"I am trying to check my habits of seeing, to counter them for the sake of greater freshness. I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I'm doing." - John Cage

Friday, July 24, 2009

July 18-19 Terezin and Kutna Hora

Saturday we headed to the concentration camp called Terezin. It poured rain all day. In the memorial cemetery, now a national monument, a giant metal star of David with black river stones piled at its base stands above the field of gravestones, red roses planted at each grave, ten thousand of them. Many of the stones are just numbered, bodies of prisoners recovered from a mass grave directly after WW2 ended. In the middle of the field, a taller cross, spare and wooden, stands above the star.

We toured the Little Fortress. This was a prison run by the Austrian Hapsburgs, the Nazis, the Russians, and finally the Czecks in differing political circumstances. This prison held political prisoners of whatever regime was in power, as well as Jewish prisoners under the Nazis. About a third of the prisoners would die of living conditions, crowded and suffocated in hot rooms with doors and windows closed, lose half their body weight on rations, tortured and left in isolation cells without windows. This is the prison the assassin of the Arch Duke Ferdinand was held for two years and tortured until he died of pneumonia. We stood within his cell, #1. We walked part of the 28 kilometers of tunnel system through the fortress walls, emerging into daylight again by the guillotine and execution wall, brick riddled by bullets from long ago.

In the town of Terezin nearby were held nearly 200,000 Jewish families, separated and worked 14 hours a day in a ghetto as they awaited train transport to extermination camps in other countries. In the transports, 63 over two years, about 1000 people per trainload, only 0 to 11 would survive the trip to their destination. A secret synagogue was discovered in the town only a few years after the war ended. It seems even the Germans never discovered this secretive hidden worship. Only a few people must have known within the camp itself about the existence. The museum documented many cultural events, plays, musical performances, children’s choirs and art, during the years of imprisonment. Now this haunted town is deserted, a few children riding bikes through the martial square. I ate pistachios in the rain leaning under a thin overhang outside the museum. Over lunch no one knew what to talk about, surrounded by the history of human suffering and injustice. I realized that my ignorance is not acceptable. Our responsibility is to be informed.

That night back in Prague a group of us went out to see the new Harry Potter movie. The Czechs have an intermission so people can go to the bar or have a smoke break in the middle of the movie.

On Sunday, I took the train to the beautiful medieval town of Kutna Hora to see the Ossuary church and the cathedral. In the early 1800’s, the small church in that town took the bones of nearly 40,000 people that had piled up around the walls of the church and decorated the inside in bone patterns and pyramids, a bone challis and bone chandelier. The legend is that the church yard and cemetery around the church has holy dirt from Jesus Christ’s burial place, brought back a few centuries earlier. For this reason, people had been transporting dead bodies to this location for a long time.