Thursday : Theresienstadt Ghetto, Terezín and Rustic Dining in Litoměřice

For our final full day in the Czech Republic, Richard set off early in the morning to the airport to collect a hire car, whilst I had a little lie down. Given Richard’s enthusiasm to explore, I had had a marvellous idea to visit the Theresienstadt Ghetto (the town is now called Terezín), which I knew little about other than it has appeared in a lot of narratives in museums that I’ve visited in Poland, Latvia and Lithuania.

The not really knowing anything about it caused us some confusion when we arrived near to the town, as we saw a fortress and thought that looked an interesting historical location, but it wasn’t near the Ghetto Museum. All soon became clear, this whole complex was built by the Austro-Hungarians as a military installation and there’s a main fortress and a small fortress (although it’s not at all small, it’s just smaller than the other one). The main fortress is the entire town and that’s what the Nazis turned into their ghetto for Jewish people, whereas the separate small fortress was used for political prisoners.

Our first stop was at Náš chléb, vaše pekárna, a bakery which is located within the large fortress.

Chocolate coated goodness in the morning…..

We then started our expedition at the ghetto museum, and Richard and I were confused by the staff member trying to tell us something in Czech and then politely waving us in. Fortunately, an English speaking visitor mentioned that the staff member who could speak English wasn’t there at the moment and so if we paid at the end of our visit, then she’d give us an introduction to the site.

I took a lot of photos during the day, but I’m conscious that one of my new web-sites that I’m slowly creating is about museums and I want to focus some of the specifics there. But, the museum was a fascinating introduction to the ghetto town, and it was laid out in a professional manner.

One of the saddest exhibitions is in the first room, where drawings by children early on in the war are displayed, with most of them dying in the concentration camps later on during the conflict, victims of the Holocaust.

I was fascinated by this, it’s Vedem Magazine, produced between 1942 and 1944 by children in the ghetto, primarily led by Petr Ginz, who was murdered in Auschwitz when he was just 16 years old. There’s an article on Wikipedia about the magazine, with many issues on display in the museum. There were 92 boys involved in the creation of the magazine, but only 15 of them survived the Holocaust.

A photo of Petr Ginz and his family.

That this magazine was produced in such trying circumstances is a real testament to the bravery of these boys, including Sidney Taussig who survived the war and he buried the 800 pages of the magazine in a tin to ensure their survival. He is still alive and now lives in the United States.

This is the square in the middle of the ghetto, once used as a parade ground and now a pleasant space with seating and a cafe and supermarket around the outside. However, ghetto inhabitants weren’t allowed to use the area, other than when there was an external inspection from the International Committee of the Red Cross, who the Nazis were trying to fool. The whole town is today an odd set-up, as it’s a former military town which is now a pleasant enough residential location, but it has this awful history which I doubt it can ever get away from.

A modern recreation of what the barracks in the ghetto were like.

The rail tracks into the ghetto. Some of the people coming here were told that they’d be provided with a house similar to the one that they were forced to give up elsewhere in the Czech lands, so I can almost imagine their hopes and dreams about what they’d find here. It’s an impressive site because it was a former military barracks and I wonder how many people still at this stage believed they’d get something nice. The reality was that multiple people were crammed into each room across the ghetto, there was no private accommodation available.

The train tracks that came into the ghetto stopped here, as this was where the prisoners were quarantined for a short time. It was also a handy opportunity for the Nazis to steal what few possessions the victims had. The incredible evil that took place here is still very hard, for me at least, to comprehend.

It’s hard not to note the appalling report produced by the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1944, written by Maurice Rossel and his colleagues. They were entirely conned by the Germans, who had tidied up the ghetto and even produced fake road names and institutions such as schools solely for the purpose of fooling Rossel and other Red Cross committee members. The Germans did this successfully, but Rossel never apologised for his report, which undermined other genuine reports of how much suffering there was in the concentration camps.

The Columbarium was closed, but we were able to walk through two sections of it. This is where 25,000 paper urns were deposited with the remains of those Jews who had died in the ghetto. It was thought they’d have a proper burial at the end of the conflict, but in late 1944 the Nazis upended the urns and their remains into the nearby river. There is now a memorial at the site where they did this.

