Strong Roots Move Mountains travel blog

Graves and graves and graves

Some have no names, only numbers; most have stones laid on them...

I was proud that the only non-Czech currency in this donation box...

Entry to the interrogation room

Interrogation room

"Through work you are free" - ironically true, as inmates were worked...

The bunk beds would sleep up to 90 people per room at...

The cell for Jewish political prisoners - up to 50 people in...

Solitary confinement

Solitary Cell 1 housed Gavrilo Princip, assassin of Archduke Ferdinand: the trigger...

Tour guide showing us where prisoners' clothes were hung and washed while...

Communal shower (in this case only a shower - the gas chamber...


Porcelain sinks built for Red Cross inspectors when they were supposed to...

Execution ground (now with a tree growing in memorial)

"Death Gate" which prisoners would only see as they were being walked...

List of concentration camps inmates were sent to

Memorial with dirt from each of the major concentration camps

Statue outside political prisoners museum

Picture taken inside of political prisoners museum (no photography allowed)

The little waterfall at the bridge about 3 minutes from the concentration...

Today's daytrip was to Terezín.

The key mission of the Terezín Memorial, the only institution of its kind in the Czech Republic, is to commemorate the victims of the Nazi political and racial persecution during the occupation of the Czech lands in World War II, to promote museum, research and educational activities, and look after the memorial sites connected with the suffering and death of dozens of thousands of victims of violence.

On my My Trip Journal this is showing up as being in southeast Czech Republic. It's actually here (northwest):

It's not a particularly upbeat entry, so no worries if you've been following along and wanna skip this one.

Dear Grandfather,

It was a beautiful day today. I took the day to go see a little piece of cultural and world history: a concentration camp in the Czech Republic. From what I hear it was a little more personal than it might be to most. I tried to come with Dave but circumstances didn’t play out in favour of that. I guess this was one trip I was meant to make on my own.

I don’t think I’ve ever spent an entire day thinking about you before. Don’t take this personally (and I guess you wouldn’t) but it’s hard to spend much time thinking about someone you never met and haven’t heard much about. Not that I blame Dad all that much – his own memories of childhood seem to hurt him to dredge up and from what he’s told me about you, this place today wouldn’t have been something you would have told me much about yourself anyways.

I took a tour of Terezín – available in many global languages, including Czech and English. I went for broke and did the whole thing in Czech, taking notes along the way.

We started in the courtyards and they showed us the offices where the political prisoners were brought when they arrived… and then again, and again, and again during their stay. I’m guessing you must have spent some time in that surprisingly unassuming office they told us was the interrogation room – from what I hear you didn’t talk much and whatever you did was pretty clever. I smile at the thought of that.

The entryway with the motto about work being freedom – what did you make of that? Did you find it ironic, like I did? Did it make you sad or angry or by that point did you just not notice anymore? What kind of work did they have you do? I hear the prisoners built motor parts and lamp bits or construction? I know you didn’t dig the trenches for the mass graves – at least not here – because that didn’t happen until 1945 and by then you were escaping your second concentration camp.

I don’t know how hard they made you work, how long you were kept at Terezín or if you were the sort that would have ever incurred time in solitary. I don’t know what your motivations were for pamphleteering with anti-Nazi propaganda, but I can guess that it was on the basis of being a proud Czech being pissed off at the idea of occupation by a fascist nation that pushed democracy aside. I’ve got a sneaking suspicion you would have been against the massive human rights abuses as well, seeing as someone on that side of our family had to have documents falsified to hide some Jewish heritage (first wife?; second wife?; mother-in-law? Something like that…) Even if you were originally doing the political resistance on the basis of patriotism at first, I’ll bet that the time you spent at Terezin only gave you added reason to keep on with it. Especially if you ever had the chance to chat with the grossly abused Jewish political prisoners next door.

Did you chat with them in the shower? The tour guide said that was one of the only times that prisoners had contact with each other and that Saturday afternoon showers were an opportunity to exchange information. If you’re anything like me or Dad I can see you in there, hustling to find out as much as possible in your few brief minutes of social time.

How long did it take you to figure out how to survive? Or did it just happen spontaneously, your clever thinking? How did you gain access to a Gestapo document anyways – were you a capo, aiding them in in their work? Somehow I can see that. As a lawyer with a background in German I’m sure you had to be an asset – or convinced them you were. I’ve got the sneaking suspicion that the charisma I got from Dad came down through you.

I think it was you that I heard hated Germans until his deathbed. With Hitler on the path to destroying the Czech nation and replacing it with his people, I’m not surprised. But did you resent the nations that saw fit to appease him as well? Did you ever think that your granddaughter would end up being the citizen of a nation under the British Commonwealth that betrayed your nation so easily? Did you think you’d live to have a granddaughter at all?

I hope that if you’d lived to see me you would have been proud. I might not be pamphleteering against over-ego’d nations invading my own, but I did march against an unjust war by a gang of oil-thieving world-class bullies. And had I lived in your time it’s possible I would have been there next to you – maybe with the red triangle you wore, but maybe with the pink one instead. Either way, I kind of wish I’d had the chance to sit with you and listen to you talk about it all, enraptured by what you went through for me to live the life that too many take for granted.

Whatever your motivations, I would have loved to hear you tell me whatever you had to say: about political resistance; fighting for justice; stealing Nazi property; time in the camps; or your outlook on life in general. It’s too bad we didn’t get the chance.

Thank you, Grandfather. You made the world a better place.

With love and respect,

After I finished the tour and the museum at Terezín I hurried my way into town to check out the Jewish Ghetto Museum before they closed for the day. On the way I passed over a small bridge overlooking a small man-made waterfall. As I took a minute to stand there looking out over the sun bouncing off the rushing stream, decompressing from everything I had just absorbed, I was struck by the contrast between the two experiences… and that these polar opposites of life had been in place even during World War II. That a political prisoner at Terezin could have walked out of the concentration camp 50 meters to the same river I was standing at now and had the same view on a beautiful summer day.

My Grandfather survived the Terezin concentration camp and a second one after that. The details are fuzzy, but apparently he managed to get in the good graces of the guards somehow and was able to swipe a booklet that had that outlined what punishments were given for which crimes. My Grandfather, arrested for distributing anti-Nazi pamphlets, was supposed to be executed but instead found that by pleading to a lesser crime he would be given a maximum of a prison sentence. Apparently when he pled guilty to this lesser crime and they went to try and get an execution for him – and found they couldn’t – they were right pissed.

There was a second concentration camp at some point after this, but the details on that are even fuzzier than Terezin. All I can really say with certainty is that my father was born after the war and Grandfather died years later in his bed at home, before my family even immigrated to Canada.

I never met my paternal Grandfather. Never heard his voice or stories… never even seen a photo of him. Come to think of it right now, I don’t even know his first name.

But sometimes I think it’s better this way. This way I get to hear about the ways he made my family proud and glorify his experiences for those I talk to. I get to think of him as a hero and a great guy, as someone I got all the best from. Never having had the chance to experience him in person, I get to create him as my imagination sees fit.

It’s bittersweet.

But next time someone calls me a shit-disturber, I get to smile and think of him.

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