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.