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3 posts from November 2013

11/26/2013

Terezín

Written by Kathy Shield (Tufts University)

To write this post, I really have to start a few years ago: the last time I was in Prague. My grandparents brought our whole family here to explore the city they had been born in, to learn a bit of the family history, to visit Europe, and to have a fun family vacation. Although I was old enough to understand some of why we came, I think I missed a lot of the family history they wanted to share with us, and that is one of the many many reasons I decided to come to Prague.

When we were here, we went all over the city, visiting typical tourist spots, but also Babi’s high school and the house Deda was born in and the park they both played in. We also visited the Pinkas Synagogue, which is famous for the names written on the walls. Not just any names, but names of the 80,000 Czech Jews lost during the war. The Synagogue is dedicated to these people whose lives were lost. Some were lost in the sense that they were killed; some were lost in the sense that the last written record of them are the Nazi deportation lists these names are copied off of. I remember the wall of Prague Jews, the red last names and the gold stars separating families. And I remember Deda standing there, staring at the wall for what seemed like an eternity. I remember the single tear that rolled down his cheek before he hustled us out, saying we’d spent enough time with him showing us around the city, and that we deserved an ice cream.

My grandparents said that they’d always wanted to take the family to Prague and had just been waiting for all us grandkids to be old enough. Maybe that was true. But I can’t help but think that they knew they were reaching the end of their ability to travel across the ocean. They were old enough that crossing the city was a long, slow process, but they were determined to share some history with us. I respect them immensely for that. But I also realize that I witnessed something unique that day. Not just the tear, though it was the only tear I’ve ever seen on Deda’s face. But also that I got to see the last time my grandfather ever visited his mother and brother. Because, when there is no body to be buried, the closest thing family gets to a grave is the name written on the wall in memorandum.

Back to present day. My Jewish history class took a trip to Lidice and Terezin. Lidice is the town completely destroyed by the Nazis in revenge for the assassination by Czechs of SS Officer Heidrich. The Nazis killed every man, and sent every woman and child to concentration camps. They bombed and burned the town to the ground, and even dug up every body in the cemetery. Not a single Jew lived in the town. Terezin is the fortress town the Nazis turned into a Jewish ghetto/concentration camp/transport camp. Nearly every Czech Jew was sent through Terezin on his way to concentration and work camps.

Needless to say, it was an emotional day for everyone that went. Its hard to face the reality of what happened. Even when you know the facts, the emotion of actually being there always hits harder than you expect.

Ever since the aforementioned trip to the Pinkas Synagogue a few years ago, I’ve always looked for my grandfather’s immediate family’s names in lists of names. It doesn’t matter where I am. (even if the list has nothing to do with the Holocaust, I look at the names.) And, honestly, I’ve stopped expecting to see any names I know.

We were walking around a museum in Terezin, filled with stories and pictures the kids drew while they lived in the town. Parents and other adults did the best they could to make life in Terezin as normal as possible, giving children an education and the ability to express themselves and a soccer field to play on when they had the strength. I walked into another room, and am surrounded on all four sides by off-white walls covered in names and dates. The names of children sent to Terezin and their birthdates.

Like any other list, I scan for the names. Like any other list, I expect to see absolutely nothing.

And then it hit me like a ton of bricks. Knocked the wind right out of me, and I literally doubled over. There it was, the name I’d been always looking for but desperately hoping to never see. I was sliding down the wall, gasping for breath, and I heard a comforting voice, but I didn’t know who it was and I didn’t care and I couldn’t think.

 

The next five minutes are a blur. I don’t know what anyone said, I don’t know what really happened. Then we were watching a propaganda movie filmed by the Nazis near the end of the war, as an attempt to convince the Allies that the camps were good for the Jews. There were young boys playing soccer, watering plants in the garden, reading books, playing cards.

May 31, 1928.

He was somewhere around 13, 14, 15 years old when he is in Terezin.

The Rabbi says children were sent at age 14 to Auschwitz; children under 16 were killed upon arrival. Was this his fate?

