Czech Republic: A ‘nice’ concentration camp’s hidden horrors

When I knew we were going to Prague last year, I wanted to make time to visit a place I read about as a youngster.

It was one of the things that stayed with me from age 12, when I buried myself in the Leon Uris bestseller Exodus — my introduction to the Holocaust. Memorable reading, to say the least, for an impressionable Jewish kid.

The book is fiction based on big, real-life events: the creation of Israel out of the ashes of the Holocaust.

One story really stood out because it was about a fictitious Jewish girl who was my age at the time. Her father shipped her to Denmark after the Nazis took over Germany, hoping they’d all reunite someday.

But most of her family perished in Auschwitz, the most notorious of the Nazi death camps. Her father ended up in a concentration camp in what was then Czechoslovakia. This one was Theresienstadt, which had a worldwide reputation as supposedly being the good camp. Which is to say it wasn’t an extermination camp. The good camp was where all the privileged Jews, the rich and famous, were sent. Her father was spared, barely.

This idea of a model camp was always incongruous to me, and I always wondered what made it different.

We were lucky enough to  be able to hire a driver for the hour-long trip . We rode through the countryside in the dead of winter. We were let out on a long driveway, the closest we could get to the camp by vehicle.

Photos/Mitch Sommers

It was a long walk through the biting Eastern European cold to the entrance. Unlike those who preceded us, we went of our own free will, bundled up in North Face winter jackets and UGGs. It was not a death sentence; we were just — shudder — visiting.

Theresienstadt (Terezin in Czech) — named for an empress, got its start as a fort more than 200 years ago.

The assassin who triggered World War I was imprisoned here.

It was the perfect locale for the Nazis to create a combination ghetto and concentration camp. It already had all kinds of secret tunnels.

And it was the perfect place to put on a show for the rest of the world during World War II. The International Red Cross got the grand tour of this “model camp”, where Jews and other prisoners were supposedly treated humanely.

Theresienstadt was one of the many concentration camps sporting the cheery Arbeit macht frei — German for “Work sets you free.”

There were actually real showers — not fakes like in the extermination camps — where people could bathe like “civilized” human beings.

The Nazis dressed up the place with a fake cafe and stores.

But we found out from the lone guide — a Czech woman — that it was all a cruel scam. That when the inspectors left, it was business as usual.

In reality, the camp was a holding pen for Jews and other prisoners whose final destination would be the horrific extermination camps.

And they were treated no better here. Punishment — like hangings, shootings and beatings — was meted out just as harshly.

They subsisted on starvation rations. With freezing sleeping quarters in winter, scorching in summer.

I could barely take the icy temperatures for the short time I was there. I could just imagine…

Back to 2010 and a trip to the rest room on the way out. I pondered the basic bathroom amenities like — well, real toilets; heat; hot water and paper towels. And vowed never to take them for granted again.

As when I visited Berlin many years ago during my days at The Travel Channel, I was thankful I wasn’t there 70 years earlier.

Because there wouldn’t have been a driver waiting to take me back to Prague — to the comfort of my pretty hotel room …

… and the wonder and warmth of the holiday season.

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One Response to Czech Republic: A ‘nice’ concentration camp’s hidden horrors

  1. Donna Spohn says:

    Wow, you took me to a place I don’t want to be- gripping and wonderfully written.

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