VISITING sites associated with death of suffering is nothing new, people having been doing it for centuries. Now visitor numbers increase every year to places such as S21, Ground Zero, Alcatraz, and Auschwitz.
Dark tourism is a growing trend. Is it voyeurism, or a need to pay respect to the past and remember?
We wondered this when we decided to visit the Terezin concentration camp in the Czech Republic about an hour’s drive from Prague.
Staying in Prague and enjoying all the colour, fun and history of that celebrated city had been memorable. But the pull to visit Terezin was strong. We felt an obligation to go and see this sad place, to learn what happened there, to think about the past and reflect – but mostly to give thanks we were not born into a time and place of such chilling discrimination.
It wasn’t a happy day, but an important one in our travels, one we will never forget.
Terezin was not an extermination camp like Auschwitz. It was a transit camp, but a place of unimaginable suffering all the same. Of the 160,000 prisoners to go through Terezin between 1941 and 1945, 36,000 died.
Now, to get into the camp, cars and buses must park in a sprawling car park and then visitors must walk beneath an arch of trees running alongside an immaculately kept memorial garden. We could feel our moods shifting from the moment we began to walk past the hundreds of headstones. By the time we reached the Terezin gates, a deep sombreness had come over us.
Inside, the tour begins in the cinema, built for the prison guards’ enjoyment in 1942.
Sitting on wooden benches, watching confronting black-and-white documentaries gives you the first taste of the horrors perpetrated at Terezin. It’s unforgiving and the instinct is to leave without further inspection of the camp.
But guides wait outside. Small groups join the guides who relate Terezin’s terrible history in a strait-laced manner. Visitors follow quietly around the grounds before being led into one of the dormitories. Designed to house 80 prisoners these dormitories were home to up to 600 hundred poor souls, crammed in without any bathroom facilities and just one toilet.
It’s impossible to comprehend the suffering here – but to stand by the rough wooden bunks lining the walls where prisoners must have tried to rest, filthy and riddled with vermin, crushed against other without even straw for comfort, is very disturbing.
No-one speaks as the tour guide gives awful facts and figures. It is as much as we can do to lift our eyes from the ground.
The conditions for the prisoners worsened from year to year as they were forced into slave labour. Gas chambers did not exist at Terezin, but executions were carried out, always without any judicial process. Most prisoners died from starvation, disease and exhaustion.
The tour takes visitors all over the grounds, to the de-lousing station, the execution ground, and the mass graves where 601 bodies were exhumed in the summer of 1945.
It was in one of the small solitary cells where hundreds of people were crammed with just one hole in the wall for air, that all of us visitors had an intense feeling of suffocation. Every prisoner crammed into these spaces could only stand crushed against the next person, fighting for air. All died throughout the night.
Nazi propaganda depicted Terezin to the world as a spa town, a ‘self-administered Jewish settlement territory’ even making a film of the prisoners at happy play during football match. As soon as filming was finished, most of the ‘actors’ including children were deported to the Birkenau gas chambers. But the fake model ghetto fooled the international public, fooled even visiting members of the Red Cross who, after their visit, declared Terezin a happy place
Today Terezin receives thousands of visitors each year, people like us who feel compelled to learn more about this dark and terrible time. It is a site of reverence for the Czech people. You come away feeling it is now an important tourist attraction, far from a place that exploits, rather a place that educates.
We mentioned these feelings to our guide. She nodded. “All school children must visit two concentration camps as part of their curriculum,’’ she said, and with that, we left this heartbreaking place and drove silently back to Prague.
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