Friday, July 13, 2012

Terezin - Not Your Usual Honeymoon Destination

Approximately 61 km (38 miles) NW of Prague is the town of Terezin, temporarily renamed Theresienstadt by the Nazis during WWII. Even though it was our honeymoon, and visiting a former concentration camp was a bit unusual, we both wanted to make the journey.

Terezin has a history that predates Hitler. The fortress was built in the 18th century by the Hapsburgs and named after Empress Maria Theresa. Gavrilo Princip, who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was imprisoned in Cell #1 until he died in 1918.

When the Nazis arrived, they found a fortress/prison already built for them, with few construction costs. Theresienstadt was primarily a prison/labor camp. We were told that they were in the process of creating a gas chamber there, but it was never completed.

Arbeit Macht Frei - German for "Work Makes you Free"

Theresienstadt is known by many for the children there 
The Nazi propaganda film, The Gift of the Town, was created at Theresienstadt.

Here's a photograph of the bunks that were slept in:

One of the few uplifting stories to come out of the camp, was that of the Maple Tree
The story of the seeds began on Tu B'Shevat, 1943, when a guard at Theresienstadt smuggled a tiny oak seedling into the children's barrack. With help from their teacher Irma Lauscher (one of the few Jewish instructors the Nazis allowed to hold classes), the children planted the seed in their courtyard. Miraculously, thanks to meager water rations the children were able to spare, the tree sprouted. 
By the time of liberation, the red maple had grown to become 5 feet tall. The children gave it one last drink before digging it up and replanting it near the crematorium where the ashes of 38,000 fellow Jews lay scattered. Declaring it their etz chaim (tree of life), they left a sign at its base which translates: "As the branches of this tree, so the branches of our people! (source)
The Maple Tree was lost in a flood a few years ago, but communities around the world, including: San Francisco, CAChicago, ILOrange, CACincinnati, OHPhiladelphia, PAIsraelSurrey, UK; and Hampshire, UK have received seedlings from the tree, so the tree of life lives on.

While it wasn't a traditional Honeymoon destination, I am glad we visited. Reading books, and looking at photographs, doesn't convey what it feels to be standing where so many people suffered. And learning the story of the Maple Tree provided  me with something, though small, still uplifting to take away from the trip.
Photo Credits: Jenifer Newmark - June 2012


Julie Goucher said...

A very informative post. Thanks for posting the few links. There are a couple of books that I have come across

1 Wild flowers of Terazin by Robert Elmer
2 Children on death row by Tommy Lustig

It is a lovely story of the seed & it is great it lives in the various places around the globe, including my home county of Surrey. I wonder where in Surrey?

John said...

According to the BBC News article, St Philip's School in Chessington, Surrey. It apparently is a '2nd generation' planting as it comes from seeds from the tree at the Beth Shalom Holocaust Centre in Nottinghamshire, which came from the tree at Terezin.

Julie Goucher said...

John, thanks for posting that. I had not got around to doing a Google! Chessington is about 20 miles from my home town of Guildford and ironically I was near Chessington last week!

John said...

The links in the post lead to news stories on each planting. I suspect there have been more, but I listed those I could find.