Today is our final day on our TBS Eastern European tour, Walking in the Footsteps of our Czech Torah. I’ve been asked a number of times if the tour has been everything that I hoped it would be. The answer is an absolute YES+! From the itinerary, to the participants, to our amazing tour educator, Ron, to all of our tour guides in each of the cities, to experiencing all of the places that I’ve read about and studied for so many years, this tour has been everything and more! I won’t share all of the details at the moment, they will come in sermons and other blog posts, but this is definitely something to be shared over and over again.
This morning, we headed out for a bus to go to Terezin (aka Tereseinstadt, the name given to this place by the Germans). There are two fortresses in this area. First, the small fortress that was once a prison from the 18th century. It would continue to serve as a prison for political prisoners and then later by the Nazis for Jews as well as anyone who went against them. In its gates is the same message one finds and most camps, Arbeit Macht Frei, work will make you free, the propaganda message that might give someone a bit of hope.
Terezin was a “model camp” for when the International Red Cross would want to check to see how the Nazis were treating the prisoners a.k.a. the Jews. And while these model camps were set up extraordinarily well, there were so many things that the International Red Cross would overlook. As our guide Ron said, “one does not see what one does not want to see.” A shaving room complete with porcelain sinks and mirrors were set up in the small fortress however, if one takes a closer look, the sinks are not hooked up to any running water.
From the small fortress, we cross the river into the main town of Terezin. Terezin was built as a fortress in the 1780s as a way to protect the land from the Germans. Before the war it was a garrison town where the population was 3500 Czechs living together with soldiers. During World War II the Germans decided to use it as a ghetto and move Jewish families into the area and push the Czech people out. The camp was known throughout Germany as the ideal of worse places to go and wealthy German Jews paid to be sent to Terezin. The average lifespan of someone in Terezin was six months. The camp was simply a labor camp and show camp for the Red Cross. There were 35,000 out of 150,000 inhabitants who died there of hunger or disease, as well as some executions. All others were sent to extermination camps such as Auschwitz six months after their arrival in Terezin.
Terezin is known for the children’s arts and literature. Children were kept in separate houses and while the adults were out working, they were able to write and draw with supplies that were left by the previous inhabitants of the city. This is how they got all of the color and paper used for these drawings. The drawings were than later hidden till the end of the war and later uncovered by survivors.
There was music, theater, and operas put on throughout the camp. A Jewish professional filmmaker was ordered to then create a propaganda film to show the world that the Nazis were taking good care of the Jews. Children and adults were coached as to exactly what to say when interviewed either on camera or by the International Red Cross who came to visit once. When the film was completed, the director was sent directly to Auschwitz and murdered.
Terezin is nothing like I expected it to be. It is a small Garrison city with regular looking buildings that served as barracks for the Jewish community until they would be sent to the extermination camps. We entered one more courtyard and there on the bottom floor in the back corner was a small hidden synagogue. It was in the space that a cantor painted the walls with words from Psalms and created a secret space for the community to come and pray. Together our group joined in a final memorial service.
After leaving the hidden synagogue, we walked through the streets and ended up at a small café where we had lunch. It was an ironic dichotomy. Today, Terezin has some inhabitants living in the town, some of whom are descendants of the original Czech families who were forced to leave when the Nazis came in.