The Terezín Concentration Camp was once a witness to one of history’s darkest chapters. Unlike other concentration camps that were created during WW2, Terezín, or Theresienstadt, was unique. It was primarily used as a way station for hundreds of thousands of Jews before they were sent to extermination camps, such as Treblinka, Sobibor, and Auschwitz. Terezín was both a concentration camp and a ghetto, housing more than 350,000 Jews and other victims at one point, including thousands of Jewish children who were deported to the ghetto.
Today, the concentration camp stands as a reminder of one of the darkest chapters in our history. Visiting Terezín paints an all-too-real picture of what transpired in the past and the small hopes that bloomed within its walls.
The History of Terezín
Situated around 30 to 40 miles northwest of Prague, Terezín was originally intended as a holiday resort for Czech nobility. Built by Emperor Joseph II of Austria in the late 18th century, it was named after his mother, Empress Maria Theresa. Terezín consists of two fortresses, a larger one and a smaller one situated across the Eger River, and an enclosed town that housed approximately 7,000 soldiers and their families.
Terezin also played a significant role during WW1, particularly the Small Fortress, which was used as a prison during that period. It held many political prisoners, including Gavrilo Princip. The Serbian nationalist was responsible for assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife on June 28, 1914. The event marked the beginnings of WW1.
During WW2, Terezin was converted into a Jewish ghetto, mainly housing Jews from Czechoslovakia. Other deported Jews from countries such as Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and Denmark were also sent to Terezín, where they were held for months or years, before being sent to extermination camps.
While it wasn’t exactly an extermination camp, as many as 33,000 prisoners perished within its walls due to malnutrition and disease. Poor living conditions and maltreatment by their captors also contributed to the many deaths within Terezín.
Who were sent to the Terezín Concentration Camp?
During WW2, many prisoners were sent to Terezín. Among the camp’s prisoners were Jewish veterans from WW1, intellectuals, writers, spiritual leaders, and artists, as well as half-Jewish people.
Art within Terezín’s Walls
Terezín housed many artists, writers, and scholars, paving the way for a rich cultural life within its confines. Several artworks and music were created within the camp, some of which survived WW2 and are displayed in museums, such as the Jewish Museum in Prague.
Rafael Schächter, a Czech composer, was also held at the camp. In 1943, he organized a chorus consisting of 150 Jews who performed in front of other prisoners, SS officers, and other members of the German army.
The rich cultural life within the camp belied the sobering truth that transpired within its walls. It was a propaganda camp and was used to mask the reality of what was really happening to its prisoners.
Taking a Day Trip to the Terezín Concentration Camp
One of the best ways to learn about Terezín’s history is by taking a day tour there. You can visit the Terezín Memorial, which offers both guided (with fees) and self-guided tours. With the former, you’ll be able to explore the Small Fortress and the former ghetto. The Memorial houses several exhibits and permanent exhibitions.
If you want to know more about Terezín and what transpired there, you can also visit the Jewish Museum in Prague.
Jewish Museum in Prague
The museum showcases drawings created between 1942 and 1944 by children who were imprisoned in the ghetto. Now part of the museum’s permanent exhibitions, many of the artworks were made during the children’s classes with Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. Friedl filled two suitcases with thousands of the children’s drawings and hid them in a secret place. The drawings depicted holiday celebrations and the children’s dreams of being able to return home.
Created in 1947, the Memorial was first known as the National Suffering Memorial. It houses several historic sites, including:
- The Small Fortress
- The Ghetto Museum
- The National Cemetery
- The Park of the Terezín Children
The Terezín Memorial offers a free virtual tour where you can explore the venue’s exclusive 3D model. They also have a guided virtual tour where a guide shows you around the buildings found within the Memorial. They currently have three options for the guided virtual tour: the Small Fortress, the former ghetto, or both. You can also select the language to be used for the tour, which includes English, Czech, French, and German.