What do I mean by Travel that Teaches? Simply, it is travel to historical places that may cause sadness and discomfort, but teaches valuable lessons about humanity or the lack thereof. I recently went with a fellow blogger to Eastern Europe and one of our stops was Prague. As a history aficionado, I knew that an important World War II camp was nearby, the town of Terezin, Czech Republic. Allow me to take you on a tour of this haunted landscape, haunted by the hatred and cruelty of the Nazis and the innocents who died at their hands. We must always remember these horrific events in history, only then do we stand a chance of not repeating them. With the rise of hate crime in the United States (up 17% in 2017) and the murder of eleven members of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, it is more important than ever to remember that these horrors did happen.
The town of Terezin, or Theresienstadt in German, was unique among the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. The town was a fortress and prison built by the Emperor Josef in honor of his mother, Empress Maria Theresa. The townspeople were evicted and the Nazi SS established a ghetto that served two purposes: it was a holding pen for the extermination camps, and a settlement for Prominent Jews to mislead the world about what was really happening “in the east”. Arriving Jews would be asked to write several postcards to their loved ones, telling them about how lovely the town was and how well they were being treated. Of course, many of these people would be sent on to Auschwitz or other extermination camps in the east, but the postcards fooled many as to the whereabouts of their family and friends. For a time.
The most peculiar aspect of Terezin was the “beautification”. Of all nations, only the Danes insisted upon knowing what had happened to their jewish citizens, most of whom escaped to Sweden. There were approximately 450 unfortunate Danish Jews in Theresienstadt, and the Danish government kept requesting a Red Cross visit to ascertain their condition. Finally, the Red Cross was approved to visit by the SS and the “Verschönerung” campaign was underway. This small town of 5,000 had grown to over 50,000 and the overcrowding and filth were unimaginable. Dead bodies were left in the street for days before burial, and the death rate was high. Any rule breakers were sent to the Small Fortress, a nightmarish prison fortress. In order to beautify the ghetto, thousands of Jews had to be transported.
To prepare for the visit, a hoax was constructed. Prominents and Danish Jews were housed in private apartments, without overcrowding. 7,503 people were sent to Auschwitz in May 1944 to rid the ghetto of the sick, elderly, and disabled people who had no place in the “ideal Jewish settlement”. A tour route was planned, and along this route the houses, streets, shops and restaurants were cleaned and made to look like new. A town square was constructed for soccer games, libraries were bursting with books and Judaic treasures, instruments were distributed and orchestras were formed. Beautiful clothes were obtained for the Jews along the route, sham stores and shopfronts lined the streets. Well dressed Jews sipped coffee at adorable Coffee Houses along the route. This ideal Jewish settlement fooled the Red Cross, even though just beyond the route conditions were abhorrent. The Red Cross representative reported that no one was deported from Theresienstadt and that conditions were ideal. The Red Cross visitors did not stray from the designated path, and since they were accompanied by armed SS, it isn’t hard to imagine why they didn’t insist on seeing the entire town. This visit spurred the idea of making a film, The Fuhrer Grants the Jews a Town, Der Führer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt. The film was meant to show happy and healthy Jews enjoying a life of leisure while the Germans were at war, to dispel the rumors of mass murder. It was filmed although not distributed widely as the war was reaching its end. While I was at Terezin, I viewed part of the film in the SS movie theater. I felt sick to be sitting in the seats of Nazis, watching a propaganda film of happy Jews in a beautiful town. The moment the filming ended, those healthy looking people in the film were transported and gassed to keep from telling the real story of the Paradise Ghetto.
Of particular interest to me was an attic apartment where many Jews lived. Within that attic exists the only Synagogue that was not found by the SS. How difficult it must have been to avoid detection!
My next post will take you to the Little Fortress, the prison and fortress of Terezin.