Chapter 1 of ‘How I Celebrated Finishing Grad School’ is short and to the point: chocolate and wine were the only food groups I was interested in for several days. Chapter 2, however, is much more intriguing and digestively responsible. “So Kobi, you’ve just finished a rigorous M.A. program dedicated solely to the study of death and destruction during the Second World War. What are you going to do next?? Answer: visit one of the most notorious ghettos used by the Nazis.” I think I’ve forgotten how to have fun…
As the European adventure is slowly coming to an end, Jenn and I decided we needed to cross another destination off the ol’ ‘Travel Bucket List’ before she jettisoned back to Texas. (she’s actually at the airport while I write this…but I’m still nursing a healthy case of denial, and will continue to ignore this fact for the next several months.) So we set our sights on the Czech Republic, and decided to grace Prague with our presence. Which, of course, was kind of guided by my having just written a large chunk of my dissertation on the ghetto established in the town of Terezin just 45 minutes outside Prague. You know…because that’s how normal people plan vacations.
The first few days were spent in the normal touristy fashion: seeing the sights, taking hundreds of photos, eating pastries from street vendors. But on our third day in this Eastern European gem, we decided to do our own thing, and parted ways for the day as Jenn thought going to the one of the world’s best zoos sounded like more fun than a ghetto tour. So, for the first time in my life, I traveled around a foreign country on my own. And, wouldn’t you know, I didn’t accidentally barter myself for a herd of cattle or embarrass myself too greatly! I did, however, get momentarily lost, but we’ll get to that.
After I put myself on the correct bus to Terezin, I was crestfallen when I realized that a rather large group of German high schoolers had just done the same thing. It was still ‘early’ in the morning (AKA-10 AM and my first cup of coffee hadn’t quite kicked in yet), and I just wanted to read my book and watch the scenery on the way without the disruptions of who-likes-who and blah blah blah. But those little teenagers surprised me, and quickly picked out seat buddies and settled in for a silent bus ride. I was probably the loud one, unwrapping my breakfast pastry in the world’s loudest paper bag (why is food always packed in rustly-sounding bags?? It’s like-here, buy this delicious almond croissant, but when you eat it everyone’s going to glare at you for making so much noise during your pastry-gobbling. It’s a double-edged pastry sword.). When we finally arrived an hour later, the gruff bus driver dropped us off in front of a simplistic yet helpful sign: if we went 500 meters to the right, we would arrive at the little fortress and prison; alternatively, if we went 500 meters to the left, we would arrive at the ghetto museum. Everyone seemed to be going to the right, so I followed along to the little fortress. There were swarms of high school students and tourists at the ticket office, which, of course, made me worried that my visit would be negatively impacted by listening to jokes and chitchat the entire time. But once I bought my ticket and photography credit, I entered the fortress completely alone. And it stayed that way almost the entire time; it was eery, and it was perfect. Wandering through the varying cell blocks and tunnels which comprised this small fortress in the silence of solitude allowed the weight of the experience to hang in the air, following me with every turn and added a depressive texture to the experience. I spent 2 hours exploring the little fortress before I decided to move across town to where the ghetto had been carved out of the town’s boundaries in the 1940’s. To get there, all I had to do was find my way back to the sign at the bus stop, right?
Well, that sign is about the only thing pointing you in the direction of the ‘Muzeum Ghetta’. After that, you’re faced with a road under construction which has eliminated all sidewalks, and construction workers taking a cigarette break in the shadow of a large dump truck, watching your confused stares at the map and crossing back and forth over the river, trying to find your way. But you’re in a charmingly crumbling town, the weather is nice, and you still have plenty of space on your camera’s memory card, so you decide to just explore until you find your way. (When did I switch from writing in the first person? I hope this isn’t a symptom of multiple personality disorder, but it’s too late to go back and change it all now…) Being lost this way, you get to observe the old men out on their daily bike rides, the horses lazily eating in a small field, and the sheep grazing across the bridge. All this observation still hasn’t provided you with directions to the museum, though, and you are the only tourist in sight…which means that you’re getting strange looks from the locals, but you always get strange looks, so why is this any different? Finally! That group of German high schoolers, walking in a single file line further into town…that has to be the way.
(Writing in second person makes me feel creepy. It’s better than third person, but I’d like to switch back now if you don’t mind. I don’t know why I’m asking your permission-it’s not like you’re actually here while I write, so I’m going to go ahead and just keep writing.)
The museum itself is nicely done, mixing in histories of deportations and the rise of the extermination camps with the tragic stories of the children imprisoned at Terezin (which, in German, is called ‘Theresienstadt’). Once you’ve explored the museum’s building, the lovely woman at reception supplies you with a map of the town which highlights the ghetto’s main buildings utilized during the war. To my delighted surprise, the Kavalier barrack is included on the map; it is mainly this building which brought me here, and as it is so seldom talked about I had braced myself for the fact that I would not actually be laying eyes on the building which served as the ghetto’s mental institution. But wouldn’t you know, it’s there and properly labeled on the brochure’s map as the barrack for the ‘mentally ill inmates’. It’s been painted a bright yellow, with the outer doors a bold red. Inside the building’s courtyard, men with shovels and wheelbarrows work on their latest project. For a building which once had the reputation of being one of the most depressing places inside the Theresienstadt Ghetto, it is now impossible to imagine the horrifying conditions forced upon psychiatric patients living within those brightly colorful walls.
When I returned back to Prague (once again, on the correct bus without any snafus…you should be highly impressed right now), it was still early enough to visit the city’s Jewish Museum, which is comprised of six historic sites: the Maisel, Spanish, Pinkas and Klausen synagogues, the Ceremonial Hall, and the Old Jewish Cemetery. As I only had a few hours, I visited only the Spanish and Pinkas synagogues and the Ceremonial Hall before I wandered into the Old Jewish Cemetery, which (if you take travel advice from cracked.com) has been labeled as one of the world’s most creepy spots. The only way to visit the cemetery is by buying a ticket to the rest of the Museum’s exhibitions (on most travel websites it says that it’s free, but these sites are lying to you), but I highly recommend buying the ticket which will grant you access to the cemetery and synagogues; they are all incredible. The cemetery itself is, indeed, quite ‘creepy’ as headstone upon headstone are crammed into every available space. The cemetery’s most famous resident is Rabbi Loew (the alleged creator of the Golem of Prague). Before the ‘museum’ closed for the day, I decided to end my tour with a visit to the Robert Guttmann Gallery, which has the temporary exhibition ‘Truth and Lies: Filming in the Terezin Ghetto 1942-1945’ on at the moment. The exhibition is focused on the two Nazi propaganda films shot at the ghetto, the most notorious (and better preserved of the two) being ‘The Führer Gives the Jews a City’. Though a small gallery, it was impressively curated and allowed me to end the day with the same subject matter in which it had begun. As you might remember, I have a great interest in Nazi propaganda films as well, so it was an excellent day of learning.
Once I had finished my solo expeditions into all things Holocaust and Judaism oriented, I made my way back to the hostel to meet up with Jenn for one last deliciously Czech dinner. Dinner was made even better by the fact that one of my favorite tennis players, Tomáš Berdych, frequents the restaurant we chose in Wenceslas Square often. Because I can’t for the life of me remember what we did our last morning in Prague, I’m going to leave you with the impression that this was how I said goodbye to one of my favorite European destinations. It was everything I wanted it to be, and soared past my already high expectations. I’ll be back, Prague…just you wait and see!