Hacktreks in the Czech Republic
SACRED GROUND: A DAY TRIP TO TEREZÍN IN THE CZECH REPUBLIC
is, after all, an exhibition of atrocities: Why come to see?'
awkwardness was not the result of real feeling, but of thinking about
the way one is supposed to feel after visiting a concentration camp.
I take a late morning bus from Prague, arriving around noon and hike
the three kilometres from the centre of the town. Having visited Auschwitz
several years before and seen there evidence of the encroaching and
unavoidably intrusive visitor-tourist facilities, Im still startled
that the first thing I see upon entering is a restaurant - that the
visitor is immediately presented with a sight that is familiar and friendly,
something welcoming. Its the same canteen building that once served
prison staff here. This is the small fortress of the old
fortified town of Terezín, Theresienstadt, Theresas town.
Getting its name from the Empress of the same name, it stands where
two rivers, the Elbe and Ohe, meet and was built during the late 18th
century with the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the height of its power
under Emperor Josef II.
Terezin © jonfoxphoto.com
It had always been a prison then. Military and political opponents of
the Habsburgs would find themselves here, as did Archduke Franz Ferdinands
assassins at the start of the First World War. It was put to use later
in the century by the Third Reich, becoming the infamous showcase ghetto
used by the Nazis for propaganda purposes while also doubling as a transit
camp for inmates heading for the more notorious camps such as Auschwitz.
Though it is inhabited today and functions much as a normal town anywhere,
Terezín is almost entirely preserved as a museum piece. From
the main square where the bus leaves me I pass over the Museum of the
Ghetto and the various sites around the town and instinctively head
for the smaller fortress.
The restaurant distracts me for a moment, but once inside Im soon
turning into the old administration courtyard, peeping through barred
windows and open doorways into rooms that served as office space for
prison commandant Heinrich Jöckel and his guards, as well as a
reception area and store for prisoners confiscated clothes. Its
not the forbidding "Arbeit macht frei" inscribed above the
gateway to the next courtyard that turns me back in the opposite direction,
but the woman standing under it posing for a snapshot by her husband.
Now used as the museums administration centre, the fine building
I come to next is dressed up as a lords country manor house and
used to house Jöckel and his family along with some of his guards
and theirs. Its all cut lawns and trimmed evergreens, beds of
clipped flowers. This tranquillity is at odds with everything the place
represents. Experiencing the Terezín fortress is disjointing.
I stand at the gate of what could be a serene period piece from the
English countryside and turning around to face the building opposite,
approach a gate entrance uncertain where the path will lead me next.
This, it turns out, is where the camps SS contingent were housed,
now a gallery and exhibition hall. Its another twist of fate that
inside a visitor can find, alongside post-war artists reflections
on the Holocaust, hand drawn sketches on loose scraps made by inmates
themselves. What we have is a document of life under the prisons
regime. There are various scenes of camp life captured in still-life
portraits, rough sketches of routine or random events: prisoners sleeping,
the shooting of an inmate, prisoners searching for lice on their own
bodies, food being handed out by orderlies, a young woman begging on
her knees for bread
Theres a full set of playing cards, lovingly
hand-made and coloured by someone called Nina.
As I move around the various blocks of the old camp, I pass other visitors
with curiosity. I make occasional note of nationalities Dutch,
French, Czech, and German. Why are we all here? This is, after all,
an exhibition of atrocities: Why come to see?
There are a number of possible motivations. Personal or family connection
is an obvious reason to bring someone to such a place. There is the
cemetery on the approach to the main entrance, with its rows of simple
blocks set into the soil and bearing names, dates, camp identity numbers
and carefully placed pebbles and stones on top of each one. Historical/educational
interest is another motivation. And then theres tourism.
What about this last phenomena? Its this one that bothers me.
How many of us are just tourists, here to tick off another
monument on our list? How many of us fulfilling an itinerary, doing
Terezín? The couple and their Arbeit macht frei holiday
snap. And what about me? What am I doing here?
To a large extent Im satisfying a curiosity in me, trying to answer
a crowd of questions: "what was it like?", "how did people
live?", "can it be touched, felt?"
Why then, the sense of perversity that comes over me?
Can we be anything other than a voyeur or an intruder when coming to
a place like this? I suddenly find that the act of coming here is in
itself a means to answering the kind of questions such an experience
can produce. If nothing else Im struck by the notion of choice,
an overwhelming sense of being able to walk away, to leave at any time.
