CLOSE YOUR EYES. IMAGINE A BEAUTIFUL, ROLLING VALLEY: TWO RIVERS converging on its floor. Miles of tall grasses wandering in the wind. The valley slopes are wooded with flowering linden trees, oak, fir, spruce. Maybe you see a wild hare darting behind a white beech. Wild boar, red deer, and pheasants graze in the shade of the forest. Brown bears and wolves hunt these woods, but you will not see them today. High above the treetops, you spot a short-toed snake eagle bothering a Black-winged kite away from her territory. Slow moving water murmurs nearby in the moat of an ancient stone fortress. You might imagine you have discovered quite a slice of paradise right here on Earth. Open your eyes: you are standing in the Czech Republic, 37 miles and 43 minutes north of Prague, just outside the dilapidated, almost-ghost town of Terezin.
This land carries its history like water. The territory was ruled for centuries by the Roman Empire, and numerous others before and after them. Maybe a thousand years ago, the Czechs sloughed off outside rulers and set up their own monarchy, the Premyslid dynasty. Good king Wenceslas, from Christmas carol fame, rules this land in the early 900’s.
It changes hands a number of times, and in 1526, the Habsburg dynasty washes in. A few hundred years drift by: the territory runs through some turbulent currents, some ruthless ripples, some calming eddies. Prague surfaces as the capital of the area, people sail into the city from the countryside—life happens, shit happens, and then, Prague submerges beneath the surface of its own Dark Age.
The Industrial Revolution cascades the city back to life, and the area named Josefov, the Jewish Quarter, is added to Prague on the high east bank of the Vltava River. Thousands of Jews from anywhere surge into the city on waves of prosperity. Everyone thrives in the peaceful tides of cohabitation. In 1780, Joseph II, the latest Habsburg Emperor, begins building a fortress north of Prague, meant to ward off Prussian attacks on Bohemian lands. He names the star-shaped fortress Theresienstadt, after his recently-deceased mother, Holy Roman Empress Maria Teresa—also the mother of Marie Antoinette, her fifteenth child. The fortress is moored in that beautiful valley where you now stand, near the confluence of the Elbe and Ohre Rivers and is known today as Terezin.
Built in two sections, the fortress straddles the Ohre River and contains a walled town, or Main Fortress, lying on the west bank of the Ohře; and a Small Fortress, the citadel, lying on the east bank. The town is laid out in perfect square blocks and straight streets, the usual Habsburg style of town planning: no Parisian curves, no British roundabouts, no Maltese slantings, no Blaricum meanderings—perhaps a vivid physical manifestation of the rigid, anal quality it might take to run a venerable empire for a few hundred years?
Enter stage right: WWII and Hitler. The Nazis plunge into Czechoslovakia in 1938 claiming the land still belongs to Germany (no star-shaped little fort will stop these guys now). By 1940, the SS decides to adapt the small fortress and town of Terezín as a concentration camp and ghetto. It makes sense: it is already walled and fortified, a fortress constructed to keep bad guys out (ironically, the very same bad guys from the north now wearing swastikas on their arms and skull and crossbones on their hats) and easily converted into a secure prison to keep anyone in: lock the gates, fill the moat with snakes, carry Lugers, fire with impunity.
The next few years do not flow through Terezin with gaiety and good cheer. The message the world hears is that Hitler has built a pastoral city for the Jews, to protect them from the “vagaries and stresses of the war.” Ersatz stores, a bank, a café, and schools are prepared in the town to make it appear as though it is a proper city. A propaganda film (click for three minutes of it) is produced to show the world this idyllic city. The SS transports Jews here from Czech lands and eight other countries, along with “trouble makers” who are not Jewish. At times, maybe 60,000 inmates are crammed in an area built as a garrison for 7,000. The reality of life here is an ocean away from idyllic.
The swastika (sanskrit) symbol is found in ancient cultures around the world, especially India, and depicts prosperity, good fortune, peace, well being. The one on the right is a Native American version. (1)
From Prague, you might take a bus to the town of Terezin and walk to the Small Fortress, as it is known, on the other side of the Ohre. As you walk toward the fortress from the beauty at the main road, even though you know what you know and feel what you feel about visiting a place like this, you almost begin to imagine this is one idyllic area: a lovely valley, two rivers running through it, prime agricultural land, lovely wild flowers, a natural habitat for animals, well-crafted stonework. You can see why the Third Reich’s propaganda worked.