Young boys of that age were involved in producing plays and publishing magazines filled with poems and stories and drawings. Did he help with one of the many magazines we have seen over the course of the days, on walls of museums?

The able bodied were forced to do hard labor – digging trenches to redirect the river, building Nazi weaponry in underground mines, digging mass graves for their friends and family. Is this how he finished his life?

Thousands of men, women, and children never made it out of Terezin because of the deplorable living conditions and high disease rates?Did he die in his mother’s arms? His father’s? Did they die in his arms?

Did they ever see each other in Terezin?

A few hundred children survived. A tree stands in the Terezin cemetery where the descendants of these children meet annually. We don’t actually know what happened. Would I find distant relatives of mine there?

Since our trip to Terezin, our class has had the opportunity to listen to two Holocaust survivors. One, Pavel Stransky, defied fate multiple times and managed to survive for almost three years in Auschwitz. Both he and the artist Helga Weiss-Hošková went through Terezin. Both survivors had phenomenal stories. They were, quite simply, lucky to survive – neither could truly explain why or how it happened. It seemed, honestly, like neither had even managed to figure out why they had been allowed to live while their friends and family survived. And both told their stories as if it wasn’t something that had actually happened to them, as if they had no personal experience with it at all. I can only assume that they have put their emotions in a box, separate from their memories, in order to share their memories and stories with us.

And yet, somehow, I am hit by the emotion of it while they sit stoic. It is as if they have passed the emotion onwards, in order that the next generation may remember. In fact, Pavel explicitly said that his main job now, as a survivor, is to pass his story on to the next generation so that the stories and memories may live on forever in our collective memory. I only wish that my grandfather could have added his story too. I don’t even know if he knew the story himself; it is possible that he never found out at all.

And even if I do find out someday, I know there is no way to really understand what my family went through. The reality of the history of the Holocaust is incomprehensible, but I know that it is a part of my history that I know nothing about. I don’t know if I want to know, and that’s an issue I’m going to be struggling with for at least the next few months; maybe the rest of my life.

11/14/2013

Fall 2013, Issue 2

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Academic Trips

Each semester we offer students the chance to go on academic trips around the Czech Republic, led by their professors and CIEE staff. Students get out of Prague and see unique places and people around the country, for example, one of the few remaining and function baroque theaters or talking to a survivor of a forced labor camp in Jachymov. For this newsletter though, we would like to put the spotlight on the overnight trip for Communication, New Media & Journalism Program students.

Stop 1: Brno & Rádio R

Brno is the largest city of Moravia. It is largely a college town, so we made our journey their in order to meet and tour the very successfully student-run radio station, Rádio R. After a discussion with the radio team, we were invited in groups of two to broadcast live! Definitely a practical (and hilarious) hands-on experience!

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Stop 2: Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival

Jihlava, a small town a short drive from Brno, comes alive each year with its annual documentary film festival. We all received festival passes and spent the day watching documentaries from all over the world.  At night, students took in the impressive off program, comprising of alternative theater and concerts.

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Stop 3: Rychtář Brewery

We took it easy on Sunday and made our way to experience an integral part of Czech culture: beer. The brewery was opened especially for us, as were the tanks for tasting. It goes without saying that everyone had a great time at the brewery.

Volunteering

This semester over thirty students have made a commitment to give back to Czech society through volunteering. One of the most popular volunteering positions is teaching English in either a pre-school, elementary, or high school. CIEE students at one elementary school celebrated Halloween with the kids:

„It was such a great opportunity to teach the children about Halloween. You could tell they had so much fun learning about our American holiday and practicing their English! It really was fun for all and I would be lucky to be able to go back again!“ Rachel Horrowitz, Tulane University

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Open Mic Night

Students have a chance to let their inner singer or performer out at the CIEE-organized Open Mic. There were definitely some stars of the night: dorm buddy, Bára Kubišová and her boyfriend performed a traditional Slovak dance in traditional dress; FS student, Edan Laniado played his original songs ala Ben Folds Five; Joseph Nakpil recited some heartfelt poetry. Whoever was shy to perform on their own, was able to do karaoke as a group at the end of the night. A good time had by all!

