Miles and Smiles Away: Czechia’s Dark Side

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Prague Old Town Square.

Hello, Sault Ste. Marie!

After a long two days of travel, from Sault Ste. Marie, to Toronto, to Lisbon, to Prague, we finally settled into our hostel in the heart of The Old Town.

And we wasted no time drinking in the local culture and history.

Our first full day abroad, Thursday, we joined a day tour with Discover Prague Tours to Terezin, one hour north (by train) from Prague into the Bohemian countryside. This sleepy countryside town today is eerily quiet, with a population of only 3,000, but it was once a massive Gestapo prison and Nazi propaganda concentration camp.

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The walls of the ‘small fortress,’ where political prisoners were held, tortured, and killed.

It’s purpose? To fool the Western allies into thinking that the Jewish populace being held captive were living rich, cultural lives, living freely within the walls of Star-of-David-shaped ‘ghetto,’ when in reality, it was a work camp where many died of malnutrition, disease, and torture.

Part of the charade was also to persuade other Jewish people to come and live in Terezin, which many did of their own free will before the Nazis tightened their grip on the Jewish population. They were told it was a lovely spa town.

Ultimately, they were betrayed by their own country, and as a result of the Munich Pact of 1939 (allowing the annexation of Czechoslovokia), the Allies as well.

Our guide, Petra, did an amazing job in explaining the full history and the significance of Terezin to us.

We started out in the cemetery, consisting of 9,000 unmarked graves. Many Jewish relatives have come to Terezin to pay their respects to the lives lost during the Holocaust by placing stones on the rows which marked the grid system under which the bodies were buried. The significance of the stone? To leave a lasting, eternal gift to the dead.

Shutting my eyes and sitting in front of the grave, I felt really compelled to say something, anything, to honour the victims, but in all honesty, I was speechless.

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Petra told us that 140,000 people passed through Terezin. Of that total, 25,000 were cremated, and only 30,000 survived.

The remaining 85,000 people disappeared, either into the unmarked graves or Eastward to death camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau or Treblinka.

Petra described the transient camp of Terezin as, “The prelude to hell” – the ‘real hell’ being places like Auchwitz.

Jews were detained from Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Germany, the Netherlands, and Denmark. The only country’s government who called in to check up on their Jewish detainees were the Danish, and for that reason, they were treated better, living in slightly better conditions as a family instead of spread out across the camp.

In 1943, an inspection of Terezin was demanded by Christian X, King of Denmark, to ensure that the Danish Jews were doing okay. Two Swiss delegates from the International Red Cross were sent as well as a government representative from Denmark.

The problem? They were given a year’s notice of the visit.

This gave the Nazis literally one entire year to implement a beautification program, where they cleaned the area, painted, built fake shops to imply comfort and freedom, and worst of all, deported many Jewish people to Auschwitz so that the community would not look overcrowded or uncomfortable.

The Red Cross tour followed a predetermined route, and the Red Cross approved the conditions of the camp.

In 1944, the Nazis made a propaganda film in Terezin to show how ‘happy and free’ the Jewish community in Terezin was. This ended up increasing anti-semitism, as many people saw the Jews having fun in a time of war when food was so little and times were so dark that it made others resent them.

In reality, they were living a nightmare.

We went inside the camps, into dorms where hundreds of people were crammed in unsanitary conditions, into the crematorium where so many bodies were burned (despite this being hugely contrary to Jewish custom, further isolating them from their cultural identity).

Here, Chelsea and I purchased candles to light in memory of those who died. It felt very grounding to take a quiet moment and reflect to ourselves, paying respects to the victims.

Following filming of the propaganda movie, the entire cast and director were deported to Auchwitz, to their deaths.

We had the opportunity to view the propaganda film, and it was truly unsettling.

The Soviet army liberated the camp in 1945, and all of Czechoslovakia, the fact that nobody else had come for them was used as a communist tool in the post-war world, explaining why the Communist Party was voted in in 1948.

What followed was forty-one years of oppression which Petra described as, “Comparable to Nazi rule.”

After the war, a Russian billionaire donated this 6-ton Siberian rock, representing the 6-million people who died in the Holocaust, to Terezin. In the light, as you can see in the photo below, its shadow makes the Star of David.

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Despite so much darkness, the tour also showed us the resiliency in Jewish culture, as they maintained their rich culture, history, and traditions through art, music, theatre, poetry, craftsmanship, and journaling within the camp.

Petra summed it up by saying, “Even in the darkest times, you cannot take away someone’s skills, their abilities, their passions.”

Although there were some of those records in the camps and museums, Petra told us that many survivors kept their journals and records very private. She said, “They (the survivors) say ‘the best of us did not survive,’ because they had to do things that they would never otherwise do, and they didn’t want to be judged. They didn’t want to relive it.”

The tour also showed some of the amazing stories of heroism and human kindness. For a truly astounding tale of bravery, check out Nicholas Winton’s story. 

He is a man who saved 669 Jewish-Czech children from death camps.

Ultimately, this first (extremely heavy) day of our trip opened my eyes to a world I had never fully understood before, despite years of passionately studying history. It is the kind of thing you can’t really grasp until you hear it for yourself.

Hearing about the history of Terezin from Petra, a Czech woman, also really provided a perspective that you just can’t get in school anywhere else in the world.

I believe that this tour helped me to better contextualize a lot of what the Czech people have seen and been through, and I am hoping that it has also helped me to prepare mentally and emotionally for when we go and visit Auschwitz-Birkeneau in Poland.

Thanks for following along on the first part of my adventure. Stay tuned for the next segment, on Czech cuisine!

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