A year ago I took one of the most transformative journeys of my life, with 24 fellow educators, to study the Holocaust and the Jewish resistance to it, in Washington, DC, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland. I kept an extensive diary and took tons of photographs. And contrary to many assumptions, it was a journey that led to profound understandings about life, not death. For the next several days, I have decided to go back and retrace my steps and try to process what unfolded for me. Not weighty tomes, but maybe a picture and a note from the diary.
July 10. Life goes on. But stop and wonder.
Now the tour continues to Terezin, or Theresienstadt. Forty miles north west of Prague and originally built in the late 18th century as a fortification and garrison town by Emperor Joseph II and named after his mother, Empress Maria Theresa. I will be at the site where the “Train Near Magdeburg” was destined to arrive-but never did, thanks to the US Army. But why there?
In the closing days of the war, as the Reich collapsed in the East, and began to be rolled up in the West, Theresienstadt was the destination of the three transports hastily evacuated from Bergen Belsen. As stated earlier, only one train made it there, but we have never heard of what happened to the occupants. It is known that as thousands of prisoners from other camps flooded into Theresienstadt in the last month or so of the war, typhus and other epidemics broke out .
First we toured the Small Fortress, later the prison.
And now, we move onto the former garrison town which became the ghetto.
From the USHMM:
“The Theresienstadt “camp-ghetto” existed for three and a half years, between November 24, 1941 and May 9, 1945. During its existence, Theresienstadt served three purposes:
1) First, Theresienstadt served as a transit camp for Czech Jews whom the Germans deported to killing centers, concentration camps, and forced-labor camps in German-occupied Poland, Belorussia, and the Baltic States.
2) Second, it was a ghetto-labor camp to which the SS deported and then incarcerated certain categories of German, Austrian, and Czech Jews, based on their age, disability as a result of past military service, or domestic celebrity in the arts and other cultural life. To mislead about or conceal the physical annihilation of the Jews deported from the Greater German Reich, the Nazi regime employed the general fiction, primarily inside Germany, that the deported Jews would be deployed at productive labor in the East. Since it seemed implausible that elderly Jews could be used for forced labor, the Nazis used Theresienstadt to hide the nature of the deportations.
3) Third, Theresienstadt served as a holding pen for Jews in the above-mentioned groups. It was expected that that poor conditions there would hasten the deaths of many deportees, until the SS and police could deport the survivors to killing centers in the East.”
Hundreds of thousands of people from all over Europe were deported here between 1942 and 1945. Most were shipped East to their deaths, though many also died in the wretched conditions here, so crematoria were established.
And let’s not forget the famous “Red Cross” visit and propaganda show: “The Fuhrer Gives the Jews a City”:
“Theresienstadt served an important propaganda function for the Germans. The publicly stated purpose for the deportation of the Jews from Germany was their “resettlement to the east,” where they would be compelled to perform forced labor. Since it seemed implausible that elderly Jews could be used for forced labor, the Nazis used the Theresienstadt ghetto to hide the nature of the deportations. In Nazi propaganda, Theresienstadt was cynically described as a “spa town” where elderly German Jews could “retire” in safety. The deportations to Theresienstadt were, however, part of the Nazi strategy of deception. The ghetto was in reality a collection center for deportations to ghettos and killing centers in Nazi-occupied eastern Europe.
Succumbing to pressure following the deportation of Danish Jews to Theresienstadt, the Germans permitted the International Red Cross to visit in June 1944. It was all an elaborate hoax. The Germans intensified deportations from the ghetto shortly before the visit, and the ghetto itself was “beautified.” Gardens were planted, houses painted, and barracks renovated. The Nazis staged social and cultural events for the visiting dignitaries. Once the visit was over, the Germans resumed deportations from Theresienstadt, which did not end until October 1944.”
Fifteen thousand children passed through Theresienstadt. 90 percent were murdered.
On May 5th, the Fuhrer dead nearly a week, the Soviets approaching, the guards left. On may 8th, the last day of the War, the Red Army arrived.
We light candles. So we wind up our day, like all visits, with a group prayer for the dead and with solitary reflection for the living. We quietly make our way back to Prague, where life goes on.
People hurry about their business on the streets.
But step lightly, lest your stride be interrupted, so that you must pause and look down. Then you may see the brass “stumble stone” embedded in the sidewalk with the engraving noting the former occupant of the dwelling here was deported to his/her death.
Life goes on. But stop and wonder.
What was, what is, and what might have been.