What to Read – What to Do – Czech Republic
THE PLACE: Terezín, Czech Republic (formerly Czechoslovakia)
WHAT TO READ: The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman
WHAT TO DO: See the artwork created by the children of Terezín concentration camp.
“The exhibit of the children’s art was an amazing feat…Some children had drawn pictures of their families, their old pets and memories of their lives before Terezín. But the most moving of the images were those that tried to document their current situation. One…child had drawn a bunk bed in a barracks – a dream image floating above the sleeping figure’s head – clouds filled with bars of chocolate and jars of candy.” The Lost Wife (p207)
THE BOOK: As World War Two descends on Prague, artist Lenka and her new husband Josef are separated, and Lenka is taken to a Jewish ghetto in the nearby garrison town of Terezín, renamed Theresienstadt by the Germans. Given the job of painting postcards for the Nazis, Lenka becomes involved in a subtle form of resistance – smuggling out paintings depicting the real conditions in Terezín, which has now become a concentration camp. Meanwhile her mother, who is also in the camp, teaches art to the imprisoned children with stolen supplies, and helps to organise secret exhibitions. But while Lenka believes her husband is dead, Josef has made it to America and is desperately trying to find his wife. It is many, many years later that they finally meet again by chance. (This is not a spoiler – it is revealed at the very beginning of the book!)
Inspired by true events, this novel takes us to the heart of a very real concentration camp in what was then Czechoslovakia, a camp which has become famous for the art and cultural life which endured, despite the inmates’ incarceration. It was also the subject of a propaganda movie made after a 1944 visit by Red Cross officials. In preparation for the visit, thousands of inmates were sent to the death camp Auschwitz so that Terezín would appear less crowded, and the camp was presented as a ‘model’ Jewish settlement. Grass and flowers were planted, a playground was built and living spaces were improved. The inmates also had their parts to play – they were dressed in fashionable clothing, seated outside a newly-created ‘cafe’ and told to go window-shopping outside shops stocked especially for the visit. The Red Cross officials were fooled. Buoyed by their success, the Nazis made a film they could use for propaganda purposes. The inmates had little choice but to take part in it.
All of this is portrayed in the novel; a book which reminds us that despite the most desperate hardship, people are often willing to take incredible risks to remain true to themselves. Many of the inmates at Terezín were artists, musicians and writers and The Lost Wife allows us to witness their fight to keep culture alive despite the inhuman conditions in which they lived.
While I couldn’t help being a bit sceptical about the way Josef and Lenka found each other again so many years after the war, it seems this is also based on a true story – so who am I to judge? Suspend your disbelief, and enjoy what is a fascinating, historical read.
Entrance to the prison camp
Image courtesy of Eugene Tsuprun via Wikimedia Commons
WHAT TO DO: Today the town of Terezín, about an hour from the capital Prague, could be described as “unremarkable and forgettable”, but it attracts visitors from all over the world who want to spend a day learning more about the people who were incarcerated there. There is much to see as you walk around the former barracks, crematorium and fortress.
But the highlight is perhaps the Ghetto Museum, created in the town’s old school building. Here you can watch the surviving 20 minutes of the 90 minute propaganda film, and reconcile it with the place you are seeing for yourself. And then take the time to absorb some of the poems and drawings done by the children of Terezín, encouraged to express themselves by people like Lenka and her mother. On your return to Prague, you can then truly appreciate the Jewish Museum which has a collection of more than 4,000 of the drawings, claiming to be the largest collection of children’s drawings in the world. It is heartbreaking stuff.
THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND: There is much debate on TripAdvisor as to whether you should take one of the guided bus tours to Terezín or make your own way there. The advantage of the tour is that you don’t have to think about transport, and you are accompanied by a guide – sometimes a survivor of the camp itself. Do your research to find out which tours people recommend. But a tour obviously costs more than going under your own steam, and some people complain they feel rushed, preferring to have more time to look around.
The do-it-yourself option means taking reportedly unreliable public transport, with the fear of being left behind if you miss the last bus! And while there are free guided tours available once you get there, it is apparently difficult to know when they start. But at least you’ll be able to wander around as you please and take as much time as you like visiting the different parts of the town.
VIDEOS TO WATCH: Learn more about the cultural life and children’s art lessons of Terezín, as well as the making of the propaganda film here…
And here’s a look at some of the excerpts from the film itself…
One person’s account of their visit to Terezín “…the most heart-wrenching exhibit was for me the collection of children’s drawings.”
Tripadvisor reviews from visitors “It should be required activity of every human being.”
More about the camp from the Jewish Virtual Library “There were so many musicians in Terezin, there could have been two full symphony orchestras performing simultaneously daily”
BOOK SOURCE: A copy of the novel was kindly provided by the publisher Hodder & Stoughton
Visiting Terezín might not exactly be a pleasant experience, but it will be a rewarding one, and reading this novel first will make all the difference.
P.S. Join me on my fiction adventure around the world…