Originally Theresienstadt was created as a fortress by Emperor Joseph II of Austria in the 18thcentury, who thus named it after his mother, Maria Theresa. However, during World War II, Terezin became a Jewish ghetto and a concentration camp under Nazi Germany. It served two purposes, firstly it functioned as a middle point to the extermination camps, and secondly as a sort of “retirement place” for the elderly.
Czech Jews were transported to the camp in 1941, followed by Austrian, German, Dutch and Danish, who were transported in the following months. More than 150,000 Jews, amongst them 15,000 children, were kept in Terezin before being sent off to death camps in Treblinka and Auschwitz. The exact number of survivors is rather unclear, although reports have shown that there were approximately 17,000 survivors, amongst them 150 children.
The Nazis wanted to give a good perception to the world about Terezin, and thus promoted it as a camp full of cultural richness and good living conditions. To a certain extent, the camp was known for its cultural life compared to other concentration camps, since many of the detainees were renowned artists, scientists, scholars, and musicians. Due to a grand cultural life, many concerts and lectures on topics such as art, music Judaism, economics and science, took place in the camp. A Ghetto Central Library was also established in November 1942 and contained over 100,000 books, which were brought by the inmates to the camp. Important to note that Terezin was the only concentration camp during Nazi Germany, where religion and prayers were allowed.
Terezin was also used for propaganda by the Nazis. In 1944, an inspection by the International Red Cross and representatives from the Danish government took place in order to evaluate the living conditions of the inmates. This was also an opportunity for the Nazis to portray a positive image of the camp. Major efforts took place to clean up the camp, and prepare it for the visit. Numerous inmates were sent to Auschwitz in order to avoid overcrowding, cafes and shops were installed, rooms where repainted and refurbished. The inmates were also instructed to perform during the visit. Children were playing in the main square area and were also forced to take part in performances.
During the official visit, the inmates were give strict instructions; only the Danish Jews were allowed to speak with the representatives. The visit gave a positive impression to the International Red Cross and the Danish government, who were convinced that the inmates were living a normal life.
Even though this is not your usual ‘fun to see’ sight, it is definitely worth the trip when you are in Prague. There are numerous tour buses and guides that leave from Prague for a day trip and take you to Terezin.
Cover Picture © Credits to istock/PytyCzech
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