“Anything can happen if we want to, if we just pull together, and we’ll be laughing on the Ghetto’s ruins”. Lyrics of a Karl Svenk’s cabaret song.
“Beasts of burden, we shouldered bundled of what pieces of past we were allowed to keep as we joined the river of fear, a current of shuffling feet, sobs, and whimpers that crept past dark mouths of archways and windows of Terezin” Paul Janeczko “Requiem: Poems of the Terezin Ghetto”.
I grew up in Belarus, where even in 1980s, the horrors of the WWII were engraved on everyone’s DNA and where history wasn’t just “somebody’s story”, but it was tightly intervened with my family and with families of everyone I knew or grew up with. Hence, I was a bit surprised to find out that Czech Republic, which submitted itself to the Third Reich without firing a shot, had a history of concentration camps. I absolutely had no idea about Terezin. Well, technically it was a transition camp for Jews, with no gas chambers, mass executions or medical experiments. Nevertheless, from November 1941 till May 1945, 139,667 people went through Terezin (not counting 1260 children from Belarusian Bielostok who, just 3 months later, were taken to Auschwitz for extermination). 86,934 of Terezin “inmates” were deported to the East (mostly to Treblinka and Auschwitz), with only 3,586 survivors. 35,384 prisoners died in Terezin. It is a story about a Nazi’s founded Czech “transportation hub for Jews” that very few people know about. I was especially keen on writing about it, because just a few months after visiting Terezin, I learnt that a mother of my old New York friend was a teenage prisoner at Terezin camp. Later she went on to tell the world about it in her documentaries.
- Rick Steves “Prague & the Czech Republic”
- “Czech & Slovak Republics” by Lonely Planet
- Frommer’s “Prague & the Best of the Czech Republic”
- “Prague in Danger” by Peter Demetz
- “The Terezin Ghetto” by Ludmila Chladkova
- “Art Against Death” by Voijtec Blodig, Kurt Jiri Kotouc, etc.
- “Voices of the Children” documentary by Zuzana Justman
- “Terezin Diary” film by Dan Weissman
It is known that Terezin fortress was founded as a result of the 18th century Prussian-Austrian wars and was named after the mother of the emperor Joseph II, Maria Theresa of Austria. During those campaigns, the Prussian troops broke through the Austrian defense lines in a territory stretching between the towns of Lovosice, Litomerice and Budyne nad Ohri on several occasions, penetrating into Bohemia’s hinterland. Consequently, Terezin (or Theresienstadt as it was then called) whose construction commenced in the spring of 1780 faced the challenging task of creating an impregnable barrier blocking the advance of enemy troops not only along the roads but also on the river Labe. On October 6, 1780, six months after construction was launched, Emperor Joseph II symbolically laid a foundation stone to the Kavalier building, located in what was to become Terezin bastion #IV. Two fortresses (Main Fortress and Small Fortress) were built with state-of-the-art, star-shaped walls designed to keep out the Prussians. One of the largest and important buildings, Cavalry barracks, were completed in 1786 in the so-called Spanish style. The original planned number of men to be quartered in the Barracks was 626, and its stables meant to hold 396 horses.
The Barracks could accommodate an entire cavalry regiment and during the years of the Hubsburg monarchy (and after establishment of the independent Czechoslovak republic), it was, indeed, the seat of the First Dragoon Regiment and, alternately, of the Eleventh Lancer Regiment. No matter how prepared the fortresses were for the assault, the Prussian army bypassed the area altogether during the last Austro-Prussian conflict and in 1866 attacked Prague anyway. That spelled the end of Terezin Fortress charter, which was repealed in 1888. Terezin became a simple garrison town and its Small Fortress served as a prison for military and political convicts.
Following the Munich agreement, in October 1938 the demobilized Czechoslovak soldiers left the town, which became – virtually overnight – the very last Czech outpost near the new border of the German Reich. Thousands of Czech refugees came streaming from the border regions seceded to Nazi Germany, many of them finding temporary shelter in the Terezin barracks. As a result, for several months Terezin was a makeshift home to the families of Czechoslovak civil servants of northern Bohemia. But the darkest period in Terezin history was yet to come. Less than 6 months later, in the early hours of March 5, 1939, Terezin was occupied by the German troops who established a permanent garrison there a year later. On that occasion, the barracks was renamed into the Magdeburg Barracks. More than 50 years later, ironically, the town’s medieval walls, originally meant to keep Germans out, were used by Germans to keep the Jews in.