Its this feeling of being in possession of free will, something
denied entirely those who have been here before me, that suddenly becomes
clear to me. Being a tourist seems an expression of the
ultimate freedom. How often are we made fully aware of our own liberty
to come and go as we please?
I can simply choose to walk away. I can even buy an ice cream in the
restaurant at the main gate to enjoy while I look around, guide book
in one hand, Cornetto in the other. I see visitors doing just this.
I can make this as easy on myself as I wish. Which is why I resist the
urge to sit down and have a drink from the water bottle Im carrying
or to snack on the things Ive brought along for the trip. Why
should I make it easier on myself? If only out of respect, I can at
least meet the victims of Terezín part way and suffer
a little discomfort, take a little time out from my otherwise comfortable,
safe, choice-driven lifestyle.
Its hot and Im thirsty, ready for a sit down, but I push
on and back to the gateway and its inscription. My camera stays in my
bag. Im not even sure how I should approach photographing a place
like this and not at all at ease with the idea. Passing through the
arch takes me into another courtyard. Here, old cells where large groups
of people were held, mostly Russians along with Jews, up to 100 in a
room not much bigger than the average garage. As well as these cells,
there is a solitary confinement block and a surgery, communal bathroom
and shower/delousing rooms, which together give a strong impression
of the level of human misery existing here. The imagination isnt
stretched as I tentatively poke around these blocks. Dimly lit corridors,
windowless cells behind half open heavy doors, shower rooms complete
with overhanging showerheads ready for use, the adjacent, ominous-looking
No detail is spared. A visitor has only to fill in
To be presented with the opportunity to engage so intimately with the
remains of what has taken place here is challenging and in places I
find that Im actually flinching. Perversely perhaps, Im
reminded of the haunted houses of my childhood visits to
fairgrounds. Its perhaps debatable in what sense Terezín
and other places in the remaining network of camps around Europe have
actually become living museums. Part of me, though, is expecting
the slamming doors and moving floors, figures in the shadows ready to
spring a fright. In a place abandoned by time history lives and breathes
here, absence is transformed into presence.
The birds nesting in the former confinement blocks have other things
to say and Im forced to leave one of the empty dirt floor rooms
that once served as a cell. For them Im an intruder. Is this precisely
what has caused some of my unease here; is a visit to a scene of murder
and cruelty on many levels an intrusion upon sacred ground?
I would hope not. Coming to Terezín, as with going to Oswim,
ought to bring any visitor closer in some way to a living potential
for horror and cruelty manifested in the century lingering at our backs
as we push on into a new millennium. Through such a confrontation, is
it possible we might also heighten our awareness of the fragility of
things we take for granted?
All this has been asked before, Im sure. Why then, upon leaving
the gates of Terezíns small and quietly terrifying walled
fortress, do I feel that this potential for experience and process is
destined to be largely cancelled out by those who choose, for whatever
reason, to engage with it? People are, after all, only people. I breathe
out when coming through the gate into the cemetery once again. Im
ready for the air and the space, ready for the sky. I have feelings
not dissimilar to the pair of sunbathers laying on the grass just a
pebbles throw from the 10 000 or so victims of both fortress and
Taking a walk instead along the path beside the gravestones and away
at last, I keep turning back to look at the impressive sight of the
enormous Star of David propped up with rocks which marks the far end
of the walk towards the gate. There is a couple posing for a photograph
next to it and this is the last thing I see before heading back towards
Im thinking it must have taken Nina hours and hours to make those
playing cards, most likely out of sight of the same guards lodged in
the barracks that allowed me to look at the glass case displaying them.
What happened to Nina? Im suddenly compelled to turn around back
towards the giant star and then on to the gate with its inscription
and find some of the people Ive seen today. I could ask them to
trade in their cameras for a time machine and together well try
to find the woman or girl who made the cards. Try to make a difference.
Failing that I can at least beg them to stop, to put the cameras away.
Im not sure about my visit to Terezín; Im not sure
what it should mean. Perhaps thats why I came here. I settle on
deciding that Nina, along with her cards, survived and grew older with
grandchildren somewhere and that the glass case is itself a triumph
over adversity, that we as visitors are privileged to bear witness to
such a thing.
© Chris Thompsom
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