Terezín concentration camp is an astounding and painful reminder of the power of propaganda. Only an hour from Prague, the former Habsburg fortress was repurposed during World War II as a model that would impress International Red Cross inspectors. Terezín’s purpose was to demonstrate there was no need for the Red Cross to control the camps, as the organization wanted.
Built for protection against the Prussians
Terezín–also known by the town’s German name, Theresienstadt, after Empress Theresa–was originally a large complex, built to protect Austria from its Prussian enemies. Started in 1780, it took ten years to complete the citadel with a small fortress, and a walled town called the “Main Fortress.” About 6,000 soldiers were there during peace times, and 11,000 could be housed during conflict. When it became a Nazi concentration camp, the average population skyrocketed to 45,000.
The original fortress was never under siege, and eventually evolved into a political prison; it held Gavrilo Princip, who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and set off World War I. After World War I, the town and fortress became part of the new Czechoslovakia. With the area’s high percentage of ethnic Germans, it was one of the first places to be annexed into the “Fatherland” by the Nazis.
The Nazis take over Terezín
Terezín began as a Gestapo prison in 1939, when arrests of resistance group members in Bohemia and Moravia had already filled available prisons. Initially, the small fortress (now the site’s museum) was used as a temporary holding place for political prisoners, Jehova’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and anyone else deemed undesirable. The first prisoners arrived in 1939 and stayed until they could be transported to penitentiaries and other camps in Germany. Over 1500 Jews would be held, 500 would die from torture. Most of the others would die at extermination camps.
At the start, only men stayed at the prison. Women would join them in 1942, following the assassination in Prague of Reinhard Heydrich, one of the main architects in the Holocaust and the designer of gas chambers. In 1940, there were about 150 prisoners, increasing to 1200 in 1942. An expansion in 1943 resulted in 5,500 prisoners by 1945. By the end of the war, Gestapo officers sent 33,000 prisoners to the Terezín prison.
Hitler’s “Gift to the Jews”
Meanwhile, the Main Fortress became a ghetto and labor camp. Instead of the usual striped uniforms, inmates were issued old uniforms from the Czechoslovakia army. But to the outside world, Terezín was promoted as a wonderful place where Jewish artists and musicians were welcomed and encouraged to continue their craft. Theatre was allowed, albeit with minimal props and costumes. Hans Krasa, a gifted composer, wrote a children’s opera, Brundibár, that would be performed 55 times at Terezín…but never by the same cast. Inmates were constantly dying of illness or being transported to Auschwitz. Krasa himself would be murdered at Auschwitz when he was 44 years old.
The Germans wanted to portray Terezín as a “theatre of normal life” to the world. They were so successful, that European Jews believed the propaganda and donated to the camp! Some Jews tried to get “accepted” into Terezín, when they learned that it had a music pavilion, schools, shops, futbol, and a coffee hall. The complex had its own currency and newspaper.
The real story: Labor and death
Terezín was not an extermination camp, although a quarter of the Jews would die there. It was a labor camp, with prisoners performing work for the Reich. One of the first tasks was to extend the railroad line a mile, from the center of town to the concentration camp. Since trains held more than 1,000 prisoners, it was “bad press” for them to be seen walking from the train station.
Prisoners also built and worked at two factories about 3.5 miles from the camp. There they did printing, shoemaking, tailoring, electrotechnics, metalworking, and cabinetry. There were workshops for building furniture for the officers and coffins for the prisoners. Outdoors, they did farming, roadwork, and construction. They dug a swimming pool with bare hands. They built a “shaving room,” complete with sinks and mirrors, to show Red Cross inspectors how well-cared for prisoners were…except there was no plumbing. Pure deception.
With poor hygiene, crowded dorms, and malnutrition, disease spread easily. Lice, fleas, and bedbugs could not be eradicated.Workers brought back bodies of their friends every day. There was no medical care for prisoners; Jewish physicians would do their best to care for fellow prisoners.
Burials had to be stopped due to the high death rate and threat of water contamination. At first, there were individual burials, but then 24 corpses were batched…then 60. A crematorium with four oil-heated furnaces was installed, as both a practicality and as an extra measure of cruelty; Jewish law says the body must be buried intact. Prisoners were forced to work in the crematorium and to sift through the cremains for gold teeth.
The Red Cross finally visits…
The Red Cross was invited to visit Terezín in June 1944. By then, the old and sick prisoners had been sent to Auschwitz, the grounds and buildings were neat, and an impressive propaganda film had been made to show how great life was there. (Watch part of the film here.)
When inspectors arrived, children ran to the cars, calling the Gestapo officers “uncle.” The well-crafted visit lasted six hours, including a two-hour lunch and a concert. The visitors were then split into two groups, and carefully guided to selected spots. The final 30 minutes were spent reviewing documents stating there were no gas chambers at Terezín, and conditions were the same at all other Nazi camps.
After the Red Cross left, 18,000 “witnesses” to the visit were transported.
The end of the war…and the aftermath
The Russians liberated Terezín on 9 May 1945. With German surrender in sight, the officers and guards had fled, and the Red Cross did finally take over. The complex immediately became a prison for Germans, and those prisoners began arriving on 10 May 1945. Terezín would remain a prison until early 1948, as Germans were slowly returned to their country.
A National Cemetery was established on the grounds near the small fortress; over 10,000 graves are there. The cemetery has become a place of pilgrimage for the Czech people; over 86% of Czech Jews died at the hands of the Nazis.
In total, almost 150,000 Jews from seven countries came to the Terezín concentration camp. Over 85,000 were transported to extermination camps; 33,000 died at Terezín due to labor, starvation, disease, or torture; and nearly 3,000 died at the Gestapo prison. Only 12,000 survived.
If you go…
I took the day trip to Terezín from Prague, booking through Viator; all costs are included. The guide and driver were excellent. You can go yourself; about ten buses a day go to the center of Terezín. Tickets are 200 Czech Koruna, about $10 USD.
It was an emotional day, and a powerful reminder that we must never let this happen again. Our guide, Rene, recommended Hana’s Suitcase, by Karen Levine, to learn more about Terezín. It’s available as a book or as a documentary on Amazon Prime.
More museums and history: