Eurotrip 2014: Terezin
On our third full day in Prague we visited a concentration camp, Terezin, also known as Theresienstadt. I was vaguely familiar. At the Seattle International Film Festival this year I’d seen a documentary, “The Last of the Unjust,” written and directed by “Shoah” documentarian Claude Lanzmann, about Benjamin Murmelstein, the last president of the Theresienstadt Jewish Council, who was condemned as a collaborator after the war. OK, I saw two-thirds of it. It’s nearly four hours long, and I made the mistake of seeing another SIFF movie beforehand. Plus my arms hurt (an ulnar nerve thing). Plus the air-conditioning wasn’t working at SIFF Uptown that night. It was like a cattle car in there. So with an hour left, in the doc, and already missing the thread of the story, I fled. The mostly older, mostly Jewish folks in the room, made of stronger stuff, kept going.
But that was the camp, Terezin, a kind of weigh station for Eastern European Jews before most were sent on to Auschwitz. It was called a “model ghetto.” The Nazis actually made a propaganda film about it: “Hitler Gives the Jews a Town.”
Since Terezin is 60 km from Prague, we went with a tour group—mostly creative writing students from Chicago—as well as the Darryl and Darryl of the Czech Republic: Our driver was named Wenceslas and our tour guide was also named Wenceslas. The driver was another of those meaty Czech men who looked like he could crush you with one hand but was surprisingly gentle in manner. The tour guide seemed like a partisan in the mountains from a century earlier, but with an umbrella rather than a rifle slung over his shoulder.
On the drive, he told us about the history of Terezin: how it started out as a garrison town built by the Hapsburgs in the 1780s to defend the northern border from the Prussians; how it never had to do this. He was straightforward, perfunctory. He had his routine and didn’t deviate much from it. I wondered, as I wondered with many of the middle-aged Czechs I met, where he’d been in 1968. Or 1989? What had he believed? What did he believe now? I remember being slightly startled by his angry tone when he discussed the 1938 Munich Agreement. “Right,” I thought, “that was about Czechoslovakia, wasn’t it?” One of those distant countries to me, his to him. And now we would see one of the consequences of that decision.
Upon entering the Malá pevnost (small fortress), we immediately lost both Wenceslases: the driver because he was the driver, the tour guide because he also spoke Italian, there was another Italian group there, and he had to service them. So he handed us off to a tour guide with a thick German accent, Klaus, I believe, who told us we would have to pay for photographs, and then we all walked through a sign reading “ARBEIT MACHT FREI”: “WORK SETS YOU FREE.” A message that wouldn’t seem out of place on FOX-News, I thought. I took a picture.
I assumed the tour would be wholly about World War II, but recent floods were constantly mentioned, while the fortress’ most famous prisoner, Gavrilo Princip, was the 19-year-old Bosnian Serb who assassinated the Archduke Ferdinand, which precipitated Austria-Hungary’s invasion of Serbia, which started World War I. Princip was imprisoned there for several years until he died of tuberculosis in 1918. I asked if, all that time, all those years, he knew what he had wrought. If he’d heard about or read about the millions of lives lost on the battlefield. “He didn’t start World War I,” Klaus said quickly. “Oh, right,” I said. “Well, he was a cause, right? So ...” But we didn’t seem to connect on this, and anyway Klaus didn’t know. But I thought I needed to read up on my WWI history again.
It was an appropriately overcast day, and P had several low blood-sugar moments—her worst of the trip. It seemed no amount of protein bars could get her back up. That seemed appropriate, too: being with someone who was basically starving for sugar. At the end of the tour of the small fortress, we saw a bit of the “Hitler Gives ...” propaganda film, but through a 1960s lens, and then were reunited with our Wenceslases. We walked back past the gift shop. I forgot to pay for the photographs I took.
Next we went to the Ghetto Museum, then the Magdeburg Barracks, former seat of the Jewish Council, which has been turned into a museum featuring the work of the various Jewish artists who passed through Terezin. There was amazing stuff—both propaganda for the Nazis (“Hey, everything’s OK here!”) and art for themselves (“No, it’s not”)—but we were rushed through so fast one woman objected. “Hey, can we stay here a little longer?” We didn’t. That seemed appropriate, too. We weren’t fed, we had no say, we were rushed through everything. We visited another cemetery and then went back to Prague.
The rest of the day, P and I went to see a movie at a nearby cinema. A few Czech movies were playing, but without English subtitles, of course, so we opted for something big and stupid: “Godzilla.” Years ago I thought about writing a book, “Watching Movies in Other Countries,” and some part of me keeps a hand in that long moribund project; but I have to admit, the Czech experience didn’t really differ much from the U.S. one. You got specific seats rather than general admission. That’s about it. You could buy popcorn, M&Ms, Kit-Kats, Coke. They were called popcorn, M&Ms, Kit-Kats, Coke.
For dinner, we went to Lokal, a much-recommended pub serving Czech food and beers, and sat with two Brits—one a current solicitor, one a former solicitor—who were in town for the weekend to see a steam-engine train exhibit. They were polite but I think we overwhelmed them with our curiosity—desperate, as we were, to talk to someone besides ourselves. We also ordered after them but got served first. I don’t think that sat well. Then we went to a less crowded pub next door for another beer and the end of a World Cup match: Argentina/Iran. On the walk home, we stopped off at a big grocery chain, Billa, to look for more protein bars for Patricia. Tomorrow was travel day.
The road to Terezin, which is about 60 km outside of Prague. Wenceslas was driving. The other Wenceslas was talking. It was odd just seeing the road sign.
The Jewish cemetery outside the small fortress.
Tour guide Wenceslas warning everyone not to step on the grass like Patricia. Kidding. But note the umbrella. I plan to carry mine that way soon.
Work sets you free. As FOX-News tells us.
The small fortress at Terezin.
Another Jewish cemetery.
Where do you go after a concentration camp? How about to a stupid Hollywood movie? It will make everything better. *FIN*