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London to Auschwitz, Day 20: Rest Day in Prague to visit Terezin Concentration Camp

London to Auschwitz, Day 20: Rest Day in Prague to visit Terezin Concentration Camp

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.

Star of David Memorial outside of the Terezin Camp
Star of David Memorial outside of the Terezin Camp

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.

"Work will set you free" above the entrance to the camp
“Work will set you free” above the entrance to the camp

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.

One sink was there for a room of 90 inmates, but no tap and only a small bowl of reused water
One sink was there for a room of 90 inmates, but no tap and only a small bowl of reused water

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.

The shower room where 100 people had 10 minutes to shower and only the first 400 got warm water before being shoved outside in the cold to change
The shower room where 100 people had 10 minutes to shower and only the first 400 got warm water before being shoved outside in the cold to change

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 nicer washroom that were only presented to the red cross to show the world how good the conditions were but nver actually used and so still in tact
The nicer washroom that were only presented to the red cross to show the world how good the conditions were but nver actually used and so still in tact

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.

A memorial sculpture that was created by a victims family member
A memorial sculpture that was created by a victims family member

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.

The swimming pool that was just outside the prison and used by the gestapo and their families, but it was used as propaganda to show the world that the inmates had a good time
The swimming pool that was just outside the prison and used by the gestapo and their families, but it was used as propaganda to show the world that the inmates had a good time

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.

The castle of Theresienstadt has over 55km of tunnels to help the residents of the fortress escape should there be an attack. These were closed off by the Nazi's for fear of exactly that.
The castle of Theresienstadt has over 55km of tunnels to help the residents of the fortress escape should there be an attack. These were closed off by the Nazi’s for fear of exactly that.

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.

DAY 22, PRAGUE TO ÚSTÍ NAD ORLICÍ, 155KM TODAY, 1935KM TOTAL >>

London to Auschwitz: Day 18, Weiden, Germany to Pilsen, Czech Republic, 115km today, 1685km total

London to Auschwitz: Day 18, Weiden, Germany to Pilsen, Czech Republic, 115km today, 1685km total

Another unforgettable day on this incredible journey involving another puncture, a visit to a concentration camp, being stopped by German police and questioned, crossing to the fifth and penultimate country of the trip – Czech Republic, nearly getting knocked off the bike by some of the awful Czech drivers and finishing with some of the toughest hill climbs to really test my stamina.

After waking up early this morning I headed to the local McDonald’s to sponge their WiFi for a few hours of productive work. Finally leaving the restaurant it started to rain again. Onwards and upwards into the forests and I got a front wheel puncture this time. It was time to change the tyres! A half hour walk back to town to find a bike shop proved fruitful and within the hour both tyres were brand new. Back on the bike to take on the hill for a second time. However the anticipation of visiting the camp caused my legs to give up in protest to the journey.

The mist filled the forests until I eventually arrived at the camp that was just one thousand miles from home. The town of Flossenberg has a huge source of natural granite and this camp was set up to harvest that from the hills. Initially about 400 prisoners were there, but it grew rapidly with an influx of mostly Polish, the rest Jewish and others, such as homosexuals or political activists, that did not fit the Nazi regime.

The roll call area where people would stand for hours watching others be tortured and even killed
The roll call area where people would stand for hours watching others be tortured and even killed

It was meant to house several thousand at one point, massively over subscribed. When new inmates arrived at the camp they would be stripped and washed with either boiling or freezing water from a hose cannon. They would be left to stand outside in front of everyone in the roll call area. Those that survived would be given thin prison uniforms.

It was in this roll call area where punishments, hangings and other executions would take place daily in front of the others to try to ensure order. The workers would mine the granite from the hills and were even hired out to locals as cheap gardeners and such. The local population benefitted from the increased number of soldiers in the area by renting out accommodation and charging for local facilities. The exhibition here also showed how local electric and plumbing companies approached the camp to try and secure their business – so they definitely knew what was going on.

