The Road to TerezineBy LOTTIE BOGGAN,
Life is a journey, and on a voyage down the Danube with Jackson friends our ship, the Viking Jarl had coasted into port and docked. We were now in Prague and would soon be homeward bound.
In an earlier Sun article I had said that many people who take river cruises want not to just sight-see, but to experience different cultures. On this trip, I found out those are not the only reasons--some tours become more a part of our lives than others.
Ann Barksdale, my cruise-mate Edrie Royals and I had signed up for the Terezin Concentration Camp Tour, once a place of horror, now a – I won't say attraction, but a tourist destination. It was certainly not a journey for everyone.
My friends and I boarded our bus; it would not be a long ride, about forty-five minutes from Prague to Terezin. The morning was flooded with sunlight, spangled clouds rolled above as we drove through a serene countryside of tall poplars, green farmland, and gently rolling hills. A calm beautiful ride.
As sometimes happens, chance or fate can have you encounter people or circumstances that make the past come alive and personal. On this day, seated across the aisle from me were a husband and wife from the States, people whose lives had been touched by the realities and horrors of the Second World War in a very real way. The lady and I had aisle seats; the two of us began talking, her husband leaning forward, joining in the conversation every now and then. They were an older Jewish couple who had come on a very personal quest. This man's mother and father had been born and raised in a village not far from Terezin, and their lives had been deeply changed by Nazism.
It was hard to hear over the roar of the bus motor but I happened to have a stubbly pencil. So that I wouldn't get what the lady and her husband were saying wrong, I was able to jot down on a piece of scratch paper a little of what the two of them said. The brief history they gave brought up the horrors of the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in a personal way.
Because the lady was seated right across from me she and I did most of the talking as she told me a little of her husband's family history.
During the first few months of the German occupation people's lives changed. All the stores were forced to display a yellow Star of David. They also had to wear the Star of David on their clothes and were made to pay large sums of money to the Germans. Many synagogues and graves were destroyed and a multitude of restrictions were placed on the Jewish people.
Along with most of their community her husband's father who had once been a successful merchant was treated very poorly. He was now forced to design and make the upper part of leather shoes for the Gestapo. He and his wife's first and at that time only child, a six-year old girl fell very ill, but with the proper medication hers was a curable disease. Because the Gestapo would not allow local doctors to treat Jews, the little girl was not given life-saving medicines that were available. She died a slow death.
What the lady shared with me was just the iceberg tip to a brutal reign of terror. More drastic changes were to come, this was a time of brutal oppression and obscene atrocities. As the world now knows, the situation grew worse; the rounding up of Jewish people for slave labor and extermination soon began.
Heroic neighbors risked their lives to get the man's mother and father out of the country, they made it to Canada, then to America.
The gentleman leaned forward and bent toward me. “I never had the honor of knowing my sister. I've missed her all of my life.” He placed his hands together, palm to palm, raised them to his chin and sat back.
“He doesn't know her burial site,” the lady said, “or even if there is one. He just wants to get as close as he can to the older sister whom he never knew. There were just the two of them. He's waited all his life for this visit.”
Our bus drew to a stop. When we unloaded, Edrie, Ann and I were in one group, the couple was not with us. They had chosen to go off on their own.
I wondered if the man would find any peace, or maybe even be able to whisper a quiet goodbye. There is a fine edge between today and the past, I thought. What stories lay beneath these winding roads we had driven over, the blooming meadows, the gardened, charming scenes we had seen along the way?
Denial? Sorrow and shame?
Which of these blanketed the hills and valleys, on the road to Terezin?