Sunday, January 06, 2008

New Year’s in Prague!

We thought we’d do something slightly different for New Year’s Eve this year so we decided to travel to Prague.

We chose a night train from Udine, a rather long journey I must say but at an affordable price: 120 euros return. We left at 11 pm on Saturday night and arrived in Prague at noon the following day (the return instead was at 5 pm with arrival in Udine at 6 am). We went just for four days. Luckily, we took a couchette and there were only four of us. I kept thinking during the trip to Prague and as we rode through parts of Austria of more than 60 years ago and how thousands of people, with not much choice in the matter, were hauled in cattle wagons to concentration camps (including my uncle). That must have been simply atrocious as the wagons were jam packed and with only a hole in the floor for washroom purposes. Our train this time was decidedly MUCH more comfortable!

I thought Prague was indeed a most elegant town, home to some rather interesting architecture as well as some well-known personalities who were actually born there and/or who lived there, such a former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and novelist Franz Kafka (he had lived in a small house in the city’s castle). Beethoven also lived there. The country has also given birth to film director Milos Forman and Juventus soccer player Pavel Nedved, not to mention the country’s former president and author, Vaclav Havel, who lived through Czechoslovakia’s “Velvet Revolution” and was the Czech Republic’s president from 1993 until 2003 (the Rolling Stones played there just after the Berlin wall came down in 1989. Some thirteen years later they were again in Prague, and both times they had been greeted by a jubilant Havel).

The castle is quite nice as is the famous Charles bridge (albeit some of the statues would need some urgent cleaning!). And the beer? They say that Czechs are the world’s largest consumers of beer in the world. It is indeed mighty fine to drink a wide variety of the stuff. We noticed many Italians there, especially kids, who no doubt travelled to Prague for the great beer and the party atmosphere. The city itself doesn’t come across as being chaotic in nature, like Rome, probably because it has a smaller population and because it also has three functioning subway lines (like Munich’s subway, Prague’s subway trains are almost spotlessly clean, a far cry from Rome’s decrepit trains!). There was also a quasi-absence of scooters too which made walking around the town rather pleasant and relaxing. The eve countdown was spent near the Charles bridge.

A lot of history in the city/country as the poor Czechs not only lived under the brutal regime of the Nazis from 1939 to 1945 but again went through the communist regime years later (this year by the way, in August, marks the 40th anniversary of when Warsaw Pact armies marched into Prague under Alexander Dubcek’s reign. More than 100 Czechs were killed, including Jan Palach, who in 1969 lit himself on fire in a sign of protest). Perhaps the most difficult period was under the head of the Gestapo, Reinhard Heydrich, affectionately called the “Butcher of Prague”! He had been the protector of Prague for only 8 months until he was assassinated in downtown Prague by Czech partisans. When news of his death reached Hitler, the Furher apparently unleashed hell upon Czechoslovakia!

For a (strange) lover of concentration camps, Prague had also been a treat for me as about 80 kms north of Prague lies the concentration camp of Terezin (the name is in honour of the former empress Maria Teresa. Its German name is Theresienstadt). It’s an old fortress which had been actually designed by an Italian architect in the 18th century as a fortification during the Prussian period. The Nazis then established their concentration camp there (it would become the Gestapo’s Prague prison).

Prisoners from Poland, the USSR, Germany and Yugoslavia were incarcerated there, as were Jewish prisoners who were treated rather brutally. Over 10,000 victims died there, many were cremated in the crematorium in the town of Terezin, located a few hundred metres from the fortress (there’s also a ghetto museum there which contains the crematoriums). Some 15,000 children went through that camp with only about 130 who survived. The saying “Arbeit Macht Frei” which is so famous the world over and which is seen always hanging over the entrance to Auschwitz is also present at Terezin (see picture). The phrase was imported to other camps such as Terezin from Dachau. There’s also a gallows pole and a firing range next to it where up to 600 shot. The prison cells could contain up to 60 prisoners at a time, in obvious appalling sanitary conditions.

Poetic justice: as in the case of Auschwitz’s commander, Rudolf Hoss (who had worked for 6 years at Dachau and who had been handpicked by Himmler to run Auschwitz), Terezin’s commander, Heinrich Jockel, who had commanded the brutal SS wardens there, was tried and executed at the very same place he had run—Terezin. Another “illustrious” prisoner at Terezin was a fellow by the name of Gavrilo Princip. Princip was the main protagonist of the Saravejo assassination of Francesco Fernando d’Este (his death had basically sparked WWI!). He was imprisoned and died at Terezin in 1918 (his cell is still there with a commemorative plaque from the Yugoslav government recalling his “heroic” act). This was my 7th concentration camp visit after Dachau, Buchenwald, Mauthausen, the Risiera of San Sabba in Trieste and Auschwitz-Birkenau (some of these camps I’ve so far seen twice).

From the picture I took of the map of concentration camps in Europe, if you look below and left of Berlin and north of Buchenwald, you’ll see a town called Halberstadt. That’s where my young uncle Mario, an Italian partisan, had died in the POW camp there. The day that I’ll go to Berlin I’ll probably pay a visit there too (after Bergen-Belsen and the other adjacent camps). You can also see below and on the right the camp of Terezin (all pics by M. Rimati).

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