Terezin concentration camp
This Friday I took my class to Terezin. We were slightly limited on time so we only get to see the small fortress, not the big one or the ghetto. I’m planning to visit those soon.
Terezin was originally built as a protective fortress in the 18th century but it never served its purpose. The small fortress became a prison pretty early on and actually this is where Gavrilo Princip was held after his assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. (Serbian embassy keeps a little wreath and a candle lit in his cell while their economy back home crumbles. National pride of poor countries agitates me to no end. — I’m ex-Yu so I get to whine about this.)
In WW2 Germans took over and used the big fortress as a camp-ghetto for “regular” Jews and the small fortress for “political prisoners” which included a lot of rebellious Jews but also non-Jewish people who worked against the state.
This camp was a transit camp, not an extermination one, but out of the 144,000 Jews that “passed” through this camp, 33,000 died in the camp itself and 88,000 were deported to extemination camps. Out of those 88,000, only 17,247 survived.
Czech Republic was always a center of culture and science in Europe and this was certainly true for Jews living in it. This camp was therefore filled with artists, poets, writers, philosophers and others who tried so hard to keep their culture alive during their imprisonment.
Some 15,000 children lived in the camp, and they were educated and brought up there. Less than 2000 children survived the camp and the deportations. Their teachers buried the children’s work in hopes that some day they’d be able to show it to the world and some of it has indeed survived, even if the children who made them didn’t. There are pictures on show in the Jewish quarter in Prague, which I visited two years ago. Also, their pictures, poems and prose have been collected in a book, I Never Saw Another Butterfly.
The poem which the title comes from was written by Pavel Friedman and is translated like this:
by Pavel Friedman
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 in here,
in the ghetto.
He is presumed to have been around 17 when he wrote this, and he died in Auschwitz in 1944.
Going to Terezin, there are things I expected and was emotionally prepared for, the numbers, the beds, the diseases and death.
But the cells were the hardest part. Standing there… I’m not the kind of person who can “feel” energy or anything like that. I just have some empathy. And the idea of 30 people sleeping standing up because there’s no room to sit or lie down, some of them dying over night and no one knowing or saying anything until next morning, with one little hole for air and one closed window looking up at unreachable freedom, I can’t handle that, especially not while standing in the actual cell where it happened.
I don’t ever want to take away from people all the amazing things we’ve done through history, all the kindness we’re capable of, but when I see places like these, when I realize they still exist, I hate us all, I really do.
I know hate isn’t productive, the way it burns in me feels much more like destruction, but some days I really don’t know where to turn to for a drop of true happiness.