Our Second Day in Prague

We were thrilled to wake up the next morning and see that the sun was shining and the rain had stopped! We decided to get up early and get started on our day because we had a lot of plans. We ate a quick breakfast in the hotel, then headed out to the Old Town Square on our way to the Jewish Quarter. What a different experience this was from the night before! We were out early, like around 8 in the morning, so there were practically no tourists anywhere – very unlike the previous night when you couldn’t walk without touching someone else. And boy was it suddenly even more beautiful when it was empty and sunny!

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We both were so relieved to be able to take some nice photos, have more of a personal experience, and not be so stressed about pickpockets within the huge crowds.

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We made our way to the Jewish Quarter, a section of the city surrounded completely by the Old Town. It’s believed that Jews settled in what is now Prague as early as the 10th century. The first crusade and pogrom occurred in 1096 and then Jews of the area settled into a concentrated area within a walled ghetto. In 1389, one of the worst pogroms occurred in which 1,500 were murdered on Easter Sunday. Towards the end of the 16th century, Mordecai Maisel became the Minister of Finance and extremely wealthy – he used his money to help further develop the ghetto and make it more prosperous. In 1850, the quarter was renamed “Josefstadt,” or Joseph’s city, after Joseph II, the Holy Roman Emperor who emancipated Jews with the Toleration Edict in 1781. Between 1893 and 1913, a lot of the quarter was demolished and only six synagogues, the old cemetery, and the Old Jewish Town Hall remained – those are now all part of the Jewish Museum in Prague, which is where we went to visit that morning.

The Museum was founded in 1906. We were able to look around multiple old synagogues (unfortunately no photos were allowed in some). One that really impressed me was the Pinkas Synagogue in which the walls are entirely covered with tiny written names of those who had been killed in the Holocaust. There are 77,000 names of perished Bohemian-Moravian Jews on the walls as a memorial.

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We were able to walk through the Old Jewish Cemetery, which was used from the 1400s until 1787. It is unclear how many people were buried here and how many grave stones there are because several layers of tombs exist. The people who once lived here were only given so much land in the city and more land cost more money, so they used what they had. It has been estimated that around 100,000 people have been buried here with approximately 12,000 visible tombstones. The oldest grave in the cemetery is for the rabbi and poet Avigdor Kara from 1439. There are 12 layers of graves.

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One of my relatives, a great x11 step-grandmother from the early 1600s, is actually buried here:Hendl-Basevi-tombstone

The synagogues have beautiful detail in the architecture:

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After seeing so much, we kept walking and suddenly the rest of the tourists were out and about. We walked past the entrance to the synagogue as we left and the line was so long! When we had arrived there was one other person there. Sometimes it’s worth getting up early.

We walked across a bridge towards the Prague Castle and the views were breathtaking.

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We took a seat by the water to absorb everything around us. It was wonderful to just relax and enjoy the moment and take everything in. That’s definitely one of my favorite parts of traveling.

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Then we decided to walk towards famous Charles Bridge. Its construction began in 1357 and it was the only means of crossing the Vltava River until 1841. It was once the most important connection between the Castle and the Old Town.

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But as we were walking we stumbled upon the Franz Kafka Museum! As an English major, of course I have read and written about some of his work and I really enjoyed it. Kafka was born in Prague and it was exciting to see a place dedicated to him.

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And of course we couldn’t help but laugh at the goofy statues relieving themselves outside the museum:

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We finally got to the Charles Bridge and it was a mob scene of tourists! We had been warned to watch our pockets and purses very carefully while walking there because it is a pickpockets dream location. People were trying to sell things, street performers were everywhere, and people stopping for photos when there was no real place to stop among the crowds.

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Although it was beautiful, I think we both felt a little overwhelmed by crowds – especially with the contrast to our peaceful morning, so we walked back to the hotel to grab lunch. I needed a little more money so I went to an atm, but my card was repeatedly declined without reason. This is always scary and stressful, but happens often during travels. I called my bank and probably sounded a little frustrated, but it turned out it wasn’t my card or my account, just something strange about that specific atm machine with relation to my card. It sucks but there’s not much you can do. Luckily I had leftover euros and because of the major tourism in Prague I was able to get by with that the rest of our visit and my cousin was helpful in the situations where euros didn’t help.

