Near the front steps of the ghetto museum, a man approaches us. I’m fumbling with a map that I’ve just bought there. When I look up, I notice his posture first. It seems typical of people who often have to ask others for something: The shoulders are hunched, the head bent downwards. He has a rugged face and worn down clothes.
“Eine Krone?” he asks, requesting money. He lifts his face slightly. His open hands form a bowl in front of his chest. My grandmother, who stands a few steps away from me, turns around and looks at her sister. “Give him something, Helga,” my great-aunt Liese says in German. My grandmother rummages in her backpack and finds a euro coin, which she hands to the man. “It’s so nice to give to someone from Theresienstadt,” Liese says, watching the stranger walk away.
Theresienstadt, which is where we are, is a small town in the Czech republic, 37 miles north of Prague. Much of it still looks as Helga and Liese remember it from when they first got here more than 70 years ago. In the spring of 1943, the two sisters were deported from Vienna to the ghetto and concentration camp Theresienstadt. Helga was 14 years old, and Liese, 7. They came with their mother, and lived here for two years. Theresienstadt held as many as 53,000 inmates at one time in its cramped quarters. Most were Jews from Bohemia and Moravia, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands and never returned home. They died of cold or hunger, or in the Nazis’ extermination camps. Liese, Helga and their mother survived.
Theresienstadt was built as a fort in the late 18th century by the Austrian Emperor Joseph II, and was named after his mother, the influential Habsburg Empress Maria Theresia. It is perhaps a minor irony of history that Joseph was among the most progressive Habsburg emperors. His edicts of toleration were the first to give Jews some freedom of religion in the Habsburg empire, which stretched across an area that today roughly comprises Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, as well as parts of Poland, Romania, Ukraine, Italy and Croatia. Theresienstadt was used as a garrison town and housed military personnel. In 1941, the Nazis established a ghetto, and presented it as a model Jewish settlement when the Red Cross came to visit in 1944.
As I look around the small town today, I feel I can almost understand how the Nazis managed to make outsiders believe their propaganda. It still has mostly the same layout and buildings, only its name changed to the Czech Terezin. It’s small — 3,000 people live here — and seems in rather bad shape, with bird droppings on the window sills, and cracked sidewalks. But there’s a pizzeria and grocery stores, and I spot a woman pushing a stroller. Having grown up in vibrant Vienna, I find it hard to imagine what life in Terezin must be like today. Envisioning what life was like when my grandmother was here — that’s almost impossible.
I have never been able to ignore the impact the Holocaust had on the members of my family. They lived in Germany and Austria before the war, and trace their roots back to other corners of the former Habsburg Empire, such as Bohemia and Galicia.