Less than an hour drive from Prague was a concentration camp for the Jews and other prisoners of the Nazi regime. The Nazi’s expelled the 7,000 Czechs from the town in November 1941 and took over the fortress that was built in 1780 to use as a prison. They also created another larger ghetto in the main town for the Jews to be sent.
Gavrilo Princip, the one who assassinated Franz Ferdinand in 1914 kicking off WWI was a prisoner of the smaller camp here.
Approximately 180,000 people passed through this transit camp before being sent to one of the extermination camps such as Auschwitz where I will be next Wednesday. It is estimated that 40,000 of the prisoners perished here due to malnourishment and awful living conditions. The rest were sent on to be killed at the extermination camps. They were also forced to work whilst there were inmates waiting for transit.
The sign at the entrance to all of the camps reads “Arbeit Macht Frei” meaning “Work will set you free”.
At the smaller camp in the fortress there were just 7,000 at one time but no where near the space to house them all. 90 would share a room of three rows of bunk beds packed in together. No pillows or duvets, just hard wood slats and barely enough space to lie still.
During the winter it gets very cold here: temperatures dropping to -20 degrees Celsius, yet new inmates again would be left out naked in the cold for potentially hours until being given their one thin uniform to wear. They would hand over all their possessions that would be sold or taken by the guards.
Roll call was another part of daily life here as it was in Flossenberg and other camps. One story mentions a punishment, an “Appel”, of the inmates having to stand in roll call for 19 hours straight where 600 died from the cold conditions.
Inside the room for 90 people was one toilet (normally a bucket) and a small bowl of water that would rarely get replaced. Hygiene was therefore a serious problem with many contracting disgusting diseases and dying from them. The prisoners only had one set of clothes that were never washed – just rarely disinfected. There were no medical treatments to any inmates who got sick.
There were also punishment rooms where people would be sent to stand until the next transport to an extermination camp. Sometimes this would be days or even weeks. There was almost no chance of survival as if you sat down the guards were to take you out and shoot you. These rooms had no light, no toilet, no food. Even if you survived here you would be sent to extermination.
Occasionally there was a chance for a shower whereby the prisoners would wait in line outside for hours in order to get 10 minutes inside a crowded shower with water that was likely not heated. They would disinfect their clothes whilst showering leaving them damp; after they would have to put these clothes on outside whilst still damp and no doubt cold.
The capacity for cremation was 180 a day, but they couldn’t keep up with the number of bodies they had so they had to start burying them out in the fields past the walls.
The Red Cross got a chance to visit later in the war and were shown a brand new wash room that was separately created as propaganda; it was never actually used by the inmates. Other propaganda films of the Jewish ghetto showed people playing football and having a good time with the idea that they were governing themselves.
Part of the camp had some conker trees which are dropping at this time of year. The guide informed us of this and made sure we didn’t walk under it should anyone get hit in the head. This is an exact piece of health and safety that we have today that we take for granted that just wasn’t even comprehensible in these camps. This is just one example that makes the idea of these harsh conditions so overwhelming to me personally.
Another piece of propaganda was a swimming pool and tennis court that the soldiers were allowed to use but of course the inmates were never allowed to even see it. Yet the world was told they were able to use it.
A survivor returned to the camp years ago and told of his story. He was a vet that helped to look after the Gestapo dogs; he managed to eat some of the meat dog food as they didn’t get meat in the camp. This allowed him to survive as the food was totally impossible to survive off. To save costs the Nazi gave bread that was flour mixed with sawdust.
Finally we walked through some of the escape tunnels that were closed off during the Nazi occupation. These tunnels were an incredible feat of infrastructure in the 1700s. Recently 2 Danish students jumped the barriers and tried to explore the tunnels but got lost. It took 120 people 20 hours to find them and get them out safely. There are over 55 kilometres of paths to take down there. Coming out of them we arrived at the shooting range where the Nazi’s would gun down political prisoners sent to execution and stocks where Jews would be sent.
I read in the news today that there are several Nazi supporting activists in the world still. The idea that anti-semitism is all in the past is definitely not true.
Tomorrow will see a proper rest day for me so don’t expect another post until Sunday! Shabbat Shalom.