Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Viking Danube Cruise June, 2015 Final Comments

Wednesday, August 1, 2015

I made these random notes in my trip journal as we waited in the airport waiting for our flight out of Prague.  Thinking about them a year later, I don't think any major revision is necessary.

Our cruise ship the Viking Jarl, its crew, its staff, and our fellow passengers get a grade of  A+.  It  was the experience of a lifetime--not cheap but worth every penny.  Comfortable, no I take that back, it was luxurious and also impeccably organized from start to finish.

Of the places we visited Budapest seemed to achieve the best balance between sights, people, and food. The evening  cruise on the river with all the lights of the city spread out on both sides of the river was simply double spectacular. 

Vienna seemed the most orderly and spic and span. Great contrast between old and new. 

Prague seemed more of a newcomer--a bit gritty and disorderly--but perhaps the liveliest of all.

For smaller old world charm Passau is at the top. Gelato at almost every corner is hard not to like. The noon organ concert in St. Stephens wins as best musical experience. 

Most stunning setting goes to Melk Abbey.  Whether seen from the river or from within it just plain sparkles. Color is unmatched.

Nuremberg didn't to get much of a chance to compete. We had only a half a day, it rained, and just seemed dreary.  Better luck next time.

Best on-shore lunch was at the Wurstkuchl  Bratwurstube by the old bridge in Regensburg. No peer for sausage and beer. 

Terezin was our last stop, but probably would have been the most emotional even if it had been first.

Were there negatives and frustrations?  Sure.  Traveling builds them in so you can better see the contrasts. Most sights are jammed with tourists, but I must admit that the new so called whisper phones do make it easier to hear your guide and block out the other guides as well as the general din of crowds. 

The selfie stick onslaught developed into a full blown pet peeve for me.  "Look at me.  I am seeing me seeing the sights. My picture is more important than the sight.  I am large and in focus. The sight is small and blurry.  I love ME more than what I am seeing." 

Americans are still too loud and seem to complain more than most other nationalities or perhaps we just hear their complaints more because they make them so vociferously.

Europe is getting better, but  remains behind in making things accessible. Expect lots of stairs. Many will be narrow, steep, or worn and uneven. Do not expect smooth walkways, elevators, ramps, or handicap toilets.   

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Terezin and the Nazi Horror

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Terezin was a bookend for our Danube trip as well as a reminder of some fifty years of traveling.  In the summer of 1963 my wife and I traveled abroad for the first time. We spent the summer before taking up employment at Monmouth College in what earlier travelers would have called "The Grand Tour."  We saw the full complement of western european cities and sights. We took in Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower,  the Grand Canal, and the Coliseum.  We visited Copenhagen, Hamburg,  Arles, Geneva, Florence, Pompei and many points in between. Many memories and kodachrome slides from that trip are now fading, but two experiences do remain bright. Both attach themselves to World War II and the Nazi legacy.

The first was a trip into Communist East Berlin  where in 1963 WW II destruction was still evident and a monstrous wall had been constructed. It existed to keep people in rather than out, but suffered ultimately the fate of all walls.  Whether China's, Hadrian's, or Trump's,  walls are only temporary and generally seem to function mainly as a visible temptation to find a way around, under, or over.

The second still vivid memory was a visit to a small house in Amsterdam where the family of Anne Frank lived while hiding from the Nazis.  (My 1963 photo)
This ties directly to the first significant emotional moment of our Danube cruise. It occurred while standing on the banks of the river in Budapest and seeing a line of bronze shoes commemorating Jews who were pushed into the freezing winter water to their deaths.

Then, throughout the week of travel through Eastern Europe, often muted reminders of past Antisemitism and of the more recent Holocaust surfaced.  The bookend was completed when, at the end of this trip, we boarded a small van with five other travelers to visit the remains of Terezin-- a WWII internment camp and prison run by the Nazis. 

Terezin is about an hour north of Prague and most of the journey is on a modern freeway with familiar advertising.

When you turn off the freeway the road narrows and you get a better view of the fertile fields backed by the hills out of which the early Bohemians thought invading Prussians might pour.    

They never did, but it was to protect against this possible threat that the Emperor Joseph II in the late 1780's constructed a walled town (the Main Fortress to the left) and a smaller military enclave (the Small Fortress to the right).  

