…my awkwardness was not the result of real feeling, but of thinking about the way one is supposed to feel after visiting a concentration camp. Bernhard Schlink
I take a late morning bus from Prague, arriving around noon and hike the three kilometres from the centre of the town. Having visited Oœwiêcim/Auschwitz several years before and seen there evidence of the encroaching and unavoidably intrusive visitor-tourist facilities, I’m still startled that the first thing I see upon entering is a restaurant – that the visitor is immediately presented with a sight that is familiar and friendly, something welcoming. It’s the same canteen building that once served prison staff here. This is the ‘small fortress’ of the old fortified town of Terezín, Theresienstadt, Theresa’s town. Getting its name from the Empress of the same name, it stands where two rivers, the Elbe and Ohøe, meet and was built during the late 18th century with the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the height of its power under Emperor Josef II.
It had always been a prison then. Military and political opponents of the Habsburgs would find themselves here, as did Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassins at the start of the First World War. It was put to use later in the century by the Third Reich, becoming the infamous showcase ghetto used by the Nazis for propaganda purposes while also doubling as a transit camp for inmates heading for the more notorious camps such as Auschwitz. Though it is inhabited today and functions much as a normal town anywhere, Terezín is almost entirely preserved as a museum piece. From the main square where the bus leaves me I pass over the Museum of the Ghetto and the various sites around the town and instinctively head for the smaller fortress.
The restaurant distracts me for a moment, but once inside I’m soon turning into the old administration courtyard, peeping through barred windows and open doorways into rooms that served as office space for prison commandant Heinrich Jöckel and his guards, as well as a reception area and store for prisoner’s confiscated clothes. It’s not the forbidding “Arbeit macht frei” inscribed above the gateway to the next courtyard that turns me back in the opposite direction, but the woman standing under it posing for a snapshot by her husband.
Now used as the museum’s administration centre, the fine building I come to next is dressed up as a lord’s country manor house and used to house Jöckel and his family along with some of his guards and theirs. It’s all cut lawns and trimmed evergreens, beds of clipped flowers. This tranquillity is at odds with everything the place represents. Experiencing the Terezín fortress is disjointing. I stand at the gate of what could be a serene period piece from the English countryside and turning around to face the building opposite, approach a gate entrance uncertain where the path will lead me next.
This, it turns out, is where the camp’s SS contingent were housed, now a gallery and exhibition hall. It’s another twist of fate that inside a visitor can find, alongside post-war artist’s reflections on the Holocaust, hand drawn sketches on loose scraps made by inmates themselves. What we have is a document of life under the prison’s regime. There are various scenes of camp life captured in still-life portraits, rough sketches of routine or random events: prisoners sleeping, the shooting of an inmate, prisoners searching for lice on their own bodies, food being handed out by orderlies, a young woman begging on her knees for bread…There’s a full set of playing cards, lovingly hand-made and coloured by someone called ‘Nina’.
As I move around the various blocks of the old camp, I pass other visitors with curiosity. I make occasional note of nationalities – Dutch, French, Czech, and German. Why are we all here? This is, after all, an exhibition of atrocities: Why come to see?
There are a number of possible motivations. Personal or family connection is an obvious reason to bring someone to such a place. There is the cemetery on the approach to the main entrance, with its rows of simple blocks set into the soil and bearing names, dates, camp identity numbers and carefully placed pebbles and stones on top of each one. Historical/educational interest is another motivation. And then there’s ‘tourism’.
What about this last phenomena? It’s this one that bothers me. How many of us are just ‘tourists’, here to tick off another monument on our list? How many of us fulfilling an itinerary, ‘doing’ Terezín? The couple and their ‘Arbeit macht frei’ holiday snap. And what about me? What am I ‘doing’ here?
To a large extent I’m satisfying a curiosity in me, trying to answer a crowd of questions: “what was it like?”, “how did people live?”, “can it be touched, felt?”
Why then, the sense of perversity that comes over me?
Can we be anything other than a voyeur or an intruder when coming to a place like this? I suddenly find that the act of coming here is in itself a means to answering the kind of questions such an experience can produce. If nothing else I’m struck by the notion of choice, an overwhelming sense of being able to walk away, to leave at any time. It’s this feeling of being in possession of free will, something denied entirely those who have been here before me, that suddenly becomes clear to me. Being ‘a tourist’ seems an expression of the ultimate freedom. How often are we made fully aware of our own liberty to come and go as we please?
