The Stain

Rochelle Goldstein Bay
Photograph by Robert Eklund on Unsplash

It wasn’t until I was face-to-face with a woman in the tourist bureau in the center of Prague asking directions that I actually made up my mind to go. She lingered a moment over my request and seemed to register concern: when I asked the way to Terezin, she countered with “Theresienstadt?” in an inflected tone of surprise that implicitly asked, Why do you want to go there?

Why had she said Theresienstadt? I thought maybe one was the name of the town, the other the name of the camp? To her inquiry, I said, yes, it’s a concentration camp. “Yes, I know what it is,” she said, annoyed, and peremptorily took out a map, laying Prague before me, then X-ing the spot in the center of the city where I needed to get the bus for the sixty kilometer ride north, about forty minutes.

As it was early and there were not many visitors to the tourist center, her shortness could not have been that she was busy, so it seemed like a not-so- subtle resistance to my request, which only made me question, and then solidify, my desire to go. I was annoyed, I suppose, because her ambivalence matched mine, and I was ashamed of that.

I had debated with myself about going for a week, and even waking early that Sunday morning, even as I left the cramped apartment I shared with four other teachers at SUNY Prague where I was teaching English, down the four flights as, inevitably, the elevator was not working, the internal debate continued; even as I soldiered on through the quiet, gray-toned, sparsely populated Praha 4 section, past the still sleeping Soviet-style apartments, down blocks to the metro, passing the only remnant of the art nouveau era in the neighborhood, a statue of a muscular man holding up the globe that framed the lintel of a dilapidated building, but even then I was not sure if I was actually going to go. Even as I got to the center of the Old Town and ascended up the metro escalator that carried me out of darkness, affording me a glimpse of a blue, cloudless sky and felt the whoosh of fresh air that seemed to admonish me for wanting to go to a concentration camp on a beautiful day like this, on a weekend at that, as I had little time off as it was, even then, I hadn’t yet decided.

Although my mother was Catholic, I was raised in my father’s Jewish religion, and there is an implicit responsibility I feel, conveyed through my paternal grandmother mostly, to remember, to honor those killed. I went to Hebrew school, loved deciphering the ancient, humble letters under the warm glow of a Moorish lantern, the one that guarded the ark holding the Torah, the light that must never go out, the light that guarded the words of the One who can never be named.

I had never been to a concentration camp before, yet throughout my life I heard about them and was afraid. In my purse, Where She Came From, a memoir by Helen Epstein about a daughter’s search for her mother’s past, a mother who had been sent to Terezin, a mother who never talked about the war. Neither did my own mother ever talk about what had gone on, growing up religiously in a small Bavarian Catholic town, who married my Jewish father, an American GI, after the war and relocated to his hometown, New York City.

I found out later Terezin is the Czech pronunciation while the woman in tourist information used the German one, Theresienstadt, perhaps a way, as I think of it now, to distance the Czechs from the whole affair. The camp was notorious because it was beautified to deceive the Red Cross and the world. The Danish king insisted that the Danish Red Cross visit Danish deportees to witness firsthand how they were being treated. And so began the show. The Germans cynically described it as a “spa” town, where all inmates got new clothes, where the prisoners were filmed enjoying themselves in various pursuits, smiling and happy.

When the International Red Cross contingent arrived, several events were staged for their benefit: A mock “spontaneous trial” of a person charged with theft enacted to show how humanely such matters were dealt with; to show that this was a system that allowed, within a totalitarian system, some democratic control. There was also a false soccer game replete with cheering crowds. The famous children’s opera, Brundibár, was performed.

Behind the masquerade, Theresiendstadt served a double purpose as a transit camp and a death place for some of the most prominent Czech, Austrian, and German writers, scientists, jurists, musicians, professors, artists, and decorated veterans of World War I. So the public would not object to their being imprisoned, it was described as a “retirement” home, even though there were many children there, a lie fed to the Germans, as well as to foreign allies like Mussolini.

After I paid my admission, I was handed a map of colored squares as if I were entering Disneyland—here was the room for the teeth, the suitcases, the eyeglasses, the buttons, the shoes. You could walk into each alcove and look at these remains. Alone, I walked the unshaded arcades, the arched walkways in the bright sun. Gaining toward noon, toward the time of no shadow, this blackened red-brick and solid walled place bared its fortress self and seemed to absorb all its secrets. I was alone, or at least so I thought. Empty lanes in the glaring sun until I saw the group: about ten or so male German tourists, all of them very tall, all of them entering the tiny room where I stood, entering with a tour guide, who said, in English:

“Here is where they slept.”

“How many?” asked one of the German men.

“At best, ten,” she said, “more like twenty here,” marking the room with the sweep of her hand. She said it in English, and in English the big men said, “Not so bad. Not so bad,” squaring their wide shoulders, as if spreading their wings. And then they spoke sotto voce in German among themselves, shaking their heads. My mother never taught me German, not a word, not a lullaby. The closest I had come was the Yiddish spoken in my grandparents’ home, a type of German, which is how my parents had initially communicated.

I walked out of that room and made my way to one of the bigger rooms where I was thankfully alone with the sun streaming through the dusty half-moon windows. The emptiness and cleanliness of the room offered almost aesthetic relief, which is strange to think of considering where I was. But then again, light can transform any place. And that was one of the things that bothered me. Stripped of context as it was, of evidence of the brutality, it became a paean of the light. One and a half million children, mostly Jewish, were slaughtered.

Along the cavelike walls, wooden plinths were stacked high to the low gray ceiling. This is where people slept curled into each other for warmth. This is where the women would talk over the scaffolding about recipes, about dinners they had. The starvation at Theresienstadt was legendary: the average daily diet for a child was 168 calories per day of potatoes. Not much more for an adult. The death rate was so high, a special crematorium was built to handle 190 bodies a day or sixty-nine thousand a year.

Every night before they slept, the women would cook, they’d prepare feasts. They called it “cooking with the mouth.” These words, the syllables of starvation, bring back their memories. From Mrs. Weil, Wiener Knödel, Viennese Dumplings—Sprinkle dumplings with cinnamon and sugar or serve plain with roasts. She tells them this in the dark, with the blue light coming in through the half-moon windows, and tastes the sugar on her tongue as she speaks. Mrs. Klein interrupts, The Vanille Torte—stir well five egg yolks, twenty decagrams sugar. Grate half vanilla bean ... don’t forget the apricot jam, oh, the apricot jam, how I made it from ... Her voice goes silent for a moment.

This is the worst moment, when the tide of voices goes out, when the silence comes in to remind them. But she continues, Then top with whipped cream. For Milchrahmstrudel, the filling, a quarter cup heavy cream ... The word itself spreads a thin film on her tongue.

But you need something more substantial! Mina Pächter interjects, and offers her PyrogenMache einen Nudelteig und walke ihn aus. Make a noodle dough and roll it out ...

In her ear, her nephew David, a boy of ten, eleven, whispers; he wants his favorites. He is here, too, the one who died on Yom Kippur, 1944.

Uberstehen, they would tell each other, hold on, carry on a normal life, outlast the enemy. They plan menus, they prepare ingredients, they set the table and eat. On the current of their voices, the wine glasses tinkle, the flame of the candle flares and flickers in the slight draft, their words rub against the plaster walls and disappear into the air.

They wrote down these recipes secretly at night, recreating in their minds the remembered feasts. Others drew illustrations. It was collected into a book, and just before she died of hunger, Mina Pächter, one of the main authors, entrusted it to a friend who smuggled it out of the camp at the end of the war. A quarter of a century later, a package arrived at an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan for Mina Pächter’s daughter, Annie Stern. The book is called Memory’s Kitchen.

I walked deeper into this deep room with its thick, lathed walls that could have been convent walls, arched doorways, gray stone. On the gray plaster on the far side of the beds a dark stain shaped as if a crow had smashed into it and dripped down to the floor, its wings hanging in midair. The German tourists enter the room. Did I hear them say again, “Not so bad. Not so bad,” or was I just being paranoid? I did not like them, and I didn’t know why. I was upset with myself. After all, my mother was German. “We didn’t know,” she often said to me.

I knew that the German people had suffered badly after the war. Pictures of desperation, women carving out a dead horse that had collapsed in the icy road. My mother I knew to be a kind person. Who can understand what it means to be bombed? There were seventy-four air raids, tons of bombs dropped in and around Munich, where my mother lived when she was a child.

“May you never know,” she would sometimes say, never know what it is like to be in war, was the end of that sentence. “We never knew.” I see her doing the dishes, so sucked into herself, into a privacy I wouldn’t have dared to broach, a zone where the war still lived in her. I knew that not all Germans were Nazis and yet these men bothered me.

As the tour guide droned on, I wanted to get away. Although this was the first time I had ever been in a concentration camp, its stories had followed me from childhood like wings beating beside my ear, Never again, never again. But may you never know was different. We didn’t know. We didn’t know. One meant knowing and somehow preventing it from happening again. The other? I didn’t know, and still don’t know, what it really means.

