January 18: We’re in Prague! Our bus might have been detained for an hour and a half yesterday, but we made it. I have been looking forward to coming to the city for a long, long time and I cannot express how excited I am to be here!
Today was super busy for us. We were scheduled to see the Jewish Quarter of Prague on a Saturday (the Sabbath), and it turns out we wouldn’t be able to see anything. So, two of the three tours we were scheduled to have in Prague are now scheduled for today. We will be visiting Terezin and then the Jewish Quarter.
Terezin, or Teresienstadt, is a concentration camp like no other. Historically, the town of Terezin was used as a military town and is dated pre-WWI. For you history buffs out there, the space may sound familiar because this camp also included the military fortress constructed by Josef II (then called Teresienstadt, named for his mother). Once the Nazis took control of Prague, the area was used as a prisoner camp and the military town was transformed into a Jewish Ghetto.
Terezin is considered a unique concentration camp for many reasons. First, it was a transit camp, meaning that those who were sent to live there were not meant to stay there for long. In essence, it was a stop between their daily lives and the gas chambers. The complex was home to some 140,000 Jews before the camp was liberated. Terezin is also important in the history of the camps because the Nazis used it as international propaganda. Films and public announcements were made from Terezin to demonstrate that the Jews were living life well, when in reality it was all a hoax. The scenes were staged and the acting was only portrayed in the fear of death. Nothing about Terezin was well and good. The Red Cross even came for a scheduled tour of the camp, just to see if the Jews were being treated well. The” inspection” was passed and nothing was done to help the inhabitants. It is also important to note that Terezin was home to many talented artists, actors, musicians, and writers. There is a whole museum in the complex dedicated to their works, and it is a shame that the world lost them before their true art prevailed.
The camp itself was very eerie, especially since it didn’t look like a camp at all. It almost reminded me of Williamsburg, except the architectural style was slightly different. There were squares and colorful buildings completing the make-up of the complex; not at all resembling what we perceive concentration camps to be. Today, there are people living and working in this town. There’s even a functioning Bed and Breakfast for guests who are there to study the tragedies of the camp. Wouldn’t you know the place where their guests lay is only yards from where the Nazis laid the corpses? That in itself was a hard concept to grasp.
After a quick bite to eat, we toured the Jewish Quarter of Prague. It was similar to many other Jewish Quarters we saw in Europe, and we all continued to get a better sense of the Jewish tradition. Some of my favorite sites on the tour included the Spanish Synagogue (it was so ornate and beautiful) and the Pinkas Synagogue that displayed the names of the Bohemian and Moravian Jews that perished in the Holocaust—80,000 names in total.