Central or Eastern Europe?
There is an ongoing discussion whether the Czech Republic is in Eastern Europe, or Central (Eastern) Europe. Living in Prague I have been enlightened unto the negative stigma associated with “Eastern Europe.” Before coming here for the semester, I was unaware of the importance placed upon the modest association of being situated strictly in Central Europe. Why does it really matter, anyway? I guess when dealing with countries in the center-more-or-less of Europe, being a tad more Eastern or a little more Central is subjective, isn’t it? Well, apparently not. Czechs take pride in being a necessary part of Central Europe- Eastern Europe drags along with it poverty, gray skies, hatred, and enemies. The 70th anniversary of the first deportation of Czech Jews to the East- to Poland- is in the month of October. This anniversary is particularly special because after another decade, there are not any survivors left- and if there are, they may be too old to tell their story.
On October 16, 1939, the first group of Czech Jews was transported to Poland to a town called Lodz. Roughly 5,000 Czech Jews were deported in five transports- only 270 Jews survived. Conditions in the Lodz ghetto were dreadful. Not only was the camp saturated with disease and intensive labor, Yiddish speaking Austrian and German Jews were sent to Lodz as well, causing enmity between the Jews themselves. The deportation to Lodz came as a surprise to everyone. Plans for Terezin were already in the works, but the Nazis felt as though they needed a place to hold to Jews to keep them out of general public spaces. In the months preceding the first deportation, the Jewish Council had created lists of names of every Jew to ease the process for acquiring Visas for potential immigration. The Nazis got hold of these lists, and used them for deportation purposes. The Nazis would select around 1,200 names at a time, and the Jewish Council had the opportunity to reclaim some names to buy these individuals more time, or to avoid separating families. Although not advertised to the non-Jewish world, the deportations were public events.
Many Czech Jews were also deported to Minsk and Lublin- two places even farther to the East. Many of these Jews were deported through Terezin. These places are rather absent from Czech history because there are virtually no survivors from Minsk and Lublin. Another forgotten incident is the Terezin Family Camp and Auschwitz-Birkenau. In September, 1943, families were taken from Terezin and transferred to a separate part of the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex. As backward as it sounds, these families were as “privileged” as privilege gets in the camp. There were children homes, places that retained even an ounce of normalcy for the children who had already seen too much death, too much hatred, who had simply seen too much for their short years on earth. In these homes, children were given an education and were able to express themselves artistically. Some speculate that the Nazis created this family camp out of fear that if inspectors wished to see the people living in the camps that these relatively “healthy” prisoners could be exhibited.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) visited Terezin in 1944. During this time, the ICRC is known for its inaction and silence toward the cruelty. Terezin went through a beautification process- so what the ICRC saw was a lovely little town with a rich theatrical and artistic culture. When I learned that the ICRC simply stood by and ate daintily off the silver platter of lies being served to them by the Nazis, I found myself in a state of frustration. They really believed the facade of happiness and health of Terezin? The Red Cross was located in neutral Switzerland- which can be the explanation for their ignorance to the situation. They believed they should help individuals, and not comment about right and wrong when it comes to military conflict. But couldn’t they have done a deeper investigation? Couldn’t they have gone a little farther East, to Poland? Is there not a difference between providing mere social commentary and attempting to stop absolutely pure evil? Were they truly unaware?
Now I understand the negative association with the East. The East meant persecution, disease, and death. With the 70th anniversary of the first Czech Jewish deportation approaching, it’s important for us to reconsider our roles as witnesses. Writer Henryk Grynberg, survivor of the Holocaust writes, “As a survivor of the Holocaust, I consider bearing witness my most important moral duty…Thus, even if I were not a writer and a poet I would remember and bear witness one way or another. I wouldn’t be able to live any other way. My memory seems independent of me. I am its subordinate and not the other way round. I have to fulfill my duty if I want to sleep those few hours every night and to go on with my life.” As the next generation entrusted with the history of the world, it is our responsibility to carry on the memory for those who are no longer able.
“God gives and God takes, may God’s name be blessed forever. Forgive, but never forget.”