Sunday, March 3, 2013

Visits to Lidice and Terezín

If you're not in the mood right now for pictures of, and reflections about, concentration camps and the Holocaust, you probably want to read this later.

On Friday we took a trip to Lidice, the town the Nazis razed and whose citizens they massacred on June 10, 1942 in retaliation for the assassination of the German Reich Protector Reinhard Heydrich earlier that year. Today (Sunday) we visited the Terezín/Theresienstadt ghetto, a camp that more than 150,000 Jews passed through in addition to the thousands of other, non-Jewish political prisoners (e.g.: communists, homosexuals, Gypsies) sent there. Terezín was not a "death camp," per se, though tens of thousands of prisoners died while there, and conditions were by no means comfortable. An article just came out yesterday in the New York Times about the ongoing discovery of thousands more Nazi concentration camps than anyone ever imagined existed. 


We began our Lidice trip at the Saints Cyril and Methodius Cathedral in Prague, a seven minute walk from my apartment. Heydrich's assassins in Operation Anthropoid, Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík, his in the crypt of the church for three weeks with five other resistance fighters until their hiding spot was betrayed. These are the stairs leading from the crypt up to the Church. On June 18, 1942, the Gestapo stormed the church, flooding the crypt and shooting bullets inside; the resistance fighters who were not killed by the Gestapo's shots committed suicide. 

Although regular services are still conducted inside the church, the crypt is the National Memorial of the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror, and this plaque contains the names of 294 Czechs who helped the soldiers carry out the assassination and hide from the Gestapo afterwards.
 After watching a short documentary at the cathedral about the assassination, we drove thirty minutes to Lidice.
The town of Lidice used to stand here. 

Inside the memorial museum, there is a wall with the names of all those murdered in the Lidice massacre.

All of the men of the Kovařovsky family were murdered.

The Kovařovská women were also murdered. 

Emanuel Kovařovský's name on the memorial. It's easy to become jaded and indifferent when you see a wall with names of thousands of people who were murdered, and all of the names start to blur together, which is why, I think, it's so important that individual survivors tell their stories. For the same reason, when I'm at memorials like these I find it most meaningful to pick one person or one family and to follow their story through to the end.

This photo of the children of Lidice was taken two days before the massacre. Eight of the children, including the girl with the large bow third from left in the back row, were "selected" for adoption by SS soldiers' families because of their potential for "aryanization." Most were gassed at Chełmno, 17 (not all the children are in this picture) returned to Lidice after the war. 

Eighty-two bronze children in Marie Uchytilová's "Memorial to the Children Victims of the War" overlook the razed town.

The Lidice children murdered at Chełmno ranged in age from babies to sixteen-year-olds.

Over the years, visitors have left stuffed animals and other children's toys; this is something I've seen at many memorial sites where children have been killed, most notably at the memorial for the Oklahoma City bombing. On the one hand, I understand the sentiment--on the other, I think it cheapens the solemness of the memorial. 

This was too eerie not to include.

Jarka "Iron Lady" Skleničková was 16 years old when the Nazis destroyed Lidice (according to the woman who made the introduction, "They call her iron lady because she has iron hips," though now apparently her knees are also artificial). Through one of our program directors, who served as her translator, Ms. Skleničková told us the story of her time in concentration camps, of working conditions, getting infections in her legs, learning how to survive.... After the war ended and she was liberated, she remembers thinking she probably acted more like a 35 year old than a 21 year old, because of all she'd been through, and thought she was going to have to marry someone decades older than she was. She met up with other survivors from Lidice after the war, and now lives there with her husband (who was introduced to us as "her good angel") and has six grandchildren who live nearby. She told us that if she can been born only two months later, she would have been taken with the children, not the women, and killed immediately.

In Terezín our tour guide was Dagmar Lieblová, who was sent with her family to Terezín in 1942. Though she was sent to Auschwitz with her family, a clerical error recorded her as four years older than she actually was, putting her with the working-age women rather than with the children, who were almost necessarily murdered. She was liberated from Bergen-Belsen by the British in 1945, and was instrumental in founding the Terezín Initiative. On the drive there, which took about an hour, I couldn't stop trying to imagine what it would have been to have made the same journey as a Jew on a transport. On the way back, appropriately, I finished Helen Epstein's Where She Came From: A Daughter's Search for her Mother's History--I think it was actually good that I read part of it before coming to Prague and going to Terezín, and part of it after.

