Theresienstadt: Photo Essay

My last blog regarding the Nazi concentration and extermination camps visited during my summer trip to Eastern Europe focuses on Theresienstadt (Terezin in Czech). Just over an hour's drive from the Czech capital of Prague, Theresienstadt was our final stop on our tour. Next year, I will hopefully also write a few posts about some of the cities and towns we visited that have strong connections to the Holocaust (such as Lublin and Třebíč) and our cleaning of parts of several Jewish cemeteries in Poland. For now, however, I hope that these photo essays have provided some information and interest for those who have not visited, or intend to visit.

Theresienstadt was, perhaps, the strangest camp in the Nazi system because of its multi-functionality and the fact that it was not quite a labour or concentration camp, but also not quite a ghetto. It was established in an old fortress in November 1941 and liberated in May 1945. The Nazis tried to reassure people that it was a camp for elderly residents, and there was certainly a large population of over-60s. On the other hand, many famous Jews in the arts and culture were sent to Theresienstadt, which meant a rather fantastic cultural life flourished in the camp. Concerts and plays were performed frequently, and children were educated in secret. As with all other camps, though, living conditions in Theresienstadt were incredibly tough, with lack of food, poor sanitation and diseases spreading easily. It was also something of a transit camp for Czech, Austrian and German Jews - men, women and children - who were later deported to the extermination camps, such as Auschwitz and Treblinka.
Theresienstadt was used heavily for propaganda purposes. A film shot by the SS showed Jews wearing their own clothes, eating well, tending to vegetable gardens and attending performances. Furthermore, when the Red Cross insisted on visiting the camp in June 1944, the SS made sure that the camp was smartened up to make it appear like a pleasant, small village for the Jews. These, however, were just an elaborate deception, and after both the film and Red Cross visit, many Jews were sent to be killed so that they would not reveal the reality of life in Theresienstadt. You can learn a little more about Theresienstadt on the USHMM website.

We visited on a very hot day - around 32°C on average. I remember being careful to keep drinking water and stay in the shade where possible, which then made me think about how those who were made to live and work in the camp would not have had the same opportunity for self-care in such warm weather.
We began our visit in the Small Fortress. This mainly held political prisoners, but a number of Jews were also detained - many of them tortured - in this section of the camp. To the right, upon entering, is a large cemetery with both Jewish and non-Jewish victims of the camp. Once you have passed inside, there are a number of paths to take, but turning left takes you to the main living quarters of the prisoners. This is another of the Nazi camps emblazoned with the deeply ironic phrase 'Arbeit Macht Frei' ('Work Sets You Free'). It appears that most, if not all, of the rooms in each block are open for the visitor to explore. These generally consist of communal sleeping quarters with slatted bunk beds, a small heater and a long, wooden table. In the corner was a very crude toilet, nothing more than a hole in a wooden board. Some, but not all, allowed a bit of privacy by way of a door. Other rooms included rows of single beds, communal washrooms, showers and some sort of medical room. As the doors are (presumably) left open during all daylight hours, many of them also contained nests of small birds, who regularly flew in and out to feed their young. It made for a somewhat disconcerting experience, as if the memorial was open but not particularly cared for.
Further down the fortress was a large courtyard with two, one-storey white buildings. On the left-hand side were more living quarters; on the other were solitary cells for prisoner confinement and punishment. I do not know where the Jewish prisoners were tortured, but it is quite likely that this could be one of the sites.

Our trip to the Small Fortress was quite brief. From there, we travelled to the larger part of the camp, in what looked like a quaint little European town. This area contains a museum on Theresienstadt and its place within the Holocaust. The very first exhibit, showing children's drawings from the camp, moved me to tears. It also contained a model of Theresienstadt and contemporary artists' responses to the camp and its history.
The most incredible and moving part of the day, however, was when our guide took us down the road to something that had only recently been found. On the ground floor of a building within the camp, a synagogue had been created by Jewish prisoners, with Hebrew text, stars and candles painted on the walls. To me, it felt like the ultimate act of defiance and resistance: how much risk had been taken to create this tiny, secret room of prayer, I wondered? It was almost something of a comfort after a day spent in yet another place where so much suffering and death had occurred.

Please see below for a few photographs from the visit. I am happy for these photographs to be used, but please do contact me beforehand.

The entrance to the Small Fortress

The Christian/non-Jewish part of the cemetery

The Jewish part of the cemetery

The 'Arbeit Macht Frei' sign

Entrance to Block A

Communal living quarters

Prisoner toilet

Communal washroom


Medical room

The Herrenhaus where the SS and their families lived

The Theresienstadt Museum

A display of Stars of David worn by camp inmates

Model of Theresienstadt

Part of the former camp - a pleasant-looking town

Paintings on the wall of the secret synagogue

Candles painted in the synagogue