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A Place, a Person, a Name

I was going through a folder of photos that I took during a summer that I spent in Prague in 2007, when this one caught my eye. Prague is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, with its medieval castles, old monasteries, maze-like central streets with no logical pattern to them, churches with eastern-looking onion domes, red-tiled roofs that spread out like a sea of terracotta when seen from above. Maybe I took this picture because it didn’t fit with that mental image I have of Prague, because it’s so ordinary, untidy, even dirty. On its own, it could stand as a suitable alternative to the picture-postcard view of the ancient city. If you look closely, you can see laundry hanging from windows, and weeds growing up between the cobblestones in the yard. It was the middle of the day, but the young woman lounging on the chair has the look of someone who has been sitting there for a while, with nothing to do. Maybe she had many days like this, to go by the look in her eyes. The chair she is sitting on looks like it’s seen better days, and her clothes look cheap, perhaps bought from one of the bargain stalls run by the many Vietnamese immigrants in the Czech Republic. There’s nothing really remarkable about the photo at all, except perhaps as a study in the average, the banal.

Now let me tell you where it was taken, and see whether it changes the meaning of the picture.

I took it when I was in Theresien.

Theresien is the prison camp north of Prague that the Nazis used as a staging post for prisoners, mostly Jews, who were being shipped east to the death camps in Poland. What we now call ‘Theresien' comprises an old stone fortress, in 50,000 people were penned together in tiny barracks and cells that were only designed to house 7,000; and the ‘new’ fortress, a mile north, which the Nazis used for an exercise in monstrous, cynical theatre. Within its walls was a small town, with plain but pleasant stucco-covered buildings from the early nineteenth century, a central square with a town hall, and cobbled streets. Richer, more educated Jews were kept here, and families with lots of children. The Gestapo invited the Red Cross to visit this small town to demonstrate how humanely they were treating their Jewish guests. See how well they live! There is a school for the children, an orchestra for the adults, reading circles, kitchens. They are so healthy that they will even play a soccer game for you (you can see all this on the propaganda film in the museum). And then, once the Red Cross left, almost every man, woman, and child who lived there was eventually transported to Auschwitz to be murdered.

Look again at the photo I took. 

The camera was dangling at my side. I had just left the museum, where I had learned all those facts I described above. I had watched the films, read the letters, pondered the heart-breaking drawings of the children. As I walked along the street, I passed the archway, glanced to my right, and noticed the young woman in the courtyard. Until I saw her, it simply did not occur to me that anyone still lived in Theresien. That whole generations of families had passed their lives in those rooms and buildings which had once housed the victims of the Nazi genocide. That people had been born, grown up, gone to school, played in the street, fallen in love, got married, made love, died a natural death, done all the things that happen in the course of an ordinary life – and that they had lived out their lives where thousands of people had been held captive, before being shot, beaten or gassed to death.

I can’t blame the people who were put into this place after 1945. Can you? But I look at this picture again, and I try to imagine what I would do once I found out the history of the place. I might be too poor to move anywhere else, but I can’t imagine being unaffected by this horrific past. I pity that girl in the photo, and anyone else who still lives in Theresienstadt. In a small way, they are still living under the pale shadow of suffering cast by a much greater darkness.

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