Taking A Dose of What's Good For You
edited: Thursday, March 15, 2001
By Carolyn HowardJohnson
Posted: Sunday, March 11, 2001
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Ever hear of Terezin? It's a place one goes only because one must. It's a place you'll be glad you visited if you can muster the courage.
It was the side trip no one talked about. And then everyone did. Some were interested. Some were afraid. No one was enthusiastic.
"It will be good for the younger students. You know...to learn what we remember," one of we more mature students enrolled in the Glendale Community College Summer Studies Program in Prague said. We nodded solemnly. In the end we all--young and old--went to Terezin because we felt we must.
This was not a death camp in the strictest definition of the word. It was a camp where people were "retained" before they were sent on to Auschwitz or one of the others where there were facilities for mass destruction. Still there were ovens to cremate those who died of mistreatment or starvation or overwork or natural causes. It was no wonder there was some reticence among us.
Our tour guide was Michal. She was from Israel and spoke so many languages I lost count. Perhaps in her late 20's, with curly dark hair and dark eyes that sometimes reflected generational pain, she had come to Prague at the suggestion of one of her professors in Israel. "My wish for you is that one of you will find the unique blessings of Prague," he had told his class. She was searching for a place to practice her arts. She was a puppeteer, a performance art enjoyed by many Czechs. She was also a writer. Sometimes, as an avocation, she led tours to Terezin because she wanted others to learn from its history. Her grandmother had perished there.
When I first saw her she was sitting on one of the stairs among students and piles of their daypacks. She wore a long black dress with huge yellow hibiscus printed on it. Black for mourning? Yellow for hope? I was busy with a journal, one of the assignments for the writing class I was taking at Prague's Charles University.
"Are you a writer?" she said. I noticed later that she managed to ask every one of her charges a personal question about themselves, welcoming them with her soft accent. She invited me to a poetry reading for later that week. "It's in a cellar. Just like you think of when you think of Bohemians."
I told her that I only write in English. "Prague is for everyone," she said. "So is Terezin."
And she was right. From the bus we could see fields unfurled like flags of orange and yellow. Poppies, sunflowers, mustard weed. We were travelling Northwest from Prague and wouldn't be too far from Dresden when we arrived. Berlin was beyond that. We would be in the Sudentenland, the Czech lands where most spoke German. They were given over to Hitler without a shot fired.
There was a fortress on the right. Graves with poppies carefully placed at the headstones. Past the Ohre river. Into a village. A museum where we saw the stuff of life--sewing projects, drawings, music, even plays--works of art done by those held in the camp. There was a wall in the museum that had been frescoed into a permanent display with the images of official lists of human cargo the trains held. They were like human ghosts on bills of lading.
Michal read one name. It was that of a child, born the same day and month I was. I was overwhelmed and did what writer's do. The journal I was to keep for my creative writing class came in handy:
Child of terror
Born in April
On the fourth
I am 60.
He is never.
When I finished writing, my group had disappeared. I wandered into the streets of the little town seaching for them. It was extremely hot (one of the few hot days in the entire month we were there) and there was hardly anyone about. Finally I gave up my quest, exhausted. I sat in a town suare next to an old woman who was crocheting.
"Was tust du?" I said in the familiar of German, because I couldn't remember the formal. "What are you doing?" She didn't seem to mind my impertience. She took out piles of doilies from a basket and told me she made them to sell. She also discovered that I was "lost" and found someone who led me back to my group. I decided that, though it was good to be back with them, I was meant to have had this idle time sitting with an old lady on a shady park bench. It was a view of a town with a horrible past that somehow goes on living in the present.
We went on to another memorial where trees "give a beatuiful shadow," as Michal worded it. A place too beautiful for a massacre, I thought.
This memorial had been placed at Terezin by a newer generation of Israelis. They had noticed that their generation has been deprived of aunts and uncles for they were all dead. They also became aware that they never saw anyone wearing boots because the memories of boots were still too vivid. There were no dogs, either. Watchdogs had not been their friends. The scars were still evident, two and three generations later. A memorial would help us all to remember.
So, in honor of Michal, I will not dwell on the morgue or the ovens but on hope for a better future. A better future ensured if we visit Terezin in person or in print. The student who said this visit would be good for the younger students was wrong. It was good for all of us. This was a place of horror. But it was also a monument to the strength of spirit, both of those who died and those who survived and those who still make a life there. Those of us who visit history may choose to do things differently in the future. We may respect life, the way those Jews and Gypsies and Intellectuals and Homosexuals did, even in the face of death.
(Carolyn Howard-Johnson traveled to the Czech Republic with the Glendale Community College Summer Studies Program. Her first novel, "This Is The Place" is about the effects of prejudice. It will be published by AmErica House in the spring of 2001.)
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|Reviewed by Patricia Harrington
I clicked over from your e-mail about your latest newsletter and was so glad to find this one! It is wonderful, poignant and heartfelt. I'll browse a bit and then get on to work.
All the best to you.
|Reviewed by Annette Gisby
|A very moving article, Carolyn.|
|Reviewed by Annette Gisby
|Carolyn Howard-Johnson has written a profoundly moving article, one which I will not forget.
As I read her words, I walked with her through camp & village, shared her thoughts & was moved by kindred emotions. The horrors of this war, though the war itself ended over a half century ago, still strike resonance in modern time because the echoing loss & pain continue to affect us, through the generations.
I am grateful for such writers as she, who have the ability to comprehend what truly matters & the gift to bring us with them on their journeys through history.