Well, I’ve only changed my mind a dozen times already as I’m browsing through Bohemia picture files trying to decide what “adventure” to take you on this month. If you recall, I only have a little over 12,000 digital “memories” of Europe to spark my adrenaline again each time I see just ONE of them! As you may also already know, our memories are directly related to our adrenal system .. and that’s why some memories are much more “vivid” than others .. and some evoke the emotions that accompanied each experience. Some make you laugh .. cry .. miss someone .. happy .. sad .. but the ones that seem to leave the biggest imprint have what I call the “Wow Factor”. In the Czech language, that “WOW!” expression is “Ty Vole!”
Everywhere I travel, my mind is taking it’s own photographs .. much like your video recorder .. running endlessly. Those images are forever “in there” .. but instantaneously putting a finger on them or drawing them to the front happens much quicker if the memory was etched by that “Wow Factor”. Simple, basic physiology .. and you all can relate. Everyone my age remembers exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard John F. Kennedy was assassinated .. the Challenger explosion .. 9/11 .. and most easily, the very moment your children were born into this realm of existence .. all etched by that “Wow Factor”.
So as I’m searching for pictures that relate to an idea I’d started to make notes about .. so MANY “wow” moments barrage me and it’s just as though I’m standing out in the country in the middle nowhere .. except I’m in the Czech Republic .. and that little crossroads intersection out in the middle of “nowhere” just happens to be the precise, exact geographic and GPS location designated as the “Heart of Europe”. I guess it was established as “dead center” a long time ago .. and someone put up a huge stone “marker” indicating “THIS is IT” … “Wow”. I’ll never forget it.
More importantly .. and maybe even more appropriately .. being as this coming weekend is “Memorial Day” .. is that right across that intersection, out there in the middle of “nowhere”, is a memorial. One of many I found across Europe .. as they seem to actually “appreciate” the sacrifice our American soldiers made for their freedom. It was another “Wow” moment for me when I strolled across the road and began reading the sign. The tall granite monolith paid homage to “The Big Red One”, and had the names of each of the 745 soldiers who gave their lives in that particular offensive to liberate total strangers from oppression. It was moving. Very moving.
The smaller green billboard tells the history of the 1st Infantry Division, whose motto is listed as: “No mission too difficult, No sacrifice too great, Duty first”. “Honor” is the word that came to my mind when I read “the worst horror of their wartime careers were when they were sent to liberate a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia”.
Formed in 1917, when the United States entered WWI, the 1st Infantry Division is the oldest continuously serving division in the US Army. The Division’s nickname is “Big Red One”. It originated from their insignia, which is a large red number “1” on a khaki field. The nickname was adopted during WWI, when the 1st was the first American division to arrive in France. In WWII, the “Big Red One” took part in the Allied invasion of North Africa in November 1942, driving Axis forces from the continent in 1943. In July of that year, 1st Infantry Division forces invaded Italy, landing in Sicily. On D-Day (June 6, 1944), units of the 1st stormed Omaha Beach as part of Operation Overlord, and later moved through Belgium into Germany. After taking part in the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium, they reentered Germany and on March 15, 1945, crossed the Rhine. On May 8, 1945, units of the 1st liberated two Nazi concentration camps that were located on territory that today is in the Czech Republic.
“Big Red One” was a veteran of three amphibious assaults in North Africa, Sicily and Normandy. It had fought in deserts, mountains, plains and cities, in extreme heat and cold, against every kind of opponent. With 16 Medal of Honor recipients, the Fighting First ended the war with a record unequaled by any other American division.
As we rode away from the “Heart of Europe” and that Monument .. we came across one of the barricaded crossings that was still in place where the Germans used to patrol a rudimentary country road that ran parallel to “no-man’s land”. Anyone caught crossing this grassy roadway would be shot on sight. It made one think, and appreciative of the fact that we do not have to be subjected to such “oversight” … yet.
As I traveled throughout the “Heart of Europe” .. it was interesting to note just how many “memorials” were erected and maintained by the people of tiny villages and major cities. I discovered that Shirley Temple visited Prague in August 1968 in preparation for becoming the U.S. Ambassador to Czech and Slovak Federal Republic. In 1989 she was the first female U.S. Chief Protocol of the United States, in charge of implementation of all State Department visits and ceremonies. Outside her office still stand two pillars which respectively read: “6.V.1945 “To the men of the sixteenth armored division we’ll never forget” Nikdy Nezapomeneme (which means “we’ll never forget” in Czech) 6.V.1990 and “Thank you America! On May 6, 1945 the city of Plzen was liberated by the 16th Army.”
In many city parks and on municipal grounds are abandoned tanks, troop trucks, howitzers, half-tracks and remnants and reminders of those days when such “objects” were common sights and placements. When Tomás, his brother Lubos, Bimbo and I toured Slovakia we stopped at a roadside “incinerator” used to eliminate Hitler’s “undesirables”, near the town of Pamätník Nemecká. There was a small museum on the property which displayed many of the artifacts removed from within the firebox (which looked like a huge grey kiln or beehive) .. eyeglasses, monocles, rings, shoes, clothing fragments and pictures of those days when despicable acts were perpetrated upon innocent human beings. It stirred one’s soul.
