Monday, September 08, 2003

Leaving Terezin

It was all I could think about for weeks. No, months. We had talked about doing this for so long. And now it was finally happening.

We were taking the family to Europe.

And more than that, to Prague, one of the most fascinating, exquisitely gorgeous cities in all of the continent. With a rich Jewish history to boot.

Mind you, it was only for five days, but our expectations were high. We would go hopping from castle to ancient castle. We’d ride on classic trams without the fear of being blown up (an sadly only-in-Israel point of view), walk the storied streets of the Jewish Quarter and the kids would soak in the history of a new place while making pithy remarks on all the new and different things they were seeing...doors, street signs, ice cream flavors.

But no one prepared me for how hard it would be traveling with children.

That’s not entirely fair. For the most part, we really did enjoy ourselves and even five-year-old Aviv was happy as long as he could hopscotch across the cobblestones.

But there was also whining and hunger and runny noses that needed to be wiped; broken-record arguments over who would be responsible for carrying the backpack and the camera case; not to mention the seemingly never ending bathroom breaks. It made having any kind of an adult educational vacation almost impossible.

Truth be told, a lot of it was my own fault. I’m the kind of guy who overly-researches a place, then plans the itinerary down to the hour. I should have been a tour guide. Well, actually, I was one once...during college I used to lead Gray Line bus tours of San Francisco during my summer vacations.

But kids require a more go-with-the-flow kind of approach, even if this means we only hit two attractions in a day instead of five.

So I probably pushed too hard while the kids were just being, well, themselves. How could I have expected anything different?

And that probably would have been just fine were it not for Terezenstadt (Terezin in Czech), the notorious Nazi transit camp where over 140,000 passed from 1941-45 but only a few thousand survived.

Terezin would be heavy, we knew, but also particularly relevant since so many children were sent there. In Terezin’s Jewish Museum, there is room after room of children’s artwork, poems, magazines, theatrical productions.

Of the 15,000 children under the age of 15 deported to Terezin, only 132 survived.

I was particularly unnerved by the essential deceptiveness of the camp. Jews sent there were told it was just a stop on the way to somewhere else, somewhere better. They were even forced to sign property releases with promises from the German government that in exchange for leaving their homes they would receive free room, board and medical care for life.

Instead, they arrived to triple bunks (in the best cases) and conditions so horrific that many of Terezin’s unfortunate inhabitants died of disease and malnutrition. Those who didn’t were sent primarily to Auschwitz, just a few hours train ride across the Czech-Polish border.

How could our kids not be moved?

And still, despite all the intensity of the place, nothing seemed to change, behavior-wise. Yes, there was learning...and whining at the same time. Absorbing...and demanding ice cream in the midst of the most emotionally wrenching of moments.

As we hurried back into the car in order to make it to our second big site of our day - a castle not too far away - the bickering intensified. When it escalated to spitting, that’s when I exploded.

Maybe I was already on edge after three hours of testimonial to man's inhumanity to man. But five days of fighting finally converged into a need to let it out. On my kids.

I’m not proud that I yelled just then (though the bickering stopped for awhile). But it was Jody’s mortified look that shook me. Her silent gesture to a road sign that read in Czech “You are now leaving Terezin” said more than any words could.

We were leaving Terezin. In a car. Unharmed. Of our own volition. Having just eaten the cheese and tuna paste sandwiches we’d packed earlier in the day.

Tens of thousands of children never could, never did what we'd just accomplished with such ease. And here I was, yelling at my kids. Those kids who I adore. Who mean more to me than anything in the world.

We never made it to our next planned stop. We were late anyway. And it was time to start going with the flow.

We exited the ironically named “Transit” highway that skirts the suburbs of Prague and stopped at an enormous mall. We found a children’s play area that kept the kids in non-bickering joy for close to an hour. We sat and ate ice cream.

And then we found a lovely unassuming park and played hopscotch over the cobblestones.

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