Terezin Ghetto

Terezin (german Theresienstadt) was built by the austrian empire in the late 1700s and is named after the Austrian princess Maria Theresa. The town itself served as a garrison town and on the other side of the river Ohre a fortress was built. Between 1941 and 1944, the garrison town became a collection camp for Jews who were to be deported to some extermination camp in Poland, mainly Auschwitz. First, only Jews from Czechoslovakia (Bohemia and Moravia) were interned in the village’s military barracks, but from 1942 the Nazis began to forcibly relocate the village’s inhabitants to make room for Jews from the rest of Europe and Theresienstadt became isolated from the outside world. Theresienstadt was first conceived as a ghetto for ancient Jews but rather became a ghetto for so-called ”prominent” Jews. For example, it could be Jews who had fought on the Germans’ side in the first world war or culturally influential jews who distinguished themselves and made the nazis choose to keep them alive for the time being. One of these was Rabbi Dr. Leo Baeck from Berlin. The Nazis called him the Jewish pope and had his own apartment in Terezin. Other so-called ordinary Jews found themselves living in overcrowded barracks.

When a new transport of Jews arrived in Terezin, they first had to go through something called Die Schleuse (canal). There the Jews were searched for things forbidden in the ghetto. Then women and men were separated and housed in separate barracks named after German cities. Hanover and Hamburg for male Jews, Dresden and Magdeburg for female Jews. In ”Magdeburg” was also the office of the Jewish self-management (Jüdische Selbstverwaltung). The first eastward transit of Jews was on January 9, 1942, when about 2,000 Jews were sent by train to Riga, Latvia, where they were murdered in Rumbula. In September 1943, about 5,000 Jews were deported to the family camp Auschwitz II – Birkenau. This was a section in Birkenau where they could move freely in the area and did not have to work. About 1100 of these died as a result of the conditions prevailing in the family camp. In 1944, the remaining people were murdered in the gas chambers.

The ghetto in Terezin became in Nazi propaganda a pattern ghetto that would show the world that the rumors that had arisen about the Nazi concentration camps were false. The Nazis themselves never used the term pattern ghetto, but the official Nazi designation of the ghetto in Terezin was Yudische Selbstverwaltung. Nazis also allowed the Danish Red Cross to visit the ghetto in June 1944. The inspection of the red cross was by no means surprising, but the Nazis themselves had set the date and agenda for the visit and had plenty of time to prepare for the visit. They implemented external changes such as installing sinks and showers without pulling any water pipes. Cafes were set up, playgrounds, music pavilions as well. In reality, life in Terezin was not much better than the ghettos in Poland.

People died of starvation and disease, so the Nazis built a crematorium just outside Terezin to cremate the dead. The Nazis also shot a film to show the world the Nazi camps and ghettos. The film was filmed in August and September 1944 was also wrongly called Der Führer schenkt die juden ein stadt (Hitler gives the Jews a state of their own), but its real title is Theresienstadt – Ein Documentary film aus dem jüdischen Siedlungsgebiet (Theresienstadt – A documentary film about the Jewish relocation). The film was never shown because of the war. The film has only 20 minutes left. About 140,000 people were deported to Terezin during the war, of which about 87,000 were deported to Eastern Europe. Auschwitz. The ghetto was not liberated until early May 1945 when commandant Karl Rahm handed over the ghetto to the Red Cross.

Current status: Preserved with museum (2000).

Location: 50° 30' 38" N, 14° 08' 58" E

Get there: Bus from Prague.

My comment:

After the war, the Czech army took over several of the barracks that had belonged to the ghetto and remained there until 1997. Some of these barracks have since begun to decay while others have been restored. There is a hope that all barracks will be restored, but as so often it is an economic issue. Other smaller houses are now inhabited. Were it not for the events of the second world war, Terezin would probably be a city that few had heard of and even less visited. But the ghetto is the best preserved ghetto that the Nazis established, which means that the city will always be remembered. The proximity of the small fortress makes it possible to combine the ghetto with the prison.  Although it is easy to be a hindsight, the Red Cross visit is hardly the organization’s proudest moment. But we should bear in mind that the only chance for them to visit Terezin was to agree to the German conditions. However, one may think that the Red Cross should reasonably have been a little critical of the idyll that was produced.

Follow up in books: Gilberg, Martin: Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War (1987).