Friday, November 06, 2009

Terezin concentration camp

When I arrived in Prague, I wasn't sure whether I would have time to see both Jewish Prague and Terezin concentration camp. I wound up starting with Prague, in part because there was no direct transport from the airport to Terezin, and in part, frankly, because I badly needed at least a trickle of optimism regarding the human condition. It was already early afternoon when I reached the bus stop [wrongly] identified by my guidebook as the departure point for Terezin. By the time I realized what was going on and located the correct stop, it was 3:00pm, and the ticket seller told me there would be no returning buses from the camp after I got there. I was sorely tempted to drop the whole thing and just relax until my flight, which was only eight hours later, anyway. Ultimately, though, it felt wrong to come so close and turn away, so I rode out, figuring I'd be able to sort out some return transport in time to catch my plane. As it happened, the timing was a blessing in disguise, and I had an experience of the camp that I almost certainly would have been missed had I simply returned the following year.

The first thing to know about Terezin is that it isn't really a place; it's two places. The first was originally Terezin town, named after Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa. I felt terrible for her (what a mark to leave on history!), but a quick check revealed that the empress was arguably the most anti-Semitic leader of her time. Terezin was a fortified town erected as a defense against the Germans, but it wound up the site of Terezin concentration camp. The other Terezin was the massive "Small Fortress" (small only in relation to the nearby town), a Gestapo prison that held 32,000 people between 1941 and 1945, including 1,500 Jews.
I started with Terezin, the town turned concentration camp, and it a town. I've spent considerable time thinking about concentration camps, but not so much about the physical locations. On some level, however, I always somehow assumed that there would be a 'genius loci', or spirit of place, shared among these damned sites...some pervasive vibration of death and despair. I found none of that as I walked through Terezin, and the absence was deeply unsettling. Terezin was just a small, very quiet town, and easily confounded my expectations. I was fully aware of the evil and suffering of the place, but it was an awareness I brought with me; Terezin was silent. I visited several of the camp's memorial sites: the Magdeburg men's barracks, the museum holding art by child prisoners, the moat where Jewish slaves grew food for their Nazi masters. Only in the hidden synagogue did I really feel a connection between the place and its history: just a single, empty, windowless room, hidden behind the camp bakery, with scriptural quotes in Hebrew inscribed on two walls.
It was starting to get dark, and the remaining museum sites were scheduled to close in an hour, when I left Terezin town to see the Small Fortress. From the outside, at least, whatever the town and camp lacked in grim presence, the fortress made up in spades. A Czech national cemetery fills the land in front, with large Christian and Jewish sections, marked with a giant cross and a giant Star of David, and it is an eerie place at dusk. Past the cemetery, a small, black and white striped gate is set in one massive, dark-grey wall. Just inside the gate is a replica of the infamous sign: "Arbeit Macht Frei"...Work Liberates. The museum, it turned out, had closed early (it was Czech Independence Day), so I never actually saw the sign, but the ironic quote brought to mind the Palestinian Presidential Guard, who I've been loosely following as they recently reformed and retrained under U.S. Lt. General Keith Drayton. These men have been working hand-in-glove with Israeli forces to guarantee Israeli security, under circumstances that must burn like the very fires of hell, all on the promise that they are creating the foundation for a soon-to-come Palestinian state. Perhaps these men's work will make them and their people free; I certainly hope so! I expect, however, that this promise will prove as false for them as it once did for the prisoners of Terezin.
So, dusk had fallen, it was approaching full night, and I was standing in front of the Small Fortress gate with no bus ride back to Prague and sanity. Not realizing how isolated Terezin was, I had hoped to catch a taxi despite the cost, but there was hardly a car in sight, let alone an empty cab. There was, however, supposed to be a small train station in one nearby town and, as it turned out, the road to that town ran through Terezin. I started back to the camp under dark and cloudy skies, with the full moon nearly obscured, and the sodium-lit tunnel through the town's fortifications no longer looked innocuous. The cute muskrats in the moat were gone, as were the few parents with children, and the two dog owners out for a walk in the square. A scant handful of people remained, half-cloaked in darkness and in mist, and the same buildings that seemed almost indecently ordinary in the light of day were quite different now, and it was all too easy to imagine the dead of Terezin. There was one location in the camp that I hadn't yet seen, set as it was on a trail beyond the clustered buildings. The crematoria was marked on a small, free map I had picked up at the museum, and it seemed right to seek it out. The right trail was hard to find; minimally lit, and that for only part of its length. I had a small flashlight with me, but the batteries ran out early on, and it was difficult to distinguish the trail from small service roads and such in the area. I wandered around for some time before I finally stumbled upon a gate to what I believe was the crematoria. The gate was locked, however, and I still can't be sure that the building beyond was the one I sought.
In hindsight, it doesn't surprise me that I couldn't find the dead of Terezin in daylight. If I ever visit another concentration camp, I will be sure to go again at dusk, and try to find my way through the night. I suspect that the camps were always dark to most of those who passed through their doors, and that they were often truly lost, no matter how much light appeared for those who could walk back out again.


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