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London to Auschwitz: Day 22, Prague to Ústí nad Orlicí, 155km today, 1935km total

London to Auschwitz: Day 22, Prague to Ústí nad Orlicí, 155km today, 1935km total

My mother, friend and I have had some quite poor experiences with the locals in Prague, as well as an abysmal boat tour! To add insult to injury, the hotel staff were also very rude on several occasions, which made us feel rather unwelcome in their country. This did not bode well for the remainder of the trip through the Czech Republic. Especially as I’ve been warned that the further east you go, the worse it gets…

Leaving the familiar faces of my Mum and David, I was off to be alone on the bike again – but this time the sun was out! Unfortunately though, I went straight into a strong headwind. A headwind that would not let off, even with the shielding of trees, forests or hedges. I felt good with my well rested legs but wind is possibly the most demoralising thing when on the bike (or maybe a downpour, I’m not sure which is worse).

Coming out of Prague I came across the Jewish cemetery which I explored and I paid my respects at the small memorial to those victims from Terezin – the concentration camp which I visited just a couple of days ago.

The memorial to Terezin victims in the Jewish Cemetery on the way out of Prague
The memorial to Terezin victims in the Jewish Cemetery on the way out of Prague

I saw many roadside memorials for the First and Second World Wars. Too many to count, but I stopped to pay my respects at many of them for the members of the town that they noted and to take a photo of the statues.

Just one of the many WWI and WWII memorials that I have seen by the road today
Just one of the many WWI and WWII memorials that I have seen by the road today

Having left the suburbs of Prague I was feeling strong. Gazing across the horizon I saw a big tank-like vehicle. As I got closer I could make out 4 army men standing around it, with another camouflage jeep just in front of it. It turned out to be a recommissioned Russian Army Tank. Bought from someone in Poland, it was road legal and used for fun. It had two machine guns (that were non-functioning) at the top and a massive V8 engine for some immense power. The tyres could be deflated and inflated from a compression tank inside to allow for beach driving, as well as being almost fully submersible with a propeller underneath at the back. One of the men looking after it was very sweet and told me all about it, however the others seemed quite unfriendly which was disappointing.

A recommissioned Russian tank with 6 litre V8 and a propeller to make it work in water
A recommissioned Russian tank with 6 litre V8 and a propeller to make it work in water

Pushing on I saw a few other cyclists, dog walkers and farmers. I smiled at all of them and waved at most but I didn’t get one smile back, let alone a wave. After a pit-stop lunch I saw many other miserable looking people; it looked as though each and everyone had a close family member recently pass away, they looked so sad. Most of them stared at me as I passed on my bike with a big smile trying to get some sort of positive response. Being alone on the bike with everyone looking extremely unfriendly is no fun and so I pushed further on the bike than planned because I didn’t want to have more interactions with sad or rude people.

A memorial plaque to what appears to be an RAF pilot from the Czech Republic
A memorial plaque to what appears to be an RAF pilot from the Czech Republic

Unfortunately I pushed on to a part where I would not see a big town for another 50km. This became quite difficult as night was fast approaching. Suddenly it was dark and my small bike lights had no chance at illuminating the road in the depths of the trees. The head wind felt stronger and the gradual incline that I had been on for hours (I didn’t realise this is why my pace was so slow) suddenly caused a long steep descent which I couldn’t enjoy because I couldn’t see anything!

Descending into the darkness with both hands holding the brakes firm, I slowly made it to the next town to find a closed hotel. Fortunately they had an unsecure WiFi network which allowed me to look up their number and phone them. They were fully booked. Searching on my map I moved on until I eventually found a small hostel on a side street in the village.

After a quick shower I went for a Chinese meal where an odd man from the country was also eating alone. He mentioned how he believed in UFOs and could give people energy with his hands. He also said he practised yoga to give him 40% more energy – he knows because he measured it… He was a 60 year old builder and carpenter who was very nice but still didn’t smile!

Just a few days are left on the road until I reach Auschwitz but there is still a fair way to cycle. The anticipation and excitement of reaching the end will no doubt help me along…

DAY 23, ÚSTÍ NAD ORLICÍ TO OPAVA, 140KM TODAY, 2075KM TOTAL >>

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 >>