in the garden

 

Dec 2006 Journal

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Visiting Terezín

On an overcast day last August, I walked to Prague's main coach station to board a bus for Terezín, where my maternal grandparents had been deported in 1942 from Vienna. I never knew my grandparents, Heinrich and Alice Strassberg, and I knew little of Terezín, or Theresienstadt as I called it, beyond the sparse details provided in lieu of death certificates for my grandparents by the Czech authorities after the war. My mother showed me these documents when I was 19, and so I learned that my grandfather had died at Terezín in February 1943, but that my grandmother had survived until May 1944, when she was deported to Auschwitz. After that, the certificates rested deep in a drawer, out of sight and, so we thought, out of mind.

The map listing the stops on the coach's route gave no indication that Terezín was a special destination, in any way different from the other villages through which we passed. The itinerary simply stated that there were two stops at Terezín. I got out at the first, and was confronted with two signposts, one directing me to the Ghetto, one to the Small Fortress. I opted for the latter, partly because the sign also indicated a memorial there, partly because a family friend had asked me to look for traces of her father, who, she believed, had died there.

The Small Fortress, the 'Kleine Festung' of evil memory, was a prison attached to the larger fortress town of Terezín itself, which had been built by the Empress Maria Theresia. The Nazis used the prison as a place of punishment, for members of the Czech resistance as well as Jews and others. It now stands largely empty, with only a sprinkling of visitors like myself to view the slogan 'Arbeit macht frei' over the entrance, the crude rooms into which a hundred prisoners were packed and the punishment cells. Over it hangs the almost tangible atmosphere of evil and suffering that still attaches to such places, even though the Nazi guards and their victims have long since left them to silence and memory.

When I walked on to the town itself, I had a shock. The buildings that comprised the ghetto are still standing, town life having resumed after liberation in 1945. Terezín was not a concentration camp, but a ghetto created from an existing settlement to house Czech Jews and (mostly) elderly or distinguished Jews from Germany or Austria. Consequently, the buildings are still peopled with life, unlike Bergen-Belsen or Auschwitz.

At the ghetto museum, to my surprise, a helpful historian produced a death certificate for my grandfather issued at the time of his death. This told the historian, Mgr. Tomáš Fedorovic,* that my grandfather had been accommodated in a makeshift hospital in the former Engineering Barracks. With the help of a map of the former ghetto, I located this building, an imposing, somewhat daunting block now used for communal purposes. As my grandmother's details also appeared, I located the house where she had lived, too, a smaller building with a shop on the ground floor; doubtless there was family accommodation on the upper floor where my grandmother's room had been.

The sudden and unexpected feeling of proximity to my mother's parents, hitherto shadowy figures from a vanished past, unsettled me. I did not go into the house from where my grandmother had set out, alone, on her final journey. Only when I studied a leaflet about the ghetto, on the coach back to Prague, did I realise that I could have followed in my grandfather's footsteps - from the railway siding where he arrived, through the šlojska (the sluice, or checkpoint, where inmates were 'processed' on admission), to the hospital where he died and, finally, to the river Ohre, into which the ashes of cremated prisoners were thrown. Perhaps some of the burdens transmitted to us via our parents are too heavy to shoulder all at once.

* Mgr. Fedorovici, who is very willing to answer questions from survivors and their relatives, can be contacted at Památník Terezín, Principova alej 304, CZ-411 55 Terezín, Czech Republic, or at fedorovic@pamatnik-terezin.cz.
Anthony Grenville

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