It is a custom for visitors wandering the thicket of tombstones in Prague’s Old Jewish Cemetery to place small rocks on top of the markers, a practice said to date from when the Jews lived in the desert and there were no flowers to be had.
Sometimes people tuck folded pieces of paper between the rocks, perhaps directed at whatever unseen spirit they feel resides there.
I picked one up at random. It read: “Peace of heart, peace of mind, for me, for everyone.”
Of the 12,000 tombstones in the cemetery, the first was placed in 1439 and the last in 1787. Most of these deaths, though not all, were from natural causes. Yet the somber reverence revealed in the faces of visitors reflects a more contemporary history, in which the death of a European Jew is all too likely to have been a murder.
As if to underscore this point, a former ceremonial house at the entrance to the cemetery has for some years been given over to an exhibition of drawings and writings of children who were imprisoned at Terezin, a town about 37 miles northwest of Prague. During World War II, the Nazis evacuated Terezin’s population and turned the town into a concentration camp.
Between November, 1941, and May, 1945--when Czechoslovakia was liberated by the Soviet Army--more than 80,000 Jews passed through the camp on their way to Auschwitz and other concentration camps . Another 33,000 never made it any farther, dying at Terezin of starvation, disease or torture.
Despite the harsh conditions, the Germans tried to create the illusion that Terezin was a “model” camp. Many artists and intellectuals were imprisoned there, including the writer Karel Polacek and the young composer Viktor Ullmann, and the Nazis tolerated a considerable amount of artistic freedom. The prisoners put on operas, concerts and plays, including a number of original compositions.
The Germans used this artistic activity to try to convince a delegation of the International Red Cross in June, 1944, that the Jews were being well treated. A short time later, however, the Nazis discovered that a number of paintings depicting the brutality of life at Terezin had been smuggled out of the camp. As a result, several artists were moved to a nearby prison. One was beaten to death on the spot. Others were sent to Auschwitz.
Few of the works created by the adult artists of Terezin survived. One that did was an opera composed by Ullmann that did not get beyond the rehearsal stage at the camp. Ullmann died in Auschwitz, but the score was discovered many years after the war and was finally performed in Amsterdam and elsewhere.
Children accounted for about 15,000 of Terezin’s inmates. . Most of them were separated from their parents and housed in various buildings throughout the campThe Nazis forbade formal schooling, but did allow art classes. Some 4,000 drawings have been preserved, as well as poetry and hand-produced publications that the children wrote secretly with the help of adults assigned to live with them.
As I walked through the cramped exhibition area, which covered two floors, it struck me that the drawings fell into two categories. Many depicted monsters and grisly scenes of hangings and disease--scenes drawn from the depths of children’s nightmares. Yet others were elaborate fantasies of flowers and butterflies, kings and queens. An explanatory note in English captured the essence of the works with the ingenuousness of a clumsy translation: “Their reminiscences and their dreams, which did not come true, are alive in their drawings even nowadays.”
One section was devoted to the boys who lived in building L-417-I. With the help of their adult supervisor, Valtr Eisinger, they secretly published a magazine called “Vedem” (We Lead). It appeared weekly until the autumn of 1944, when the entire group was sent to Auschwitz. The editor was a 14-year-boy named Petr Ginz. A photograph of Ginz showed an awkward adolescent with a shy, buck-toothed smile, and a cowlick of dark hair falling over his forehead.
The following morning I made the hour-plus trip to Terezin, taking the bus from the Fucikova station in Prague.
Terezin was founded at the end of the 18th Century on the order of Emperor Joseph II, who named it Theresienstadt, after his mother, Maria Theresa.
At the time, Bohemia and Moravia, which have since been absorbed into Czechoslovakia, were part of the Hapsburg domains, and Theresienstadt was built as a fortress against the Prussians. Two sets of fortifications were constructed: a larger one, which became the town of Terezin, and a smaller outpost called Little Fortress.
By the beginning of the 20th Century, Theresienstadt had lost its important military status, but the Little Fortress was converted into a prison. Its most notorious inmates were the Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip and two confederates who helped him assassinate Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo in 1914. By the end of the war that they had helped launch, the three men had all died in Theresienstadt of tuberculosis.
Today, the Little Fortress is the site of a national cemetery and memorial for the victims of Terezin. During the Nazi occupation, the Gestapo used the fortress as a prison for political prisoners. Most of the inmates were Czechs, but during the course of the war, Resistance fighters from Slovakia, Poland, France, Italy, Yugoslavia and other countries were also brought there, as well as Jews in the Terezin ghetto who had been accused of petty offenses.
Roaming through the prison blocks, I felt like a voyeur peering into the misery of other people. Yet some things are almost impossible to imagine. A tiny cell with a single wooden bunk . . . where did the 12 people who were once imprisoned there stand; where did they sleep? A long underground tunnel emerged onto a quiet patch of grass.
Here, on May 2, 1945--six days before Soviet troops arrived--51 boys and girls, members of a clandestine youth group, were put up against the fortress wall and shot. I ate lunch in a small restaurant near the entrance to the prison, and learned later that this building had been the SS officers’ canteen.
A bridge over the River Ohre leads from the Little Fortress to the town of Terezin. Before the war, the town’s population had been about 7,000. But by 1942, almost 60,000 Jews were crammed into the ghetto. During the autumn of that year, the camp was hit by various epidemics and almost 100 people died each day.
But the Terezin that greeted me was a quiet, dusty, provincial borough, a place of little laughter and much forgetting. The only reminder I could find of what happened here was an unobtrusive plaque on a neoclassical building just off the main square, the former L-417-I, where Petr Ginz and Valtr Eisinger spent their last months before being sent to die at Auschwitz.
At first, the dead of Terezin were buried in a hollow outside the town walls, but in October of 1942, at the height of the epidemics, the Nazis forced the prisoners to build a crematorium nearby. From the outside, the building vaguely resembled a church. But inside, in place of pews, are four massive black ovens.
An elaborate system of pulleys operated their heavy doors, which had once received bodies rolled in on long iron trolleys that still sit, rusting, in the room. While I gazed at one of the trolleys, my imagination drifted back to the children’s drawings in Prague and to one watercolor in particular, by a girl named Helga Pollakova. She would have been about 14 when she came to Terezin.
The painting was like a haiku: brown twigs, green stems and leaves, a red splotch for the sun, set down in vivid brush strokes against a white background. The composition was strikingly light and airy. I imagined that perhaps while painting it, Helga had briefly floated above the reality that would soon claim her.
The image evaporated, and I was left staring at the cold, black iron of the trolley.
Prague and Terezin
Where to go: The entrance to Prague’s Old Jewish Cemetery is at the end of Hrbitova Street in the city’s Jachymova district. Hours for the cemetery, as well as for the several nearby synagogues that make up the State Jewish Museum of Prague, are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Saturday, April through October, and 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. November through March.
The Terezin Memorial is just south of the town of Terezin, 37 miles northwest of Prague on Highway E55. Take bus number 41020 from Prague’s Fucikova Station. It runs several times each day, and stops both in front of the memorial as well as in Terezin’s town center. Hours are 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, except Dec. 25-27. Tours of the memorial can also be arranged by the State Jewish Museum of Prague.
For more information: Telephone for the State Jewish Museum of Prague is 42-2-231-0681. For the Terezin Memorial, call 42-416-92-225. For general information on travel to Czechoslovakia, contact Cedok, Tourist Information, 10 E. 40th St., Suite 1902, New York 10016, (212) 689-9720.