A paved pathway leads to the reddish stone wall surrounding the prison, and you are confronted with a large arched entranceway that is painted with thick white and black stripes. Beyond the entrance is a gravel main courtyard with rows and rows of barracks. Inside the barracks are long hallways and bare prison cells, some with rows of wooden bunks for numerous occupants and others for solitary prisoners. Stepping into one of the solitary confinement cells was deeply disturbing. You find yourself in a tiny square shaped room with stone floor, walls, and a ceiling which rises high above you. High up on the wall is a long narrow window, too high for a person to see out of, except perhaps a patch of blue sky and light on sunny days. On the day I visited there was nothing visible from the window but dim gray light and clouds and within the cell was a sense of crushing bleakness. It seemed to me that this was a place that was meant to break human spirits and take away all hope. The feeling lingered with me as we wandered through the courtyard, in and out of barracks, and explored a tunnel that stretched for many meters beneath the grounds of the Small Fortress. And especially when I saw the words Arbeit Macht Frei painted above a prison gateway. The Nazis no doubt knew exactly what this place could do to a human spirit, I was sure of it.
By the time we left the Small Fortress, the rain was pounding the buildings, roads and earth heavily and the dark gray sky reflected my mood on leaving the Small Fortress. We soon caught our bus back to Prague, and though I had been at Terezin for less than a day, its impact on me was profound. Above all, the voices of the artists echoed in my mind and wouldn’t let me go. At that time I did not yet know that sharing their stories would become a kind of mission for me. And I never dreamed that nearly four years later I would meet one of the few children who survived Terezin.
The Ghetto Museum is located in the main section of the town, known as the Big Fortress. After leaving the museum Robert and I took a walk around the town’s main square and down the side streets, lined with old buildings and barracks, most of them a tan color with reddish roofs. It was raining by this point, and few people were around. The people that we did see were mainly inhabitants of the town. Strange as it seemed to me, people do live in Terezin today. I wondered how they managed to go about their daily lives when the memories of those who were imprisoned here were so strong. Do they ever think about what happened here? Or do they go about their daily lives without reflecting on the history at all, with everyday struggles taking priority?
The other portion of town is called the Small Fortress, which was historically a jail for political prisoners. In 1940, the jail was taken over by the SS and was operated by Nazis for the remainder of the war. To get to the gates of the Small Fortress, you have to exit the main part of the complex, cross a bridge over the rushing river Ohre, and walk through vast Jewish and Christian cemeteries with unmarked gravestones. During World War II, the cemetery quickly filled up, and most of the 32, 500 prisoners who died in Terezin were not given a proper burial, but were sent to the crematorium at the far edge of the Big Fortress. On certain days, the crematorium can be viewed by the public, though it was closed when Robert and I visited.
As we walked to the Small Fortress, cold rain began to fall and we seemed to be the only people around for miles. The utter desolation of the place chilled me, and its impact on me is perhaps best represented by a photograph that I took during the walk to the Small Fortress. A lone figure walks through the rain, crosses the wet stone pathway that cuts through the cemetery, with rows of graves stretching out endlessly. A plain cross can be seen far ahead, as can black trees whose bare branches seem to claw at the gray sky. And in the distance is a grayish stone wall, the barrier which once enclosed people inside the Small Fortress of Terezin.
Figuring out how to get to Terezin was the first challenge. I’m not the most experienced traveler, but luckily for me my boyfriend Robert has visited about 30 countries, some of which he has explored solo. Robert and I navigated our way through the Prague metro and arrived at the largely deserted bus depot on a chilly gray January morning. The next order of business was to find out the correct bus, and we made our way to the battered trailer that served as the ticket office. Inside was a small desk, and two elderly men sat around the desk. Robert immediately took charge, and armed with his Czech phrasebook, asked the men in their native language if they spoke English. They did not, and so Robert asked in Czech for two tickets to Terezin. After buying our tickets, we went to search for our bus. There weren’t very many passengers other than us and another group of tourists, and the bus was only about half full. That came as a surprise to me. I had expected that there would be many people visiting Terezin, but that wasn’t the case.
On the hour long bus ride, we drove out of the busy city and passed through lush farmland, and sparsely populated areas. It wasn’t long before the bus arrived at the town of Terezin, and dropped us off in the center of town in front of a large tan and cream colored building. Steps led up to a dark brown door, and above the door was the Hebrew word yizchor (remember). Square memorial plaques were fixed on either side of the door, one with a Star of David engraved on it. A white sign out front read Terezin Memorial Ghetto Museum in several languages. Robert and I climbed the steps and went inside. There were very few people inside, and we were accompanied by quiet and emptiness as we paid our admission and went into a large, expansive room which exhibited photographs and poetry of the children who were imprisoned there. The wooden floorboards creaked as we entered, and I stopped short when I saw the name beneath the photograph of a dark-haired young boy. Franta Bass. I remembered his name from several poems, remembered that he had been murdered as a young teen at Auschwitz, but had no idea that any photograph of him remained. I stared at the serious face for the first time, and I felt emotion well up inside me, tightening my throat as I recalled his poem, “I Am a Jew”:
When I first read that poem, I was deeply moved. No matter how horribly Jews were treated, Franta was determined to always be proud of his people. He swore that he would always be faithful to the Jewish people no matter what happened, that despite the brutality he endured, he would live on. I stared at the image of the young boy who wrote those powerful words, the boy who was murdered by the Nazis, and I silently mourned the unspeakable loss of him and of millions of other children. After a time, I exited the room, knowing he would live on in my memory.