Shortly after booking our trip to the Czech Republic, we knew we’d be setting aside a day for a trip to Terezin. Located about an hour’s drive north of Prague, we decided to do this trip on our own. With a bit of digging around, it wasn’t too difficult to figure out the logistics via public transit. We arrived in Terezin under cloudy skies and light drizzle which set an appropriate tone for the day.
We knew this would be a sombre visit. Terezin, originally built as a walled garrison town in the late 1700s, was adapted by the Germans during WWII as a concentration camp. The first stop on our trip was for a tour of the Small Fortress, about a ten minute walk from the town square. Just outside the entrance gate is the National Cemetery holding over 2,300 individually marked graves along with the remains of more than 10,000 who died in the Small Fortress, the Terezin Ghetto, in forced labour camps in Litomerice and in the post WWII death marches and transports.
After a short wait, we were met by a tour guide. At the early hour, we were the only English speaking visitors so we had a private tour from a wonderful guide. Not only was she incredibly well versed in the history of Terezin, but we chatted with her throughout the tour about her experiences in Czechoslovakia under communist rule.
The Small Fortress acted as a Gestapo operated prison – for Jews, resistance fighters, political prisoners and many others. Over five years, more than 30,000 people went through this camp. The first stop on the tour inside the Small Fortress was the processing area for new arrivals. At the far end is a sign which translates to “Works makes you free”:
This prison was known for its particularly poor living conditions and for the cruelty of its guards. At peak occupancy, more than 100 people died each day from direct abuse or of hunger and disease as a result of overcrowding. This cell, meant to hold about 25 people would frequently be filled with close to 100:
Many of the prisoners felt that the showers of the Small Fortress were in fact gas chambers. The similarity to other concentration camp gas chambers is striking and was not unintentional. A monthly shower was something dreaded by the prisoners, with many feeling they were being led to their death. The showers for the men only had cold water, even in the coldest months of the Czech winter. After the showers, there was no opportunity to dry off. The men would put on their clothes still soaking wet and return to their uninsulated and unheated cells in subzero temperatures.
The fortress was designed in a star format, leaving these inner moats. The holes in the walls were used by guards to watch over the prisoners with their weapons drawn. This area, heavily damaged in 2002 floods, was also hit hard by the 2013 floods. The ground was still saturated where we were here almost two months after the worst of the flooding.
An interesting story told to us by our guide was of the only successful escape from Terezin. Though the details are sketchy, three prisoners waited for an opportunity when the guards were known to celebrate and relax. The Gestapo believed the escapees used a ledge running up the side of one of the walls to facilitate their escape. Check out the wall on the right below and notice the diagonal feature. After the escape, that ledge was removed from ground level to well above ten feet up the wall.
There were many other attempted escapes from the Small Fortress that failed. On each, to make a point, the other prisoners were gathered in this courtyard to witness acts of horrific justice meted out. The picture speaks for itself:
The ninety minute tour wrapped up with stops in a number of isolation cells, the officers quarters, kitchens, laundry facilities and tunnels. We were both so very impressed with our tour guide who made this visit so vivid. She not only told the stories of Terezin, but told those stories through the cultural lens of how the former Czechoslovakia felt about their role in WWII and how today’s Czechs see their roles in this history.
At the end of the tour we left the Small Fortress and began to make our way into town. But first, we made a longer stop at the National Cemetery before leaving. Sad and beautiful and moving.
Once we got back into town, we toured the Ghetto Museum which told the story of the Terezin Ghetto. This area was used as propaganda by the the Nazis to fool the international community. The Nazis moved all of this area’s original inhabitants out to allow for the concentration of Jews. A town that had around 10,000 residents swelled to close to 60,000 which resulted in abysmal sanitary and living conditions. The leaders within the Jewish community fostered an education culture for the children and nurtured the participation in the arts. Perversely, this was used for propaganda by the Nazis. They showed that this was a model Jewish community where self-expression and limited self-government were allowed and encouraged. Sadly and tragically, the international community didn’t dig deeper.
The Ghetto Museum was hard to experience. Seeing the art work of the children of Terezin, some of it happy, some of it tortured, was a draining emotional experience. There were exhibits detailing the living conditions in the Ghetto that showed the ways so many died as a result of malnutrition and disease. By the end of the war, close to 90,000 people were deported to the east from Terezin. Only 3,500 survived.
We left the museum and explored a bit of the town on the way to a few other exhibits. Terezin remains relatively unchanged from the 1940s. Buildings are in varying states of repair and you get a sense that the history of this place may be too much for Terezin to overcome.
A peaceful twenty minute walk from the main square is the Jewish Cemetery and Crematorium. We first walked through the cemetery taking note of the grave markers, family names, dates and occupations. The cemetery is a beautiful and poignant tribute to the more than 10,000 victims buried here.
The quiet of this area was shattered emotionally as we entered the crematorium. We nodded in the direction of the man guarding the door. The only word we spoke here was to say “English” when he quietly inquired as to our language to provide us a note describing what we were about to see. The crematorium was disturbing and horrific. Tables to hold dead bodies. Industrial hand saws and other tools to break down those bodies. The plumbing to take away the blood. The large-scale machinery to drive the fire that cremated more than 30,000 victims. I stood there in disbelief. More than anything else on this day, these sights made me question humanity and the horrible things people do to other people.
About six hours after we had arrived, we headed back to the main square of Terezin to catch a bus back to Prague. What we saw, the ground we covered and the stories we heard had us emotionally and physically exhausted. Sometimes life’s lessons and stories can only be truly appreciated by seeing them. This was a difficult day, but one that made my trip to the Czech Republic so much richer.