Studying history requires a great deal of imagination. You must combine the information you read, the pictures you see, and the stories you hear to visualize a world that you can understand.
Visiting any historical site or memorial requires a similar process. You must see the place that you are visiting as it once was. You must imagine what used to be there. Who used to stand where you stand now? How did they look? What were their lives like? It is a difficult and sometimes painful process, depending on the history you are imagining.
On one frigid November day, I participated in this process. I visited two sites of the Czech Republic’s worst World World II tragedies: the Jewish ghetto and prison of Terezin and the destroyed town of Lidice.
Today, Terezin is a quaint village about an hour outside of Prague. Terezin has a modest population and a traditional layout. However, during World War II, Hitler used Terezin as a Jewish ghetto and concentration camp. Prisoners experienced overpopulation, disease, malnutrition, and brutal murder. The town was also a midway point for transporting many victims of the Nazis from their original homes to concentration camps and death camps further east, such as Auschwitz and Treblinka. In Terezin, families were ripped apart, the most basic human comforts were scarce, and the victims had to work incredibly hard to create any semblance of normal life.
Our tour group stood in a reconstructed Terezin barrack which was crammed with bunk beds, trunks, and other personal items. Our tour guide explained that these bunk beds were all the space and privacy Terezin’s inhabitants received. Our guide asked us to imagine: What would we have packed in the two small suitcases allowed per person in Terezin? What would we pack if we had been forced, without any real information besides a departure date and a sparse packing list, to move there?
Hidden under one small apartment in Terezin, there is a stone room smaller than a Georgetown freshman dorm. The Jewish community in Terezin used this room as a secret synagogue. This room, with Hebrew scriptures painted in red on the cold stone walls, served as a place for prayer, family gatherings, and celebrations such as weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs.
It was depressing to imagine that such a small space was the only place to house these large life milestones. However, when we pictured the families possessing the strength to celebrate in spite of Terezin’s conditions, we were proud.
About a five to 10 minute drive from the Terezin ghetto stands the fortress of Terezin. The Nazis used this fortress as a prison for mostly political opponents of the regime, but also for Jews and other victims of the Holocaust. Nazis exploited and misused the fortress. For example, up to 10 prisoners were crammed into cells originally built for one person. Prisoners had to literally sleep standing up. They were frequently tortured, and their blood was washed off in a basin outside their cells. They were rarely allowed to bathe or eat.
While standing in one cell, our small tour group was asked to envision what it would have been like if five times as many people as us were not only all standing together in the cell at the same time, but also living in the cell. We could barely stand to be in the cold, damp room for 10 minutes, let alone months or years.
Finally, after about an hour drive away from Terezin, we visited the most difficult to imagine memorial of all: Lidice. Lidice was a village right outside Prague that Hitler ordered to be destroyed as revenge for the assassination of Reich Protector of Bohemia Reinhard Heydrich. The men and children of the village were massacred, the women were sent to concentration camps, and the entire town was burnt to the ground.
Nazis forced prisoners from Terezin to dig mass graves and collect livestock and valuables from the rubble at Lidice. Now, there are a few memorials on the grounds above Lidice, as well as a small museum commemorating the families who lived there. But Lidice itself is nothing but an expansive area of grass and rolling hills.
Our tour guide held up a photograph of Lidice before it was destroyed to the now quiet, grassy park. And she asked us to imagine. In truth, most of these atrocities are unimaginable. However, we have an obligation to both the past and the future to try.