So we ate a quick and easy lunch because we had scheduled a tour with Prague All Inclusive Tours to visit Theresienstadt, an extremely moving experience that deserved its own post. We had made reservations on our own and not through the hotel the day before. Visiting a place like this is something you can do on your own, but we figured it was worth going through a group – one of the only times our entire trip we did that. The tour guide actually picked us up from our hotel and then we got on a van with only 6 other people. It was an hour long ride outside of Prague to Theresienstadt and the whole way we were given tons of historical and background information, so we really learned a lot before we even got there. We saw a cemetery, museums, the camp, the ghetto, and an exhibit of artwork made by the Jews forced to live there. We even heard a recording of children singing a song composed by someone who had lived there – all of those children were eventually murdered, so this was haunting to hear.

Our tour guide was fantastic and we met some interesting people throughout the day including a father and son from Los Angeles who had been biking around Eastern Europe. We were really moved by the day and everything we experienced, but it was mentally draining and we both fell asleep on the ride back to the hotel.

After resting some, we decided to eat dinner at the hotel because we both felt a little too exhausted to try and find dinner. It turned out to be significantly cheaper than the night before, something that doesn’t usually happen when you eat at a hotel versus venturing out. While we ate our meal, we planned our next day and which trains to take.

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Then we decided to head out and walk around a little to relax as the evening kicked in. We tried some traditional baked goods that were yummy and very sweet.

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And we ate them while watching a street performer sing and play guitar (typical European tourist moment).

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Then we looked at all the shops nearby that were slightly tempting:

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There were homeless people everywhere and police monitored the area a lot because of how infamous it is for theft and pickpockets. We were happy to get back to the hotel, clean up, and get to bed because we had more adventures waiting for us the next day!

Theresienstadt

Before I tell you about our second day in Prague, I want to write specifically about one of the places we visited during our time in the Czech Republic – Theresienstadt, or the Terezin ghetto and concentration camp. As I’ve mentioned many times before in other posts, I have deep connections to the Holocaust with my family’s history, but this was the first time I actually went to a ghetto and concentration camp from the Holocaust. This wasn’t just a ghetto or concentration camp though, this was the ghetto where my relatives had been sent before being murdered here or in other concentration camps. To walk in this place, to hear how people were forced to live and under what conditions, to see what was done to them – it’s incredibly terrifying and disturbing, but then to have to understand that members from your own family were some of those people, that’s just something words cannot actually describe.

The buildings used for the concentration camp and ghetto were fortresses constructed in the late 1700s, but by the end of the 19th century they were no longer used as forts. The Theresienstadt concentration camp and ghetto were established by the SS in World War II in this fortress and garrison city of Terezin. In 1941, Siegfried Seidl, the first camp commandant, oversaw the labor of 342 Jewish artisans and carpenters, known as the Aufbaukommado, who were forced to convert the fortress into a concentration camp.

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In 1942, the Nazis expelled 7,000 non-Jewish Czechs who had been living in Terezin so that they could close off the town and make it a place to send and hold Jews. In the ghetto, 50 people would be forced to live together in one dorm room with one person as the head of the room. Men and women, including those who were married, had to live separately. Imagine being an adult, even elderly, and having to give up everything and move into a situation where someone else was the boss of you, living with 49 other people in small quarters, having no privacy or space. Lice spread typhoid and other infectious diseases. But this was only the beginning.

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More than 33,000 people lost their lives in this concentration camp. Some died from sadistic treatment of their captors, others died from malnutrition after being starved, or from disease because of the unsanitary conditions. According to official records, the highest documented number of people in the camp was in September 1942 with 58,491 people. They were crowded into barracks designed for 7,000 troops.

Each room like this one would only have one bucket or toilet and a tiny stove for heat with dozens of prisoners sharing the space.

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Over 150,000 people, including tens of thousands of children, were kept in Theresienstadt for months or years before being sent to their deaths at Treblinka and Auschwitz extermination camps in Poland. These aren’t just numbers though – that large of a number is abstract and difficult to really comprehend, but some of these people were my relatives. My great grandparents and great-great grandparents were here.

