I think the student consensus is that our hotel in Prague is somewhat down market. “It doesn’t feel all that clean,” one student said. The rooms look like they were furnished in the 1960s and the rather Spartan breakfast is in the adjacent building, which is accessed by walking through the car park. Still, the price was remarkably affordable (for Prague). All the other guests appear to be Czech.
We had very good weather for our visit to Terezin (also known by its German name, Theresienstadt). We began with a visit to the museum in the former boy’s home. The film they showed this time was a 1965 film that intercut scenes from the Nazi propaganda film with drawings done by the artists showing the reality of what the ghetto/concentration camp was like. The music at the end was from the “El Male Rachamim” prayer (“God, full of compassion”) for those murdered in the Holocaust. This is one of those prayers where the melody sounds as if one is crying as one prays. As it reaches the words “שֶׁנֶּהֶרְגוּ, שֶׁנִּשְׁחֲטוּ, שֶׁנִּשְׂרְפוּ וְשֶׁנִּסְפּוּ עַל קִדּוּשׁ הַשֵׁם” – “who were killed, slaughtered, burnt, and exterminated for the sake of the Holy Name” – the cantor usually sings them almost as a scream, which generally brings me to tears.
One new thing was that they recently discovered in a currently unused building a set of “closets” that were originally used as living quarters for Jewish forced workers. These have been restored as has a secret prayer room adjacent to it, which had been painted by one of the workmen to resemble a traditional synagogue (with the texts of important prayers decorating the walls). It was very moving.
Afterwards, we went to the park in the town square to eat our lunches that we brought with us. One student noted that we were walking through a grave yard, where Jews had dropped dead everywhere, so the park seemed the best place, since it was off limits to Jews in the ghetto, and thus no one died there.
Several of the students said that the creepiest aspect of the town is that there are people living here. While some of the barracks are used for museum displays, others are vacant, and still others are occupied by Czechs. The Czech government continued to use Terezin as a military garrison through 1996, so people had been settled in the town during the communist period and into the post-communist period.
On the last trip, I noticed a “pension” located just between the inner defensive wall, alongside the moat that separated it from the outer defensive wall (Terezin was built by the Hapsburgs as a military fortification and garrison in the 18th century). During the Holocaust, the Nazis converted the adjacent section of the outer defensive wall into a morturary and columbarium (where one stores ashes of those cremated). The road continues to the ghetto cemetery and crematorium.
I remember thinking, “who in their right mind would book a room next to the ghetto mortuary”? It turns out the answer is “no one.” The hotel is now for sale for the bargain price of 3,400,000 Czech Koruna ($150,500). A steal.
When we got back to town, most of the students napped, while I went out to find a copy of the paper. I also wanted to find Czech chlebicki: cheap, open-faced sandwiches. I finally found some and had two (one salami, one lox), a kremroll for dessert, and a bottle of soda, all for 25% less than I paid for my one sandwich the day before. Good to know for the future.
Last night was Prague’s 16th annual “night of the museums” (second Saturday of June), where over 70 institutions open at 7 pm and stay open late and are free. I went with all but one of the students to the Museum of Communism, which has recently changed locations. We ended up walking in a large circle until we found we had already walked past it (I did stop and ask for directions). The new exhibits still maintain its tongue-in-cheek approach to covering the communist period, as you would expect from a privately owned, for-profit museum of communism.
We had some fun in the gift shop after one of the students pointed out a life-sized mannequin of Leonid Brezhnev. It’s set up with his lips puckered for a kiss, like he would give communist leaders when he visited the satellite countries. I asked the students if they would like to pose kissing Brezhnev, but only one pretended to kiss him (you don’t know, after all, where those lips have been).
I noticed that it was 9:50, which meant that if we really raced, we could see the astronomical clock’s display on the hour, so we ran the several blocks to the old town square and made it just in time. The students were very happy.
Several of them still hadn’t had dinner, so we walked to Wenceslas Square, where there are always sausage stands. “What types of sausage do they have?” I was asked. “Sausage, sausage, sausage, sausage,” etc., I said, pointing at the pictures. “What flavors are they?” “Sausage flavors,” I replied. “If you taste anything else, you’re in luck.” They seemed to like them.
Today, we’re off to Lidice this morning, and then the rest of the day in Prague is free.