Terezín Tourist

In May 2015, 72 years after my grandfather’s murder, I boarded an intercity bus in Prague for the 40-mile trip northwest to Terezín. The bus was crowded with a mix of locals and tourists. Young men wearing yarmulkes stood in the aisle chatting in Hebrew while middle-aged couples perused their guidebooks and men in workclothes and matronly women read newspapers or gazed out the window. Outside the capital, the landscape quickly turned pastoral, the checkerboard of flat green and brown fields punctuated by patches of bright yellow colza flowers and stands of oak. 

My grandfather Otto Kupfer’s death certificate

My grandfather Otto Kupfer’s death certificate

The bus dropped me off opposite the old town square, a large plaza framed by a double row of linden trees and crisscrossed by dirt paths that converged on a lifeless fountain in the center. An austere Empire-style church stood on the northeast side of the square, its bell tower rising solemnly above the town.

It was a gorgeous spring day, warm and sunny, but the square was oddly deserted. In garrison days it had been used to stage military parades. After the Nazis took over in 1941, the plaza was enclosed in barbed wire and a large circus tent was pitched to house a kistenproduktion, or box-making factory, where hundreds of ghetto residents toiled. The handsome neoclassical buildings flanking the square were occupied by SS headquarters, prisoner barracks, and various other ghetto functions. 

I walked to the mortuary, where prisoners prepared the dead for burial, ritually washing their bodies and placing them in rough-hewn wood coffins. As the corpses piled up, even this concession to Jewish custom was abandoned. The SS had the prisoners build a crematorium to dispose of the bodies more efficiently. 

I followed a narrow, tree-lined path that opened onto a wide field studded with hundreds of graves. A large stone menorah stood watch in the rear of the cemetery. The only sound was the rustling of leaves in the breeze and the occasional chirping of a bird. 

Tears welled up, but I wouldn’t allow myself to cry in front of those metallic monsters.

            To the left stood a long, low yellow stucco building with a row of small windows below the roof line. The crematorium began operating on September 7,  1942, more than three months before my grandfather died, so his body was most likely among the tens of thousands consumed there. Inside, it was cool and quiet except for the sound of my footsteps echoing off the thick masonry walls. Hulking black furnaces, two on each side of a narrow corridor, gave off a dull sheen. 

            I lit a white prayer candle and placed it next to several other burning candles on a metal ramp that had apparently been used to feed the corpses into the flames. As I prayed, the magnitude of the evil that took place at Theresienstadt hit me full force. Tears welled up, but I wouldn’t allow myself to cry in front of those metallic monsters.

Top: Entrance to the Small Fortress at Theresienstadt. Richard Mortel, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia