Terezín was established at the end of the 18th century as a fortress; still surrounded by its massive ramparts, the town lies at the confluence of the rivers Labe (Elbe) and Ohře (Eger). The Main and Lesser Fortresses at Terezín, although the modern for their period, gradually became obsolete, and having lost their military function fell into disregard.
Only in the relatively recent past has Terezín once again entered the world's public consciousness as a tragic symbol of the sufferings of the tens of thousands of innocent people who died here during the Nazi occupation of their homeland.
The Police Prison in the Lesser Fortress
After Hitler's occupation of Czechoslovakia, the Nazis recognised the "advantages" of the Lesser Fortress, and in June 1940 opened a police prison within it. Czech and Moravian patriots, members of numerous resistance groups and organisations, were sent here by various branches of the Gestapo.
While around 90% of the inmates were Czechs and Slovaks, others included citizens of the Soviet Union, Poles, Yugoslavs, Frenchmen, Italians, English prisoners of war and other nationalities. In five years, some 32 000 men and women passed through the gates of the Lesser Fortress.
The conditions under which the prisoners lived worsened from year to year, and prisoners were forced into slave labour. The "internal komando" maintained the prison, tilled the surrounding fields and built various structures. The majority of prisoners, however, worked outside the fortress for various firms in the area, and until the closing days of the War contributed to production and work for the Reich.
From 1943 executions, too, were carried out in the Lesser Fortress, on the basis of "Sonderbehandlung" - without judicial process. In all, more than 250 prisoners were shot. At the last execution, on May 2nd 1945, 51 prisoners and 1 informer, mostly representatives of the Předvoj youth movement, lost their lives.
Only in the evenings, in moments of rest, could the prisoners rise above the never-ending humiliation and terror from the side of their guards. Within their cells, permanent and trustworthy collectives formed that secretly organised political and cultural events. Talks and presentations were held by artists and a broad range of professionals; in some cells cultural evenings were secretly held with singing and recitations, and clerics organised prayers. Even in such inhuman conditions people were able to express their creativity; numerous poems and simple drawings of outstanding documentary value originated here. Culturally, political life in the cells and secret links to the outside world helped the prisoners to overcome the horrors of this tool of Nazi persecution.
Among those imprisoned in the Lesser Fortress were the head of the resistance organisation the Central Command of Home Resistance, doc. Vladimír Krajina, the most senior officers of the National Guard, Generals Hugo Vojta, František Kravák, Viktor Spěváček and František Melichar, and the head of the Czechoslovak General Staff, General Ludvík Krejčí, who was also deported here. Also present were the leader of the "Věrni zůstaneme" ("We remain faithful") petition movement Prof. Vojtěch Čížek, the writer K.J. Beneš, the editor Otakar Wünsch and JUDr. Milada Horáková. Members of the Communist Party imprisoned here included Václav Sinkule, Eduard Urx, MUDr. Miloš Nedvěd, Milada Pixová and Marie Zápotocká. After the assassination of Heydrich in 1942, students from Roudnice were brought here, along with the relatives and accomplices of the assassins, Kubiš and Valčík; of these, 252 were executed in October 1942 at Mauthausen. Other prisoners of note included the Prague radio reporter František Kocourek, the caricaturist František Bidlo, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs Kamil Krofta (a university professor and historian), and prof. Karel Štipl.
The Lesser Fortress had the character of a transit prison, from which inmates were after a certain period either brought before the courts or transferred to concentration camps. As a result of hunger, maltreatment, insufficient medical care and poor hygienic conditions, however, some 2600 prisoners died here, while thousands more lost their lives having been deported from Terezín.
The concentration camp for Jews - the "Terezín Ghetto"
An integral part of Nazi plans for a new ordering of Europe was the so-called "Final Solution of the Jewish Question". From the occupied territories of Bohemia and Moravia, too, citizens of Jewish origin were hunted down and, from November 1941, gradually deported to the town of Terezín (the Main Fortress), where the Nazis arranged a "ghetto" for them. Here they were to be massed until the extermination camps further east were ready to carry out their final liquidation.
Initially, the barracks in the town were used to accommodate the Jewish prisoners, and once all the local residents had been moved out, by mid-1942, all civilian buildings were sued for this purpose. Massive overcrowding, however, also led to the use of attics, cellars, and the casemates within the ramparts. Terezín became the largest concentration camp in the Czech Lands, with thousands of transports arriving here carrying Jews not only from the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, but also from Germany, Austria, Holland and Denmark, as well later as from Slovakia and Hungary.
In less than four years, more than 140 000 prisoners were brought here - men, women and children. In the last days of the War, a further 15 000 prisoners arrived at Terezín on "evacuation transports" from concentration camps cleared from the advancing front line. Over 35 000 prisoners died here as a result of stress, hunger, and the atrocious accommodation and hygienic conditions.
