Last night I stayed up very, very late re-reading Maus, an amazing comic book about the artist’s father, an Auschwitz survivor. It’s intensely personal, moving, and beautifully done.
It reminded me of when I went to Terezin (Theresienstadt), a concentration camp in the Czech Republic. Terezin was unique among the camps in that it served as a Nazi propaganda tool. The town consisted of two fortresses — one of them was a ghetto where they set up fake shops and cultural scenes to fool the Red Cross into thinking it wasn’t a concentration camp. The other, smaller fortress housed the cell blocks and crematorium. Terezin was also a major way-station to Auschwitz, and during the war tens of thousands of prisoners passed through there on their way to the gas chambers.
For most of the day as I looked around I was completely alone, there wasn’t a soul anywhere. I walked around and looked at the cells and the crematorium and the giant gate that read ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’. I felt incredibly strange the whole time — sick to my stomach, dizzy, my hands and arms pricked with cold sweat. I tried to remember to breathe slowly and smoothly so I could calm down.
As I entered the museum in the small fortress an older Orthodox Jewish gentleman appeared — it turned out there was a tour group in from Jerusalem. ‘They’re going to show us a special movie’, he said. ‘Why don’t you join us?’ The movie consisted of scenes from the propaganda movie the Nazis put together to pretend Terezin was a cultural haven for Jews. We saw people dancing, playing football, and children laughing in the streets. 15,000 children died in Terezin. Some of their drawings and belongings were displayed on the walls in the museum.
The movie’s original soundtrack was muted, and instead there was a measured male voice reading out some statistics of the people who passed through Terezin. ‘April 1943, train designation AB, 1000 passengers, 2 survivors. April 1943, train designation AC, 1000 passengers, no survivors’. On and on it went. In the row in front of me the tour group was praying quietly in Hebrew. For a moment I desperately wished I was a believer too, so that I could feel like someone was watching over me or helping me cope with this. As it was I just sat there alone and felt more nauseous.
The movie came to a close and I learned that the director the Nazis chose, a camp prisoner called Kurt Gerron, was sent to Auschwitz along with all of the cast immediately after filming was finished. He died in the gas chamber in October 1944.
I shuffled outside the theatre and was hoping to thank the gentleman who invited me in, but the whole tour group had vanished somewhere. I wondered for a second if I’d hallucinated the whole thing.
I wandered around some more after that. There was one pitch-black corridor leading to a crematorium that I couldn’t enter; as soon as I got a few feet inside I felt a crushing sense of claustrophobia and I ran out again. Eventually someone came past and told me they were closing the gates so I’d better leave.
I had to wait at the bus stop for 90 minutes in the large fortress. People still live there, and everyone I saw looked about as despondent as I felt. I didn’t start to feel well again until the bus took me back to Prague and I finally got back to the hostel.
I visited Terezin for about seven hours on that day in the summer of 2003, more than 12 years ago. My hands still get clammy when I think about it.