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 Question."

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 had defeated.

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 back then.

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 to Prague.

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 indeed.

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 future.

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 Prague.

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 the wind
Will sit on the graves' corners
Only a patch of grass, a bitter weed
Before May bears some flowers


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