Wednesday, October 26, 2016

A Tale of Two (Empty) Swimming Pools

Within the span of 24 hours on September 9 and 10, I observed two empty swimming pools in the Czech Republic. Each portays the history of the Jews in Czechoslovakia, one symbolizing an almost certain end of the road, the other a rebirth.
The first is in the basement of Petschek Villa, the residence of the United States Ambassador to the Czech Republic. Through a mutual friend, Janet and I visited with Ambassador Andrew Schapiro and his wife, Tamar Newberger, in the late afternoon and evening of September 9. Along with two couples and two guests, Andrew and Tamar took us on a tour of part of the 70-room residence.

The Villa was built in the late 1920s, during the brief flowering of the first republic of Czechoslovakia by Otto Petschek, the patriarch of one of the wealthiest families in the country. The Petscheks were a German-speaking Jewish family, and their wealth was attributable in large part to coal mining and banking.

While the mansion was being built, the family lived in the present Deputy Chief of Mission’s residence. The Petschek grandparents continued to live there after the rest of the family moved into their new home during the winter of 1929 - 1930. Otto Petschek became ill and died in 1934.

In 1938, with the growing Nazi threat in Europe and specifically toward Czechoslovakia, the Petschek family (a son and three daughters) sold their holdings and departed for the United States, where members of the family still live. After the Nazis occupied Prague, they seized the house, and it became the residence of General Rudolf Toussaint, the head of the German army occupying Prague. A considerable number of Nazi aides and soldiers were quartered on the property during this seven-year period.

Taking us into the basement and switching on a light in a huge dark room, Andrew revealed an empty swimming pool with an interesting history. NOTE: Because of the family’s wishes, photos of the pool and other rooms in the residence will not be posted here or on social media.

The swimming pool is said to have been used during only one winter. By one account, after one of the Petschek sisters caught pneumonia after swimming and nearly died, her father decreed that the pool should never be used again. Another account holds that a family member dived in and broke a leg, which resulted in the ban. Another explanation for the pools’ disuse (a less dramatic one offered by a family member) was the pool was too expensive to heat, even for an owner of coal mines. Either way, the pool has remained empty for more than eighty years.

Terezin concentration camp

The second is in the Terezin concentration camp, 40 miles north of Prague, which visited the following day. The Nazis took over the fortress built by Hapsburgs between 1780 and 1790 that had been used a prison for army and political prisoners. It served mainly as a transfer camp, although thousands died here from disease, starvation and execution. For a visit by the Red Cross, the Nazis built facilities that were never used by the inmates, including rows of sinks on each side of a long room.

Sinks, Terezin concentration camp

Toward the end of our visit, we were taken to an empty swimming pool, surrounded by a fence. Jews and students were forced to build it for the guards and their families in 1942. The inmates used it once . . . for the propaganda film. It was not particularly large or deep, compared to the pool at the Petschek Villa.
Swimming pool, Terezin concentration camp

Of the vast majority of Czech Jews taken to Terezin, 97,297 died, including 15,000 children. Only 132 children were known to have survived. The elderly and families were brought in large numbers to Terezin. Then, in large groups, they were transported to the east, to Auschwitz-Birkenau, when it was fully operational in late 1942. The elderly were sent immediately to the gas chambers, while younger inmates who still could work were temporarily spared. Terezin families were, in some instances, kept together at Birkenau, in family barracks, until their fate was met.
Terezin Concentration camp

Simply stated, the empty Terezin swimming pool was as depressing a symbol of death one can find for the Holocaust. Ovens, gallows, gas chambers and the like our guttural reminders of the unfortunate capabilities of human beings. The pool rather transcends that, as one imagines the slave laborers literally being worked to death for the benefit of the guards and their families, as they were in bunkers below Auschwitz making parts for B-1 and B-2 rockets. Sadness and anger overwhelm the soul as one looks out at the decaying expanse.

Terezin concentration camp

The pool at the Ambassador’s residence is the opposite, a symbol of the enduring strength of the Jewish people. Ambassador Schapiro’s mother’s family lived in Prague during the war. In fact, the Czemer family (his grandfather worked for Shell Oil) lived in an apartment building close to the Villa. Raya Czemer fled Czechoslovakia at age 5 in 1939 and settled in Chicago, where she attended public schools, college and medical school, becoming a psychiatrist. Andrew had a distinguished career in law, including clerking for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, before being named ambassador in 2014. Ironically, the residence had already been made kosher by the previous ambassador, Norman Eisen. Our tour included the kitchen, where the chef displayed the freshly baked challah that would be served for Shabbat dinner.

The story of rebirth doesn’t simply end with the success of the son of a Holocaust survivor. A month previously, Alex Schapiro celebrated his bar mitzvah at the beautiful Spanish Synagogue, where his grandmother's family had worshipped. Rabbi Asher Lopatin, president of a modern Orthodox rabbinical school in New York City who had been the family’s rabbi at Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel in Chicago, officiated.

Spanish Synagogue, Prague

Two empty swimming pools, one representing death and the cruelty of humankind and one representing life and the will of a people not just to survive but to prosper in many ways. I shall never forget either of them.