Once again, I found myself soaked in history. Nearly suffocated by it at some points, if I may be entirely honest. Today, our group took a field trip to Terezín, also known as Theresienstadt, and Mělník. What caught my eye first was the fact that the Czech countryside looks breathtakingly similar to the English countryside- right down to the surprise of a castle edging out of the horizon and those violently yellow grapeseed fields. There were far fewer farm animals, and most buildings had red roofs, but the similarity was quite striking. We drove for nearly an hour until we reached Terezín. Originally built as a military fortess in 1780, it had no purpose by the time of its completion. From then on, it was used to house prisoners. During World War II, the town was transformed into a Jewish ghetto, while the fortress itself was where various others were kept- mostly political prisoners, with a few prisoners of war and some Jews who caused trouble elsewhere. Terezín was the town shown off by the Nazis as a model city. Art, theater, music, writing, and other cultural events were permitted and showcased. However, much of the city was an illusion. The contrast between reality and the vision of reality presented to outsiders was stark. Much of this is visible in the art presented in one of the museums we toured. Artists were generally under orders to create propaganda for the Nazis, though quite frequently they created their own works as well. Most were charged with creating "propaganda of horror" and were quickly sent to other camps, where nearly all died. Their art, however, lives on, perpetuating the truth of life in Terezín. Few works used colors; those that did employed only muted shades. Many figures lacked faces. They were simply anonymous Jews- simultaneously everyone in the city and nobody at all. In several works, the living's heads were already skulls. Death was a common motif, as was general horror. The works were not shy about pointing out the differences between what they were told to see and what was actually before their eyes.
After walking around town, we headed to the fortress itself. Though this was no extermination camp, thousands died while imprisoned in Terezín. I soon found myself marveling not at how many died- those numbers are simply incomprehensible, with at least 33,000 dead and 88,000 deported to Auschwitz and other camps- but at the few who somehow managed to survive. They were crammed in tiny cells with far too many people. Food was meager, excrement was everywhere, and disease spread like wildfire. How anyone lived through the Terezín is beyond me. Appalling, atrocious, horrific- these words don't even begin to describe the conditions. The tour was fascinating and incredibly interesting, and set against the pristine Czech landscape, it was almost difficult to believe. I could understand why Red Cross workers thought that everything might very well be okay- between the landscape and the thorough illusions that the Nazis created (right down to building large, spacious bathrooms that were never even used), it makes sense. But then, you remember that someone died where you are standing. Another step, another body. It was overwhelming.
As we left Terezín, clouds gathered and it began to rain- gently at first, and then it increased in intensity. By the time we arrived in Mělník (pronounced myel-neek, FYI), it had stopped, and we were set free for lunch. I opted for fish and chips... Hey, I was craving a bit of England. Regrettably, fish and chips here consists of fish sticks and actual chips- not fries, like I expected. Nevertheless, it was quite good (delicious, even!). The chips were freshly made, and the fish was tasty too... or maybe I was just ravenous because it was 3:30 in the afternoon. Hmm... either way, I was happy, so it all works out. During lunch, Mělník was shaken to its foundation with an incredible thunderstorm, but fortunately, the rain eased just as we finished our meal. After that, it was off to a local winery for wine-tasting! Not something I can do, but it was still really cool to see the machinery that they use to create the wine. It was a neat experience. Before we knew it, we were back in Prague.
Tomorrow, I leave at 7:30 for a trip to Moravia. I'll be venturing to the southeastern tip of the Czech Republic. Don't worry though, I'll be back Sunday- with a plethora of pictures, I'm sure!
Paintings on the ceiling of the secret synagogue we visited- so well hidden that it wasn't rediscovered until the 1990's.
What remains of the railroad tracks that were such a central part of life in Terezín- bringing people in, and sending them away.
Barbed wire along the wall of a building in Terezín
The graveyard that you see as you approach the camp itself (the part considered to be the Small Fortress). Both a cross and a Star of David are present because the camp housed a variety of prisoners.
"Arbeit macht frei"- work makes you free, found above the gateway to most concentration camps.
Bunks in the camp that housed far too many people... this room nearly felt spacious and airy, until you envisioned it with six hundred people and several centimeters of waste on the floor.
One of the sinks
The solitary cells were tiny and pitch black. The window open here was usually shut, leaving the prisoner in utter darkness.
This bathroom at the camp was constructed purely for show. It was large, clean, spacious, and never used.
The tunnel system inside the fortress walls was incredible. We only walked down the main passageway- it would be far too easy to get lost in there and never come out!
A memorial statue in behind the walls of what is considered to be the Small Fortress (the part that was actually the camp). The entire city comprises the fortress as a whole.
A griffin (here considered to be an eagle, a lion, and a donkey) sitting on a wine cask. Tradition says that after two glasses, you can fly like an eagle. Four glasses, and you have strength like a lion. Six? You behave like a donkey.
Rain coming in.
The church in Mělník
A door and ivy