Theriesenstadt, the ‘town of the Jews’ – by Elisheva Fhima
Fate decreed that we should spend a couple of weeks in Czechoslovakia, so while we were there, my husband and I decided that we should also take a trip to Terezin, or what more people properly know of as ‘Theriesenstadt’.
I’d read such a lot about it, both in factual works and in historical fiction and I had an idea in mind of what it was like. Well, all my ideas were wrong. I had pictured it as being like Auschwitz with a few solid buildings which I’d seen in some films, and with a lot of wooden barracks as well. It was nothing like that.
First we went to what known as the Small Fortress where we found an excellent guide. She explained that the fort was part of an old Hapsburg system and that Terezin was the garrison town just 1km down the road. Both were fortified with walls and a moat, though the fortress where we were had been more heavily fortified.
Eventually, that fortress had become a prison and it was known for it’s cruelty and deprivation even before the Nazis overran Czechoslovakia and put the prison complex to their own uses. Among those who’d been imprisoned there in the past was Gabriel Princip, the man whose assassinated Archduke Ferdinand, and act which was used as the pretext for starting World War 1.
During the interwar years, Terezin continued to be a military prison by the Czech government.
At the start of the German occupation in World War 2, it began to be used as a prison for Jews and eventually the civilian residents of the town were expelled and the WHOLE TOWN was turned into a ghetto.
That’s what I hadn’t understood.
But the Jews who ended up being interred in Terezin weren’t just ‘ordinary’ people. The Nazis brought Jews there from Germany, Austria, Denmark and many other places, too. The Jews imprisoned in Terezin were the ones who had been decorated in World War 1, and who had been national ‘heroes’ in the past.
Other famous Jewish inmates of Terezin included artists, musicians and authors who had already made some sort of a name for themselves in Europe, as well as Jews who had dual citizenship of non-allied countries such as the USA.
As some of the inmates of Terezin were Danish Jews, the King of Denmark insisted on a visit from the Red Cross but they were only allowed to go to the areas that had been ‘beautified’ by the Germans. The Red Cross were apparently completely taken in by the Nazis’ attempts to portray Terezin as a ‘standard’ sort of Nazi concentration camp, and reassured the world that the awful rumors of Jews being mass-murdered in gas chambers were simply not true.
Perhaps, they chose to be deceived.
The Jews of Terezin made an effort to keep life as normal as they could for the children in the camp, with schools and clubs for art and music. It was relatively easy to organise, as so many of the inmates were from an artistic or musical background. Most of the Jews in Terezin were secular, at least initially, but many people rediscovered their Jewish roots as the terrible war continued.
Many of the older men in Terezin came from a Torah background and had learned in cheder, and as life became increasingly challenging and dangerous, they returned to their faith.
At one point, the Nazis brought a film crew into Terezin and made a documentary entitled ‘The Fuhrer gives the Jews a town.’ Again, everything was beautified and the prisoners were careful to act their parts according to Nazi dictates. At the end of filming, all of the Jewish ‘actors’ were sent to Auschwitz, and the film itself was only discovered after the war had ended.
Today, visitors can see that documentary being screened in the Terezin concentration camp, but knowing what happened to the people on screen, and how ‘false’ the whole narrative was, I couldn’t bring myself to watch more than 10 minutes of it, before I had to leave.
Today, the town has a horrible feeling, compounded by the fact that some of the buildings have been restored to normal use. People are bringing up their children in this benighted place with empty, derelict barracks across the street.
Terezin just feels so peculiar, as it feels like it’s frozen in time despite the fact that the few shops there are selling modern appliances and clothes.
At the end of the war, the small fortress in Terezin held lots of Jews form the death marches, and tens of people were squeezed into tiny rooms meant for a single person or just a few prisoners. After liberation, many of those prisoners still died, because of the awful conditions they had experienced.
In a final irony, the fortress was last used to imprison some of the Germans who were subsequently expelled from Czechoslovakia after the war. These Germans were called ‘Volksdeutch’, and they had lived on Czech soil for years. In fact, their presence in Czechoslovakia was used by the Nazis as a pretext for invading the country. Conditions were still so bad in Terezin, that many of these ‘Volksdeutch’ also died there.
Even in the midst of such devastation and darkness for the Jewish people, Hashem was sending a clear message in Terezin that there is a Judge, and there is a day of judgement.