However, a few minutes later, you see what you knew you would see and feel exactly what you knew you would feel. Acres of land, formerly used to grow carrots and potatoes for the Gestapo, and maybe a smidgeon for inmates, is now an expansive graveyard for both Jews and non-Jews slain here. You see 2,386 graves. Jews in one section, Christians in the other. On the other side of the knoll, the remains of thousands more are buried, some in mass graves. Only about 1200 graves bear names.
Terezin is not a death camp like Auschwitz, and not technically a concentration camp, like Dachau. There is no gas chamber here—at least, not until very near the end of the war, and apparently, never activated. The SS brings dissidents, artists and musicians, scholars, the elderly, and families to Terezin for “safe keeping” and to work. The sign above the main gate reads Arbeit Macht Frei: Work Sets You Free. People sent here work hard, and many are worked to death. There are four cremation incinerators to accommodate these deaths. Four—at times, they manage nearly 200 bodies a day.
Terezin serves three primary purposes during its three and a half years of operation: firstly, as a way station for Jews who would shortly be deported to actual death camps or forced-labor camps to the east. Secondly, as a model labor camp used to promote propaganda to conceal the annihilation of people deported; the Third Reich maintains the fiction that all deported Jews will simply be employed in labor camps and uses Terezin for these propaganda purposes. And thirdly, the fort becomes a “holding pen” for Jews and detainees, where it is expected many will simply perish from the elements before being sent to other camps. (11)
One of those who dies here is Esther Adolphine, Sigmund Freud’s sister; and another sister of Freud, Regina, is transported from Terezin to Auschwitz and dies her first day there.
Frans Kafka’s youngest sister and reportedly his favorite and closest relative, Ottla, is sent to Theresienstadt and later voluntarily accompanies orphaned children to Auschwitz, where she dies a few months later. The insightful correspondence between Franz and Ottla is later published as the book Letters To Ottla.
It is estimated that maybe 144,000 Jews are deported to Terezin, most are Czech. However, Jews from Germany, Austria, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Denmark, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland are also sent here. Many of the inmates die in Terezin, most from the oppressive conditions: starvation, exposure, trauma, inhumane and overcrowded accommodation, overwork, and of course, lack of medical attention and various diseases that attend this many people housed in such small and confined spaces. Some 35,000 inmates—close to 1 of 4—die here in 3 ½ years (by comparison: during Dachau’s twelve years of operation, 32,000 die). From Terezin, something like 90,000 are shipped off to Auschwitz and other camps to the east. By the end of the war, only 17,000 inmates survive; it is believed about 15,000 children once lived here; of those, 132 survive.
Just before you reach the fortress walls, you see what you knew you would see—the harsh reality harbored at the edge of humanity; however, you are not exactly sure what you now feel. It has nothing, really, to do with death. Or even the deaths of so many. It’s more about injustice, or despotism, or the sheer voracity of cruelty the human animal seems so capable of—given the opportunity, or desire, or consent, or need. It’s difficult to describe this feeling, this unpleasant emotion, this discomforting notion: perhaps, a disquieting dull ache, welling deep inside.
You cross the stone bridge spanning the moat and slowly walk toward the arched, stone-wall entrance to Terezin’s Small Fortress knowing this is not an amusement park, knowing this is not adventure travel at its wildest, knowing this will never make a top-ten list of tourist traps, knowing you will not buy a fridge magnet, knowing that the next couple of hours will not be remembered as the “blissful, gay times” on this particular sojourn. But what you don’t know at this moment is just how profoundly you will be affected by the time you board the bus back to Prague and ride away from this place.
If you care to visit Terezin Memorial, you can find information, opening hours, ticket prices, as well as make reservations (well advised) here: Terezin Memorial
Or phone them here: +420 416 782 300
NEXT WEEK: TEREZIN, PRISONERS IN PARADISE–PART II
More DP Photo Challenge here: Edge
More Lucile’s Photo Rehab here: Photo Rehab
Main source: Ghetto Museum, Terezin, Czech Republic and Terezin Memorial: http://www.pamatnik-terezin.cz/en?lang=en
(1) Swatikas: Wikipedia
(2) 1790 map: Wikipedia
(4) NAZI FLAG PRAGUE national Museum, Clock Tower
5 Nazi Camps: Holocaust on emaze: https://www.emaze.com/@ALWZLFQR/The-Holocaust
(7) Frans & Ottla Kafka: Marbach und Bodleian Library/Wikipedia
(8) women/train: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Commons:Bundesarchiv
(9) Mote/gate Terezin Memorial: http://www.pamatnik-terezin.cz/
(10) Tattooed arms: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/290904457153681299/ saved from Elephant Journal/etsy.com
(11) United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005424