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…
When the Tugendhat family from Brno in Czechoslovakia decided to commission architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to design their new home in 1928, they had no idea that his creation would come to reflect their country’s turbulent history and politics, being passed from their own hands, to those of the Nazis, the Russians and eventually the Czech authorities – until one day being deemed a vital part of Czech and world heritage.
The Tugendhats wanted something daring, modern and original, and when work was completed in 1930, that’s what they were presented with. Floor to ceiling windows, some of which slid to the floor, and an onyx wall which changed colour depending on the light, were just some of the features of the innovative Modernist design which became their family home. But not for long. Eight years after they moved in, the Tugendhats were forced to flee. World War Two was on their doorstep and this Jewish industrialist family decided to get out while they could. What happened next to the house is like a microcosm of Czech history, and so fascinated writer Simon Mawer, he decided to tell the story in a novel.
The Glass Room was published in 2009 to much critical acclaim, and a shortlisting for the Man Booker Prize. The name of the city, family and architect were changed and the lives of most of the characters fictionalised, but Mawer took the actual house as his subject, bringing it alive, even for people like me who up until reading the book had no interest in Modernist architecture whatsoever.
“Liesel and Viktor stood and marvelled at it. It had become a palace of light, light bouncing off the chrome pillars, light refulgent on the walls, light glistening on the dew in the gardens, light reverberating from the glass. It was though they stood inside a crystal of salt.” – The Glass Room p64
Having finished the book, I wanted nothing more than to get myself over to Brno to visit the house itself, but on investigating, I discovered it was closed to the public while undergoing a program of refurbishment. Two years and nine million dollars later the house is once again ready for visitors, and we’re told that around 80 percent of its original features have been restored.
“Just the space, the light, the white. Just the gleaming chrome pillars. Just the onyx wall and the curved partition of the Macassar wood. The cool, calm rationality of the place, undisturbed by any of the irrationality that human beings would impose on it. They pause for a moment and look.” – The Glass Room p183
After the Tugendhat’s left the house, it was seized by the Nazis, damaged by soldiers and then bombarded by the Allies – the famous windows smashed. When the Soviets arrived it was in turn a horse stable, a dance school and a rehabilitation centre for children with spine defects, before being left to fall into a state of disrepair. Much of this, with some adaption, is told in the novel.
“Zdenka pushes open the glass door and leads the way through into the gymnasium. The curtains have been pulled back and they walk across a lighted stage with the whole city as their audience. Behind her the visitor gives a small sigh, maybe a sign of longing maybe a mere exhalation of regret. ‘I’d forgotten how marvellous the place is,’ she says. ‘But what happened to the windows? It used to be all plate glass.’” – The Glass Room p348
In the 1980s the Brno authorities took ownership of the house and there was a half-hearted attempt to restore it, but many believed they did more harm than good in their efforts to make it fit their own plan. In 1992, Czechoslovakia divided into two – the Czech Republic and Slovakia – and the deal was signed by the new countries’ prime ministers in the house itself. Villa Tugendhat was opened to the public in the mid 90s after being declared part of Czech cultural heritage and in 2001 it became a World Heritage Site.
Now it has finally been returned to its former glory and from March 6, 2012 will be open once again to visitors – and I cannot wait for an opportunity to visit.
Mawer’s novel is not just a great read with an engaging narrative, it makes you fall in love with this house. He has taken much of the detail of the building and incorporated it into his story in a way that binds you to it.
“In the Glass Room they mounted the onyx wall. The slabs had veins of amber and honey, like the contours of some distant, prehistoric landscape. They were polished to a mirror-like gloss, and once in place, the stone seemed to take hold of the light, blocking it, reflecting it, warming it with a soft, feminine hand and then, when the sun set over the Špilas fortress and shone straight in at the stone, glowing fiery red.” – The Glass Rom p72
The Glass Room helps us to understand how much a country like the Czech Republic has been through over the last 80 years, how its people have been forced to live under several extreme regimes, and how even as it re-invents itself time and time again, the impact of that history remains – in its people, its character and its buildings.
“And all around them is the past, frozen into a construct of glass and concrete and chrome, the Glass Room with its onyx wall and its partition of tropical hardwood and the milky petals of its ceiling lights, a space, a Raum so modern when Rainer von Abt designed it, yet now, as Hana Hanakova sits and weeps, so imbued with the past.” – The Glass Room p372
And while I know very little of the Tugendhat family themselves, Mawer’s characters – Liesel, Viktor, Hana and Zdenka – are my friends, and when I finally get the opportunity to visit “their” home, I will feel I know all of its secrets and stories in a way I never could if I hadn’t had the pleasure of reading The Glass Room.
If you’d like to explore the story of Villa Tugendhat a little further, you may want to have a listen to an interview with Mawer, see old pictures of the house in this two-minute video, or visit the website.