Where the Streets Ache with Emptiness – Terezin, Czech Republic – Day4.1

Small Fortress

I tried to prepare myself for something that can’t be prepared for: stepping back into the Holocaust, not just in a museum but on the very grounds where victims tread. World War II is still a raw scar on the hearts and minds of those who remember Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. When I looked into the wrinkled and lined faces of the women and men working in the various areas of the city, I couldn’t help but wonder, “What do you know about this? Do you remember too?”

87,000. That’s the number of people who moved through Terezin from 1940-1945.
3,600. That’s the number of people from Terezin camp who survived to be liberated, either from Terezin or other death camps across Eastern Europe.

The tracks are silent now.

No, in the sense of the phrase as used during this time period, Terezin was not a death camp, not in the way that Majdanek, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Chelmno were. In fact, in this medieval-fortified city about one hour north of Prague, it happened to be a perfect – if one can use the word “perfect” – transport centre for the Nazis’ sending the Jews and other prisoners to the camps in the East. Additionally, Terezin was known for its art – music, drama, paintings and drawings, and literature – during the war, especially the children’s art. Terezin was a linchpin in the Nazi plan to fool the world as to its intentions regarding the jewry of Europe. Here propaganda videos were shot to show everyone just how well they were treating the Jews. International visits were conducted to show off the arts in the camp.

Terezin Ghetto Museum

But, in reality, Terezin was just as deadly as any other place. People stayed for short six month quarantine times, after which they were already marked for transport to Auschwitz or other death camps. Disease ran rampant in the overcrowded barracks, especially where people were packed in with little food, inadequate clothing, hard labor work, and no medical care. Many died here, working in the ramparts, transported to the morgue and crematorium outside of the fortress walls. For those who were delivered to Terezin, there were two ways out: the railroad to the camps in the East or to the crematorium. Many left in little boxes, buried in row after row at the end of a lane of tall, spindly cypress trees.

Leftover ramparts that used to be
barbed wire fences around the
main fortress.

Amidst this incredible horror, the adults tried to shield the camp’s children from the worst parts. Teachers conducted courses on music and art, encouraging the children to express themselves through art. It was beautiful, the world the adults tried to simulate for the children. Dolls and lessons; games and pencil drawings. “They must have hope,” a prisoner recalled in one of the displays.

Some of the poignant drawings and sketches are on display in Skokie, Illinois’s Holocaust Museum, the National Holocaust Museum in D.C., the Pinkas Synagogue in north Prague, and here, in Terezin, where the drawings were found post-war. But, the sobering reality came when I admired the drawing and thought to myself, “These children couldn’t have their drawings on the fridge. They saw things no child should see – yet they found some beauty around them. In flowers. In their memories of better times.”

But then I read the plaques beside the drawings:

Died in Auschwitz.
Died in Auschwitz.
Died in Auschwitz.

This repeats itself over and over and over again, from drawing to drawing. It took me ages to find a drawing by a child who survived, one of the 3,600 who were liberated.

Empty streets echo with
our footsteps.

Terezin is a place where the streets ache with emptiness.

When I got off the bus on the main road going through town – just inside the fortress walls – I was struck by how the town looked like it was melting into itself – bricks crumbled down from old walls, graffiti decorated walls, and even trees seemed to sag. Every now and then someone walked by with a dog or with the shuffling step of the old. A sharp wind whipped up as we followed the one bridge sign which directed visitors to the Ghetto Museum.

We crossed the silent bridge into the town, wound around a corner, and strolled into the park where the only sound greeting us was the crunch of our feet on the gravel walk – and the occasional chilling caw of a large, black crow perched on a naked tree branch.

The museum had a video to watch, part surviving propaganda video, part video showcasing the real-life camp art from the prisoners. As they listed the number of people shipped out on transport lines to the East, it was disheartening: “1000 people, Transport E, 1 survivor” and so on. For about five minutes, they listed the number of people who left and the minuscule number of people who lived.