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Towards the beginning of the camp and ghetto’s existence during the war, prisoners were actually given three small meals a day, but as time went on and more people arrived, it went down to eventually being only one cup of water turnip soup and 200 grams of bread a day (that’s as little as 2 slices of bread). People often became half their weight within the camp due to the combination of the inhumane amounts of labor and lack of food. Survivors described how every morning dead inmates would be found after waking-up time.

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Theresienstadt is infamous for this phrase being posted over the entrance that translates as “work will set you free.”

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People’s clothing was burned for diseases, but with the unsanitary and inhumane living conditions, diseases like Typhoid were inevitable.

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Doctors were not actually allowed to treat Jews, but some did in secret. If surgeries had to be completed, doctors had no real supplies and had to use razors and saws or whatever they could find.Surgeries were performed in cells like this one without anesthesia:

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There was a small room originally used for solitary confinement. Later on the guards would force 100 people into this tiny room that only had a hole as big as my hand for air. They would lock them in there overnight where many people died from lack of oxygen.

The prisoners of the camp were allowed to shower once a week. But when they showered, 100 people were squeezed into one large room, they were given 3 minutes to share one small shower head with 5 other people. The water would start semi-warm at the beginning, but get colder until there was no heat for the prisoners. Jews were always made to go last, meaning they always had to shower in freezing water. Most people today cannot shower for three minutes alone, imagine sharing it with 5 other people in a room with 100 people for just those three minutes. Important note – these showers were actually showers and never used as gas chambers.

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The guards forced prisoners to build a large water storage unit for firefighting purposes. Inmates were only given spoons or just their bare hands to build it. 60 people died during the process. After it was completed, the guards just used the massive water unit as a swimming pool on hot days.

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On November 11, 1943 the commandant Anton Burger made the entire camp population, around 40,000 people, stand in the freezing weather in order to do a camp census. 300 prisoners died that day from hypothermia.

In the fall of 1944, Nazis began the liquidation of the ghetto. Prisoners were transported to Auschwitz for Sonderbehandlung, or “special treatment.” This meant the immediate gassing of all upon arrival. It only took one month to deport 24,000 people to their deaths. 88,000 in total were transported to Auschwitz, Treblinka, or other camps. My relatives were some of these people.

They had executions in the camp as well where people were forced to lie down in these cross shaped boxes and soldiers would stand high on the hills (you can see in the background of the photo) and would use the people in the boxes as target practice. 50 people were shot here within one hour on May 2nd before the end of the war.

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When prisoners were brought through this tunnel, they knew they were going to be killed. Actually walking that path decades later was a very intense experience.

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Many of the bodies of victims who died within Theresienstadt were cremated:

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The Germans presented Theresienstadt to outsiders as a model Jewish settlement during a 1944 Red Cross visit and in a propaganda film. For example, there was a room of sinks and mirrors created so Nazis could claim to the Red Cross that they even had a barber shop area in the camp to present how clean and sanitary the camp was.

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The Red Cross never actually got to see the camp though, they only saw the ghetto section of the town and got an illusion of what was really going on. At the end of our visit we were able to see parts of that propaganda film shown to outsiders that was made to prove Theresienstadt was not a bad place to be. They showed Jewish families playing soccer together, laughing in the sunshine with their yellow Stars of David sewn to their clothing. They intentionally picked very stereotypical looking Jews to emphasize their underlying messages.

During our visit, we watched another film in which they read off statistics of different trains that took victims to the death camps from Theresienstadt. Each train began with 1,000 people on it and then the number of survivors after the war was over would be read. By the end of the war, most of the original 1,000 was within the range of 0-5 survivors. This was intensely powerful to listen to. Over and over hearing 1,000 people sent to this camp, 1 person survived. 1,000 people sent to this camp, 2 people survived. 1,000 people sent to this camp, 0 people survived. After hearing over a dozen of these numbers, I felt sick because it really is incomprehensible. And this was after these people had survived such a horrific place already.

This is what the ghetto town looks like today. Just looking at this photo, it’s nearly impossible to imagine what happened here a few decades ago:

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We were able to see a cemetery where many of the victims’ remains or ashes have since been buried. As Jews we lay rocks and not flowers on the gravestones.

