Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Seeing butterflies

While we were in Prague we went to visit Terezin. I’d never heard of the place before. The bus going there was packed with tourists, mostly young people.

Terezin was a small concentration camp set up by the Nazis in the Second World War. Nothing special, just a footnote in history.

Formerly a fort, the Nazis turned the barracks into prison cells. It’s a small, neat, nondescript sort of place, not especially threatening. The buildings are perfectly preserved and must have looked exactly this way the day the war ended. Even the dust on the rows of wooden bunk beds seems original. The complex is laid out in a very logical way, starting with the reception rooms, delousing centre, barracks and cemetery.

140,000 men, women and children were deported there from Czech lands, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark, Slovakia and Hungary. The place wasn’t designed as a slaughterhouse and only 34,000 people died there. Mostly from starvation, brutality and disease.

Between 1942-44 87,000 people passed through the camp on the way to Auswitz and other death camps. 83,000 of these transportees died. It is estimated that 15,000 of them were children. Around 100 survived. One of the survivors wrote the play “I never saw another butterfly”.

In the middle of the camp is a beautiful sylvan valley with a tiny stream running through it. I stood on the spot where around three hundred people were shot and stared back at the place where their executioners took aim, beneath a small shelter on the other side of the stream. Behind me the walls were pockmarked with bullet holes. Swifts dived overhead. I have never stood in a more peaceful, beautiful spot. While I stood there time froze.

Three inmates escaped from the camp. As a reprisal the guards selected three other inmates at random and stoned them to death in front of the other prisoners. Two escapees were later captured and the scene repeated. The theatrical brutality of these two acts somehow shocked me more than anything else.

From some of the cells it was possible to see the outskirts of the adjacent town. In full view of the occupants the guards had had built a swimming pool for the use of themselves and their children.

Surrounding the prison wall was another world, as far away as the moon, dreamlike in its ordinariness.

I’m glad I didn’t see any butterflies while I was there.


  1. Last year, at 14, Big Fecker went on a trip to Berlin as part of his history coursework. They were all given the opportunity to visit Sachsenhausen if they wanted to. It had a profound effect on BF and I think that in that short time he grew up and looked at the world with new eyes.
    And so our children learn!

  2. I remember visiting Dachau many years ago. Not an experience I shall forget.