Lessons for the future, learned from the past – but only if we actually learn them

Sometimes you need to see something in order truly to understand or appreciate it. For years I have been telling school students that they owe it to the world – past, present and future – never to forget the horrors of the world wars of the 20th century, and I had these words ringing in my own ears as, on Monday of this week, I visited Terezin, the WWII Jewish Ghetto and concentration camp situated not far from Prague. It was a deeply unsettling experience.

Terezin is a walled town consisting of two fortresses, built by the Habsburgs in the late 18th century to defend Bohemia from Prussia troops; its construction is impressive, and perhaps because of this it was never in fact besieged, but in subsequent years it was put to various uses as a prison, a town and a Czech army garrison, amongst others. Gavrilo Prinzip, who assassinated Archduke Franz-Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914, and who was therefore the catalyst for the start of WWI, was imprisoned in the Small Fortress in Cell 1 until he became too ill and was moved to hospital, where he subsequently died. Travel anywhere in Central Europe and you are never far from momentous history.

It was in WWII, however, that Terezin had its darkest days. The Small Fortress was used as a Gestapo base and a prison for political prisoners, who were kept locked up in barely tolerable conditions without heat, on minimal rations, and who were only rarely allowed to wash. Disease was rampant. The worst conditions in the Small Fortress, however, were reserved for dissidents from the Large Fortress, which from 1940 onwards became a Jewish Ghetto, to which were sent Jews from across Europe. Ostensibly a ‘haven’ for Jews, Terezin was in fact a key component of Eichmann’s Final Solution; it was a staging post for the death camps, and staggeringly high numbers of Jews either died here or were transported to Auschwitz, Birkenau and other extermination camps.

The museum in the Ghetto used to be the school and today contains an exhibition of children’s drawings from the years of occupation. Of 10,000 children who lived at some point in Terezin, only a handful – 23 – survived the war. Pause for a moment to think on that – of 10,000, only 23 survived. All those lives …

Man’s capacity for inhumanity to man ran rampant here. The inhabitants of Terezin were cut off from the outside world and any attempt to communicate about the terrible conditions in the town was punished severely. One tiny room in the Small Fortress held at any one time up to 60 Jewish ‘dissidents’, who were chained to the walls and could only sleep standing up, collapsing into their own excrement. As typhoid swept through the ghetto, 30,000 people died and were cremated in a purpose-built crematorium before they could be sent on to the death camps. Their ashes were thrown without ceremony into the river; the prisoners who had been made to cremate and dispose of their fellow Jews were then also killed, so as to eliminate witnesses.

This regime treated some of our fellow humans as far, far less than human, and what is so shocking to us now is that the perpetrators appeared to believe, genuinely, that they were right to do so. Look around the world today and we can see innumerable examples of human beings treating other human beings as subhuman – in ways that are not, and cannot, be right.

The 18th century statesman Edmund Burke has been much quoted as saying that “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” That was true at the camps of Terezin and other places of WWII which have fallen into history. It is equally true today, here and now, in our world where human beings inflict pain, torture, imprisonment on their fellow human beings because they see they as less important or less worthy.

No human being is less worthy than another. And if each of us truly believed this, and stood up to say so, we might just – just – ensure that the ghosts of Terezin are put to rest for ever.


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