Friday, April 22, 2005

Prague and Terezín

Charles Bridge
We woke up early this morning, we had a lot ahead of us! First, we walked across town in the early morning mist to the train station. The walk was longer than I expected, almost an hour, but we got a nice view of Charles Bridge without any tourists — except us! — and empty streets throughout the Old Town. Picked up our tickets to Krakow for the sleeper train leaving Sunday night, we leave at 9:20 P.M. and arrive in Krakow around 5:30 A.M. UGH!

Charles Bridge
We then attempted to walk to the Florenc bus station, which should only be a few minutes on foot. Somehow we got all confused and it took us 45 minutes and through some not so desirable areas of Prague! Dumb Americans, we should have taken the Metro, it was only one stop! Later in the day we bought 24 hour transit passes, we'll take the Metro and trams a lot more often now since we don't have to find tickets every time we need to use the system. We barely made it to the bus station in time to buy tickets and a little bit of breakfast before our 9:00 A.M bus to Terezín. Breakfast is interesting here, I had a klobása (spicy sausage) with two pieces of dense rye bread and mustard, Steph had a very oily and cold potato pancake called a bramborák. We purchased them from a tiny stall outside the train station, very cheap and tasty! Hopped on the bus and started on our 1 hour journey to Terezín.

Terezín was built as a garrison, surrounded by town walls, and a fortress (The Lesser Fortress) was built on its outskirts in the late 18th century. The protections provided by the walls and fortress were never used defensively. However, the fortress was used as a jail and during WWI a POW camp.

"Work Sets You Free"
In 1940 the Gestapo again used the Lesser Fortress as a prison for "undesireables" — Communists, Fascists, Roma (Gypsies), members of Nazi resistance groups, etc. The townspeople of Terezín were evicted in 1941 and the town was turned into a transit camp which more than 150,000 Jews passed through en route to extermination camps. The town was also the site of a great hoax on the Red Cross by the Nazis, who convinced the Red Cross that the Jews living in the ghetto were living in a "refuge". The Jews were made to clean the town, put on cultural performances, "shop" at stores filled with the property of others who had been transported through Terezín, etc. The ruse completely fooled the Red Cross, although the reality was more grim. The town itself was meant to be a garrison for 5,000 people, at its peak over 60,000 Jews were imprisoned there and 35,000 people died at Terezín through starvation, disease or suicide.

Shaving Stations built
for the Red Cross
At the Terezín Memorial we explored the Lesser Fortress, cemetary and the Ghetto Museum — it was quite intense and very interesting. I found the most moving display to be the pictures drawn by children in the ghetto of their lives in the ghetto as well as what their lives were like before being detained. The Ghetto Museum was packed with information — too much information — it provided real insights into the life of those living in Terezín during the war. There's not much I can say, its something you have to experience.

Lesser Fortress Wall
The town itself was very eerie. We ate lunch at the one restaurant that was open, it was very good. We ran into a group of Americans who seemed surprised when I spoke English to them. Turns out they were from Boston Latin High School. I chatted with one of the group leaders, she asked me if I knew where Boston was! Duh!? (I was born outside of Boston).

If you ever find yourself in this part of the world, I highly recommend visiting.

Cemetary outside the
Lesser Fortress
After a full day of depressing WWII history we headed back to Prague on the bus. Unfortunately, we had to stand for the first half of the ride because the bus was packed. The B.O. was enough to kill a mere mortal! Once we arrived back in Prague we took the Metro to Wenceslas Square. Tourist trap. Prices are up to twice for the same food and drink as you can find in less central parts of Prague.

Gate of Death
Lesser Fortress
Prisoners were walked
through this gate on the
way to their execution
Walked through the Old Town and found an open air market where we perused for a bit before stopping to have a beer in a cafe and do some people watching. It had been a long day, so we headed back to the pension for a rest and later grabbed dinner in a local pub about a block from where we were staying. The food was great, Steph had a smoked chicken drumstrick and potato pancakes and I had dumplings stuffed with bacon and cooked cabbage (anyone know where I can buy a gas mask, cheap!?). Of course, we also consumed lots of Budweiser — not that American shit they call beer, but the real thing! At 35Kc ($1.75) for 500ml, it went down easy!

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