Tuesday, July 26, 2005


Yesterday I visited Terezin, the Czech town that was turned by the Nazis into a ghetto for the Jews of the Czech lands (Bohemia and Moravia), as well as Jews from other parts of Europe (in particular, elderly German Jews). The town was originally built in the late 18th century as a fortress, and had become an ordinary town where people live before being taken over by the Nazis. It is about 40 miles from Prague, and the tour was led by a survivor of Terezin and Auschwitz. We visited museums that have been constructed only since the fall of Communism in 1989 (apparently the Communist regime only memorialized the Communists who had been held prisoner there by the Gestapo, but not the Jews), as well as surviving parts of the ghetto - for example, the morgue and the crematorium, which was built by the prisoners. There were no gas chambers there - Terezin was not an extermination camp, but rather a transit ghetto. Most of the Jews who passed through there (about 150, 000) were eventually transported to death camps, especially Auschwitz. The horrible, crowded conditions (about 60,000 people living in a town fit for about 5,000), starvation, and epidemic illness killed about 35,000 in Terezin.

We saw, among other places, one of the barracks where the Jews lived - part of it has been turned into a museum about cultural life in the ghetto (visual arts, theatre, and music paradoxically thrived in the ghetto, due in part to the large number of artists and musicians imprisoned there). There was also one room that has been reconstructed to look like a barracks room - with three-level bunks, clothes hanging up, people's suitcases, pots and pans and other belongings (they were allowed to bring a suitcase of about 100 lbs. per person with everything they needed). One could see from this how crowded the living conditions must have been. The museum showed many drawings made by prisoners about life in the ghetto, including pictures of people being taken to transports to the extermination camps in Poland.

In addition to the ghetto, we also saw the Small Fortress, which was the Gestapo prison. Political prisoners were held there in terrible conditions - the Jewish prisoners in particular were crammed together into a small cell, and very few survived. It was a grim place. One entered through an archway with the typical Nazi slogan at the entrance to the concentration camps - "Arbeit macht frei" - "Work makes you free," which was, of course, completely not true in the camps.

One of the feelings I ended up with was just blank incomprehension. I felt like I came away with some sense of the what - what happened - and of the how - how the Nazis treated the Jews and other prisoners there, how the prisoners tried to organize themselves and survive - but with no better sense of the why. I can study Nazi anti-semitism and try to understand Nazi ideology, but even that doesn't give me the answer I'm seeking, which is how people are capable of such acts of cruelty. I feel kind of like one of my students, just not understanding.

No comments:

Post a Comment