Some trips remain forever etched in memory, a trip to Terezin Concentration camp on the outskirts of Prague, Czech Republic was one such trip. I had always been curious about the Holocaust and wanted to learn firsthand about the mistreatment of Jewish people during that time. So, while planning my Euro trip itinerary, I made sure to have an extra day in Prague so that I could visit Terezin.
Terezín is a fortress built by the Enlightenment ruler Josef II and although, the building named after his mother Maria Theresa was supposed to be used for defense, it paradoxically became infamous first of all as a prison, and later during World War Two as a Jewish ghetto and concentration camp.
It was a cold and windy day. The sky was overcast, adding to the eerie environment. Right outside the entrance to the fortress, a gigantic Christian Cross and Star of David caught my eye. It was one of the largest cemeteries that I had ever seen. There were hundreds of graves with specs of red on them – poppy flowers were placed on each of the graves; mass graves as I later learnt. It was a melancholically beautiful sight.
There were a handful of tourists around who soon disappeared. I started the tour of the former military base and fortified city, following the map I had been provided at the entrance. I hadn't opted for one of the organized group tours from Prague as they were charging double the price and I was trying to spend the bare minimum, being on a shoestring budget. Seemed like everybody else was on a group tour!
I first went to the museum to learn more about Terezin and the atrocities that had been committed here. One of the walls was full of the names of the people who had died at the camp. I could not imagine a 7000 people facility being used to house up to 60,000 people! The cramped enclosures, unhygienic conditions, lack of food and basic amenities that they had to live in was appalling and disheartening, to say the least. And yet, they had spirit! This can be seen in the copious pieces of beautiful art, musical and theatrical works of the prisoners that have been well preserved.
I think we have much to learn from these prisoners. Sometimes, we find ourselves stuck in our own little prisons/ situations where we feel completely immobile. I think the key is to stay strong and keep working towards creating our own "masterpieces" without letting the outside environment get to us.
I walked around the rest of the dilapidated fortress feeling overwhelmed. The howling wind and the desertedness of the streets put me on edge. Soon enough, I stumbled upon an antique store which was full of WW2 treasures. I came across beautiful bohemian cutlery, antique guns, old cameras, amongst lots of other interesting stuff. Unfortunately, I could not pick up much as I was in the middle of my backpacking trip through Europe and could not carry more stuff. I picked up a couple of WW2 love letters which are really close to my heart.
I completely lost track of time in the antique store and almost missed my bus back. I hurried to the bus stop and did not find the last bus standing there, as scheduled. I panicked and tried to find somebody who spoke English. The tourist office had shut and the handful of locals there only spoke Czech. I had no option but to wait. And hope. And pray. While I was trying to figure out how to get back to Prague, an elderly beggar with crooked, yellow teeth and grey, piercing eyes was slowly limping towards me with the help of a walking stick.
Internally, I was freaking out but I put up a calm face for him. I tilted my head sideways, indicating that I would not be giving him anything. For a minute, he frowned, staring devilishly into my eyes. That's when I thought here goes my passport and all my money. Thankfully, he walked away, hitting the dustbin with his stick, out of frustration. Right after, my bus arrived.
Terezin was a good learning experience for me. Not only did I learn about the braveries of Jewish people but at the same time, that I am brave.