Tuesday, 31 July – discovering Prague
Woke up in the middle of the night with no clue where I was. Hazard of traveling, I suppose. 🙂 It wasn’t until I found my glasses in the dark that I could orient myself.
Amy has a part-time job as a tour guide, so my plan was to check out her tour company. Though she wasn’t giving tours that day, I took the basic free tour with another guide. I still wasn’t feeling well, so I didn’t enjoy the tour as much as I probably would have otherwise, but it was still good. The buildings in Prague are quite beautiful. It’s one of the places in Europe that wasn’t significantly damaged by WWII because Hitler liked it and wanted to retire there. An odd thing is that though London and Prague both existed before the invention of cars, a lot of Prague’s streets are wider. Another interesting thing is that there are a number of buildings and statues that look like they’ve been burned; they haven’t but centuries of pollution will crum up the outside of a sandstone building.
Afterwards, Amy arranged for me to tag along on the castle tour. Our tour guide looked like Nathan Fillion and acted like David Tennant – with similar accent – which made for a fun tour. Maybe the cold meds had kicked in by then, but the Prague castle? Wow. There aren’t words to describe it. I stood in front of the stained glass windows in the castle cathedral (St. Vitus?) and just breathed, “Wow.” I’d seen pictures before of cathedrals, but it was no comparison to actually being there.
Took the tram back to the Hadleys. The trams amused me as they rang bells to tell people to get out of the way, and a horn signaled that the doors were closing. So exactly the opposite of transit in Colorado.
I was tired so wasn’t planning on going out again that evening but Amy and I did head back to the castle and “explored” – a.k.a. got lost – on the way back down. We had fun taking some night photos and enjoyed a traditional Czech meal: Subway.
Wednesday, August 1 – Terezine
Amy did have a tour to give today, at Terezine. And she let me tag along.
But first she made us apple turnovers for breakfast that were so yummy. Then I walked to Wenceslas Square and along the Charles Bridge. I loved seeing the Charles bridge packed with buskers and vendors and tourists enjoying the great view and the beautiful statues. (Apparently I like touristy things, which is why I still visit Estes Park so much and still love Pearl Street even after 12 years in Boulder.) Then it was off to watch the astronomical clock toll the hour before meeting up with Amy and the tour group.
We had to start our tour by riding a train from Praha to Bohusovice. This was my only train ride during the trip that had those individual compartments like the Hogwarts Express. The countryside was lovely, and it was amazing to go around corner after corner and see little castle-like homes. Still in the back of my mind was the fact that these rails were the same ones that took Czech Jews from their homes in Prague to their deaths.
Terezine was a concentration camp in WWII, but not an execution camp like Treblinka or Auschwitz. More like a ghetto. The city had been built in the 1800s with a wall as a defensive location, and the Nazis thought it would be great as a place to put the Jews. So they moved all the residents out (and after four years when things were done the residents moved back and still live there today, which is eerie to me). Though they weren’t mass killings, 20% of those who lived there died from natural causes due to unnatural conditions. The city of 5,000 was crammed full of 50,000 people. Of those that survived Terezine, most were shipped to Auschwitz.
We started by seeing the cemetery and crematorium. The conditions for the Jewish boys working in the crematorium were awful, and they would be executed and replaced after only a month or so. Then we walked into the town and saw a recreation of a women’s dorm. What struck me was the color. All of the photographs from that era are black and white. I know it sounds silly, but seeing the color made it more real to me that people lived here and died here. Orange buildings. Green grass. A blue dress. Yellow stars.
After Terezine, one prisoner described life there as, “Work, hunger, and cabaret.” The prisoners were immensely talented and did their best to create a life for themselves. They wrote music, put on plays, gave lectures, and drew incredible art. If I remember correctly, each night there could be more than a dozen different entertainment events to choose from. Walking through a display of the drawings, sheet music, and costumes was haunting.
The Nazis used this camp as an example to the world that the Jews were fine and happy. The Red Cross came to visit, and walked exactly along the prescribed path through the town that the Nazis has set out and beautified, where they had installed things like a playground for children that was never used at any other time. After the Red Cross visit, the Nazis decided to use the town to make a video to show the world that the Jews were fine, showing prisoners playing football and games, smiling and knitting. Watching clips from that film made me ill.
Visiting Europe has showed me just how much WWII has left a scar on the world in ways still visible today – graves destroyed in Highgate from bombing, buildings half-standing in London and Prague, memorials everywhere – not to mention how we all carry it mentally. I think that time period showed us what we as humans are capable of, both good and bad. You have the horrific torture and murder of millions, and also stories of bravery, courage, and selflessness. The best and worst of humanity were showcased and we discovered what we are made of. Arriving back in Prague on the train, Amy showed us a statue in the train station in honor of Nicholas Winton who had arranged for hundreds of Jewish Czech children to be put on a train to safety, hoping they would be safe but not knowing what might happen to them. If you have a Kleenex handy, watch this.
Thursday, August 1 – flight from Prague to London
The day started with pancakes at the Hadleys. I’m not a big pancake person, but clearly I just need to be eating them more frequently with strawberries and whipped cream. Mmm. Then came the goodbyes and invitations to come visit Boulder.
Waiting in the airport bar for the plane (trying out another Kozel) I caught some Olympics on the TV: China vs Taiwan in table tennis, narrated in Czech.
When I moved to the gate I saw a gentleman walk by in warm ups, then another, then two women and I noticed the London 2012 logo on their sleeves. My plane was carrying about eight athletes from Belarus! They sat two rows behind me, and I mentally went through the events I knew were still to come, and how many would have such a small number of participants, both male and female. I was coming up empty when I overheard a woman in the row behind me say, “Oh really? Canoeing.” I gave a little mental squeal; I was going to see them compete on Monday!
Two rows in front of me on the place, I saw a woman flip closed a photocopied packet of paper that had the London logo on the front along with the words “Officials Guide”. I watched her for the rest of the flight trying to figure out her role and saw the front of her shirt when we got on the terminal bus back in London: synchronized swimming!
Finally did encounter my first line at customs and passport check. Ten minutes. But it was tempered by the excitement that the special athletes check-in line was next to us where I saw Turkey and Kazakhstan. My collection of countries was growing, as was my excitement to finally get to see the Olympic events live.