The town of Terezin is about 40 minutes from Prague, Czech Republic by bus. Before it was a concentration camp, it was originally built in the 1780’s by the Habsburg empire as a star shaped fortified town to keep out invaders. The small fortress prison within the town, had tunnels which were part of the 1700’s fortress. Later when Hitler took over, he blocked out most of these tunnels so it would make it harder for his prisoners to escape, despite the fact that the fortress was surrounded by a giant moat. We were able to go through one of these tunnels which was the highlight of the fortress tour.
The small fortress in the town served as a longtime prison, but few people were incarcerated here from the time it was opened in 1780 to Hitler’s time. Although not many were held here, one of the most notable inmates in history was. Gavrilo Princip, was put in Terezin after he assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in 1914 (the assassination which started the first world war.) Princip died in Terezin of Turberculois nearly 4 years after the assassination.
The Nazi’s brought in many political prisoners who spoke out against the Nazi movement. Executions of the prisoners in the small fortress began in 1943. The biggest execution took place on May 02, 1945 when 52 people mostly of the Czech resistance were shot by firing squad. We were able to view the hole filled execution wall that they lined up the prisoners to be shot. The Nazi’s would lay on their bellies in cross shaped cement cutouts to shoot the prisoners lined on the wall. The feel of the execution yard was quite unsettling to say the least.
Next to the entrance of the execution grounds, on the opposite side of the shooting wall, there was a Nazi swimming pool built in 1942. This pool served the families of the local guards for bathing. The pool was constructed by students from a local Czech town and Jewish inmates who were tortured and beaten to death during their work. The last thing the prisoners saw on their way to the execution ground was this pool. I find it pretty horrible to have such a playful thing on the opposite side of a death wall.
Jews who were brought to the prison were treated particularly cruel. We viewed the living quarters, cells, and Showers which they used to get the Jews used to communal baths so they wouldn’t be suspicious when they were shipped out to the extermination camps with real gas chambers. At the very end of the war, these showers were actually wired to produce gas, but the Nazis were overthrown before they were able to use them. Some of the mass cells held 60-90 inmates with only a 3 inch ventilation hole. The cells did not have toilets, light or any kinds of heating/cooling system. Many of the prisoners in these cells were dead by morning.
I find the towns star shape construction quite ironic, as the town was built far before any Nazi occupation. After the war, Terezin served as a German internment camp for a short time. Some of these prisoners included the former commander of Terezin and other SS members. Seriously, how crazy is that??
The Jewish town of Terezin
In 1941, the Nazis removed Terezin’s 6,000 inhabitant and brought in 60,000 Jews, creating a ghetto. As a result of the packed-in and harsh living conditions, starvation and disease grew rampant. Thousands died of malnutrition and disease and if they didn’t die here, they were eventually transported to Auschwitz concentration camp when it was fully operational in late 1942. Terezin is best known for the Red Cross propaganda event that Hitler arranged in order to deceive the Red Cross inspectors that the Jews were being treated well. For this inspection, Hitler ordered Terezin to be converted into a “Jewish town,” rather than a harsh conditioned ghetto where death was rampant. In a short time, Terezin was carefully converted into a fake town where shop windows were filled with goodies and people were strategically placed and instructed to act a part.
The finest Jews educated in arts and theater were houses in Terizin. Notable musicians, writer, artists and leaders were sent there for “safer” keeping, when in reality Hitler wanted these educated people on the shortest leash possible in fear of uprisings. There were so many musicians in Terezin, there could have been two full symphony orchestras performing simultaneously daily.
Of the 15,00 children who passed through Terezin from 1942 to 1944, fewer than 100 survived. The artwork they created in Terezin is displayed in the museums and speaks for itself of the harsh conditions and treatment of the people. The art reminded me of something that you would see a child create in a horror movie. They were quite profound and disturbing. Several artist stole materials so the children could create these works of art. Six thousand drawings were hidden and later successfully retrieved to be displayed in Prague, Israel and the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C.
The world was told that Hitler had built a city for the Jews to protect them from the vagaries and stresses of the war. The ruse was so confincing and went on for so long that Hitler was very successful in exterminating a large portion of the Jewish race, not to mention the fact that many people oversees were convinced that the war in Europe was not really that bad. Hitler was great at manipulating the whole world that he was not killing Jews or even treating them badly during war time and Terezin is a perfect example of this.