Terezin or The Theresienstadt concentration camp is relatively unknown when compared to the likes of Auschwitz or Dachau. In reality the events in this camp are nothing compared to the atrocities of those two centres of horror, but that is what makes it even more shocking. Almost 30,000 died in this camp, starved, beaten and shot. For such a high number to be just a drop in the ocean of Nazi destruction truly shows their level of evil. Only an hour away from Prague this concentration camp is worth the detour to see a key part in Hitler’s propaganda machine as well as paying respects to those (almost) forgotten 30,000.
This visit took place back in 2008 during a university trip over to Prague. I wrote a little bit about how much this trip effected the way in which I looked upon travel within a photo essay of my Black and White film photography of the city. Check that out here: Prague and the drug of Travel.
Now, you might not have heard of Terezin, don’t worry, neither had I when we made the trip. Despite the key role it played for Hitler during the war, the 30,000 lives lost and the fact many of those who died in Auschwitz were held here at one point it is still a relatively unknown camp. Having always wanted to visit Auschwitz however I was interesting to find out more about this camp.
By complete coincidence in the week leading up to the trip I discovered that I had Jewish ancestors. I was awoken in a haze one weekend morning and showed some paper work Aunt had come across which documented the “Shoel’s” from the Baden-Wuttemburg area of Germany and their narrow escape before the war. Suddenly that emotion I felt about the war became a tangible connection and made for a quite overwhelming visit.
Pre- Second World War History
Terezin was originally a fortress construction built between 1780 and 1790 by the Austrian Emperor Joseph II. Along with “Josefov” it was design as a large fort system by the royal which was eventually never fully realised. The name “Terezin” is derived from the emperor’s mother Maria Theresa of Austria. The fort became obsolete and was eventually used to accommodate political and military prisoners in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The fortress then was the site of imprisonment of Gavrilo Princip from 1914 to 1918 after he assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and thus starting the First World war. He actually died here from Tuberculosis on 28th April 1918.
The camp during the war
The Nazi’s took over the camp soon after their invasion of Czechoslovakia in June 1940 and set it up as a “Prison”. Inmates from mostly Czechoslovakia were brought here at first but then this included those from the Soviet Union, Poland, Germany, Yugoslavia and then those from the Netherlands and Denmark. The surrounding town was then adapted into a walled Jewish ghetto which served mostly as a forced labour and transit camp en route to extermination camps such as Auschwitz.
More than 33,000 inmates died inside this camp during the war, but they were not gassed, instead most died from malnutrition, disease, beatings, over working as well as firing squads and hangings. On one occasion over 300 died as a result of the entire camp being ordered to stand for hours in freezing conditions. The highest population of the camp is reported to have been between 75,000 to 58,000 in September 1942, they where then crowded into barrack designed to accommodate 7,000.
Many of those who didn’t die in Terezin were eventually deported to Auschwitz or Treblinka to be exterminated. In late 1944 almost 24,000 victims were deported in only a month. Approximately 144,000 Jews were sent to Theresienstadt, 88,000 of those were deported to extermination camps and 33,000 died inside the camp itself. Roughly 17,000 people managed to survive this hell.
It use as a tool of propaganda
One of the most significant events in Terezin’s part to play the war was Hitler’s attempts to dispel the increasing rumours surrounding the existence of extermination camps. The Nazi’s allowed the Red Cross access to the ghetto in mid 1944, after the invasion of Normandy, in an attempt to create some positive publicity.
After weeks of preparation, cleaning up and deportation of many Jews to Auschwitz in order not to appear overcrowded the operation began. Fake shops and cafes were built, SS officers acted in the roles of Mayor and council, guests attended performances by the children’s opera and stayed in freshly painted and spacious accommodation.
A specific route through the town was directed by the Germans and encounters with the inmates were rigorously rehearsed and staged. The red cross left the camp with a positive view of condition.
The Nazi’s then used Terezin as a “model internment camp” in a propaganda film which was directed by Jewish prisoner and film maker Kurt Gerron. Shooting took 11 days and afterward the majority of the cast and crew were deported to Aushwitz, Kurt Gerron was gassed on 28th October 1944, just under 2 month after filming began. “Terezin: A Documentary Film of the Jewish Resettlement” was designed to show a thriving Jewish community living under the protection of the Germans.
Visiting the camp
When I visited the camp back in early 2008 the experience was quite different to that of Auschwitz and in many ways lay the paving stones towards that visit eventually in 2014. As much as Auschwitz was one of the most emotional experiences of my life I had prepared myself for that and is most likely why it took me so long to finally visit, however with Terezin it was a complete shock to the system.
The reality and weight of all that history hit me like a punch to the stomach. I was stood on top of a mound surveying the scene having just emerged from a long, damp and winding tunnel though the complex. I found myself stood on top of a mound surrounded by the crumbling walls of the fortress when the guide informed us those chips in the bricks behind us were a result of firing squads. To be stood on a spot where so many needlessly died was a moment of realisation which I will never forget.
That trip to Prague was in my first year of university and despite my parents taking us on summer holidays each year I was no where near as worldly wise as I thought I was. This was the start of travel for me, this was where my naivety about the world began to float away in my dreams of adventure and thirst for knowledge. Paris was a major turning point in realising travel was about freedom and exploration, but Prague a year later was about the experiences of travel. The emotions, the connections and the moments which touch you in a way you will never forget.
Sure, 7 years later some of the finer details of trip and visit to Terezin have become a little hazy, but at the same time I can still remember like it was yesterday wandering off on my own, sitting on the floor and staring up at “arbeit macht frei” painted in stark contrast to the yellow that surrounded it whilst wiping the tears from my glistening eyes. As more and more visitors filtered through it’s archway the images of all those people filled my head.
Seeing the conditions of the barracks, the harsh wooden bed frames as my breath filled the freezing air. The crematorium and never ending rows of graves. The war and the holocaust changes from being stories in text books to real people, real lives and real emotions.
Numbers all of a sudden have names, faces, dreams, hopes and lives. Taking the time out of the magic that is Prague to visit here is a stark reminder of how lucky we are to have such wonderful cities to enjoy in freedom and how important it is to continue to work towards peace.
How to get to Terezin
It is possible to take a tour from Prague which will cost in the region of 1100+ CZK (£30). But the general consensus is that the best way to visit is to take the short and cheap bus ride from Prague and tour the camp and town yourself. Tours of the camp itself can be taken once you arrive also at a much cheaper rate. The average cost of doing it yourself is 170 CZK (£6.00) and much more enjoyable!
Taking the bus from Prague:
The best way to get from Prague to Terezin is on the bus. Buses leave from the Nadrazi Holesovice and Florenc bus stations (which both have metro and tram connections). Buses run every half and hour and the journey should take around 1 hour.
The bus makes two stops, one directly outside the camp and one in the town itself. The best way visit would be to get off the bus at the camp first and then after your visit have a look around the town itself and take the bus back from there.
The fare is roughly 100CZK (£2.60) each way
Have you ever visited Terezin whilst in Prague, or even heard of it?