Transit Camp: Myths and Realities of Prague’s Lost Jews ~ Sandell Morse

How strange the air. How strange this place. Austere facades of tall stucco buildings meet the sidewalk at sharp right angles. Tall narrow windows occlude light. No balconies, no window boxes. No trailing ivy. At street level, doors are shut. No one walks. No one drives. Nothing stirs, not a dog or a cat. Squirrels don’t scamper. Birds don’t fly; yet Jakub, my tour guide said people lived here. I stand on the sidewalk as my fellow travelers head for the Ghetto Museum. Jakub disappears. The bus driver, too, has left. This is Terezin, a former Nazi concentration camp, divided into this town called the Large Fortress and a prison, named the Small Fortress on the other side of the Ohre River. The air wraps me like a shroud.

I’d been in Prague for three days. I knew Terezin was close, and I’d done some reading about the camp. Still, I’d had no intention of visiting. I find the idea of concentration camps as tourist spectacles abhorrent. I understand what’s behind these visits – to learn, to see, and to feel history as if the residual pain of others will prevent us from doing what we do, rape, torture, murder, repress, oppress, starve entire populations, spray tear gas on women and children, shoot to frighten or to kill, and turn asylum seekers away from borders. I came to Prague to immerse myself in the city’s centuries-old Jewish history—Prague’s Jewish settlements extended back to the 7th Century—but once I walked the ancient paths of the Old Jewish Cemetery and visited sites in the Jewish Quarter, I felt compelled to come here. Terezin, an hour’s ride from Prague, was the first stop for Prague’s Jews before they were sent to camps in the East and almost certain death.

Most folks—if they think of Terezin at all—recall it as a model camp or a camp that imprisoned children. It was and it wasn’t both. In 1944, before the Red Cross visited, the Nazis emptied the camp of their malnourished, sick, and dying prisoners, replacing them with well-fed, well-dressed new arrivals. They stocked the stores’ empty shelves with cans of food and loaves of bread, staged a soccer game, and assembled Jewish musicians to perform a concert. They showed the Red Cross bunk rooms where children read books and women knit. They showed them a library, and representatives left thinking that life in the camp wasn’t so terrible after all.

In her memoir, Prague Winter, A Personal Story of Remberance and War, 1937-1948, Madeline Albright writes the reality of Terezin: “In a matter of weeks, rooms for four people became warehouses for twenty, then forty, then sixty. Triple decker bunks stretched from wall to wall and floor to ceiling, with two inmates sharing every mattress. When the supply of habitable rooms was exhausted, prisoners were jammed into windowless attics, cellars with dirt floors, and dust-ridden supply closets and storerooms….”

In the camp, sewers backed up. There was not enough clean water. Not enough food. Albright’s grandparents were imprisoned in Terezin, and her grandfather died here. According to the Terezin Memorial website, more than 87, 000 Jewish men, women, and children were shipped to death camps, Albright’s grandmother among them. Of these, 3,800 would survive.

As I press the soles of my sneakers into the sidewalk on this raw, dreary November day, the chill of this terrible story and its legacy seems to touch every cell in my body. I don’t know which way to turn, right and follow the others inside or step off the curb and explore this empty town on my own. What will I see if I meander? Not much. I climb a set of cement stairs. Inside, the Ghetto Museum, I am overwhelmed: glass case after glass case, glass column after glass column filled with artifacts: books, diaries, postcards, photographs, and testimonies of life in Prague, then, here, under the Nazis. This is the museum’s permanent collection: “Terezin in the Final Solution of the Jewish Question 1941-1945.”

What to do with the Jews? The question was Hitler’s obsession. His answer, the Final Solution. I wonder how many visitors understand that Final Solution is code for murder, its blueprint for implementation discussed during the January 1942 Wannsee Conference, a high-level meeting of Nazi officials that sealed the fate of Europe’s Jews.

I want to read every page in every diary, every word in every newspaper. I want to read each identity card and say to each face; I will remember you. So many photographs remind me of my mother, her full cheeks, her sweet smile, her wavy hair—and of my father, his narrow nose, his high forehead, his wire-rimmed glasses. I see photographs of children, girls with their hair in curls or in braids. In 1942, I was a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jewish child bending over a tulip in my grandmother’s front yard. I know because my father snapped my picture.

Terezin was a transit camp for Auschwitz. The Nazis moved more than fifteen thousand children through the camp. None stayed long. A wall displays their drawings, preserved by artist and teacher Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. Secretly, she gave the children drawing lessons. She must have sensed her deportation. She filled two suitcases with more than four thousand drawings and hid them before climbing up into a boxcar.

I stand before a child’s drawing—washed blue background, blue vase filled with blue flowers. The composition is minimal—stark and beautiful. Children have drawn life before Terezin and life inside Terezin, a man and a woman walking along a dirt road, each carrying a suitcase and gripping the hand of a child who walks between them. Jews walked two miles from the rail depot to the camp. In another drawing, men pull and push a wooden cart laden with dead bodies. On the bus, Jakub had spoken of this cart. Later, that cart returned filled with the daily ration of bread. Among the gratuitous cruelties of Terezin was that prisoners were forced to pluck their daily bread from a cart that an hour before had carried their dead.

