Terezín (Theresienstadt)

My second full day in the Czech Republic, Sierra and I caught an empty bus to Terezín (Theresienstadt in German). Terezín includes a walled garrison town and military fortress about 45 minutes outside of Prague.

During WWII, the Gestapo used Terezín as a Jewish ghetto, and the fortress as a “punishment prison” and concentration camp for Jews primarily from Czechoslovakia, Austria, Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands. My family recently discovered that a relative of ours was imprisoned in Terezín (he survived the camp). This, more than anything, compelled me to visit Terezín, especially after learning how close it was to Prague.

Terezín was used as a source of slave labor; as a holding point for Jews before they were sent elsewhere; and, for a time, as a place to concentrate elderly Jews. Though its primary purpose was not an extermination camp, tens of thousands of Jews were murdered there and over 150,000 others (including tens of thousands of children) were held there for months or years, before being sent to Treblinka or Auschwitz extermination camps in Poland. About a quarter of those held in the camp died there, mostly due to the dire living conditions, hunger, and disease.

This is a difficult post for me to write. Everything about the experience completely wrecked me emotionally, and I don’t believe we have the language to truly express what it was like to be present there. Sierra and I spent six hours in Terezín – visiting the fortress, a small museum, several cemeteries (mass graves), the crematorium, barracks, a brick tunnel system, etc. – and it wasn’t enough. It would have taken at least a full day to see everything there was to see, if you wished to spend a meaningful amount of time in each place. Further, I didn’t take many photos because I felt it wasn’t appropriate, but I will post the few that I took here.

One thing I will say about Terezín, before I just post some pictures and let you feel whatever you may feel, is that I was shocked at how “real” it all seemed. This may seem obvious, but when I imagine visiting other, more well-known camps like Auschwitz – which I haven’t done – I assume they have been cleaned up to some extent, given the huge number of tourists that visit every day. I imagine things have been maintained, that there are signs and guides to help you navigate the camp and feel more in control and more distant from the reality of what happened there. I may be wrong, but these are my assumptions.

Nothing about Terezín was clean or touristic.

It was all raw, as if the war ended and it was all just left as-is. It was nothing, nothing, nothing like a museum. Everything was grimy and crumbling. The ghetto museum and crematorium were the only structures I found to be maintained in any way. Everything else was open, exposed to the elements, and disintegrating. The walls were stained, the windows were open and full of cobwebs, there was bird shit everywhere. There was no staff. There were very few placards, and almost none in English. There were hardly any other people there all day.

At times, I was the only person in a small damp cell, in a dark brick tunnel, in a barrack crowded with old wooden bunks, in a cold crematorium chamber. I found this particularly stirring, to be alone in these rooms. The entire area was silent, dark, still, and empty. It had the feeling of a place that had been rapidly abandoned.

Never have I felt so palpable the presence of so much suffering, of so much human violence. Such a dark energy, everywhere. It didn’t help that it was drizzling and gray outside. Sierra commented that the entire town was just covered by a black cloud – both literally and metaphorically speaking. Everything just felt heavy. Sierra and I were both glad we did not visit this place alone. It was a very intense experience for me, and I’m sure for her, too.

This is the basic layout of Theresienstadt, shaped like a star. It was built as a garrison town/military fortress before the First World War, but hasn’t been active in any way since it was used as a concentration camp in the Second.

A building in the town of Theresienstadt, formerly used as a ghetto.

Another building in the former ghetto.

Rusty barbed wire encircles the entire area.

These train tracks stop abruptly, their end now immersed in the earth. The tracks were used by the trains transporting tens of thousands of Jews to and from Theresienstadt.

There are endless brick tunnels going into the hills, presumably used for defense purposes in the First World War. Everything is dark and empty now.

The crematorium, which is located in the center of a large field of mass graves. Most of those who died at Terezín were cremated in this building, their ashes stored in urns throughout the tunnels in the garrison town.

These are symbolic gravestones, placed throughout a field that covers a mass grave. Here, thousands of Jews who perished at Terezín were buried en masse. The gravestones appear to be placed haphazardly, but they are merely symbolic; some are single, and some are grouped together in small clumps, perhaps to represent families or relatives.

This is the River Ohře. Toward the end of the war, the nazis attempted to conceal the genocide that’d occurred at Terezín. They removed the urns containing the ashes of thousands of Jews from the fortress’ tunnels, and dumped them into this river – likely from just where this photo was taken. I can’t even begin to express in words how it felt to be here.

This is the entrance to the “Small Fortress”, used as the camp and prison and just over the river from where the ghetto was established.

This is part of another huge mass burial site. This one is just in front of the Small Fortress (the concentration camp).

This is the view of just one side of the fortress, taken as I was walking through the front gate. You can see mountains in the distance. The fortress itself is huge – we were inside for over an hour, and still didn’t see it all.

The doors you see here are entrances to the offices of Nazi guards and officers. The gate ahead, at the end, opens into one courtyard of the concentration camp.

The slogan on this gate, now peeling away, translates to “Work Brings Freedom”. This gate is the entrance to the camp area.

This is a view of one of the courtyards within the camp/prison. The doors in this particular building open into rooms with crowded, bunked wooden bed frames; some type of mechanical implements probably used for manufacturing something; lines of dusty, bare porcelain sinks and cracked mirrors; open-piped showers; or prison cells with no windows, and deadbolts on the outside of the doors.

Another photo of some of the buildings in the prison camp.

For some reason I found this room more upsetting than anything else about Terezín. I think because it is just bare humanity. And I could practically envision prisoners standing in front of these sinks, washing. I don’t necessarily feel any connection to my family member who was imprisoned here, but in this room, I felt particularly strangled, knowing I was related to someone who may have endured suffering in this place. In this room, everything just felt so humanized.

This is another area of the camp. These doors open to small, windowless prison cells. There is a watchtower over the courtyard just behind where I was standing.

And last, a photo of Sierra walking up ahead of me through one of the fortress’s many tunnels.

That’s it. I felt weird taking all of these photos, but there is so, so much more to see. I am glad I visited Terezín, and thankful Sierra was there with me, if only to sit with on the bus ride back to Prague. It was a very raw experience, and one I will never, ever forget.

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3 thoughts on “Terezín (Theresienstadt)

  1. Thank you for posting such a powerful account of your visit. I was re watching War and Rememberance and became curious to read more about this ghetto. Man’s inhumanity to man (which continues) is something I will NEVER EVER comprehend. You have really captured the grimness. thanks again

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