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New Europe

Day One Hundred and Twelve: Prague and Terezin

Lisa Mikova 
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Lisa Mikova. A face that's seen so much, still full of life.
Michael Palin - New EuropeThere are plans, I'm told, to try and revive it by locating parts of Prague University out here, but for now it remains a ghost town, cursed, perhaps, by its past. As a transit point for Auschwitz and the extermination camps of the east, 144,000 people came through Terezin; 33,000 died here and of the 88,000 sent on to the camps, just under 5,000 survived.

'There was no railway station here,' Lisa remembers, 'so we had to go by foot about 4 kilometres, with all our luggage... and the German SS was always around us with dogs'.

Families were split up, men in one part of the camp, women in the other. The men's quarters are now a Ghetto Museum, over whose entrance is inscribed the word 'Remember', in Hebrew. The walls of the stairwell are covered from top to bottom with paintings by inmates of the Terezin ghetto. A snowman, a vase of flowers, a line at a soup kitchen. As painting was forbidden, these seemingly innocuous works represented acts of considerable defiance. Lisa tells me that during the war some of them were smuggled out of Terezin and published in a Swedish newspaper. The artists were identified, rooted out and had their hands crushed.

There is a cinema in the museum which shows a Nazi propaganda film made in Terezin to fool the Red Cross into thinking that this was, as the commentary has it, 'Hitler's City for the Jews'. Before the Red Cross arrived the place would be cleaned up, football matches and concerts encouraged and everyone ordered to smile. And it worked. Not once, but twice. The Red Cross left Terezin alone, and the 'transports' resumed. In 1944 Lisa's husband was put on one to Auschwitz. A few weeks later the womenfolk were given the chance of 'joining their families'. She agreed to go, but never saw her parents again, and never met her husband in Auschwitz.

She survived the death camp and was removed to Dresden to work in an aircraft factory, witnessing the great raid of February 1945 from the factory, in which all the workers had been locked whilst the bosses fled to shelter.

'We were so happy when we saw the English planes, even though they could also destroy the factory where we were! For us it was a wonderful feeling, but it's terrible when I say this to a German, he looks at me as if I'm not normal.'

She was moved in a cattle truck from Dresden to Mauthausen concentration camp in the Austrian mountains. There they would all have been murdered had not the Allied advance reached so close that the incriminating gas chambers were destroyed by the SS. Emaciated, riddled with typhoid and weighing less than 40 kilos, Lisa was liberated by the Americans on 5 May 1945.

The happy ending to her ordeal was made even better when she realised her husband had also survived.

Lisa tells me her story on a bench as the wind sways the trees around the square in the town that brought her so much pain. Recently, after the death of her husband, she joined with one or two of her fellow survivors to tell their story to the teenagers and sixth-formers of today.

'Because we are the last ones. We are the last generation whom they can ask.'
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day One Hundred and Twelve: Prague and Terezin
  • Country/sea: Czech Republic
  • Place: Prague
  • Book page no: 262

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