The Terezín camp for Jews was headed by a Nazi Komandantura, which gave instructions to the "Jewish authority" which took care of the internal organisation of the camp. Direct supervision of the prisoners was left to the Protectorate guards, the great majority of whom sympathised with the prisoners, attempted to help them and kept them in touch with the outside world.
Within the camp, all manner of prohibitions and ordinances applied, and only cultural life was for a certain period permitted, as it could serve as a backdrop disguising the truth of the fate that had been decided for the Jews. The internees took up the arts as a means of coping with depression and their fears for the unknown future. They attempted to ensure that even imprisoned children missed nothing of their education, and did not lose their outlook. Despite Nazi prohibition, therefore, they taught in secret, dedicating themselves with great self-sacrifice to educating the children; even behind the walls of the ghetto, they prepared them for a future in freedom.
Unfortunately, even as transports arrived at the ghetto, others gradually began to leave - into the unknown. From October 1942 virtually all went to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the most awful of the extermination camps. In all, 63 transports left Terezín for the "East", carrying a total of more than 87 000 individuals; of these, only 3800 would see liberation. The fate of the children of Terezín was equally tragic; of the 7590 youngest prisoners deported, a mere 142 survived until liberation. Only those children who remained for the whole period at Terezín had any really chance of being saved; on the day of liberation, Terezín contained some 1600 children aged 15 or under. Their lives are reflected in verses, diaries, illegally produced magazines and thousands of drawings - often the only things that remain of them.
Among the personalities active in the cultural life of the ghetto were the writers Karel Poláček and Norbert Frýd, from the world of music Karel Berman, David Grünfeld, Ada Hechtová, Karel Ančerl, Rudolf Franěk, Karel Reiner, Viktor Ullmann, Gideon Klein, Pavel Haas, Hans Krása and F.E. Klein, from theatre and cabaret arch. František Zelenka, Gustav Schorsch, Vlasta Schönová, Karel Švenk, Zdeněk Jelínek, Ota Růžička, Kurt Gerron, Hanuš Hofer, and Leo Strauss, and from the arts Bedřich Fritta, Otto Ungar, Leo Haas, Ferdinand Bloch, Karel Fleischmann, Petr Kien, Adolf Aussenberg, Charlota Burešová, Rudolf Saudek, Jo Spier and Arnold Zadikow.
The Litomerice forced labour camp
In the last years of the War, as the German armaments industry was increasingly threatened by Allied air power, the Nazis decided to shift some of their production facilities underground. In Litoměřice, the former limestone quarry beneath the Bídnice plain was to be used for this purpose.
In the Spring of 1944, work began here on the construction of underground factories code-named Richard I and Richard II. Thousands of prisoners were brought to work on the project, primarily Poles, Yugoslavs, Russians, Frenchmen, Belgians, Italians and other nationalities. A work camp was established for them close to the building site, a subsidiary of the notorious Flossenbürg concentration camp - a workforce source.
Prisoners prepared the ground surface, dug adits and prepared the spaces of the production halls. Specially selected individuals, together with forced labourers, then worked on the production of engine parts for tanks, heavy military vehicles and ships. After several months, they were joined by the large komando of the Gestapo prison in the Lesser Fortress at Terezín.
Inhuman treatment, hunger, slave labour underground where cave-ins threatened, and finally an outbreak of typhus resulted in 4500 of the 18000 prisoners employed here dying in under a year.
The situation of prisoners at Terezín was complicated at the end of the War by the evacuation transports which arrived here between April 20th and May 6th, 1945. The thousands of pitiful and seriously ill prisoners who arrived at this time brought with them typhus, which quickly spread to the original Jewish occupants of the ghetto. Meanwhile, typhus was also identified in the Lesser Fortress prison. Doctors in Prague learned of this, and organised the "Czech Aid Project to help prisoners at Terezín", which was led by the epidemiologist MUDr. Karel Raška.
Members of the Czech Aid Project began work at the Lesser Fortress as early as May 4th, 1945, and at the same time made contact with members of the International Red Cross, which on May 2nd had taken over prevention at both the police prison and the ghetto. In the evening hours of May 8th the first units of the Red Army passed through Terezín towards Prague.
In the following days, at the request of the Czech doctors, the Soviet military took over preventative measures in all of Terezín, and also supplied much needed medical assistance. Together with Czech doctors and healthcare personnel, as well as the health service organised by former prisoners and dozens of volunteers from the surrounding area, they made a major contribution to stamping out the epidemic, which had already claimed hundreds of victims. Special mention must be made here of the self-sacrifice of all those who participated in this dangerous undertaking, without regard to time, rest of the danger of infection. By the end of May the worst of the epidemic had passed; some 30 000 lives had been saved. The repatriation of liberated prisoners, who came from a total of 30 countries, lasted until August 21st 1945.