Earlier, at the Small Fortress, which had long been a prison, our group had filed into a cold, unheated room where we sat on narrow wooden benches and watched a Nazi propaganda film. By 1944, rumors of death camps had escaped, and to counteract those rumors, the Nazis filmed their version of life in Terezin. On screen, a prisoner milked a cow, another shoed a horse. Prisoners swung mallets and welded. Rows of women sat at sewing machines, each threading fabric under a presser foot. In another workroom, men cut out patterns. Outside, prisoners hoed a vegetable garden and filled buckets at a nearby stream. This was work at Terezin, emblematic of the Nazi slogan, Arbeit Macht Frei, Work Sets you Free, painted on an archway as we entered this place, the same slogan painted on an archway at Auschwitz. The vegetables the prisoners grew were not for them; they farmed for the German Military High Command and their families, living in large houses nearby.

The scene switched to a men’s soccer game with cheering spectators, a crowd made up of prisoners. Another scene showed a table set with candles and candlesticks, implying that soon a family would take their seats and welcome Shabbat.

The film was old, the sound track echoing, features blurring, but two things remained clear: the health and well-being of these men, women, and children. As I followed my fellow travelers from the room, I recalled a conversation with a young Czech poet, living in the States. Born and raised in Prague, he’d emigrated when he was twenty. Yes, he’d visited Terezin with his school group. “It wasn’t a concentration camp,” he said. “It was a town outside of Prague where they sent Jews during the time of the Nazis. They were not mistreated, not like in the other camps.”

My thoughts turned to mistaken ideas about Terezin. When Nina, my granddaughter was in the eighth grade, Anna Smulowitz, daughter of Holocaust survivors, brought her award-winning drama, Terezin, Children of the Holocaust, to York, Maine, our home town. Nina had watched the play with her class in the afternoon. I went that evening. Standing in front of a blue velvet curtain, Smulowitz, a short, plump, dark-haired woman wearing glasses, announced that Terezin, Children of the Holocaust was her tribute to her many relatives murdered by Hitler. Opening slowly, the curtain revealed a double decker wooden bunk, an old steamer trunk, and a Nazi flag hanging from the top bunk. Really, a Nazi flag in the prisoners’ room? The six actors, all children or adolescents, wore what passed for period costumes: girls dressed in cotton dresses or skirts with collared blouses and buttons down the front; boys wearing dull trousers, white shirts and newsboy caps. All wore yellow cloth Stars of David with the word jude, Jew, written in black ink and pinned to their sweaters or shirts.

The action took place over the children’s last two days before deportation. These confident well-fed actors with their shining hair and rosy cheeks reciting their lines did not speak to life inside the camp. I’d understood even before my visit that the children of Terezin had been cold and hungry. They’d lost mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends. They were confused and angry, depressed and sad. Many were ill. Watching the play, I tried to suspend belief. I wanted these young people to succeed, but when two young actors looked out a window, saw smoke stacks, and seemed to know their fate, I could no longer pretend that I was okay with what I was seeing: distortion. In reality, none in these transit camps knew their destination. Few, if any, had heard of Auschwitz. Rumors of gas chambers—if they reached the camps—were too preposterous to believe. But most importantly for this audience, Terezin was not a killing camp

I wanted to race up the aisle and fling myself into the outside air. I needed to smell spring. I needed to breathe. I hated this play, its simplistic portrayal of a complex reality, its inaccuracies, the inexperienced young actors, the past inaccessible to them. But this was my community, my granddaughter’s community, I could not flee.

In the final scene, three children kneel around a low table and play a game. Corinna, a kapo, a prisoner who carries out SS orders, sits on a top bunk. As a kapo, she gets better food and a chance to survive longer, but for these privileges, she disciplines and often betrays her fellow prisoners. In her introductory remarks, Smulowitz said she’d modeled Corinna on her mother. “Corinna,” she said “was a victim of the situation.”

Sitting in the darkened auditorium, I mulled over the word: situation. A vague word. Orwellian. Used to obscure truth and moral dilemma, rather than illuminate. I watched Corrina read a book and take herself out of the scene. I glanced at the children at the table. None of the actors spoke. The audience waited. All of a sudden, we plunged into darkness, audience and actors alike. This was the end, the abyss. Or perhaps, a negation of what would come next for these children, deportation. Death.


The next day, I said to my granddaughter, “So, Nina, what did you think of the play?” We were standing in the kitchen, Nina dipping a rice cracker into a plastic container and scooping up hummus.

“I know what it’s about,” she said. “It’s about bullying.”

“Nina, the play is not about bullying.”

She popped the cracker into her mouth. “That’s why they brought it to York. To teach us about bullying.”

