The Jewish Museum in Prague, Robert Guttmann Gallery, Prague 1, U Staré školy 3
From May 3 until July 22, 2007, open daily 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. except Saturdays and Jewish holidays
Following on from an earlier exhibition that dealt with the deportations of Czech Jews to the Baltic States in the first half of 1942, this exhibition focuses on the fate of the transports that took thousands of prisoners to the occupied territory of Poland in 1941–1942.
Period documents contain very little direct information on the physical liquidation of the Jewish populations in occupied territories. The relevant orders were concealed through the use of euphemistic terms and codes and most were issued verbally; this applies, for example, to “Operation Reinhard” on Polish territory and to the activities of the Einsatzgruppen (death squads) in the occupied territories of the Soviet Union.
This exhibition shows the events through the eyes of some of the few prisoners who survived and who have been able to provide testimony. There were a number of transports without a single survivor. In many cases, all we know about the fate of the Czech Jews is from the testimonies of inmates of other nationalities, as well as from the testimonies of former SS members. This exhibition tells the stories of people who became the victims of tragic and cruel events and who witnessed humiliations and the complete loss of human dignity.
The Nazi policy of “the final solution of the Jewish question” entered its final phase in the summer of 1941, particularly in connection with the war’s developments. The previous restrictions and discriminatory measures against the Jews, which had led to their impoverishment and separation from society, the first small-scale murders and expulsions were a mere prelude to the tragedy that awaited them. The establishment of a new German Reich and the acquisition of “living space” for the German nation could not have occurred without the enslavement and, subsequently, the physical liquidation of the so-called inferior races, notably the Jews. The gradual destruction of these people culminated in their liquidation on an industrial scale. The extermination centres meant one thing – death.
The systematic deportation of Jews from the territory of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia began in October 1941, when five transports were shipped from Prague to the Lodz ghetto. Many did not survive the cruel conditions of the ghetto and a number of prisoners became victims of the “evacuations” to Chelmno, where they were murdered in mobile gas vans. Only 282 of the deportees returned home.
Named in honour of Reinhard Heydrich, “Operation Reinhard” was the code name for the physical liquidation initially of the Polish Jews and then of the Jewish population that had been deported from the occupied countries of Central, Western and part of Southern Europe. Specific localities were chosen as transit ghettoes en route to death. Their selection was not by random: they were small towns that were situated on railway routes leading to the extermination camps. The Polish ghettoes of Izbica, Piaski, Rejowiec and Zamość were the destination for transports from the Protectorate. In their testimonies, Czech Jewish survivors all describe the backwardness of the local communities and the cultural distinctness of the local populations and the new arrivals, as well as highlighting the atrocious living conditions, hunger, dirt and disease. Only the young and healthy inmates were able to survive temporarily by getting selected for hard labour in various camps in the Lublin district. These were mainly waterworks camps with particular focus on land amelioration. Other small groups of prisoners worked on construction sites and in various manufacturing workshops and factories.
The mentally and physically handicapped, the terminally ill and concentration camp inmates became victims in the “euthanasia institutions”, which were set up in the territory of the Reich in 1940–1941. These were the first mass killing sites to be tested. This method of mass murder was gradually perfected and implemented in the extermination centres in the territories of occupied Poland and the former Soviet Union.
Thousands of Czechs perished in Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Majdanek, Treblinka and Auschwitz. About 38,010 people were deported on thirty transports from the Protectorate between October 1941 and October 1942. Only 349 of these survived.
Many prisoners died as a result of the cruel living conditions, and many of them were gratuitously shot. The sick, the elderly and mothers with small children had almost no chance of survival; most of them were murdered in the gas chambers.
This was not, however, a nameless mass of people. Each person had their own name, face and fate. It was a life deprived of childhood, toys and, above all, love, work satisfaction, family and friendship. Perhaps these cruel stories will cause us to stop and think and to realize the true values that supersede time, death and destruction.
The exhibition is curated by Jana Šplíchalová.