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But many of the graves do not have names because the victims’ names are not known.

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Visiting Theresienstadt is something I will never forget. I’ve heard stories my entire life about my relatives who were sent here, but actually seeing it profoundly changed my understanding of it.

This photo was taken in 1940 of my great grandparents, Albert and Johanna Kleinstrass, who were sent to Theresienstadt before being deported to Auschwitz where they were killed:

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Our First Evening in Prague

We had an amazing visit to Berlin – we saw so much, learned a lot, and really explored. After such a successful time in the first city of our adventure, we were eager to go somewhere neither of us had been before – Prague! We got up early to have breakfast at the hotel and then packed and cleaned up the rest of our things. This was a hard moment for Katharina because she had to say goodbye to her boyfriend who had been traveling with us in Berlin.

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We took two trams to get to the main train station where we had been the day before. We made sure to arrive early because train/tram systems are never perfect and we experienced enough delays to know it’s worth sitting around where you need to be a little longer in order to make sure you catch your main train. We took the time to check out the large station, get snacks for the trip, pay to use the bathroom, and figure out where we needed to go.

We both got re-energized when our train pulled up and we were pumped to get on and find our seats. Because this was the first train we had reservations for, I think we were both a little unsure of how it worked and if we would find everything okay, but we managed just fine! The train was extremely crowded, hot, and stuffy so we were glad to have our reserved spots because many people were wandering around with nowhere to go. This train had little compartments with six seats per space.

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We shared with two girls traveling to Bratislava and a family that traded the two leftover seats throughout the five hour ride because they had not reserved seats in advance. The little boy of the family was adorable and played with us and we shared candy with him. We couldn’t understand each other because we didn’t speak the same language, but some things don’t need words (he was happy with me making goofy faces at him the whole trip).

So before telling you about our evening in Prague, let me give you some very brief background and historical information about the city. It is the capital and largest city of Czech Republic and the 15th largest city in the EU. In 2014, it was the fifth best destination for travel according to Tripadvisor. The name of the city in Czech is Praha, which originally comes from the word “prah,” meaning threshold – a rapid on the river, which is fitting as the city sits on the Vitava River. The city was once a capital of the Holy Roman Empire, important to the Habsburg Monarchy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the capital of the former Czechoslovakia. The historic centre of Prague has been included in the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites, which isn’t surprising considering the area was settled as early as the Paleolithic age and became part of the historical territory of Bohemia. The city was affected by the Thirty Years War, both World Wars, and the Cold War so the history is undeniable every place you step.

So my first impressions of Prague – cleaner than Berlin, beautiful architecture everywhere, and crowded. Considering it is the fifth most visited city in Europe following London, Paris, Istanbul, and Rome, the huge amounts of tourists wasn’t so surprising, but still overwhelming. We found our hotel after walking about fifteen minutes from the train station. Our hotel was really hip and more like a hostel with a different style from usual hotels because of its crazy lighting and decorations.

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We settled into the room and then got our map, explored our options, and got ready to see the city!

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We found some crazy things right away, like the Sex Machines Museum.. (you can’t make this kind of stuff up):

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Then we went to the old town square, a huge tourist section of the city, to see some of the older buildings.

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We found the astronomical clock, which was installed in 1410, making it the third-oldest astronomical clock in the world. It is the oldest one that still functions. It was truly awesome to watch it move on the hour.

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Unfortunately we didn’t get lucky with the weather for our first night in Prague. I think in hindsight this was for the best because we were both exhausted from the long train ride and the rain gave us an excuse to go to bed early. We were happy to have our raincoats though!

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The legend about building in the background, Tyn Church, is that it inspired Disney for the famous castle in Sleeping Beauty. This present church has existed since the 14th century, but some form of a church has been in that spot since the 11th century. It took decades to build this. The oldest pipe organ in Prague, from 1673, sits inside this church. The towers of the building are 80 meters high. All of that is really amazing to think about!

To get out of the rain, we grabbed some dinner quickly and of course sampled ice cream! We were happy to be seated under large umbrellas when it started down-pouring around us.

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After this delicious treat, we made our way back to the hotel because the next day was definitely a filled and intense one.