Joseph named the settlement Theresienstadt  after his mother Empress Maria Theresa.  Today it is called Terezin.

The Small Fortress was used occasionally as a prison in the 19th and early 20th  century. It's most noteworthy early inmate was the man who assassinated the Arch Duke Ferdinand and managed to start WW I. And he actually died there. For the most part, however, the town just marked time for two hundred years while waiting for a more terrible future.  This was underscored immediately by our first view upon walking out of the parking lot.  It was the large National Cemetery honoring some of the 2500 who died within the walls of the Small Fortress between 1940 and 1945.

On one end of the cemetery a Jewish Star was embedded in a pile of symbolic stones.

On the opposite side was a Christian Cross, testifying to the fact that not all the victims were Jewish.

Many of the Jewish graves are graced by small strewn pebbles.

From the cemetery we proceeded to the Small Fortress proper.  Between 1940 and 1945 it was the Prague Gestapo's private prison for offenders against the Nazi regime.  This included resistance fighters,  political dissidents, some communists, and others who were singled out for the harsh treatment meted out by the SS guards.  In its five years of operation records reveal that over 30,000 prisoners passed through the prison.  Many of that number were transferred to the actual death camps further east, but over 2500 still died or were executed within the walls. We entered the prison by crossing a stone bridge over the now dry moat.  

An initial courtyard, which contained group cells for men, is now used mainly for reception, ticketing and meeting up with guides.

 Somehow it doesn't seem quite the moment for photos like the one below, but we were impressed that school groups were clearly being ushered through and given the history.

The entrance to the next courtyard is emblazoned with a sign

It translates to "Work Will Make You Free" and all prisoners walked under it.

Escape was clearly not much of an option.

The interior features several types of cells--some for groups and some for individual offenders.

Isolation cells were reserved for the worst inmates. There was little light, minimal heat, and no toilet facilities. Some had rings in the wall to chain a prisoner.

 Sleeping areas were rudimentary and cubbies for personal possessions were limited as well

One of the bells that called people out for the morning count and work details was still visible in the yard.


You were hosed down on entry

Other washing and shower facilities were built only to show to the Red Cross inspectors and were never used. 

Next on the docket was a trip through the old tunnel system that wound around through the exterior walls of the fort.  Here we are entering.
Not for the claustrophobics.

Some light was supplied by occasional slits for firing arrows.

We're almost out.

The exit deposited us in the Execution Grounds.

Shooting positions were laid out facing a wall of the old moat for firing squad killings and also for target practice for guards using, according to our guide,  live prisoners to run across the area.

Nearby was a replica of the gallows that was also used for executions.

We passed out of this sad spot and into the area where the guards were housed.  Tree shaded paths ran between pleasant houses.

The guards even had their own swimming pool.

It was a very short trip across the river to the current town of Terezin, which was the old Main Fortress.  It was rebuilt by the Nazis (with prisoner labor)  to create a "ghetto" where Jews could be concentrated and watched,  hence the term "concentration camp."  It was also used as a propaganda site for the Red Cross to view as an example of how humane the Nazi relocation plan was. Unfortunately, the real story was that the Terezin Ghetto was an  expedient holding pen for Jews until they could be worked to death or transported to the extermination camps that were being built further to the east.  Altogether some 150,000 people came through. Over 88,000 of them were sent on to the death camps like Auschwitz. Thousands more died in the town barracks because of poor sanitation, medical care, and food.  Escapees and other troublemakers were sent over to the Small Fortress where the SS guards could administer even more brutal punishment.

We were taken to the Ghetto Museum on the main square of the town. Its exhibits covered the whole of Terezin's sad history beginning with this moving suitcase sculpture.

Far and away the most touching display was this montage of drawings made by incarcerated children. 

Examine them closely by clicking to enlarge. 
The "ghetto" also housed some special groups of Jews from northern Europe (Netherlands and Denmark) as well as more elderly Czech Jews of special merit. They were given slightly better housing and even had a small secret house of worship.  Our guide ushered us in and told us about its history.

After our museum tour, we gathered in a small restaurant and brewery for lunch.

The ride back to Prague was pretty quiet as we all seemed lost in our own thoughts. The first words I wrote in my journal that evening were  "Evocative, chilling, emotionally draining." 

One can only pray that those tortured souls have found some peace and rest within the arms of a merciful Lord.