I can simply choose to walk away. I can even buy an ice cream in the restaurant at the main gate to enjoy while I look around, guide book in one hand, Cornetto in the other. I see visitors doing just this. I can make this as easy on myself as I wish. Which is why I resist the urge to sit down and have a drink from the water bottle I’m carrying or to snack on the things I’ve brought along for the trip. Why should I make it easier on myself? If only out of respect, I can at least meet the victims of Terezín part way and ‘suffer’ a little discomfort, take a little time out from my otherwise comfortable, safe, choice-driven lifestyle.
It’s hot and I’m thirsty, ready for a sit down, but I push on and back to the gateway and its inscription. My camera stays in my bag. I’m not even sure how I should approach photographing a place like this and not at all at ease with the idea. Passing through the arch takes me into another courtyard. Here, old cells where large groups of people were held, mostly Russians along with Jews, up to 100 in a room not much bigger than the average garage. As well as these cells, there is a solitary confinement block and a surgery, communal bathroom and shower/delousing rooms, which together give a strong impression of the level of human misery existing here. The imagination isn’t stretched as I tentatively poke around these blocks. Dimly lit corridors, windowless cells behind half open heavy doors, shower rooms complete with overhanging showerheads ready for use, the adjacent, ominous-looking boiler room…No detail is spared. A visitor has only to fill in the gaps.
To be presented with the opportunity to engage so intimately with the remains of what has taken place here is challenging and in places I find that I’m actually flinching. Perversely perhaps, I’m reminded of the ‘haunted houses’ of my childhood visits to fairgrounds. It’s perhaps debatable in what sense Terezín and other places in the remaining network of camps around Europe have actually become ‘living’ museums. Part of me, though, is expecting the slamming doors and moving floors, figures in the shadows ready to spring a fright. In a place abandoned by time history lives and breathes here, absence is transformed into presence.
The birds nesting in the former confinement blocks have other things to say and I’m forced to leave one of the empty dirt floor rooms that once served as a cell. For them I’m an intruder. Is this precisely what has caused some of my unease here; is a visit to a scene of murder and cruelty on many levels an intrusion upon ‘sacred’ ground?
I would hope not. Coming to Terezín, as with going to Oswiêæim, ought to bring any visitor closer in some way to a living potential for horror and cruelty manifested in the century lingering at our backs as we push on into a new millennium. Through such a confrontation, is it possible we might also heighten our awareness of the fragility of things we take for granted?
All this has been asked before, I’m sure. Why then, upon leaving the gates of Terezín’s small and quietly terrifying walled fortress, do I feel that this potential for experience and process is destined to be largely cancelled out by those who choose, for whatever reason, to engage with it? People are, after all, only people. I breathe out when coming through the gate into the cemetery once again. I’m ready for the air and the space, ready for the sky. I have feelings not dissimilar to the pair of sunbathers laying on the grass just a pebble’s throw from the 10 000 or so victims of both fortress and ghetto.
Taking a walk instead along the path beside the gravestones and away at last, I keep turning back to look at the impressive sight of the enormous Star of David propped up with rocks which marks the far end of the walk towards the gate. There is a couple posing for a photograph next to it and this is the last thing I see before heading back towards the town.
I’m thinking it must have taken Nina hours and hours to make those playing cards, most likely out of sight of the same guards lodged in the barracks that allowed me to look at the glass case displaying them.
What happened to Nina? I’m suddenly compelled to turn around back towards the giant star and then on to the gate with its inscription and find some of the people I’ve seen today. I could ask them to trade in their cameras for a time machine and together we’ll try to find the woman or girl who made the cards. Try to make a difference. Failing that I can at least beg them to stop, to put the cameras away.
I’m not sure about my visit to Terezín; I’m not sure what it should mean. Perhaps that’s why I came here. I settle on deciding that Nina, along with her cards, survived and grew older with grandchildren somewhere and that the glass case is itself a triumph over adversity, that we as visitors are privileged to bear witness to such a thing.