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Sunday, November 11, 2012

Trip to Terezín

"Work Sets You Free"

I was aware of Theresienstadt Concentration Camp from Holocaust Museums and movies about the Holocaust, but I didn’t realize until my tour of the Jewish Quarter in Prague that it was in the nearby city of Terezín.   I decided to learn more, so I took a short bus ride out to Terezín to get a tour from a local guide.  Terezín was built by order of the Austrian emperor Joseph ll between 1780 and 1790 as a fortress and named for his mother, Archduchess Maria Theresa.  It was never actually used as a fort, but by the end of the 19th century it was used as a prison for military and political prisoners.  During WWII, the Gestapo used Terezín, then better known by the German name,Theresienstadt, as a ghetto, concentrating Jews from Czechoslovakia, as well as many from Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and Denmark.  More than 150,000 Jews were sent here, and although it was not technically an extermination camp about 33,000 died in the ghetto itself, mostly because of the appalling conditions arising out of extreme population density.  About 88,000 of the inhabitants were deported to Auschwitz, Treblinka or other extermination camps, including 1,600 Jewish children from Bialystok, Poland who all perished in Auschwitz.   At the end of the war there were only 17,247 survivors in Theresienstadt.

100 prisoners would sleep on each level of these bunks.

Theresienstadt supplied the German war effort with a source of Jewish slave labor, particularly the splitting of locally mined mica.  Blind prisoners were sometimes spared deportation by assignment to this task.  Others manufactured boxes or coffins or sprayed military uniforms with a white dye to provide camouflage for German soldiers on the Russian front while still others sorted clothing confiscated from Jews from all parts of Germany whose baggage had been taken away and sent to Theresienstadt.  Walking through these rooms, I tried to picture the men, women and children who were forced to live in such a place in such terrible conditions, and to imagine what their lives had been like before being transported here.  I  marveled at their ability to survive at all, having no control over their daily lives or their future.  I thought about the parents, who could no longer give their children the lives they had hoped to give them.  I tried, but I couldn't really imagine what that would be like.  

Courtyard where Prisoners would Line up to be Counted

These showers really gave me the creeps after seeing so many   Holocaust movies
where showers were not really showers.

Theresienstadt was also used as Nazi propaganda to show the world it was an ideal place for Jews to live.  In 1944 the Red Cross was invited here to dispel rumors about extermination camps.  They were treated to an elaborate hoax.  The Germans intensified deportations before the visit to reduce the extreme overcrowding and planted gardens, painted houses, erected fake shops and cafes, and “beautified” the pre-determined route of the visitors to the camp.  They staged well-orchestrated social and cultural events for the visiting dignitaries, including the children’s opera “Brundibar” (which Carl and I went to see a few years ago and found really interesting) which was written by one of the inmates.  Amazingly, the Red Cross did not divert from the official tour route and was taken in by the deception.  Do we only see what we want to see?  As soon as the Red Cross left, things went right back to the way they were until the end of the war.  

SS Officers' Quarters

My last stop in Terezín was also the last stop of many of the residents during WWll; the crematorium.   It was built by ghetto prisoners on the orders of SS commanders. The crematorium is comprised of 4 incinerators and an autopsy room.  The front of each incinerator has a space for loading corpses that rested only on the board they were attached to so that the coffin lids could be used repeatedly.  Crematorium workers, who were Jewish prisoners, tried to get all human remains out individually and place them properly in urns, but his was a difficult task, as they had to pick out fragments of gold and broken dentures to hand to the SS officers who oversaw the operation.  The urns were all labeled with information copied from a card attached to the foot of the deceased because the SS officers wanted prisoners to believe that the remains would be given proper burial after the war.  Prison guards accompanying transported corpses were careful not to let the prisoners working in the crematorium catch glimpses of the bodies, however they could tell from the blood seeping through the coffins and sacks holding the bodies that many had died a violent death.   From 1942-1945, 30,000 bodies were cremated here by continuous shifts of 4-18 prisoner workers.  It is a very sobering place

Passports of some of the Terezin Prisoners

Residents of Terezin were shot or hung if they did
not follow SS orders.


Although my visit to Terezín was not a fun trip, I think such places are important to visit.  It's crucial for us to remember what can happen if we don't open our eyes to the plight of others and hold all human lives as precious.  I'm glad I came.

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