“Everything from now on is Terezin concentration camp”, our guide says loudly. I look out the window of our coach. It is weird, it doesn’t look like a concentation camp, or at least not what I imagine from photos. There is no grim metal sign emblazoned with ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ or grey, bleak buildings. No, to all intents and purposes it looks like a town, a small relatively colourful town with no inhabitants but a town nonetheless, with buildings and street signs and green grassy areas for children to play.
We were on a day trip to Terezin concentration camp, which is an hour north of Prague. It consists of a small fortress and a large fortress originally built by Joseph II and named Theresienstadt after his mother Maria Theresa. It was originally built for use in Austria-Prussia times of war but the fortresses were never actually used for this purpose due to the peace agreement that was signed shortly after. The small fortress was then used as a prison and Gavrilo Princip, better know as that dude who assasinated Franz Ferdinand and basically started World War I, was imprisoned there in a solitary cell until he died of tuberculosis.
In 1939, the Germans had gained the Sudetenland and occupied the rest of Bohemia and Moravia in the Czech Republic. The Nazis were looking for somewhere to contain all the Jews and as that time there wasn’t a Jewish quarter or area in Prague because everyone lived all over the city. They decided to use Terezin or Theresienstadt and send Jews from all over Europe here. The small fortress continued to be used as a prison, indeed the largest Gestapo prison in Bohemia and Moravia; the man in charge of the small fortress wanted to be in charge of a concentration camp but as he was in charge of the prison, he emblazoned the words ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ over one of the arches to help spread fear.
The large fortress was the concentration camp itself or the Jewish ghetto. The Nazis told everyone who lived there to leave and sent all the Jews there under a pretense of letting them have their own town to run how they like away from everyone else. Obviously this was a lie. It mainly served as a ‘holding cell’ as such; this wasn’t an extermination camp, more a place to keep people before putting them on trains to concentration camps like Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen.
The main thing you need to know about Terezin is that this is the camp that the Nazis used for their propaganda video and the Red Cross visit – they wanted everyone to believe that they were just sending the Jews off to be together and have their own space, even some Jews were fooled and were very confused when they arrived and were convinced there had been a mistake. It wasn’t only Czech Jews that were sent here, among others the Nazis demanded Jews from Denmark so the Danish sent them under the condition that they were well looked after and they would be allowed to come and inspect the ghetto. The Danish even regularly sent extra food to the ghetto for the Danish Jews. A whole year later, the Nazis finally confirmed a visit for the Red Cross. The reason it took so long is because they were busy building and making everything look good for the visit – buildings such as a bank, a coffee shop, a clothes shop and they tidied up the park in the middle all so that the Red Cross would buy into their propaganda. The reality, however, was vastly different.
- When the Jews arrived in Terezin, their clothes were confiscated and only the tattiest ones given back; the nicest ones were sent to Germany and the okay-ish ones were put in the clothes shop so essentially they could potentially buy their own clothes back!
- The coffee shop had an entry fee and only space for about 100 people so bearing in mind there were thousands upon thousands of people in the ghetto, this was relatively pointless.
- The pretty green area in the middle was fenced off, no one was allowed in there at any time unless they were working in the hut that was located there. During the Red Cross visit, they tore the fence down and let everyone access it but as soon as the visit was over, the fence went straight back up again.
- The bank was built and everyone given accounts so the Nazis could say that everyone worked and earned a wage that then went into their bank account. In reality, they were paid in useless money and if the Red Cross had bothered to check the names on the accounts, they would have discovered that many of those people were no longer in Terezin.
In fact that seems to be the nature of the Red Cross visit as a whole, they believed everything the Nazis told them and didn’t check anything, which in itself is highly suspicious considering they were supposed to be undertaking an inspection. For example, in the small fortress, there is a room with really lovely porcelain white sinks and mirrors, which upon first look seems a rather nice room for the prisoners to brush their teeth and the men to shave. As I looked closer at the hard, cold metal above the sinks and wondered exactly how these taps could possibly work since they looked rather broken and had no turning mechanism to speak of, our guide confirmed my suspicions that once again, this was built for show. Not only did the prisoners never use it (hence why it’s still in good condition) but it wasn’t even linked to a water supply! But the Red Cross never even bothered turning the taps on to check, they just believed that everything was as the Nazis said. And this is the theme of the Red Cross visit, if only they’d checked X they would have found Y. I guess no one really knows why they didn’t check anything properly but they went on their merry way, filled with Nazi propaganda and sending the message that the Jews were living in good conditions and everything was fine and because of this, they didn’t check any other concentration camps!
Then there is the propaganda video that the Nazis had made at Terezin. They got a well known, talented Jew to make the video with promises that he would be spared if he did this. Again another lie, after it was filmed, they sent him and everyone in the movie to Auschwitz and other concentration camps to die. They used Jews who had just arrived at the Ghetto, who still looked healthy in the video and made it look like a wonderful place to get everyone to buy into their propaganda.
So many thousands of people died in Terezin, they ran out of space to bury the bodies so the Nazis built them a crematorium. I wasn’t actually aware that it was against Jewish beliefs to cremate the dead so imagine you are living in the worst conditions and you know that when you die you will be cremated rather than buried as you wish. Everyone was under the belief that after the war ended, the urns would be given a proper burial but as the war was coming to a close and the Germans were losing, they began panicking and trying to hide what they had been doing so they made children retrieve the urns and ordered people to throw the urns into the river and wade in and pat the ashes down because they floated. Truly terrible.
To be honest, I sometimes feel a bit uneasy about going to places such as concentration camps, like we’re making other people’s suffering a tourist encounter, a sort of spectator sport, but I think it is important that we go, listen to people’s stories and become more aware of the stark reality people faced and make damn sure it never ever ever happens again. Terezin concentration camp is a quiet, erie place, filled with the air of somewhere that has seen so much suffering. The buildings and roads are dilapidated and no one will invest in the town due to recent flooding and the risks that it could be flooded again soon. I still can’t get my head around the fact that people now live in this town, people moved back here and walk in the very places the Jews walked all those years ago. I am not sure why you would chose to live here but I am glad that it is preserved, that the people who spent their last days here still have their stories heard, their drawings and newspapers telling the world how utterly horrific it was. We cannot ignore that any of this happened and we must continue to learn from it.
The drawings above were done by people in the technical drawing office in Terezin concentration camp. The department existed so the Nazis could command them to draw what they wanted or needed for propaganda or other reasons but the Jews secretly drew pictures of what life was really like in the Jewish ghetto. One day the Nazis got wind of this and went to raid the office but somehow, the office got a tip off and managed to hide most of the drawings, which are now on display at Terezin. Sadly, as a consequence, everyone in the drawing office was sent on to Auschwitz, Sachsenhausen and other extermination camps and most didn’t make it. Most of the drawings on display are in black and white and paint a haunting picture of what life was like here. It is one of the only ways we can attempt to truly understand what went on at Terezin.
I actually went to Prague as part of my #Take12Trips challenge for April and I needed to write about Terezin concentration camp, to continue the stories of those ill-fated people who lost their lives there, to put down on paper so to speak, my emotions and thoughts so I never forget this visit.
We went to Terezin on a day trip with New Europe tours. It cost 900 Czech Koruna (about 30 GBP) for the day, including transport, entrance fees and a tour guide. This isn’t a sponsored post, I paid for the trip using my own money but I do recommend going with New Europe. We had a guide called Krystina who was extremely knowledgeable and I honestly do feel like you benefit from having a guide in Terezin as opposed to wandering around yourself.
Have you been to Terezin? What were your thoughts after or do you have plans to visit on your next trip to Prague?