Tuesday, June 07, 2011


Well, the cool weather was short lived. We went to sleep with the sound of distant thunder and drumming rain, and awoke to blue skies and warm and humid air. After we went outside, though; the rooms were quite cool from the A/C. Too cool, in fact, as I had it set on 17 with a high fan and was too cold.

Breakfast was good and we got an early start for Terezin. No problem at all to get there. After the bus dropped us off we met an elderly Brazilian woman who needed directions. We helped her to the museum. After that we started the tour. I reserved us spaces for both films, so we had to break off to head down to the theater for them. The first was a half hour documentary on Terezin that I bought a few years ago. It's ok, though oddly put together. I found myself falling asleep during the screening (which the students also admitted). The second film, was a short 12 minute piece from 1965 on the Nazi propaganda film shot in the ghetto in 1944. This ended with an El Maleh Rachmamim prayer for victims of the Holocaust that came out of nowhere and brought me to tears.

We went back up and continued the tour silently. Then it was down to the museum cafe for a quick lunch. I thought it safest to get a sandwich but one student decided to be brave and order a hot dog. Once I saw how thick the casing was, I knew I hadn't made a mistake avoiding it. "Why do you think they put so much ketchup on it?" the student asked after the third (to my eyes, at least) loathsome bite. "To make it edible," I answered.

We all decided to endulge in the Magnum ice cream bars to make up for the paucity of lunch. I tried the one labeled "Gold!?" as if it wasn't sure. I wasn't sure what flavor it was but one student figured out that it was caramel.

From the museum we walked to the Madgeburg barracks, where they recreate the way the people were forced to live, cramed six to a three-tiered bunk bed. Most of the exhibits are on art created in the ghetto, and they played excerpts from the children's opera "Brundibar" for us. After that, we walked out of the town to the mortuary and from there to the ghetto cemetery and crematorium. The guard was out so we were able to snap a few pictures and then sit silently in the graveyard.

On our return, we headed out to the small fortress, noting the many graves of Jews who died from the typhus epidemic that broke out just before liberation. Over a 1000 died after Soviet troops arrived. Inside, one of the staff offered to give us a guided tour of the prison, so we walked from cell to cell. We saw the cell the Gavrilo Princip (the 17 year-old who started WWI by shooting Prince Franz Ferdinand) was in for 2 years. We also saw the fake washroom the Nazis created to fool the Red Cross. The water lines were never connected.

There's a 500 m passageway through the walls to the place of execution. I led the students there and it was pleasantly cool out of the sun. The guide met us at the end and showed where people were shot. As before, I saw the concrete outline of three crosses on the ground and said that I thought it was meant to evoke the crucifixion at Golgotha. The guide corrected me and explained that there were originally four crosses and they date from before the Nazi period. They were used to position the men's arms during target practice. The fourth was torn down to allow tourists to pass by. I thanked her for disabusing me of an erroneous idea before I embarrassed myself by making the argument to colleagues.

When we got back to the bus stop, we met a couple heading back to Prague. They said they were from Newfoundland, and I asked if they knew one of my colleagues, who was from Newfoundland. Turns out she was my colleague's French teacher. We explained to the students all about "Jewish geography."

On the ride back, I talked with some of the students about the theological problems raised by the Holocaust, and in no time at all we were back in Prague. The Canadian couple were heading off to the Alt-Neu Shul for second day Shavuot services, so I wished them a hag sameach, while we went off to get our train tickets to Warsaw. The four students will share a room with four couchettes, while I will have a room with three beds. I'm still not sure if I have the room to myself. The good news is that I've saved $50 off my budget so I can treat the students to at least one dinner in Warsaw.

I wanted to show the students one of my favorite bizarre statues in Prague: the one of King Wenceslas riding a dead, upside down horse. By then it was nearing 7 pm, so I asked them if they wanted any advice on where to go for dinner. In the end, we walked to the Municipal House cafe, one of the most beautiful ones in Prague. The guide book describes it as "an art nouveau orgy." The outdoor tables were all filled so we ate indoors. The only problem is all the beautiful ornate lamps and chandeliers can make the room heat up. We found a large table by the window.

I've made fun of Czech food as "beige," but two of the students really wanted to try it. They had the goulasch with bread dumplings, while I and another student had the spinach strudel. To be honest, it was much more like spanakopita than strudel, but it was good and filling. I ordered the beef broth starter and it looked and tasted like Campbell's. The place does shine with its desserts and the Forest Fruit Torte was yummy, with lots of red and black currants, raspberries, and even a blueberry or two.

I told the students about some of my experiences with roommates, including my very first roommate who was the head of the "salt of the earth club" at UCLA. When I described the "Wanted" poster for Jesus that greeted my parents and I when I moved in, first one then two students doubled over with laughter. Turns out he thought I meant a "Wanted: Dead or Alive' poster.

Tomorrow we have to check out in the morning before we head to Lidice. The students have the afternoon free (I think they're going to Prague castle) and then we come back to pick up our luggage before our train. I like the hotel, but my only problem is that it turns out there's a nightclub in the back. We don't hear any noise from them, but it's still disconcerting to turn into the hallway leading to our hotel and see giant neon signs advertising lap dances.

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