This cemetery/memorial is right next to the crematorium which, in the case of Terezín refers not to gas chambers but to the building where the bodies of those murdered were cremated. At first, they kept the ashes in wooden urns, but when those began to take up too much space they forced the prisoners to make paper urns for the ashes of their friends and relatives. Later in the war, as it became clear that Germany was going to lose, the SS officers dumped the ashes into the Ohře River. 
Somehow, Irma Lauscher, a Jewish prisoner who was a volunteer teacher in Terezín  bribed a guard to smuggle a maple sapling into the ghetto to celebrate Tu Bishvat. The large tree in this photo is that original tree, which died a few years ago--but the smaller tree on the left, wrapped in an Israeli flag, is a sapling grown from an offshoot of the original tree. I just learned that another sapling from the Terezín tree is planted outside of the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, where Grandma is a docent.

Aunt Ruth sent me an NPR piece weeks ago called "Honoring 'Our Will to Live': The Lost Music of the Holocaust," which I only got around to listening to today. In it, Sylvia Poggioli reports: "The Terezín was camp unique. It was ghetto, concentration, and transit camp all in one that the Nazis used as a cultural showcase to deceive the Red Cross and for propaganda purposes." In our visit to the Magdeburg Barracks, there were hundreds of drawings, some done by prisoners who drew propaganda in the drafting office but often stole materials to make their own, secret drawings. We saw sheet music written and prepared in the camps, poems written about daily life--including the famous poem "I never saw another butterfly" by Pavel Friedman. There were copies of the newspaper Vedem, which the boys of the ghetto produced in secret, and which was written (with the exception of a few editorials) entirely by children. The prisoners also produced plays, dramas, and operas, including Brundibárwhich was performed 55 times at Terezín.

More eeriness, the irony of which I can imagine was not lost on the political prisoners trapped at Terezín, where they could see the mountains in the distance even as they walked to the Small Fortress, which was also at Terezín but was separate from the Jewish ghetto. The Small Fortress was the largest Gestapo prison in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Although Terezín is most (in)famous as a Jewish ghetto and concentration camp, its history as a garrison town actually dates back to the 18th century.
After passing through the offices where you would have waded through the Nazi bureaucracy, you would have walked through the archway reading "arbeit macht frei (work makes you free)." I found the beautiful weather (crisp and cold, but sunny with a blue sky) to be kind of a creepy contrast to the "arbeit macht frei" sign, especially since there have been only about four blue-sky days since I've been here. 

Looking out from the bedroom/mess hall of (non-Jewish) political prisoners. 

Next to the room above (for non-Jewish political prisoners) was the cell for Jewish prisoners. It was significantly smaller, to the point that the 60+ prisoners who would have been there at any given time couldn't even lie down to go to sleep. This window didn't open then, and the only source of clean air circulation was a small, 4-inch by 4-inch hole cut into the wall. This window was the only source of light. 

This "hidden synagogue" was discovered only recently. It's in the basement level of an "apartment" that housed 15 people. The inscription in this photo, painted by Asher Berlinger, reads "ותחזינה עינינו בשובך לציון ברחמים," an excerpt from the daily Amidah prayer that means, "May our eyes behold your return to Zion in Mercy." I'm not sure who Ann Golbderg is, but she seems to have the full scoop on the discovery of this synagogue in a blog post, which you can read here.

This room, lined with sinks and mirrors, was constructed entirely as a piece of Nazi propaganda in advance of the Red Cross inspection that came to check conditions at Terezín in June 1944. The Nazis spruced up the camp for the visit--in reality, showers and laundry were a scarce luxury, and prisoners certainly weren't provided with mirrors. When the day of the visit came, the Red Cross officials didn't even make it to this part of the camp, and the room was never used. After the Red Cross visit, the Nazis put out this propaganda video, to prove the cultured quality of life they were providing for Jews at Terezín

Although the Small Fortress was unrelated to the Jewish ghetto part of Terezín, there were of course Jewish prisoners who were sent to that part of the camp. The Jewish cells in the Small Fortress were single-person cells measuring about 5 feet wide by 7 feet deep. This is the roof they would have looked at as they tried to fall asleep on their wooden beds, knowing that they'd likely be shot in the next few days--and if not, that they'd be sent on a "transport," where they would certainly be killed. The "dormitories" of the non-Jewish prisoners at the Small Fortress were much bigger, housing 300 per room in stacked, shoulder-to-shoulder bunk beds.

Cemetery of political prisoners right outside the Small Fortress.

By the end of our trip, the color of the sky looked more appropriate for the setting.

1 comment:

  1. Abby,

    The author of the NYT article you reference in this post is Eric Lichtblau - my second-cousin on your Safta Esther's side of the family.