Theresienstadt Concentration Camp, Terezín, the Czech Republic

If you’re impressed by how quickly I wrote this post, don’t be.  After my post about Prague my sister called and said she read it, then asked, “How many months will I have to wait until the next one?”  So this isn’t timely blogging, it’s just a form of sibling vengeance.  Also I just got an email that school is cancelled tomorrow due to extreme cold, so I have one more day of winter break!!

That being said, as I mentioned in my post on Prague, Brona and I went to Terezin, a town with a concentration camp.  I forgot to mention it before, but the fact that a WWII concentration camp was nearby was also a reason why I chose to go to Prague.  I knew I wanted to see a concentration camp while I was in Europe, and I wasn’t picky about which one; when I was deciding where to go on my last trip, I created a Google map with pins on all the possible places I could go, including the concentration camps that are open for visitors.  I didn’t really want to go to Poland and I was pretty much all Germany-ed out, so when the possibility of going to Prague came up I jumped on it.

Side note: when I was planning my trip a lot of people were like, “You want to go to a concentration camp?  That’s…cheerful.”  Well, no, it’s not, dummkopf.  I’m not going for a pick-me-up; I’m going because it’s an important part of our history, one that shouldn’t be forgotten, and I wanted to experience it firsthand while I had the chance.  It was for the same reasons that I went to the Caen Memorial Museum, and the D-Day beaches, and the American cemetery, and Anne Frank’s house.  It was a very WWII-rich year for me.

Okay, so anyway.  Brona and I caught the 4:30 AM train back to Prague from Podebrady, then crashed for just a few hours at her apartment, managing to wake up, get ready, and make it to the bus depot before 10:30.  We walked around for a few minutes looking for the platform listed on our tickets, then began to panic when we couldn’t find it and the clock crept closer to 10:30.  Because it was a Sunday, there was no one working, and the guy at the newspaper stand there was none too keen on helping two English-speaking girls.  We even found two other people who were looking to go to Terezin, but they had no idea where the bus stop was either so they ended up going to the zoo instead.  I’m sure it was a more uplifting day, anyway.

At a few minutes after 10:30, Brona discovered that there were steps down to a lower level, which went into a tunnel that then led to another set of bus stops.  We sprinted down and found our stop, but the bus wasn’t there.  We waited a few minutes to make sure we hadn’t missed it, but no bus came.  Running fail.  There was a schedule posted and it seemed that another bus was coming in a couple of hours, so instead of going back to Brona’s to sleep, we decided to see more of the city.  We walked around, coming back at the time on the schedule; again, no bus.  Brona finally found an old guy working nearby who spoke a little English, and discerned that because it was Sunday, the schedule was different.  He assured us that the bus would come at the next time on the schedule, so an exhausted, sleep-deprived, frustrated Brona and I walked around some more, had some tea, saw some sights.  We came back at the appointed time, and hallelujah!  A bus came!  Thanks to a nice bilingual lady in the front seat of the bus, we were able to explain to the bus driver why our tickets had a time from earlier that morning on them, and we were able to use the same tickets without paying more.  Small victory.

Our hourlong ride to Terezin was accompanied by a group of Czech thugs that smelled like a dumpster.  It was wonderful.  But we got there, got off the bus at the right place, and began walking around.  The town is called Terezin, and the concentration camp was referred to as Theresienstadt.  The camp was originally a fortress, built in the 1700s.

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Buying our tickets was one of the two times that French came in handy for me outside of France (the other was with a guy on our train when Nick and I were traveling in Italy).  The woman working didn’t speak English, but she did speak French!  So I was able to get two tickets for Brona and me and verify when the site closed.  We were really worried that it would close earlier than we thought (confusion over winter/summer hours), but luckily, we had just enough time to see everything and get back to catch the bus.

The first thing we saw was the cemetery/memorial site, which was actually outside the fortress.

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“34.  Built gradually between 1945 and 1958, the National Cemetery contains the bodies of some 10,000 Nazi victims.  2386 of them are buried in individual graves.”

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Some of the graves had names…

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Visitors put the rocks on the gravestones; one rock equals a prayer sent on the deceased’s behalf.

while some only had numbers.

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A couple of pictures from the entrance:

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“1. Entrance gate.”

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“2. Administrative yard.”

Each door/area had a number on it, and each number had a description next to it in the brochure we got.  I hung onto it and brought it back to the States with me, which is where I’m getting all my info!  My memory/knowledge of history is not that great.

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“3.  Reception office, where records on prisoners were kept, was led by Prison Commander W. Schmidt.  He was sentenced and executed after the war.”

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(Just learned something new: My photos kept failing to upload so I investigated.  Apparently I have a media upload limit of 3 GB and I just reached it.   Thanks to $20 on my Visa, I now have 10 more GB to use.  I’ve got a lot of photo-uploading to do to take advantage of all that space!)

