Sunday, 7 October 2007

Bohemia's saddest buildings.

Last Monday I made a trip to a huge baroque fortress, built in 1780-1790 to help protect Austro-Hungarian Imperial borders against an increasing militant Prussia. That conflict was solved elsewhere, but the Theresienstadt fortress became the toughest prison in the empire and during the Nazi occupation (1938-1945) gained notoriety as one of the most brutal places on Czech soil.

Getting to Terezín from Prague couldn’t be simpler. Buses run from the Florenc central bus station every hour or so during the morning, from either stand 15 or 17. The trip takes about an hour, costs about 70Kč and the road sweeps in past the steep walls and moats of the fortress, making it obvious when you need to get off. There are two main parts to Terezín, the large fortress and small fortress; they’re about 800m apart and the bus stop is halfway in between.

The large fortress is a grid network of straight streets around a large central square and during WWII became a ghetto for Jewish, gypsy and other ‘undesirable’ citizens of the Third Reich. As a fortress endowed with numerous large military barracks, it ideally suited the Nazi need to house and guard large numbers of people easily.

Two of the barracks are now museums. The first and most extensive is the museum of the ghetto, just off the main square. Tickets are 160Kč for a single museum, but a combined ticket for all the sights of interest in Terezín is only 200Kč, so it’s this that most people choose. The museum of the ghetto begins with the obligatory roll call of names, in this case painted on large panels and alternated with surviving artwork that represents a first hand account of ghetto life.

The former Magdeburg barracks are used as a museum of culture and artistic life in Terezín during the occupation. The exhibits move through music, literature, theatre and the largest space is reserved for painting and drawing. This rich artistic and cultural life was allowed and even encouraged in the Theresienstadt ghetto because the Nazis used it a propaganda instrument to convince the rest of the world that their final solution to the Jewish Question was humane and generous one. As late as June 1944 inspectors from the international Red Cross declared Terezín acceptable.

Of course they weren’t allowed to inspect the nearby small fortress. Once the Austro-Prussian tensions were resolved, the small fortress became a prison. And not just any prison, the toughest in the Empire. Here for example was imprisoned Gavrilo Princip, the Bosnian Serb nationalist who assassinated the gentle archduke Franz Ferdinand and nudged the western world into World War One. There’s a small exhibit dedicated to Princip and Terezín’s time leading up to WWII, but the bulk of the information concerns the years from Nazi occupation in 1938 until eventual liberation by the Soviet Red Army in 1945.

When you buy or present your combined ticket at the gate, you’ll be given a brochure with a map of the fortress grounds and quite detailed descriptions of each of the buildings. In the barracks prisoners were packed into triple bunks as tightly as books in a library, solitary cells were used as dormitories and half a kilometre of tunnels lead to the execution ground and mass graves. The thousands upon thousands of gravestones that you walked past to enter the small fortress are for the remains of those exhumed from the mass graves after liberation. It’s estimated also that the Nazis gradually dumped the ashes of up to 22,000 people into the nearby Ohře River in an effort to disguise the scale of their activities.

Former officers’ quarters now house a museum detailing the history of the small fortress through the Nazi occupation. For whatever reason, if you’re only going to one museum, then this should be it. The exhibits detail the progression of the fortress prison and therefore the progression of the war. The beginning explains the appeasement of Mr Hitler by the leaders of France, Great Britain and Italy at Munich in 1938, and the subsequent partition of Czechoslovakia, occupation of the Czech border regions with the support of Konrad Henlein’s Sudeten German militia, and six months later, the occupation of the rest of the country.

The next chapter involves the takeover of the prison by the special security police, the Gestapo, and a crueler and more brutal treatment of quickly increasing numbers of prisoners. Terezín was never intended to be an extermination camp, but overwork, undernourishment and direct abuse from the Gestapo guards meant that many prisoners never boarded the rail transports ‘to the east’ (east = Chelmno, Majdanek, Auschwitz and Treblinka)

As the museum progresses there’s an increasing focus on non-Jewish and non-Gypsy prisoners. The women and children of Lidice were sent to Terezín and progressively more people were arrested for involvement with the Czech resistance. Members of the outlawed communist party also started to find themselves within the walls of the small fortress.

The museum concludes with liberation of the camp, the battle against typhus, excavation of the mass graves and an interesting look at war crimes trials. Despite eyewitness accounts and evidence including photographs taken by the Nazis themselves, the Austrian and West German governments apparently didn’t see fit to hand over SS guards like Stephan Rojko and Anton Malloth for trial in the reconstituted Czechoslovakia. These two both lived until well into their eighties, although how peacefully, it’s difficult to say.

Some people have objections to what they call death camp tourism, but I believe it's worthwhile visiting informative and sensitively presented monuments like the Terezín memorial.

Terezín Memorial official website
Satellite photo of the large fortress
Satellite photo of the small fortress and national cemetery
Bus timetables
Opening Hours
A Mutt's eye view of Terezín
Terezín in the Jewish virtual library

Gypsies/Roma in the Holocaust

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