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Buddy Profile: Tereza Vicková

Tereza

How long have you been in the buddy program?

I joined the CIEE program on January this year, so I am doing my second semester now.

What are you studying?

I am the third year student of Economics and the freshman of Area studies, both at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University.

Where do you live with CIEE students? What’s that like?

I am living in the dorms, I was there also last semester and I like it so I decided to stay there for this semester also. It is really interesting because you don´t live only with 3 students but you live with 30. So you can make many more friends really fast and we always create a great community in the dorms.

What do think is the biggest cultural difference between Czechs and Americans?

I think that the main difference is in our attitudes. Czechs are very reserved and it takes some time to create friendships. Americans are really open and they smile all the time, which I really like and prefer.

What is your favorite memory (so far) of CIEE life?

I have a lot of great memories, but actually my favorite one is when every semester the students come to me after the first week and ask me two questions. First one is: Why the Czech people don´t smile in public? And the second one is: How is it possible that you have dogs everywhere?  It is something that I never noticed before the Americans asked me and both of them are actually true, so it makes me laugh every time when someone asks me.

11/05/2013

Too Lucky

Written by Kathy Shield (Tufts University)

Brown boots, knitted sweater, jacket unzipped as the cool breeze blows by. The perfect fall temperature – crisp but not cold. The smell of damp leaves permeating the air and the sound of chestnuts clattering to the ground and rolling down the hill along the cobblestones. Alyssa’s long blonde hair bouncing as she giggles in anticipation of our trip to Turkey in November.

The scents of cinnamon and doughnuts and hot dogs intermingle with the occasional cigarette as I wait for the tram. A scream of laughter from the park behind me. The now familiar station names in the effortlessly soothing automated voice. A good book and my travel mug for company as a light rain starts to fall outside the window.

Children yelling my name as they run over for a hug, little hands grasping mine and pulling me this way and that. Look at this drawing, let’s play that game. Anna is in the kitchen, putting schnitzel on the stove, potato salad ready in the fridge. Traditional Czech beer to drink and freshly picked plums for dessert. Reviewing Emma’s reading homework, getting help on my verb conjugations. Playing nonsense games with Jachym on the floor as Filip watches the news.

Falling asleep to the pitter patter of rain on the window, cuddled under a warm blanket with a book by my side. My door silently closed as Anna wakes to make breakfast for the kids.

I often forget how lucky I really am. Yesterday, as a group of friends and I were talking about traveling, one of  them made the nonchalant comment that they aren’t afraid to travel alone. That comment shocked me, because I realized that there are people my age who are afraid to travel alone. Who have never navigated public transportation in another country (let alone another language) before now. I am incredibly blessed that my parents started letting me travel alone before I even had a sense of any danger (unaccompanied minors for the win!). For letting me travel to Japan for three weeks, twice. For giving me the freedom to learn independence and to test and expand my own boundaries.

I’m so lucky, not only to be studying in Prague, but to have done everything I have done in my life, to have had all the experiences I’ve had. To have parents who were willing and able to pay my way through college, so I can spend the money I earn as I see fit (namely, traveling!). To have had teachers that forced me to push my boundaries until I realized that I have no limits.

Sometimes, I think that maybe I’m too lucky, that too many wonderful things happen in my life. But I think the only way to face that issue is to take advantage of every opportunity I have. To embrace the experiences and make the best out of them all. This weekend, I’m taking that tact, doing as much as I possibly can. I’ll be watching traditional Czech cartoons tonight with a mug of homemade mulled wine in hand, hitting up the Prague Burger Fest and maybe a movie tomorrow, heading to Trebič on Sunday for a cultural experience like no other. Look for photos in my next post, and maybe even some book reviews, as I’ve been reading quite a bit since I got here.