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It was eerie to me to see the handwritten labels.  Made it seem that much more real.

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“6.  Clothing warehouse was in the charge of K. Wachholz.  New arrivals had to hand in their civilian clothes and dress in army uniforms of the armies defeated by the Nazis.  Wachholz was sentenced to death in the former GDR in 1968.”

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“Work makes you free.”

“7. Gate with the inscription “Arbeit macht frei”, so typical of most Nazi concentration camps, and, on the contrary, a slogan unusual in a Gestapo prison, leads into the first yard.”

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“9. As many as 60 to 90 inmates were crammed in some of the cells.  Prisoners from the former Soviet Union were placed in the so-called Russian cell (No. 1), while Jews, arrested for activities hostile to the Nazis, for non-compliance with the anti-Jewish regulations, or punished for various offenses and misdemeanors in the nearby ghetto, were jailed in cells No. 2 and 3.  Both group of prisoners were inhumanely treated.”

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Everything there had a dark feel to it. I wonder what this hole was used for.

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“10.  Sickroom where B. Kronert, official police-appointed physician from Litomerice, worked.”

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“11. Office of the Commander of the First Yard was run by A. Neubauer and later by S. Rojko; both were sentenced after the war.  Labor gangs were set up and records on prisoners jailed in individual cells were kept in this office.”

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“12. Prisoners who had been given stiffened punishment or convicts on the death row, eventually inmates whose interrogations had not yet finished were kept in solitary cells.”

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For some reason that is unfathomable to me, the cells had been freshly painted.

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Interior shot of the cell shown above:

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Looking out:

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See, fresh paint!  So weird…

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A little (dirty) glass peephole into one of the cells.

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I don’t have numbers for these next two photos.  Perhaps it’s where the prisoners in solitary confinement ate, or were processed.

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“8. Thee first yard is divided into blocks A and B, housing 17 mass cells and 20 solitary cells.  Up to 1500 inmates lived in this yard.”

Sorry, guys, it was really hard to keep track of what everything was.  Another random room:

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“13. Bathroom and delousing station.”

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“14.  Sick bay where doctors from the ranks of the inmates looked after their patients.”

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“15. So-called model barbershop, adjusted in this way in 1944, was meant to show the level of hygiene maintained in the prison.”

A quick note about the above photo: something interesting about Terezin (the German name is too long to type out) was that it was set up to look like a town to fool representatives that were visiting from the Red Cross.  As this website puts it:

Succumbing to pressure following the deportation of Danish Jews to Theresienstadt, the Germans permitted representatives from the Danish Red Cross and the International Red Cross to visit in June 1944. It was all an elaborate hoax. The Germans intensified deportations from the ghetto shortly before the visit, and the ghetto itself was “beautified.” Gardens were planted, houses painted, and barracks renovated. The Nazis staged social and cultural events for the visiting dignitaries. Once the visit was over, the Germans resumed deportations from Theresienstadt, which did not end until October 1944.

If you click the above link, there is a lot of interesting information there.  Children performed a play, there was a soccer game going on, and the prisoners were instructed on how to act.   Footage from Terezin was also used in a propaganda film by the SS.

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It was very strange to be at a site where so many horrors took place, yet it was a beautiful warm sunny day, the birds were singing, and there was lots of green grass.  But there was a somber feeling in the air that kept Brona and me very quiet and introspective.  It helped that we were two of the only visitors there.

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There were several memorial plaques and such scattered throughout the camp.  This woman was a Czech politician who was part of the Resistance, and was executed by the Communist party.

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Google didn’t help me figure out who these other people were.

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“18.  The mortuary where the bodies of prisoners tortured to death were stored.  Starting at the end of 1942, dead bodies were cremated in Terezin’s Crematorium of the Jewish Ghetto.”

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Brona was not thrilled about this next part…

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“17. This connecting corridor, an example of Terezin’s original fortifications, was not in use during the Nazi occupation.  The corridor leads to the execution ground.”

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We took this tunnel underground to another part of the camp.  It got dark but luckily was lit by electric lights.

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Honestly it was really creepy to be down there.  The walk probably only took about 5 minutes, but we didn’t know how long it was so it was kinda unsettling.  Brona started freaking out and wanted to go back but we pressed on.

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Some of the side tunnels were blocked off.

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These are the steps we came out when we fiiiinally got to the end.

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“19.  The execution ground.  Executions of prisoners in the Small Fortress began in 1943.  A total of 250 to 300 prisoners were shot dead without a court sentence.  The biggest execution took place on May 2, 1945.  As many as 52 people, mostly members of the Czech resistance groups were killed.  The gallows were used just once for the hanging of three prisoners.  A passageway through the embankment leads to the mass graves.”

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Not sure what this was, but it was creepy.

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The aforementioned passageway.

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“20. Mass graves out of which 601 bodies were exhumed in the summer of 1945.  The remains were reburied in the National Cemetery.”