“Nina, genocide is not the same as bullying.”

“That’s what we talked about.”

“That’s all you talked about?”

“That’s why they showed it.”

She licked hummus from each finger, the point of her tongue darting; then, she shoved the container into the refrigerator and headed downstairs to the family room. I called after her. “Dinner in half an hour.”

“I’m not hungry,” she called back.


As I stand inside the Ghetto Museum, I can’t stop thinking about these misconceptions, like an arrow missing its mark. I read about a doctor and his family living in Prague, imprisoned here, then deported. The family vacationed at a seaside resort. They posed in the doorway of their home. How soon after these photographs had ordinary life been stripped away? How soon before soldiers had sealed them into boxcars? I thought back to the play. How wrong-headed to use a genocide to teach bullying. Why not explore words like sadism and humiliation? Why not talk of the danger of forgetting evil? In my mind, the lessons of genocide are not transferable; its sole purpose is the destruction of an entire community, a tribe, a people. I think of Bosnia. Of the Tutsis and Hutus.

A touch on my arm. Jakub, his face stern as he taps the crystal of his watch. “I said forty-five minutes. You are late.”

“Yes,” I whisper.

“The others are already in the bus. We must go.”


As the bus pulls away from the curb, I think of all I have not seen, the town square where in the film, men played soccer. The barracks are long gone, as is the cart that hauled the dead. Inside the bus, we are quiet. Some sleep; others listen to whatever plays inside their ear buds. I gaze out my window. The bleak light of a gray-white sky darkens and descends.

That evening back in Prague, I walk from my hotel to the Spanish Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter. Built in 1868 for the city’s Reform congregation, the building stands on the site of a much older synagogue. Security is tight. The door is locked, and a guard tells me I will need to wait until the rabbi arrives. I wander the quiet streets of this neighborhood, then check back, expecting to see a line. No line. I wander again, check again. Half an hour passes. Now, I wait for the door to open. Inside a vestibule, a guard motions to my wool hat. I take it off. He looks up at my face, down at the photograph on my passport, up again. I remove my jacket and my scarf. He motions. I set my clothing on a shelf, then stand feet planted wide, arms outstretched. A second guard scans my body with his wand, and it is as if I feel his fingers. I think of the churches I have entered freely throughout the city. At home, too, synagogues need security.

Restored to its former glory, the Spanish Synagogue resembles the Alhambra, Moorish in style and decorated with Islamic motifs of brilliant color and gold. The ceiling is high and vaulted. Inside a dome, a majestic stained-glass window displays a six-pointed Star of David. I slip into a seat at the end of the second pew. We are about twelve, clustered inside this vast space, and we are visitors. None of the Czech congregation attends regular services. Mostly, they use this space for celebrations: weddings, bar mitzvahs, and funerals. I don’t know if the congregation celebrates Bat Mitzvahs. Under first the Nazis, then the Communists, families forgot how to be Jewish.

Wearing a yarmulke, khakis, and a raincoat, the rabbi enters through a side door. All of us wear jackets or coats, and we sink down inside them searching for warmth. There is no heat. The service is sung, and although I don’t know the prayers, I know the melodies. I didn’t go to religious school, but I lived in an extended family with my mother, my father, and my Orthodox grandparents. Mornings my grandfather would wind teffilin, phylacteries, and chant morning prayers. I would stand beside him, humming and swaying. He would let me do this; most Orthodox men would not. I had no idea that every morning he thanked God for making him a man and not a woman. Friday nights, the family would gather for Shabbat, my grandmother lighting candles and singing the blessing, and all of my life, the music of her prayer has sung in my bones.

I rise with the others to read a transliteration of the Amidah, a standing worship of praise, petition, and thanks. At the conclusion of the service, we recite Kaddish, the Hebrew prayer for the dead, a prayer we recite at funerals and on the anniversaries of the deaths of loved ones. We remember not only our own family members, but all of our dead. Here inside this cavernous synagogue, I remember the dead of Terezin and bring to mind a child’s artwork inside the Ghetto Museum. In a drawing that echoed Chagall, this child drew two flying figures: one a rabbi wearing traditional dress, black trousers, black coat, black wide-brimmed hat; the second, a man casually dressed and hatless. The hatless man holds the string of a kite. A speech bubble shaped like the stone tablet of the Ten Commandments and filled with Hebrew letters spills from the rabbi’s lips. I wondered then, and I wonder now. Why a rabbi? Why the Ten Commandments? Was this young artist embracing religion? Mocking religion? Was she imagining ancient Judaism flying into eternity? Was she thinking of death and seeing souls fly away? Was she hopeful? In despair? I saw survival in that drawing, a rabbi holding onto the Ten Commandments, a man gripping the string of a kite, both flying, not up to the heavens, but over the camp that lay below.

After the service we gather around the rabbi. He lifts a Kiddush cup and blesses the wine. I step outside into the chill of the night.