The next year I returned to Europe for another three months, and this time it was to specifically set up a motorcycle tour route for what we were to call “Bohemian Bike Adventures”.
One of the places we definitely wanted to include in our “adventure” was the Nazi camp in Terazín, called the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp. “In the late 18th century the Habsbury monarchy erected the fortress on the Ohre River, near its confluence with the Elbe River at Litomêrice. The construction started in 1780 and lasted ten years. The total area of the fortress was 3.89 square kilometers and was designed to house 5,655 soldiers in peacetime, and in wartime around 11,000.”
After Gavrilo Princip assassinated Franz Ferninand, Archduke of Austria and his wife on June 28,1914 and thus starting WWI, he was imprisoned in Terazín until he died of tuberculosis in 1918. His cell is one of the most visited spots in the camp.
During WWII, the Gestapo used Terazín as a ghetto, concentrating Jews from Czechoslovakia, as well as many from Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and Denmark. More than 150,000 Jews were sent there, and although it was not an extermination camp about 33,000 died in the ghetto itself, mostly because of the appalling conditions arising out of extreme population density. About 88,000 inhabitants were deported to Auschwitz and other extermination camps. At the end of the war there were 17,247 survivors.
Part of the fortification, the Small Fortress, served as the largest Gestapo prison in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, separated from the ghetto. Around 90,000 people went through it, and 2,600 of those died there. The camp was liberated on May 9, 1945 by the Soviet Army.
Though it was not “specifically” identified as an “extermination” camp .. the gallows, the firing squad corner used for individual executions and the machine gun wall .. where the gun entrenchments remain facing the sloped bank directly in front of the bullet riddled wall where death still lingered, indicate quite the contrary. Just the sight of these “threats” must have been more intimidating than most can imagine. How ironic that the huge sign over the entrance to the camp itself reads “ARBEIT MACHT FREI”, which means “work makes one free”.
I spent most of an entire day exploring each darkened corner .. the isolated cells with controlled light shutters, often left completely closed, or the ones with the slightest barred openings where one could only dream of being on the other side of that brick or stone wall, all the while wondering where their children might be, or even if they were still alive. Huge quarters where only wooden racks still stood that provided the only place for prisoners to lie stacked together for warmth .. wondering if or when they might get the slightest piece of bread. Where contagious diseases ran rampant and the only “freedom” was when death provided their escape from Hell.
It was once written that “the only noble aspect of war is surviving it.”
By the time you read this, Memorial weekend will have passed. I wonder if you are one of the few who actually take the time to fly Old Glory .. even for just one day. A majority of Americans won’t .. but then again, “Americans” are rapidly approaching the minority within our borders .. and we’d all better brush up on a second language. You already know how to “push #1 for English” .. I guess we should at least be grateful for THAT option.
It’s my biker brethren who WILL honor or fallen soldiers .. who understand that “Freedom” has never been free .. and that the price of Freedom has always been the blood of the Warrior. It saddens me each time I say it, but it’s a fact that most won’t even take the time to put out our flag .. we’re an ungrateful, unappreciative, disrespectful society. Our Forefathers would turn in their graves if they saw the degradation of our very culture or the self-serving greed by which the framework of our Constitution has been twisted, weakened or circumvented entirely! The Warriors who gave the ultimate sacrifice would be appalled .. I know I am.
OK .. I think I got that out of my system. But after viewing the hundreds of photos I took within the confines of the Concentration Camp at Terazin .. the “wow factor” put me right behind those bars once again .. starving .. afraid .. bewildered .. and wondering how those who survived found the slimmest thread of “Hope” to hang on to, especially when every day “death” lingered within their midst.
Fear .. base, raw, mortal fear .. is the dividing line in our species .. and no matter how hard we struggle to define it .. it can’t be quantified .. yet it’s one of the only constant units of measure. But of the few things that makes us who we are, the only uniquely human force with enough power to overcome fear .. is Love. Mia Angelo wrote: “Alone .. all alone .. nobody, but nobody, can make it out there alone”. Those prisoners lived in fear .. but they loved one another .. and they did NOT die “alone”.
It’s been said that our most severe challenges will one day reveal themselves to be our greatest teacher. Many of you .. like myself .. DO realize that that statement is not just an unconfirmed hypothesis .. but a definite fact. Even Ernest Hemingway said “the world breaks everyone .. and afterward, many are stronger at the broken places.”
I didn’t intend to make this “adventure” a depressing read .. I want it to remind you that no matter what petty difficulties you encounter .. or whine like a spoiled brat because some stupid “reality show” was pre-empted by news of a disaster that literally destroyed a community and took innocent lives .. YOU have absolutely NOTHING to complain about! Your limbs weren’t blown off by an IED .. or the rest of your life will never be the same again because of an unfortunate “accident” … I want you to remember that Today is Life .. the only life you’re sure of .. and to make the most of Today. Those petty things just really don’t matter, do they?
Let your passion for adventure and discovery be matched only by your thirst for knowledge and understanding … and when you get hungry, you’ll always have “Potato Soup”.
“A great civilization is not conquered from without, until it has destroyed itself from within” W. Durant
Until next time .. ride smart .. ride safe
and the Adventure continues …