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There was a very saddening statue called “nameless”:

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“21. The death gate through which prisoners were taken to the execution ground.”

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“22. The pool, built in 1942 as a reservoir for fire-fighting purposes, served the families of the local guards for bathing.  It was constructed by students from Roudnice and Jewish inmates, who were tortured and beaten to death during the work.”

There was another memorial:

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Robert Desnos, French poet and member of the resistance, died here, June 8, 1945

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“25. The Fourth yard administration center.  Today this building stores the soil from the concentration camps to which prisoners from the Small Fortress had been deported during the war.”

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“24.  Construction of the Fourth yard got underway in 1943.  The first prisoners arrived in the fall of 1944.  At the end of the Nazi rule, more than 3000 inmates were languishing and dying in this yard.”

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“26.  Each mass cell accommodated 400 to 600 inmates.  At the end of the war, prisoners classified XYZ, destined to be killed (including the prisoners executed on May 2, 1945), were kept in cell No. 44.  Two of the cells are now used for exhibition purposes.”

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“28. Solitary cells in the Fourth yard were used in 1945 as mass cells.”

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“27. Cells in the raised section of the yard and the execution ground.  Following an abortive escape attempt by three inmates from cell No. 38 in March 1945, one of the escapees and randomly selected two other men and a woman were executed as a warning to others at the tip of the yard.  The remaining two escapees were recaptured and stoned to death near the solitary cells in the First yard.”

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“29. The SS Barracks housed up to a 120-man SS guards unit.  Today it is the site of museum exhibitions and a gallery.”

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“30. The Prison Commander and some of the guards with their families lived in the so-called Herrenhaus, now housing offices of the Terezin Memorial.”

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“33. Beginning in June 1942, the Third yard was set aside for women prisoners.  Members of the first slave labor transport for the concentration camp in Litomerice were temporarily accommodated in this yard in 1944.”

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Okay, so I tried really hard to get pictures of everything and keep track of each place, but apparently there’s some stuff I missed.   I looked online for some sort of tour or tours with explanations, so I could figure out what everything, but I failed.   Here are some items from the brochure that I thought were interesting, although I don’t have photos of them:

“4. Guardhouse also served for censoring prisoners’ mail and interrogation of inmates.”

“5. Prison Commander’s office.  Throughout its existence this post was held by Heinrich Jockel, notorious for his cruel treatment of the prisoners.  He was tried and executed in 1946.”

“16. The Hospital Ward.  Hundreds of inmates were dying of typhoid in the appalling conditions of this ward at the end of the war.   women prisoners’ ward was temporarily moved to this building in 1944.”

“23. The Cinema was built for the guards back in 1942.  Today, visitors can watch documentaries on Terezin there.  Its lobby is used as an exhibition hall.”

“31.  The Second yard consisted primarily of workshops where inmates used to work.  This section is now closed to visitors.”

As I mentioned before, Brona and I had just enough time to see everything before heading back to the bus stop.  After all the confusion that day, we were THRILLED to see this sign:

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It was so clear!  Why didn’t a sign like this exist at the other bus stop??

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This was the bus stop on the other side of the street from the sign.  It was a cute little courtyard.

Brona and I caught the bus, bought tickets, and got back to Prague without any more running or further confusion.  Despite our difficulties, we were both really glad that we were able to experience Theresienstadt.

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Categories: Travels | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Theresienstadt Concentration Camp, Terezín, the Czech Republic

  1. Hi Kelsey, I love reading your blog, and I just nominated you for a Liebster Award. Feel free to participate or not, but I wanted to let you know! (And if you want to, you can find the instructions and questions in my last post.)

  2. Gloria

    Kelsey, the respect you’ve shown in your writing about your visit to this concentration camp and sharing how you felt somber is what I have heard from so many others. Having so many Jewish friends who have visited some of these camps, they have been reduced to tears as some even lost loved ones from torture, execution or the abhorant conditions in which they lived where they succumbed to one terrible disease or another…and some just from malnutrition.

    Never having ‘yet’ been to Europe, it has been a wonderful experience to read and live through your travels. I did, however, have the opportunity to visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC some years ago with one of my beautiful Jewish girlfriends. It was so quiet as all those visiting moved through the museum. They had a pile of leather shoes they’d collected from those who were killed in the gas chambers and before they were sent it, disrobed and all their garments placed in piles….the smell of the leather is something one can never forget.

    As each museum guest entered, we were given a ‘passport’ of sorts. It gave information about the museum, but most poignant was it had the name of a prison on the last page. As you exited the museum, you were then directed to a wall of survivors and learned the fate of the person’s name in the passport you held….very sobering.

    I simply cannot believe there is a fringe group of people believing this is all propoganda and never happened…just unbelievable. We must never forget these atrocities and thank you so much for sharing this very sobering visit with each of us.

    Love,

    Gloria

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