Designed to give students a broad cultural, political and historical view of Czechoslovakia, the gem in this course load would be History: A Personal Perspective. This elective came highly recommended and taught by 90 year old professor, Jan Weiner, a survivor of WWII. Held weekly at 8:30a.m.-just before the old man’s lunchtime and brutally early for any student-Jan promised to bestow on his lifetime of wisdom only if he lived to see the end of the semester. The syllabus followed his life and the history of Europe in the 20th century, nothing short of a Hollywood epic.
We attend a field trip to a concentration camp called Theresienstadt. Formerly, 7,000 had lived in the town and more than 50,000 Jewish prisoners were relocated to what became a transfer camp, leading to Auschwitz. Used for propaganda to fool the Red Cross inspectors and the rest of the world, the conditions of Theresienstadt appeared better than in any other camp. The young American students watched A Nazi propaganda film made there in 1944, for which the ghetto was transformed. Fake store fronts were erected, clean clothes distributed, and flowers were planted to show off “what the Fuhrer had given to the Jews.” In fact, it was more of a community in that and the prisoners were afforded the small yet precious freedom of culture. In this camp there was music, theatre, lectures and schools for children. It was the best of the camps yet the families crammed into the unsanitary quarters, and only those able to work received adequate meals. But, as survivor I met recently told me, “It was the easiest of camps to be in because it was possible to survive in these conditions.”
After Theresienstadt, we went to the “Little Fortress” of Terezin. The fortress was built in the 18th century and named for the empress Maria Theresa. Many historical figures are associated with this place including the assassin of Franz Ferdinand, a boy named Gavrilo Princip who died in 1918 the year Jan was born. During World War II this was used as a prison and people brought here were sentenced to be shot or hung; no one was to survive.
Jan’s mother was arrested as an enemy of the Third Reich immediately after troops moved into the Sudetenland. She had formerly helped Jews who escaped Nazi Germany to settle in Czechoslovakia. Jan has little information on what happened to his mother in the short time she spent at the prison. He knows that she was beaten to death and he took us to what they speculate was her cell. It is extremely emotional for him, but he continues to come back because it is so important to teach us about this. “To forgive is a personal thing, but to forget is a no-no, one must never forget.”
As we walked through the graves in the memorial cemetery outside he ponders aloud at how these atrocities could have happened. Jan too feels the Holocaust can happen again, and pleads our concern for one another’s pain. “Indifference to human suffering is the most horrible quality anyone can possess.” He cannot be comforted until his beautiful wife, Suzanna, brings him a shot of vodka. This has become his tradition over the years, “It helps me to overcome my emotion. The only thing sadder than a limping old Jew is a limping old Jew who cries.” He concluded our trip, as he does all our classes, by saying “I hope I live to see you all next week.”
Coming to Prague was totally worth it, if only to meet Jan. The “limping old Jew,” as he calls himself, lived to see another Good Friday and so it certainly was..