I walked outside to another building and entered a narrow corridor that my map labeled as the Walk of Death. In single file you must go, it said, in badly translated English that made the sentences stiff. The map urged that you rewalk the Walk of Death. I entered. Grotto moist, the walls seemed to close in. Chase lights ran along the bottom as in a theater to help you navigate the dark. If your shoulders were wide, they could scrape along the sides. Here, the walk of the condemned. The map did not say what was at the other end. I imagined an electric chair, a platform with a noose, images from a movie.

But as I walked deeper in, I started to hear voices—was it piped in? At first, the sound was soft, barely audible, like a rising Gregorian chant, but the further on I went, they grew louder, and louder. Still, I wondered where the sounds came from. I couldn’t locate the source. I couldn’t hear distinct words, but there were words. Were they in English? Was it piped in? But then the sounds entered my skin like cold fear. Seeped in. A mist that was nowhere and everywhere. I thought of the people who walked here before me. Walked here knowing they were going to die.

The walls damp with the touch of human heat. I felt as if I was falling. The voices came over me as if the stones held them, as if the moistness released their condensed breath. They entered into my ear. I had become their medium. Some membrane was breached.

The further in I walked the less I could tell whether the sounds came from inside me or from the stones. Or if the cold sweat was me or the moist stones. I felt nauseous. I stopped as if to turn, and heard a scraping sound and footsteps drawing near.

The walls narrowed; it was very cold. The voices in the stones grew louder. The people knew when they walked down this narrow place, knew they were going to die. Where was the sound coming from? How had the stones captured all of their voices? They entered me. I carried them.

A male voice behind me said—not unkindly—“Go, go.” Obeying the kindness I heard, the softness of his voice, I took a few more steps. But then I heard the scraping sound again. Step. Step.

And then one of the chase lights, one of the lights, just one of them, was out.

I know now it was the pattern of light I was holding onto, that one light would follow the other, a human chain.

I felt faint. A crypt coldness came from deep within, and yet it was also very warm. I felt as if I was suffocating. I had to get out of there. I was afraid to die. I did not want to die. I knew that if I got to the end, I would be killed. I turned abruptly, but one of the big men was behind me. Someone shouted “No!” in tones like a gunshot that echoed down the human chain. “You must go forward!” Was it me or was it the voices that screamed? To this day I don’t know, but something screamed and screamed “Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck You! You fucking turn around now!”

I’m not given to screaming. In fact, it is hard for me to do but some voice deep inside me came out of my mouth. It seemed to come from inside the cave, from whatever there was at the end of it, whatever was there, it screamed in a wave of rage.

How many times I screamed I don’t know, but all the big men turned around and were walking back out. The scraping sound of their shoulders against the walls, a whoosh, as if a flock of birds had taken off.

I have no recollection of the walk back, but whatever was rising in me did not stop until I could feel the sun on my face as I got to the mouth of this hell, could hear the roar of traffic and see the shadow of the passing clouds that absorbed all earthly noise before they go. The German men lined both sides of the entrance and watched me pass, five on each side, ten for a minyan, the number needed to bury the dead. There was silence between us.


The town itself, Terezin, Theresiendstadt, is the same color as the fortress. It is a town that is not a town but a monument to a horror. It seemed deserted. Gray streets without the grace of any tree. It was as if someone had put the whole town into a body shop and painted it the color of a tank. Crimped and circling the locus of the camp, it is a gray-windowed oculus looking out into nothing. Does anything live here?

In a little museum across the way a video camera nailed into the ceiling, black-and-white footage of a series of men talking. The gaggle of guards, all local women in cast-off Soviet-era uniforms are conversing among themselves. They have turned down the sound of the talking heads. They have no use for this anymore. In a dimly lit vitrine high towers of suitcases like a stack of cairns near a wall of children’s drawings. Ash, it seems, was their crayons; burnt ends of sticks, maybe; there is hardly any color. Many depict houses, a winding path, the stick figure of a mother walking toward the viewer, happy, full of spring in their step. Many of the paths seem to go on to the edge of the pieces of paper they are drawn on, falling off the edge into silence, the silence of mothers.

The guards do not speak English, do not understand me when I ask directions to the bus stop. I walk some distance by myself, trying to recollect the path I took earlier in the day, happy just to feel the air. Then miraculously, a beaming couple in front of me, wheeling a two-toned baby carriage giddy with lace. “Autobus?” I ask. They wave me on in the right direction.

Rochelle Goldstein Bay is a writer, editor, and teacher living in New York City. Her work has appeared in NimrodColumbia JournalPodium, and Self, among other publications. She was a semi-finalist for the Pablo Neruda Poetry Prize.