While the first couple of days in Prague were incredible, I want to start my posts with what we experienced on day 3. When I first got into the travel business, I made it a goal to visit one life-changing destination each year – I did not expect Prague to be that destination for me. However, today proved me wrong.
Day Three on our itinerary with Exeter International was listed as a half day tour of Terezín, a concentration camp located about forty-five minutes outside of Prague. Prior to the day, the extent of my Holocaust knowledge had been rendered from textbooks and a tour of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Israel – I imagined that Terezín would be something similar, but I would have never thought the day would make such a lasting impact.
We were told on the way to Terezín that the grounds would appear quite different than one might expect of a concentration camp. The buildings had brightly painted facades surrounding a well manicured square, it was a picturesque village once widely referenced in Nazi propaganda. The camp was used as proof to outsiders that the Jews were being treated well, that they were happy, that they were not being sent in droves to execution camps, which was obviously not the reality.
The beautification of the camp was at its height in 1944, when it hosted the International Red Cross in a visit so convincing that the camp was kept open. Within months after the Red Cross had departed and reported good conditions, nearly 20,000 Terezín victims were sent to Auschwitz. Only 1,500 survived.
Terezín was intended to be a stopover before the Jews were forced to an execution or work camp, although it was the final stop for over 30,000 victims. The Jews managed to turn the camp into a place of humanity through art, their way of fighting against the horrors of the Nazi regime. They encouraged one another to write, draw and produce music – Terazín has a haunting museum of with many of these artifacts on display. They even had theaters where children performed in plays.
“I used to sing – I was the squirrel!” Eva told me with a bright smile on her face. Eva is the 83 year old Holocaust survivor who accompanied us on our tour of Terezín. “It was quite sad, though,” she added, her smile quickly fading as the memory flooded back to her, “since we often had to recast the roles when children were sent away to the execution camps.”
Eva’s stories from the Holocaust brought chills. Silence. Sobbing. A reverence like I’ve never felt before in my life. The fierce need to ensure that she never experienced another moment of pain, each agent accompanying her at various times throughout our tour, grabbing her by the arm to keep her steady, as if she was fragile, when really she was the strongest of us all. It was too much heartbreak for one person.
After Nazi soldiers arrested her father under false accusations – a night that she vividly recalls, the last time she saw him as he was forced out of their home – she was sent to Terezín with her mother and older sister when she was just eight years old. Miraculously, her sister also escaped and is still alive.
For the next six years, Eva was forced from camp to camp, including Auschwitz, where she was hand-selected by Josef Mengele to continue to another camp instead of being forced into the gas chamber. That singular moment, she recalls, was one of life or death. Her choice to stand on her tip-toes to be as tall as her sister gave them both the chance to carry on alongside their mother.
Her mother was so frail that on the last leg of their march to Bergen-Belsen that the siblings had to carry her in their arms – Eva offered out her hands to show exactly where her mother’s body fit, the precise way she had to be held. Their mother died the day before British soldiers liberated them from Bergen-Belsen. “We suffered, but my mother suffered three times, once for each of us,” she told us. The stories she shared of her parents were the hardest for Eva. Her mother was so close to freedom, had suffered alongside her children through horror after horror, but never lived to see liberation.
She choked at times, apologizing for being overwhelmed since she had not shared the story in some time. We shook our heads, amazed that she could even speak of the terrors to begin with.
When asked what got her through these darkest of days, she responded, “I was just a child. I didn’t realize the extent of what we were going through until afterwards. I wanted to live, I wanted to survive.” It was that word that sent chills down my spine when she first introduced herself to me, reaching out her hand in the hotel lobby, she said so simply: “I am Eva, I am a survivor.”
The weight that the word must carry for her. We don’t realize how good we have it that we simply get the opportunity to live, but Eva’s daily choice was one to survive – and it still defines her. That human instinct must have reverberated with each heartbeat – thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump: sur-vive, sur-vive, sur-vive – just like Sylvia Plath’s need to tell the world, I am, I am, I am. This is who she is. This is what she needs you to know.
We asked how in the world she had the strength to return to Terezín and she told us that there were times when it did oppress her, but she felt it was more important to share her story, to let others know exactly what happened so that it would never happen again.
She told us she struggled with knowing why exactly she was chosen to survive, she called it pure luck – but it was evident to us, with her simple grace and heart-wrenching story, with her choice to raise her voice and speak out, exactly why she’s still here.
This is what it means to survive.