By OLIVER MCINTOSH
After tracking down my long lost luggage and spending a few days taking in the sights and sounds of Prague (drinking beer, walking through the city, drinking more beer and going to the bar/pub/club to drink more beer) we decided it was time to make the most of our short stay in the Czech Republic and take a sobering journey about 40 minutes north of the city to Terezin, a concentration camp from World War II.
We were out the door by 8 a.m. and on our way to Terezin at exactly 9 a.m. on Wednesday morning. Weary from our first five nights in Prague, we used the 40 minute journey north as an opportunity to catch some shut-eye and prepare ourselves for the profoundly disturbing and eye-opening experience that lay ahead.
Before we get into the details, it is important to get a quick understanding of what Terezin was used for. Originally a military fortress, it’s is split into two main parts – the Small Fortress and the Main Fortress. By 1940 the Gestapo had decided to adapt Terezin as a ghetto and use it as a concentration camp during WWII.
Our air conditioned bus (it was 93 degrees, this is an important detail), dropped us off at about 9:45 a.m. right outside the Small Fortress and Jewish Memorial. The Small Fortress, which is on the opposite side of the river from the Main Fortress, served as the largest Gestapo prison in the region, with more than 90,000 prisoners passing through its doors during the war.
We ambled slowly through the Jewish memorial, paying our respects and trying to wrap our heads around what had happened here only 70 years ago.
We then moved into the Small Fortress, to get our first look inside a Nazi concentration camp. The entrance to the camp is adorned with the German words “arbeit macht frei,” meaning work will make you free (if only that were actually the case).
We moved into the men’s courtyard (prisoners were divided by gender) where we had the opportunity to tour the holding cells, solitary confinement cells, showers and laundry room. Words can’t adequately explain the horrific conditions these poor people were forced to live in, it’s really something you just have to see for yourself. At times, up to 90 inmates were crammed into each cell, with six adult males sharing each bunk and one toilet for everyone. Take a look at some of the photos we snapped on our tour.
After our tour of the Small Fortress we watched a short clip of Nazi propaganda, which was given to the Red Cross to show how ‘great’ the camp really was. Needless to say, we knew the truth and were not impressed.
We moved on to the Main Fortress, which was used as a ghetto and was home to the majority of prisoners at Terezin during the war. We stopped at two different museums in the Main Fortress, one that had all the remaining artwork created by residents during their time at Terezin, and a WWII museum that detailed the war and outlined the different Nazi concentration camps (including the massive death camps, like Auschwitz). Like the Small Fortress, this was pretty disturbing stuff. We learned that more than 150,000 Jews were sent through the camp, including 15,000 children, and even though it was not considered a death camp, as many as 33,000 died in the ghetto due to the appalling conditions. In addition, 88,000 people were sent from Terezin to other Nazi death camps in the region. We were able to take a few pictures before getting caught by the museum staff – check them out.
The crematory was closed due to the flooding from the previous week, so after exploring the Main Fortress we hopped on the bus and headed back into Prague. Overall it was an emotional, draining experience that left us all a little unnerved and quite frankly, pissed off. It is hard to comprehend the atrocities from these concentration camps, and it’s made even more difficult by the fact that it is such recent history. If you are ever in Central or Eastern Europe, it is definitely worth your time to visit a concentration camp as it really puts things in perspective.