There was a collection of coypu playing in the river. There were a couple of buildings which are part of the museum which are closed, including one that we were encouraged to go to by the staff member at the main museum. I suspect there’s a staff shortage, but there was still plenty to see across the former ghetto, and indeed, it transpired that we were best not to linger too much as we would have entirely run out of time.

The cemetery at the site, with the crematorium building visible at the rear of the photo.

This was a slightly harrowing place, as although there were no mass executions at the site as there were in places such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, many people still died from the dreadful conditions here. A tour guide, who frankly should have known better, was shouting at his group and barging them past other visitors in a way that lacked any dignity or respect for others. Fortunately, we were just leaving as he started his arrogant display of tour leading.

Workers who operated these incinerators had an horrific task of getting the remains out and into paper urns (the ones that were later destroyed) as any fragments of gold would have to be given to the Nazi officers.

At this point, we then moved to the Small Fortress, which is a separate military installation and around a ten minute walk away. Originally a barracks, this was used as a prison during the nineteenth century and during the First World War it was used to imprison opponents of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. It was also used by the Nazis during the Second World War, but this site was used for holding political prisoners.

Part of the prison complex, this section was where the women were imprisoned.

A little past its best.

The dreaded “Work Makes Free” lie that was a sign repeated at many concentration camps across the Nazi empire.

It was at this point that the size and scale of the buildings became apparent, as it was possible to enter tens and tens of these rooms. I’m not sure if these are recreated platforms for sleeping on or they’ve just never been moved, as there are almost endless amounts of them.

This is the former cell of Gavrilo Princip, the man who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, an act which ultimately led to the First World War. He wasn’t sentenced to death for his murder, but he was sent to the prison for twenty years and he was treated badly at Terezín, dying on 28 April 1918.

There wasn’t a huge amount of time until the site closed, but the thought of a 500 metre walk through tunnels was just too tempting to miss, so I bravely led the way along this quite substantial stretch of underground passageways. There were so many twists and turns that it was impossible to know exactly what part of the site we were in. I think Richard enjoyed being dragged along here at some pace.

And on we went through the tunnels……

We eventually came out the other side of this gateway. By this point we had been touring the sites for several hours and since it was near closing time, we decided to leave although there was plenty more to explore if we had had more energy and time. The entrance for the entire complex of museums was around £7 and it was perhaps a little sad that they didn’t have more visitors, this site deserves to be seen by many.

With that it was back to the hire car that Richard had deposited in the middle of the ghetto and off to the town of Litoměřice for the evening meal.

I think I’m really very good at picking restaurants, a task that I excelled at again with our visit to Dobrá Bašta (and Richard is unanimous in that). This was evidently going to be Richard’s cup of tea, a restaurant which specialises in traditional Czech cuisine with ingredients such as venison, duck and boar. It’s not necessarily my first choice, but I did appreciate the rustic feel of the restaurant and it’s located within an historic building. I did though like how they use local produce, including high standards for how they source venison.

They had a dark beer available, which was entirely satisfactory, with the service during the meal being polite and attentive. Our main server didn’t speak English fluently, but she was unfailingly helpful and there was a friendly and laid-back atmosphere in the restaurant.

The presentation was anything but rustic, it was contemporary and looked very appetising, so my salmon starter (which Richard talked me into) looked quite delightful. The olive and caper salsa was a thing of beauty, with the salmon being tender and delicate. I had decided at this point that this was indeed my kind of restaurant.

The smoked BBQ pork ribs with spicy cabbage, a dish I am normally a little sceptical about as this can be tough and quite annoying to eat. Here though the meat fell off the bone, although I still made quite a mess, but it was tender and the sauce gave it a pleasant BBQ edge.

I ordered a latte, which was just as I expected.

Richard managed to somehow order a coffee which still had the bits in it, the Czech version of a Turkish coffee. He pretended to like it although he spent an age drinking it. I didn’t say anything obviously.

The town of Litoměřice, which I’m not going to dwell on as I was there for too short a period of time to really be able to comment on. However, historically this is an interesting area as it formed part of the Sudetenland, part of the territory that the Germans pinched in 1938.

It was certainly a fascinating day and there was much more to see at Theresienstadt than I had ever imagined, it could easily justify a full day to see everything at the former ghetto town.