In 1940, the Gestapo created a prison in the Small Fortress. Anti-Semitic legislation had already begun in Germany when Jews were removed from the civil service in January 1939, and the decree of June 21 extended the validity of the Nuremberg Laws to the protectorate. Jews had to wear the yellow start as of September 19, 1941, three weeks after Heydrich had ordered this in the Reich, and when he came to Prague, systematic deportations commenced, the first transports going to Lodz and Minsk.
For a few weeks Prague’s Jewish Community and its Gestapo supervisors discussed a number of possibilities for establishing a ghetto either in Prague itself or in small towns – Stara Boleslav, Kujov, Cesky Brod, or Boskovice in Moravia – but Heydrich’s men distinctly preferred Terezin. This 18th-century garrison town had suitable fortifications and enough barracks, so the Jewish Community had no choice but to give in. On November 24, 1941, after all townspeople were evicted from the Main Fortress, Terezin was turned into a Ghetto serving as a reception and transition camp for Jewish prisoners from the then Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, and later on also for inmates coming from Germany, Austria, The Netherlands, Denmark, Slovakia, and Hungary. Its Small Fortress also served as a prison to the Soviet and Allied POWs. The Magdeburg Barracks grew to be particularly important, housing the offices and flats of the Jewish Elders, offices of the various departments of the Jewish Self-Administration and its Secretariat as well as flats of some prominent personalities. But the Barracks was also noted as a venue of major cultural events, religious services, lectures and meetings. The Magdeburg Barracks played an enormous part in the history of Ghetto, that is why, it was decided to reconstruct the building and turn it into the Terezin Memorial.
The journey of all those people began with a transport to Terezin, a place on which they mostly pinned their hopes of surviving the war. That was why they were prepared to bear the harsh living conditions in the Ghetto – hunger, overcrowded rooms, diseases, and constant stress. Registered under the transport numbers, the inmates were symbolically (and later literally) turned into numerals that were meant to become part of the so-called “Final Solution of the Jewish Question”. As of November 24, 1941, transports carrying thousands of Jews from the Protectorate headed to Terezin. Close to 74,000 Jews from Protectorate were expected to pass through the camp, but very soon the nationality composition of the inmates turned out to be much more varied, as SS commanders decided to use Terezin also as a Ghetto for the old. This move was designed to forestall international criticism of the fact that even persons older than 65 years were being deported from the Reich to the East for what was called “labor assignment”.
Starting in the middle of 1942, transports from the Reich and later from some European countries occupied by the German armies began to arrive to Terezin Ghetto. All in all, 43,000 prisoners came from Germany, 15,000 from Austria, 5,000 from the Netherlands, 500 from Denmark, 1,400 from Slovakia, and 1,100 from Hungary. To make the picture complete, it should be added that at the end of the war the Ghetto’s ranks swelled by more than an additional 15,000 prisoners from the Nazi concentration camps evacuated before the advancing Soviet liberation army. These people arrived in Terezin in a terribly desolate state as part of “death marches”.
The Terezin Ghetto had to meet three key functions. The first one was that of a transition camp. The inmates’ hopes that this would be their final destination where they could live and work until the end of the war were soon dashed. The first transport to the East, with an initial “shipment” of a thousand people carried to an unknown fate, left Terezin as early as on January 9, 1942. Until October 1944, this was followed by another 62 transports which, with the exception of two going to Bergen-Belsen, took inmates to destinations in the occupied territories of Poland and Belarus. In this way, almost 87,000 people were deported, out of whom a mere 3,586 survived.
The other function of the Terezin Ghetto was decimation of its inmates. Even though no mass executions were carried out in Terezin, save for two exceptions, some 35,000 inmates (one in four prisoners) died in the Ghetto due to its living conditions, epidemics and SS terror.