For the inmates, like in all the other camps, there was insufficient food. This caused serious malnourishment leading to great sickness which was never treated causing a lot of fatalities.

Over the years approximately 100,000 prisoners passed through the camp, with approximately 30,000 of them perishing at the site for various different reasons, all brought on by the ridiculous Nazi regime and by the soldiers who ran the place.

Some of the deceased in the woods
Some of the deceased in the woods

In the final stages of the war they conducted another death march from here to Dachau in Munich (which I visited several years ago). It would be a great effort for me to cycle there with sufficient clothing, breaks, hotels and food. I cannot even imagine being forced to walk there without any of my comforts on this trip.

A female officer was reported to have screamed at those too weak to complete the walk and ordered them to be shot. She was however not sentenced after the war. There are many stories similar to this which is hugely upsetting.

The view overlooking the memorials and crematorium at the bottom of the Flossenberg camp
The view overlooking the memorials and crematorium at the bottom of the Flossenberg camp

I wandered around the grounds to the various memorials and passed several groups of German teenagers on school trips. I managed to compose myself and came to a building lower in the valley where the crematorium room itself was still in tact. It’s moments like these that visiting alone is difficult. I remember having the support of my father, cousin and friend at Auschwitz a few years ago and a good friend at Dachau years before that. People can help bring you back to modern reality; but I had several Germans around me and 80 kilometres of lonesome cycling before the day was out.

The crematorium where many bodies were burnt at Flossenberg
The crematorium where many bodies were burnt at Flossenberg

Pushing on through the hills I was pedalling slowly contemplating this experience. I know this whole series of events called the Holocaust happened. I have seen so much evidence over the years and now I am following a route that was taken by many soldiers to free the surviving captives. But I still just can’t imagine it ever happening in my world. We are surrounded by health and safety that puts one person’s potential injury as being more important than anything; even if it means wasting a lot of time for something very unlikely. Here they just threw people into impossible work with no care for them as human beings whatsoever. If they die, then just replace them. I just can’t imagine this happening today in the world I live in.

Cycling slowly I couldn’t get my head straight. The next thing: I was being pulled over by police. They wondered what I was doing on my bike alone in the hills next to the border, but I quickly befriended them. One guy told me to have one of his favourite beers at lunch before the big ride to Pilsen. This fortunately brought me back to reality as he showed me his 9mm loaded pistol.

My new friend on border control
My new friend on border control

Crossing over the border to the Czech Republic (spelt with a ‘T’ by the way) – I noticed several things. Immediately the road turned rubbish; a certain similarity to the standard of English country roads. Potholes, broken tarmac and large lumps. How can the German’s have such nice roads throughout the whole country and the British have such crap?

Within 500 yards of the country I was presented with several posters for “titty bars”. Having a long way to cycle I pedalled past with the notion I could always come back.

I also noticed a difference in the quality of driving after having to swerve several times to avoid selfish drivers; I had not experienced this in the whole of Germany but within yards of this country it was abundant. Back to the familiarity of London drivers!

Just one hill coming into Czech Republic
Just one hill coming into Czech Republic

The final difference that I noticed was the steepness of the hills. None of the roads were this steep in Germany; instead they would find another path to build a road so no vehicle would suffer – but here they seemed to grow steeper after every corner.

A beautiful moon at dusk on the outskirts of Pilsen
A beautiful moon at dusk on the outskirts of Pilsen

Finally I made it to Pilsen. A tough and long day, but one that I won’t forget. Sitting in the warm bath having arrived in this new place I couldn’t help but imagine the horrors of being publicly showered with a freezing hose pipe in front of many others. Am I so lucky or were they so unlucky? Perhaps both?

Tomorrow I press on to Prague where my mother is visiting (along with a friend) to again chase me across Europe.

DAY 19, PILSEN TO PRAGUE, 95KM TODAY, 1780KM TOTAL >>