Goeth "the Commandant of Plaszow,"
shooting prisoners as Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List"
shows. It must have been terrifying to think that here you were
doing your job, as ordered, and all of a sudden, a shot rings
out and the life of the person standing next to you has just
been taken. Cold, very cold. So we turned and walked away towards
the fourth yard, each left in our own thoughts.
The fourth yard contained the mass cells,
which held anywhere up to 600 prisoners. It was also the site
where in March 1945, three prisoners tried to escape from cell
number 38. One of these prisoners, along with 2 men and a woman
(picked at random) were murdered right up at the far end of the
yard as a warning to the other prisoners. The other 2 escapees,
once recaptured, were stoned to death in the first yard somewhere
near the single cells.
Magdalena and I walked around looking
in the cells, now used for exhibits, and then met up with the
Americans again and started our walk back to the Ghetto. I asked
the elderly survivor about Auschwitz. There was a silence and
I thought that I had over stepped my welcome, but then he told
of how they used to keep the dead bodies so they could claim
that dead person's meals, as the portions they used to receive
from their warders were never enough. Also they used to take
the dead people's belongings. He went on to say that he never
felt bad about this, as he needed to survive. The phase "Survival
of the fittest" came to mind and I tried to imagine if I
could have been as strong as this now frail man had once been
I took a moment to reflect on this and
tried to imagine it all. It was years ago, but speaking to this
man made it all so real and right now, I've never really experienced
this emotion before.
So after we left the Fortress and said
our goodbyes to them, Magdalena and I started our walk back to
the Ghetto. The rain had eased up and the way back was time to
reflect on what I had just seen and heard.
As we walked back into the Ghetto, we
walked down Hauptstrasse and I wondered where all the people
were. It seemed to be a very lonely, cold and desolate place.
I remember wondering what had this place seen? What secrets was
it hiding? We crossed the green and headed down Langestrasse
towards the Jewish cemetery and crematorium. We walked past "Block
C," the Hamburg Barracks; this was like a dormitory for
women and from 1943, it housed Dutch prisoners. It looked very
derelict and somber. I closed my eyes and could almost hear the
hob-nailed jackboots of the Nazis marching down the street.
We turned into Sudstrasse, which took
us over a part of the old railroad tracks that were laid down
in 1942-43 by the prisoners. The railroad went from the station
at Bohusovice through to Terezin; it was supposed to help the
Nazis handle the flow of transports more easily and quickly.
Past the tracks, we passed the Ceremonial
Halls (which lead through to the morgue). The Columbarium was
situated across the road; this contained some urns. Continuing
our walk towards the cemetery, we came across a sign explaining
what we were approaching and please could all male visitors please
respect this place and cover their heads. Damn I thought, I don't
have a hat; then I remembered I had my raincoat so I pulled it
out and used it, hoping that it was suitable and that I would
not offend those who would be there both living and dead.
It was a sobering place; the crematorium
was off to the right, but it was closed, as it was late in the
afternoon, which was a shame. So we ambled off down to the right
and looked at the Jewish cemetery. I was surprised to find, up
on the right of the path, a large Memorial to Russian Soldiers,
which had 49 Soviet soldiers buried there in marked graves.
Both of us were wrapped up in our own
thoughts, as to why and how all this could have happened? It
was so sad. The weather was slowly getting gloomy and we thought
it was best we get back to the square and wait for our bus back
As we walked back into the town, we walked
back past the Hamburg Barracks and then on past the old Sappers
Barracks. Then the heavens finally gave way and the rain came,
so we began to move a bit faster. We came across a little bar/café
type place and decided to have a bite and a drink before our
bus arrived. It was then that it really started to bucket down;
we were glad to be out of it. Perhaps, I thought, it was the
tears of all who suffered all those years ago, finally being
able to cry in peace, with dignity. It was a very sad feeling
As I sat there eating my chips and sipping
a beer, I started to ponder over the day's experiences. It was
here that it all hit home. What would it have been like to live
in those days? How tough and adaptable people had become to survive
such a bloody onslaught; what would I have felt when my family
and friends had been torn away from me, perhaps never to be seen
again? What would I have done? Would I have been able to just
stand by and let it go without so much as raising a finger?
I have always wondered why a lot of Jewish
people never rebelled (as happened in the Sobibor and Treblinka
death camps). In some cases they out numbered their captors greatly,
but still they stood their ground and were led to their deaths
in the millions. True courage, a testament of one's faith and
determination not to give up.
For those of you who have thought about
it, but have never have been to one of the many Concentration
Camps that still remain throughout Europe, I would strongly recommend
it. It is a true testament of what mankind is capable of doing
to one another and also how, in times of extreme situations,
one can survive and what one must endure to achieve this. They
are there to remind us of the past and of what to avoid in the
I would like to finish with a poem (or
part of one) that I found in a book on Terezin, written by Jaroslav
Seifert, a famous poet, (He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature
in 1984, two years before his death) who was born and died in
TO THE DEAD
A grave among graves
Who can tell it apart
Time has long swept away the dead faces
Testimonies, so evil and terrible to the heart
We took with us to these dark rotting places
Only the night and the howl of
Will sit on the graves' corners
Only a patch of grass, a bitter weed
Before May bears some flowers