Some transports had no survivors at all.

A heavy pall settled on me for the rest of the day. The entire town was evacuated of people as the Nazis  set their plan into motion. Now, buildings were converted into barracks and prisons. The entire town inside the fortress was essentially used for inmates in the camp. People arrived by railway from all across Europe – in the Memorial Cemetery, each country is listed on a rock slab. Despite language and cultural barriers, people formed groups and alliances which, even if they were cut short, sustained them.

From the museum, we went to the replicated barracks room and the small museum there as well, which displayed more artifacts from the camp. Then, we began our long walk out of town towards the mortuary, the mourning chamber, and the crematorium.

Down we walked into an arched-brick fortification with tracks for a cart down the centre of it. This was the final stop for the dead, for their bodies to be prepared before being cremated. People were allowed a short period of mourning. In the ice-cold chamber, there were little glass boxes with ashes from those who perished in each of the major death camps. As the wind whipped up outside, it whistled through the barred windows further up, creating a murmuring noise that echoed around me.

It was so unsettling that I quickly walked up the tracks and into the half-gray sky. It was better than the deep earth and brick ceiling below.

Even further out from town was the crematorium and Memorial Grounds. As we walked down a long lane flanked by withered, stately cypress trees, a thick menorah appeared at the very end of it. As we neared the grounds, row upon row of little square stones with numbers appeared. Numbers, not names. Numbers.

We went into the crematorium next, just as a large group left. The man in charge of it was cordial and friendly, but I still shivered as I came inside and the door closed behind us. I read through some of the material he handed us, and when another group of people arrived, I overheard someone say, “Yes, the city is quiet. There are few people here, but the souls remain.”

The crematorium was a large, vaulted room built and run by the prisoners. The carts used to push the bodies in are still there, as are the large, black iron ovens, and people have laid flowers and candles on the carts. The tiny candles flickered as we walked through the enormous room, and the smell was still there. Of what, I didn’t want to imagine.

We walked silently back toward town. We still had a few more sites to visit, but I needed something to warm me up, if such a thing was possible. As we came into the city proper, we followed another deserted street around the back side of the green square and found a pizza parlour, which was oddly but cheerfully decorated with a maritime theme. For a little while, we could pour over the Lonely Planet guide book, have a hot latte, and eat a pizza, but when I looked out the window to the street, I kept thinking of the people who passed by this building, and I wondered how it looked then. If the pizza parlour was an SS canteen or the site of atrocities. If the one building down the lane advertising ice cream now was once a barracks.

You can go mad trying to reconcile these two incongruent things. You must live in the present but respect the past.

After lunch, we walked back to the river and then about a kilometer down the side of the water to another memorial site. A large statue at that particular bend of water commemorates the 12,000 boxes of ashes thrown into the water when the Nazis realized that the war was going badly for them. In a huge effort to get rid of evidence, they tried to dump the ashes of their victims into the water so the advancing Allied troops didn’t have as much against them. The memorial overlooks the snowy-capped mountains, a new golfing green, and the little town of Litromerce. The water bubbled by, and it knew. The leafless trees whispered, and they knew. The ground prepared for spring, and it knew. It was not a secret to them.

Riverside memorial

From the memorial, we crossed the river one last time and walked to the small fortress. This was a prison barracks, some for women. The same phrase from Auschwitz’s entrance – “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Makes One Free) – is painted over an archway here as well. What a lie – the only freedom that came from work for many of the prisoners was the freedom of death.

Following this emotionally-charged day, we wandered back to the bus stop just outside of town, still trying to comprehend all that we saw that morning and early afternoon. As I write this now, late at night, I still feel that chill. I still hear that crow. I still see the artwork of daily life in the camp with the words “Died in Auschwitz” inscribed on plaques beside it.

One must remember the 87,000 of Terezin.

The grass still grows over the past.

I know I won’t be able to forget.

Fortified wall

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