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Camp evokes war's horrors

Michael Carroll is a Philadelphia writer Above the gate we passed through at the Terezin concentration camp in August was the phrase made infamous at Auschwitz:

Michael Carroll

is a Philadelphia writer

Above the gate we passed through at the Terezin concentration camp in August was the phrase made infamous at Auschwitz:

Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Makes One Free).

The Terezin camp was created in what was then Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic). It was considered a work camp by the Nazis, as distinguished from an extermination camp like Auschwitz. They did not use the word extermination, but there was no denying the camp's function: to kill those sent there, to kill efficiently and in great numbers.

Notwithstanding the terms, the main difference between the two seems to be that most who entered Terezin - mostly Jews - died, but from disease and malnutrition rather than in the gas chamber like at Auschwitz. Many who survived the conditions at Terezin were eventually sent to Auschwitz and few of them lived to see the end of the war.

Terezin - Theresienstadt to the Germans - was built in the late 18th century by the Austrians as a fortress and garrison town to repel German invaders from Prussia. Nazi invaders returned in the 20th century and converted it into a concentration camp.

Some Czechs we met during our trip to Europe last summer appeared to have forgotten all about the place. No one at the subway stop for the Prague bus station seemed to have heard of it.

The man who had just locked up the station information booth did not break stride as we pursued him asking for directions. Hurried and unsmiling, he was maybe tired of hearing about the camp - tired of being questioned by foreigners who should be interested in more uplifting sites. Maybe he was a believer that everybody suffered during the war and it was best to move on.

The Holocaust horrors of Terezin did not exist in a 20th-century vacuum. They followed a millennium of European anti-Semitism and precede who knows what. More than half a millennium ago, the beautiful Imperial City of Prague - then home to the Holy Roman emperor - saw its Jewish population wiped out in a pogrom. Other brutal if less complete massacres punctuated Czech history during the thousand years before the Holocaust.

The walls of the museum at Terezin bear a long list of names interspersed with photos of people who led real lives - ordinary and extraordinary - that ended at Terezin. That personal reality on a human scale made it easier to know with the heart the horrific and obscenely large numbers of victims that the head might not fully absorb.

Terezin owns another perverse distinction in the criminal constellation of Nazi death camps. Several times it was dressed up as a showplace to dupe delegations from the International Red Cross - perhaps with some members too willing to be duped in order to get what they wanted from the Nazis. Some of those delegates may have wanted to save their own countrymen, others to continue enterprises that profited by doing business with the Nazis. Delegation members were invited to inspect playgrounds and cafes built by the Germans for outside eyes only, temporarily peopled by Jews who likely did not survive the war.

The Nazis served up cultural events for the inspections: children's opera, jazz bands, and classical orchestras - all part of an elaborate deception to hide the death machine within.

In recent years, the American conductor Murry Sidlin has journeyed to Terezin to conduct his work Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin, which commemorates and honors artists, both famous and obscure, who performed Verdi at the camp during the window-dressing events staged for visitors from the outside world. Most of those musicians perished.

Less than 200 miles from Terezin lies Berlin, the German capital, where the genocide was planned and so efficiently managed. We visited Train Platform 17, the starting point of a journey of no return for many German Jews sent to Terezin and Auschwitz. The platform sits in a leafy part of the metropolis, peaceful and attractive. Downstairs from the platform, you can buy flowers or eat a light lunch.

The rusted rails of Platform 17 go nowhere now, but once connected the capital to the camps. The place offers mostly mute testimony, but sometimes it silently screams. Along the platform are markers, which reflect exacting daily counts of the condemned deportees. The Nazis were excellent record keepers. And from these disheartening records we know that the deportations continued even when Soviet artillery could be heard in the distance. The Nazis stayed focused on their mission of extermination even to the detriment of the military needs - they would also sideline military supply trains to make way for the deportation trains bound for the camps.

In the end it is best - more than best, it is essential - to remember the work of the Nazis at Terezin and other camps.