On my last full day in Europe back in Novemeber (yes, I meant to write this eons ago), I hopped on a bus in Prague for an hour ride northwest to Terezin.
Joseph II built the city in 1780 and named it after his mother, Maria Teresia. It served as a fortress to protect Prague from invaders.
But during World War II, the Germans occupied the city. Adolf Hitler told the world that Terezin had been built for the Jews for their own protection. There was even a Nazi propaganda film made there that showed how happy the Jews were to be taken to Terezin. The Nazis even invited the Red Cross to visit Terezin after which the organization determined that the Jews were being treated well.
In reality, nearly 200,000 men, women and children were forced to the ghetto in Terezin. Many were taken from there to concentration camps and likely death.
The Czechs have tried to preserve the town’s history with a Ghetto Museum and tours through the town. I could feel the ugliness the moment I stepped off the bus in the town square. Yes, there were sure giveaways that it was the 21st century like the Stella Artois signs advertising a bar. But I could easily see how Terezin must have been in 1942.
The streets were largely empty. I guessed the houses must have gotten fresh coats of paint since the war but they stood as they were then, inanimate witnesses to acts of brutality.
This was a town of 5,000 people when the Germans drove the locals out. At the height of the war, 55,000 Jews were sent here. We saw in the museum exhibits how disease and starvation were rampant.
Perhaps that’s why the town haunted me. That so many human beings sought refuge here and harbored hope in their hearts that they may live.
Just outside the town, in the old fortress, the Gestapo took over an existing a prison. I stood in the commandant’s office and stared at the sign in the courtyard: “Work makes you free.”
Here was a town with such an ugly past that I think many Czechs who were driven out to make room for the Jews, never returned. Why would they?
As the bus back to Prague meandered out of town, I pondered once again the breadth of inhumanity in this world. And why we should never forget places like Terezin.