My second full day in the Czech Republic, Sierra and I caught an empty bus to Terezín (Theresienstadt in German). Terezín includes a walled garrison town and military fortress about 45 minutes outside of Prague.
During WWII, the Gestapo used Terezín as a Jewish ghetto, and the fortress as a “punishment prison” and concentration camp for Jews primarily from Czechoslovakia, Austria, Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands. My family recently discovered that a relative of ours was imprisoned in Terezín (he survived the camp). This, more than anything, compelled me to visit Terezín, especially after learning how close it was to Prague.
Terezín was used as a source of slave labor; as a holding point for Jews before they were sent elsewhere; and, for a time, as a place to concentrate elderly Jews. Though its primary purpose was not an extermination camp, tens of thousands of Jews were murdered there and over 150,000 others (including tens of thousands of children) were held there for months or years, before being sent to Treblinka or Auschwitz extermination camps in Poland. About a quarter of those held in the camp died there, mostly due to the dire living conditions, hunger, and disease.
This is a difficult post for me to write. Everything about the experience completely wrecked me emotionally, and I don’t believe we have the language to truly express what it was like to be present there. Sierra and I spent six hours in Terezín – visiting the fortress, a small museum, several cemeteries (mass graves), the crematorium, barracks, a brick tunnel system, etc. – and it wasn’t enough. It would have taken at least a full day to see everything there was to see, if you wished to spend a meaningful amount of time in each place. Further, I didn’t take many photos because I felt it wasn’t appropriate, but I will post the few that I took here.
One thing I will say about Terezín, before I just post some pictures and let you feel whatever you may feel, is that I was shocked at how “real” it all seemed. This may seem obvious, but when I imagine visiting other, more well-known camps like Auschwitz – which I haven’t done – I assume they have been cleaned up to some extent, given the huge number of tourists that visit every day. I imagine things have been maintained, that there are signs and guides to help you navigate the camp and feel more in control and more distant from the reality of what happened there. I may be wrong, but these are my assumptions.
Nothing about Terezín was clean or touristic.
It was all raw, as if the war ended and it was all just left as-is. It was nothing, nothing, nothing like a museum. Everything was grimy and crumbling. The ghetto museum and crematorium were the only structures I found to be maintained in any way. Everything else was open, exposed to the elements, and disintegrating. The walls were stained, the windows were open and full of cobwebs, there was bird shit everywhere. There was no staff. There were very few placards, and almost none in English. There were hardly any other people there all day.
At times, I was the only person in a small damp cell, in a dark brick tunnel, in a barrack crowded with old wooden bunks, in a cold crematorium chamber. I found this particularly stirring, to be alone in these rooms. The entire area was silent, dark, still, and empty. It had the feeling of a place that had been rapidly abandoned.
Never have I felt so palpable the presence of so much suffering, of so much human violence. Such a dark energy, everywhere. It didn’t help that it was drizzling and gray outside. Sierra commented that the entire town was just covered by a black cloud – both literally and metaphorically speaking. Everything just felt heavy. Sierra and I were both glad we did not visit this place alone. It was a very intense experience for me, and I’m sure for her, too.
That’s it. I felt weird taking all of these photos, but there is so, so much more to see. I am glad I visited Terezín, and thankful Sierra was there with me, if only to sit with on the bus ride back to Prague. It was a very raw experience, and one I will never, ever forget.