What I saw in Prague and Theresienstadt

A picture taken inside Theresienstadt Concentration Camp, also known as Terezin (photo credit: JEFFR_TRAVEL / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
A picture taken inside Theresienstadt Concentration Camp, also known as Terezin
"We want no C z e c h s , ” were Hitler’s oft-quoted words at the 1938 Munich Conference where British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain infamously agreed to cede Czechoslovakia’s heavily-fortified Sudetenland to Nazi Germany to secure “peace in our time.”
This came to mind recently as I drove with my Czech guide from Prague to Theresienstadt, called Terezín in Czech, the Nazi model ghetto for elite Jews where about 35,000 died and an additional 85,000 were deported to their deaths in Auschwitz and other extermination camps from 1941-1944.
The trip was taking longer than expected because of the heavy traffic on the highway. When I asked my guide “Where are all the cars going?,” she replied matter- of-factly “to Germany.”
She then explained that in the customs-free European Union, Germany was close by, and many Czechs travel there for work or to shop. She elaborated that in the late Middle Ages, Bohemian rulers invited Germans to settle in their lands, thus bringing the German language and culture.
However she emphasized, the Czech character is very distinctive, being traditionally tolerant and easy-going, marked by civility and accepting of all people.
This fit in with what my guide had described the previous day on a tour of Prague’s medieval Jewish quarter. He said that his Jewish father had told him that when the Nazis marched into the rump of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 and established their protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, he was denied the right to complete his law school studies. Imprisoned in Theresienstadt, he said he never witnessed any acts of brutality or unkindness from his Czech neighbors.
Nonetheless, when he met his future wife in the ghetto and unlike most of their fellow inmates, managed to survive, the couple decided to hide the fact that they were Jews so their children would not suffer prejudice. They went so far as to enroll their son, my guide, in Catholic classes, allowed under the Communist regime that followed WWII, but as he put it: “I opted out at the age of 7.” The family relaxed its position after that. That being said, aside from showing me his family name on the memorial wall in the Museum of Czech Jews murdered in the Holocaust, he told me that like most Czechs today, no matter what their background, there is little religious observance.
This was corroborated by my guide on the way to Theresienstadt, which she explained was set up by the Nazis to give the illusion that all was “normal” in its treatment of the Jews. Indeed, unlike the other ghettos, such as Warsaw and Kovno, where people were starving and brutalized in the streets, there was some semblance of ordinary life, although people were housed in dormitories, men and women separately and the entire ghetto was walled in by a fortress dating back to the Hapsburg Empire. Initially, many of the inmates were brought in from nearby Prague. Everyday life was entrusted to the Judenrat (Jewish Council) led by Jacob Edelstein, who set up classes and workshops for the children.
Here studied Peter Ginz, the 14-year-old boy whose drawing “Moon Landscape” was taken by Israel astronaut Ilan Ramon on his ill-fated trip on the space shuttle Columbia.
Ginz and his fellow teenagers put out a youth magazine called Vedem. But Ginz also wrote, “It’s been a year since I have been rotting in this hideous hole. Instead of your beauty [Prague] I have only a few streets. I am like a wild animal imprisoned in a cage.” He was murdered in Auschwitz two years later.
My guide showed me the ghetto’s highlights, including workshops for children and adults in art, music and drama. Since this ghetto was supposed to be a model, professors, artists and intellectuals were deported here from Nazi-occupied Western Europe. The Nazis tried to give the impression of a model town to a Red Cross delegation that inspected the ghetto in 1944. Those who looked frail or ill were deported to the death camps before the tour.
The Jews were keen to work in any capacity in the ghetto, seeing this as a means of survival. This work ethic, my guide explained, is also a Czech characteristic. One is expected to do one’s job and go about one’s business in an orderly manner.
Life continued in the ghetto for nearly four years. Every week until the end of 1944, on a particular day, several hundred Jews were selected for deportation to the East.
No one was told where they would be going, and most thought they were going to work in designated factories as evinced by the fact that some people signed up for the trains. If some people knew the real destination, the information was not generally shared. Edelstein and his family were deported in 1943 and murdered in Auschwitz, as was his successor and most of the musicians, artists, teachers and youth leaders. New prisoners were continuously brought in to replace those deported.
When WWII ended, 43,000 were left out of the 185,000 people sent to Theresienstadt.
Of the more than 7,700 children who passed thought the ghetto, more than 6,200 were murdered.
Terezín today is a picturesque Czech town. pop. 3,100, known for its production of furniture and knitwear, and a key site for tourists and researchers on the Holocaust.
The many artifacts on display were, my guide explained, discovered after the war by the returning and new Czech residents, who were reluctant to turn them over to the Communist regime. This was the case of the secret ghetto synagogue, which was discovered by the current resident, but kept private and preserved by him because he feared that the Communists would destroy it.
After 1989, he turned it over to the Jewish Museum in Prague, which maintains it and many other artifacts to this day.
Prague is rich In Jewish artifacts from Bohemia and Moravia which were returned to the Jewish community after being looted by the Germans to establish a museum of the “extinct Jewish race.” Tourists can be found waiting in line to enter the various synagogues, most of which are museums only today. One that is still functioning is the “Old New Synagogue “illustrative of how the word “new” in Prague refers often to the 16th century, the home of the famous Maharal of Prague, who is buried in the adjacent cemetery crowded with gravestones of the centuries of Jews buried there.
It is said that the mythical Golem of Prague, housed in the attic of that synagogue used to protect the Jews from harm. There is a ladder outside leading up to the attic but no one has of late had the courage to test whether the Golem still lives there. One thing we do know. There are very few Jews left in Prague today. Perhaps no one wants to admit that perhaps the Golem too is gone.