Terezin was an existing walled in city outside of Prague which had been a garrison town established under Emperor Joseph II and named after his mother, Maria Theresa, to house the families of the soldiers who would be stationed at the Small Fortress nearby. Under German occupation, Terezin would be renamed Theresienstadt, the town would become the ghetto and the small fortress would become the concentration camp. Theresienstadt would last from its establishment in October 1941 until its liberation at the end of the war, making it one of the longest lasting places established by the Nazis during the Holocaust. The garrison town had been constructed for 6,000 people. During the Holocaust it housed at its height, 60,000 people. And the town of Terezin now has about 2,000 residents.
Mr. Barmore told us about the paradox of this ghetto. In Theresienstadt, the Judenrat (Jewish Council) decided that families were to be separated, adults from children with the goal of shielding the children from the harsher aspects of life in the ghetto. Children were housed in youth barracks. Their parents were often in barracks not far away and they could see them at night. There was a very special population of adults here, many academics and artists and musicians and they took on the role of educating the children, giving them art lessons and entertaining them with music. The Judenrat decreed that children were to receive double rations of the adults. Except for the fact that occasionally a child or several were suddenly missing, because families were deported together as a unit, many children survivors have said this was a good time in their lives. Perhaps they were an only child and they now had friends; or they enjoyed the special activities planned for them. This would also lead, we were told, to some condescension from the survivors of Auschwitz who felt that those who had lived in Terezin could not possibly understand the survivor experience of Auschwitz.
We were reminded that Terezin had been built as a garrison town to stop invading armies from the north, but, had, in fact never been used for that purpose. In 1941 the Nazis decided to house Czech Jews in Terezin and kicked out the 5-6,000 residents, and moved in Jews. The ghetto was managed by Jews, first under the leadership of Jakob Edelstein as Eldest of the Jews of the Judenrat. Shalmi said it was unusual because he didn’t have to be here. Edelstein had a visa to go to Palestine but the Jews of Prague begging him to stay and help manage the ghetto. He did stay to help his community, with his wife and son, and ultimately would die in Auschwitz. Mr. Barmore said that what the Jewish leadership did was derived from what they knew or understood of their situation at the time. They thought it was a temporary situation and that they would return to their lives, so they needed to make the best out of a bad situation and most importantly protect the children.
Mr. Barmore told us that at one point one of the most important facts about this ghetto was the visit by the International Red Cross. Scenes from the film we had seen earlier were from the propaganda film made by the Nazis for the Red Cross. Why did the Red Cross visit? Shalmi said there was no real certainty but most historians believe it had something to do with Denmark. Denmark, we were told, was one of the two nations to save its Jews. 8,000 Jews lived in Denmark and the nation was able to save about 7,500. In October 1943 the Nazis planned to round up the Danish Jews for deportation, but a German businessman learned of the deportation and warned the leader of the Jewish community and with the help of average Danes they were able to get about 7,500 of them into neutral Sweden. Why were the remaining Jews deported to Terezin and not Auschwitz? The Danish Foreign Minister asked the Nazis where they were taking the Danish Jews. He was told Terezin and you can visit it you want. The Foreign Minister said he would be visiting the camp. So the Nazis knew of the impending visit by the Danish Foreign Minister with the Red Cross so the Danish Jews were sent here. In preparation for the visit the Nazis made some changes: they provided more food to the ghetto inhabitants, they did a beautification process on the town, planting flowers, painting buildings, reduced the number of inhabitants by deporting several trains to Auschwitz, and they made a film showing that all was wonderful in the Terezin ghetto. When the Red Cross came, led by a 26-year old officer, they hardly saw anything, had lunch, saw the film, were given a tour of certain sections of the ghetto, and they left. The Red Cross wrote a glowing report about conditions in the ghetto saying that everything was wonderful and the Jews were well cared for and having a good time. The day after the report was issued, 10,000 Czech Jews in Auschwitz where many had been deported at the end of 1943 to make room for the Danish Jews and lessen the ghetto population, but who had been kept together in a special section of Auschwitz-Birkenau known as the Czech family camp, ‘just in case’, were exterminated in the gas chambers. Shalmi said that about ten years ago the Red Cross wrote a letter apologizing for that report.
