Terezin and Other Thoughts

Hello everyone.

On Friday, we visited Terezin, which is the closest concentration camp to Prague. It was actually built as a fortress to protect Prague’s borders back in the day, but following that it turned into a prison, a concentration camp during WWII, and today it is a museum. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when we visited, but I can say that it was very different from my idea of what it would be. Apart from the expected barbed wire and high walls, there isn’t anything particularly terrible looking about the place. However, as soon as you begin to walk through, and learn the the details, the horror finally begins to creep out of the cracks in the walls and the crumbling pathways. One moment that stuck with me is when our group of about twenty entered a cell. This was a holding cell for prisoners on their way to an extermination camp such as Auschwitz, or those who were simply awaiting their execution on site. We barely fit in the room, and then my tour guide informed us there was normally 5 times our group size shoved in there. Many didn’t even make it out of the cell because there was simply no fresh air- they died of suffocation. I would also like to point out that these people were not all Jews either. The prison was used for “Political prisoners”, so pretty much free thinkers, activists or anyone who tried to speak their mind. Poets, Artists, Directors of avant-garde theatre, even teachers were sent to Terezin Prison. It only got worse after the first cell, and we finally ended in the courtyard of the 3rd execution site of the prison. It was here that everyone would stand, watching their friends or family members be executed for something like being late to role call. Mindless violence and suffering. That is probably how I can best describe it

The prison was the 1st part of our trip, second was the actual town of Terezin itself. This was used as a ghetto for Jews in WWII, meaning they were ordered from their homes into over crowded, unsanitary and dilapidated rooms. Many of these people did not survive–either because of epidemics or mass transports to the death camps. There is a famous exhibition in one of these museums that really hit hard for me. There are several drawings of children living in the ghetto on display, and below it a small plaque that says what the child was drawing about, and if they made it through WWII. I think I remember one of them that did, out of the 50 or so I looked at. These drawings weren’t pictures of despair or sadness- they were things that I drew as a little girl. Butterflies, my house, my dog, even my family. These same drawings could have been hanging on my fridge at home- except instead, they were hanging in a museum as the only documentation they ever existed.

This trip wasn’t all terrible however–I would say the most rewarding thing for it was discovering how people freed themselves from the horrific situation they were in. Art, Music and Theater. There were excerpts from diaries found after the liberation, and one said “The first thing I’m going to buy is a piano”. How often do I take for granted the fact that I am free? That I can follow my passion and perform? If I did not miss being constantly involved in theatre back home, then I certainly do after this trip. My heart goes out to those lonely souls stuck in the walls at Terezin, not only because they were stripped of all humanity, but also because of the way that they expressed it.Those things that live on long after you’re gone–a drawing, a painting, a song. Those are the things most worth it. And I get to take part in that every day of my life. Performing, loving and living in the realm of the arts, and I am so incredibly grateful for it.

Following this trip, I went to a Cathedral on Sunday morning. I didn’t really even pay attention to the mass, but instead I sat there listening to the choir, looking around at the beauty surrounding me, and observing the people. I had no idea who they were or what they were doing here, and I’m sure half of them weren’t even Christian. They were probably just attending a free tourist attraction on a lazy Sunday, and hoping there would be some donuts after mass (there weren’t by the way). However, I was happy to be with them. And, when the rite of peace rolled around in the liturgy, it felt really, really good to shake the ladies hand next to me and tell her “peace be with you”.

So, to everyone, Peace.

Valerie Zawada
Prague, Czech Republic
Spring 2012

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