The internment camp
From 1945 to 1948 the Lesser Fortress housed an internment camp in which were gathered first prisoners of war and later those German residents marked for expulsion from Czechoslovakia. This part of the relatively recent history of Terezín was for a long time taboo, and archive materials were not accessible to researchers. Only the democratic transformation has created normal conditions for the work of historians, and this has enabled the picture of post-war development to be filled out, and questions associated with it to be considered objectively. The results of such research were published in 1997, and are presented in a permanent exhibition in the Fourth Courtyard in the Lesser Fortress.
The creation of the Terezín Memorial
Shortly after the end of the Second World War attempts began to save and preserve this site of suffering and sadness in such a way as to provide an enduring memory and warning for future generations.
On May 6th 1947 the government of the Czechoslovak Republic decided to create the Terezín Memorial, with the aim of conserving and preserving the site as it was during the period of the Nazi occupation. Today, the Terezín Memorial comprises a collection of individual monuments that are noticeably dispersed, and do not form a single site. These include:
The Lesser Fortress as a historical part of Terezín
The National Cemetery
The Ghetto Museum
The Jewish Cemetery, with the crematorium and the Russian cemetery
The memorial to Soviet forces
The memorial plaque by the former railway sidings
The site of reverence on the Ohře (Eger)
The columbarium with part of the fortifications, a ceremonial space and mortuary
The former Richard underground factory at Litoměřice and crematorium
The Magdeburg Barracks
The National Cemetery
The National Cemetery was created artificially after liberation in 1945. The stimulus for its creation came from among former prisoners and the heirs of those who died, at whose request physical remains were exhumed from six mass graves in the ramparts of the Lesser Fortress which had been in use from March 1st to May 7th 1945. Among those who were exhumed were prisoners from the death march that in May 1945 arrived at the Lesser Fortress.
On September 16th 1945, in the presence of former prisoners, the descendants of some of the deceased, honourable leaders of political and public life in post-war Czechoslovakia and members of the general public, a ceremonial funeral was held for 601 exhumed victims (among those attending were the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jan Masaryk, and JUDr. Milada Horáková, who spoke for the women prisoners).
From the end of the War, Terezín became a site of reverence for the Czechoslovak people. A memorial service was held at the National Cemetery to mark the first anniversary of liberation, on May 5th 1946. The programme included the burial of victims exhumed from shared graves in Lovosice, from mass graves found in the forced labour camp at Litoměřice, and from the communal cemetery in Terezín.
The ashes of 52 prisoners executed in the Lesser Fortress on May 2nd 1945 were also added to the National Cemetery. Furthermore, the urns containing the ashes of victims of the typhus epidemic were brought here from the Terezín Crematorium, as were ashes from large pits nearby - in the main, the remains of the dead from the Terezín Ghetto.
As late as 1958, building work close to the Richard former underground factories exposed a grave containing human ashes; it was found that these were the mortal remains of a Jewish prisoner from the Terezín Ghetto. They were immediately reinterred in the National Cemetery.
The National Cemetery presently contains 2 386 individual graves (both urns and inhumations). Thousands more of the dead of the Lesser Fortress, Terezín Ghetto and Litoměřice forced labour camp, as well as of those who came to Terezín at the end of the War in the death march and death transports, are interred in the mass graves marked by five pylons. In all, the remains of some 10 000 victims lie within the National Cemetery.
The Jewish Cemetery and Crematorium
The dead of the Terezín Ghetto were from the start buried in individual and mass graves near Bohušovice. It was thus that the Jewish Cemetery developed, in which lie some 9 000 victims from the ghetto. The Nazis also decided to create at Terezín a camp crematorium, which came into service on September 7th 1942, and was used in the cremation not only of the dead from the ghetto, but also from the Gestapo police prison in the Lesser Fortress, and later also those from the forced labour camp at Litoměřice. According to surviving cremation records, some 30 000 victims were cremated here. Urns containing ashes were stored in the columbarium located in the fortress ramparts, but the Nazis were able to destroy the majority before the end of the War.
From the middle of March 1945 until the arrival of the first evacuation transports, cremations were halted; victims from all three components of the persecution were instead buried in mass graves. Meanwhile, a separate crematorium was established at the Litoměřice camp, with came into service in April 1945; in the space of a month, some 400 corpses were cremated there. After the arrival of the evacuation transports at the end of April 1945, cremations began again at Terezín.
The appearance of the original cemetery for Jewish prisoners near Bohušovice was developed architecturally and in plan after the War, and the whole area is now presented as a garden that gently flows into the surrounding landscape. The site from which the Nazis threw the ashes of martyred prisoners into the Ohře in November 1944 has also been made into a site of reverence.
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