We then walked to the Danish prayer room which had been constructed by Danish Jews who had been sent to Theresienstadt in October 1943. Known as the hidden synagogue, it was discovered about 15 years ago. Shalmi told us that the prayers on the walls reflected the heartbreaking dialogue of the Jews with their God. Verses such as “We beg you, turn back from your anger and have mercy on the treasured nation that you have chosen” and “But despite all this, we have not forgotten your name. We beg you not to forget us” were written on the walls.
Next we walked to the Magdeburg Barracks which had housed the Judenrat or Jewish Council, leaders of the ghetto administration. Mr. Barmore led us through the exhibition, which included a typical dormitory room, and sections devoted to the art, music, literature and theatre which ghetto residents left behind as their legacy. We viewed pictures by ghetto artists, and read some of the poetry and literature left by residents of the ghetto, their legacy to us.
From Terezin we journeyed back to Prague and visited the Lidice Memorial.
In June 1942, Heinrich Heydrich was assassinated in Prague and the Nazi leadership wanted someone to pay. Lidice was a small town outside of Prague with about 500 inhabitants. On June 10, 1942 the Nazis descended upon this small town in the mistaken belief that the residents had aided the paratroopers responsible for Heydrich’s assassination. The men were all shot, the women were sent to Ravensbruck, a few very young children who could pass as Aryans were sent to Germany to be raised by German families, and 82 children who were older or who looked non-Aryan were transported to Lodz and then later to Auschwitz where they were murdered.
The Lidice memorial is to the memory of the 82 children. The memorial was designed by sculptor Marie Uchytilova. It is a bronze monument which depicts each of the 82 children from photographs. There are 42 girls and 40 boys who look out over what used to be their village. The last child sculptures were unveiled in 2000 so that the memorial is now complete. It is an extremely powerful memorial that made a significant impact on us. Kamila said the Czech people were especially happy that the memorial had been constructed from material from all of the statues to Soviet and communist leaders.
We visited the Lidice museum where we watched a film summarizing the events of Lidice and Czechoslovakia from 1918 to the destruction of the town in June 1942, and then toured the museum which included video testimony of surviving children.
We ended our long day and difficult day with a beautiful dinner overlooking Prague. We presented our Prague guide, Kamila and our travel coordinator, Dana with special 20th Anniversary certificates thanking them for their many years of service and dedication to this program.
After returning to our hotel in the evening, Tony and Eva Vavrecka met us and the students were able to ask Eva questions about Otto’s diary and Tony spoke to us about his leaving Prague and coming to America with Eva in the 1969. They are the most gracious people and are so willing to make their family story part of our students. We are so grateful for their dedication to our program.
Day 7, and now in Terezin, interesting to learn how this city was a walled in city just outside of Prague. I enjoyed learning that it was built in attempt to stop any army attempting to invade from the North, however it was never put to that use. However, when it went under German rule, the town turned into a ghetto, and the small fort found inside the walled city was used as a concentration camp. It was interesting to learn about how the camp was ran, and how the Nazi’s split up the children and adults and split up all families. Many people in this camp went in going it would only be for a little time, and would of never thought that it would be the end for them if they stepped foot into it. I found it very cool, how there was a memorial just for the kids who passed. And I thought that was a very nice gesture, and a very important memorial.
Terezin has so much history inside of the town. The idea that it was once a ghetto for Jewish people to be stored; and the cruelties of the Nazis that were hidden from the Red Cross amaze me. It is hard to believe that those atrocities could be hidden from an organization such as the Red Cross. The story of Lidice is very sad to me because they were innocent people who were murdered for no reason.
The town of Terezin is steeped in history. It amazes me that it was previously a ghetto used to hold Jews and that the Nazis’ horrors were kept from the Red Cross. It is improbable that such crimes could have been concealed from a group like the Red Cross. As innocent people who were senselessly murdered, the Lidice story makes me very sad.
what is interesting to me is that the town terezin was considered a ghetto but holds deep and terrifying history for the jews, it also holds the secrets of what we don’t know about concentration camps
What once was a garrison town walled in the city of Prague, the city of Terezin turned into a ghetto under German occupation. I think one of the most interesting facts about this ghetto that caught my attention was the fact that the horrors of Terezin were kept secret from a renowned organization such as the Red cross. To go to such lengths of beautifying the ghetto deceive the world, is far worse than inhumane.