For the people of Terezin, a Czech town 70 kilometers north of Prague, there is no escape from the past. A past blemished by the pain and suffering of innocents, predominantly the Jews of Europe. For them there is no detour from it. Just utmost remorse and tragedy that they are reminded of everyday. A feeling almost effortlessly and inexplicably present in the air of this town and its surroundings, felt by visitors alike. It is as though an eerie silence is the only fate of this place now, as hundreds of bodies lay buried in the town’s gigantic cemeteries and memorial. People visiting stand in reverence for the victims with their heads bowed. Gravels lay atop tombstones symbolising an ancient Jewish tradition of paying respects to the dead.
Not far from the graves is a crematorium where those sickened and killed would be cremated. A guide shows me around, from section to section, describing how most of the deaths here could be easily classified as premature. First, corpses would be separated from their coffins and then would be taken to an autopsy room for imprisoned doctors to determine the cause of death, albeit for some inmates only. Any gold fragments or substances of value would be searched in ashes and handed over to Nazi officers.
What was built as a fortified town in the eighteenth century by Emperor Joseph II of Austria and named in honour of his mother Empress Maria Theresa, Terezín was made into a concentration camp and Jewish ghetto by the Nazis when they invaded the Czech lands during the Second World War. This Czech town was used as a transit centre for Jews when they were deported to ghettos in Eastern Europe and six extermination camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau, the most notorious of them all where 1.1 million people were murdered.
Nonetheless, it was also used to house and imprison specific populations of the Jewish community, mostly comprising Czechoslovakian Jews. As many as 150,000 Jews from German-occupied Czechoslovakia, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark were brought here. The inmates included a number of famous poets, painters, musicians, composers and scholars — hence Terezin became well known for its rich cultural life —as well as veterans of World War 1, the elderly, and “prominent individuals whose disappearance might be widely reported or who would be unfit for forced labour.”
At least 15,000 among the inmates were also children, of which only less than 150 survived. Some 35,000 prisoners perished in Terezin due to malnutrition, epidemics and the dehumanizing conditions they were kept in, while about 88,000 inhabitants were deported to Auschwitz and other extermination camps to face death, their ultimate destiny.
When inhabitants of the ghetto reportedly ‘misbehaved,’ they were brought to prison, crammed into bunks and dark cells, made to do labour work and kept under horrid conditions; some 300 people in a room were left with only two bathrooms.
The camp harboured police prison became the scene of executions post 1943, which were carried out without a court judgement. The largest group of prisoners, a total of 52 people, was shot here during May of 1945.
‘A deep wound’
For Arielle Mesa, an American visitor with Jewish roots to the town, Terezin is a jagged, deep wound cut into the Earth and her own memory that continues to linger. A gloomy, sorrowful reminder of what her blood, her ancestors went through for their faith and ultimately paid the “highest price” — as she calls it — for their culture, identity and religion during Shoah, the Hebrew word for Holocaust.
“The density of this place fills the air, weighing so heavily on my heart. The suffering and pain of this place still remains,” Mesa shares her thoughts on her visit to this Czech town that now sees tourists and visitors in good numbers but whose atmosphere still remains sombre and gloomy, even during the peak of summer.
“It is painful to remember the depth of the harm and violence that we humans can undo on one another. And it is equally important that we do [remember], for if we do not remember we are bound to repeat ourselves,” she states in an emotional Instagram post.
Another visitor to Terezín feels “the face of cruelty is etched into each structure of this place.”
“The stories here are dark, the cells are dark and the energy is dark. I hope that those who suffered and died here found the light,” she says.
Terezin earned the reputation of being the Nazis’ ‘model ghetto’ used for their propaganda to conceal crimes, show the world that Jews were being ‘re-cultured’ and fool the International Committee of the Red Cross on allegations of rights violations. In 1943, Denmark’s king Christian X — mainly for the safety of 450 Danish Jews deported in the town — and other Jewish organisations called for a visit by the Red Cross to examine the conditions of those held. The ghetto was thus ‘beautified’ to create a good impression; several prisoners were then relocated to better quarters and cultural activities were incorporated in town.
But behind the fake facade, misery continued to persist. In the days of preparation, the SS authorities— paramilitary organisation under the Nazi party— used force and terror to coach the Jews on how to behave while the foreign visitors would be on the visit to the town. “The Jews were instructed and rehearsed as to how they were to dress, where they were to be stationed, and what they were to say,” as stated in the paper Bleaching the Black Lie: The Case of Theresienstadt.
About 120,000 Jews lived in Czechoslovakia before the Holocaust, out of which 49,000 were based in Prague. Some 80,000 of the country's Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.
Those transferred to the Terezin concentration camp also included residents from Prague’s Jewish Quarter, which dates back 1,000 years, and is home to synagogues, museums and an old jewish cemetery today. The quarter is also the birthplace of renowned Bohemian novelist Franz Kafka. Adolf Hitler decided to preserve this Jewish Quarter as a ‘Museum of an Extinct Race.’
I Never Saw Another Butterfly
From Terezin concentration camp came out a book titled, ‘I Never Saw Another Butterfly’ featuring a collection of poetry and art from the children based there, of whom most died before the town was liberated by the Soviets.
The last, the very last,
So richly, brightly, dazzlingly yellow.
Perhaps if the sun's tears would sing
against a white stone.
Such, such a yellow
Is carried lightly way up high.
It went away I'm sure because it wished to
kiss the world good-bye.
For seven weeks I've lived in here,
Penned up inside this ghetto.
But I have found what I love here.
The dandelions call to me
And the white chestnut branches in the court.
Only I never saw another butterfly.
That butterfly was the last one.
Butterflies don't live here,
in the ghetto.