Terezin, Czech Republic
April 30, 2022
The weather was still cool as we left old town Prague and headed about an hour north to the town of Terezin, which was originally constructed as a walled fortress in 1780 and converted into a Jewish Ghetto and Nazi concentration camp during WW11. Terezin was unique because it was wholly created as a transitional camp before being sent to Auschwitz and latter it served propaganda purposes. Many educated professionals and artists were sent here and although not designated as a termination camp, 33,000 died here from malnutrition and disease.
As we prepared for a solemn history lesson, our tour guide Jana gave us some background on what to expect before reaching the Jewish museum, our first stop in Terezin this afternoon. No matter how prepared you are, you’re not and what you think you know, you don’t.
The Museum is very emotional and contains numerous exhibits, but it was the childrens drawings that really got me. The pictures were created in a class taught by Jewish artist Frieda Dicker-Brandeis who encouraged the children to express their emotions through art as a kind of therapy. The drawings were completed over a two year period and by 1944 the children as well as the instructor were sent to the gas chambers at Auschwitz.
We then walked around this deceptively nice looking town / converted Jewish ghetto that was portrayed by the Nazis as kind of a resort for relocated Jews.
Men, women and children were separated into different barracks with a few lucky ones assigned cramped apartments. We walked through one of these preserved units as well as a prayer room, which was encouraged to keep the people calm.
In 1944 an inspection was demanded by the King of Denmark because of the 466 Danish Jews that were interned here. The representatives included the Danish Foreign minister, International Red Cross and two Swiss delegates.
In order to prepare for this visit the Nazis created a plan known as “Operation Embellishment” which involved sprucing up the buildings with fresh paint, fake cafes and store fronts. Also overcrowding was managed by deporting approximately 7500 people to extermination camps. Questions were also prearranged by the Nazi officers and explicit instructions given for the interned to avoid all interaction with the delegation.
There was even a performance of “Requiem by Giuseppe Verdi” that was attended by the Swiss delegation and Nazi officers and conducted by the famous Czech composer Rafael Schachter with a choir of 150 Jewish adults. Afterwards all Jews involved with “Operation Embellishment” were sent to extermination camps.
This ruse was so successful that Terezin thereafter was sought out for additional propaganda purposes. While visiting the Jewish museum we watched a short documentary film or what was left of it, most of the film was destroyed. The documentary was used to convince the outside populous of how happy the Jewish people were with their new home. This film portrayed a summer camp like atmosphere with young fit men playing soccer, fans watching and young people flirting. The film took 11 days to create and was directed by an interned Jewish actor. As with “Operation Embellishment” the people in the film as well as the director were also sent to various extermination camps.
Next we drove across the river from the ghetto to the Terezin Memorial where we walked past Jewish and Christian gravesites. The deaths became so numerous here that eventually the crematorium was used and the ashes were dumped in the nearby river.
Just past the Terezin Memorial is the Small Fortress that was used as a Gestapo prison. The infamous Nazi sign of “Arbeit Macht Freight” (Work sets you free), similar to the one seen at Auschwitz, was written above the arch in front of the inner camp where not only Jewish but anyone considered enemies of the state were imprisoned.
Within the barracks were the wooden frames that served as beds and I found it difficult to imagine how 60 people could fit in these damp cramped quarters with one toilet. Disease, dysentery and malnutrition became all too real. You can read about these appalling conditions and see pictures, but when you come here in person you experience a different kind of connection.
Nearby we walked through the shower area and where the prisoners would strip down in order to have their clothes “sanitized” by some steam devise. Theoretically this would kill the bacteria but not remove the dirt from the clothes. After their shower the inmates would put these wet steamed dirty garments back on or go naked.
How can anyone honestly relate to the atrocities that were committed against these people? I can’t. I can only try. All of which made this post difficult to write.