The third role to be played by the Terezin Ghetto seemed to have made the greatest impact on the international community – its propaganda function. It was aimed at covering up the truth about the real nature of the “Final Solution” as well as the genuine reality of the life of Jews. On June 23, 1944, three foreign observers, two from the Danish Red Cross, came to Terezin to find out if the rumors of Nazi atrocities were true. They left with the impression that all was well, duped by a well-planned “beautification” of the camp. Germans carefully choreographed every detail of the visit. The observers saw children studying at staged schools that didn’t exist, and store shelves, which had been specially set up, stocked with goods. To make the camp look less crowded, the Nazis transported some 7,500 of the camp’s sick and elderly prisoners to Auschwitz. Children were asked to run up to an SS commandant just as the observers passed; the commandant handed the children cans of sardines to shouts of “What? Sardines again?” The trick worked so well that the Nazis made a film of the camp “The Fuhrer Present a Town to the Jews”. Anita Frankova, Terezin’s survivor wrote: “The most brutal thing was that they wanted to show a Terezin where there were nice healthy people. Each person was given a specific role to play. It was arranged beforehand down to the last detail, who would sit where and what they would say. Those people who looked bad were not to appear at all. The Nazis prepared Terezin so there weren’t people looking ill, old, emaciated, or too many of them. They created the illusion of a self-governing normal town where… people lived relatively decently”. Egon Redlich, head of the youth care department in the Jewish Self-Administration in Terezin noted bitterly in his diary: “Privileged Ghetto… a blood-soaked coat to cover up victims in the East. A privileged ghetto indeed, where more than a hundred people die every day.”
In Terezin camp, work was compulsory for everyone above 14 years old, with the exception of the old and the sick. Work sometimes provided people with certain privileges, like better food rations and in some cases even protection from deportation (for people who were employed in areas vital for the Ghetto’s production and operation). Some prisoners worked in “war productions” – timber workshops, mica splitting, repairs of military uniforms, etc. Other inmates were used to build an infrastructure in Terezin: basic hygiene facilities, watercourses, sewage systems, as well as a railway link connecting Bohusivuce to Terezin and a camp crematorium. Some people were employed in agriculture, growing produce for the SS Command and the Army. Several special detachments also worked outside the camp – in forestry in the Krivoklat area, in mines of Kladno and Oslavany, and as a domestic help.
As the situation on the battlefield changed, so did the importance of Terezin’s propaganda role. This provided scope for authorizing various cultural activities, tolerated by the Nazis to a limited extend and pursued soon after the establishment of Ghetto. Camaraderie evenings, as these first cultural programs were called, were designed to relax the atmosphere and originally had a very amateurish nature. However, as more and more transports were arriving and bringing with them the Europe’s leading personalities in different walks of cultural life, the more diverse and professional those performances became. As the death sentences had long been passed over all the prisoners anyway, the SS administration of Terezin took a laissez-affaire attitude towards the inmates’ cultural activities. The prisoners published newspapers, schooled their children, staged classical music concerts and theatrical productions. Merry and upbeat melodies of the famous cabaret songs were whistled and sung by people who had been snatched from their homes and deported to Terezin, mostly with their families and relatives. Seen in this light, the optimism of such songs was a stark contrast to the everyday depressing reality. It was a sign of their determination to preserve their respect for others, to keep their faith for a better future after the war even under the harshest conditions. Terezin’s cultural life which flourished both in scope and diversity was not only an escape from a cruel reality, but also a way of spelling out one’s resistance to injustice and despotism, and a tool to promote the fellowship of prison community. It gave its inmates strength to preserve their personal integrity.
Preparation of cultural events was the responsibility of the Self-Administration’s department known as “Freizeitgestaltung”, which was in charge of organizing prisoners’ free time. Associating artists and cultural workers, this department prepared concerts, theater performances, a wide-ranging series of lectures and sporting events. Not only professionals but also budding artists and amateurs were given an opportunity to perform. Major works of art as well as unpretentious entertainment pieces were created and performed. But in the end, transports to the East carried away the protagonists of the plays together with their audiences to places of their extermination or slave labor. A case in point was a famous Terezin staging of Verdi’s “Requiem” which had to be rehearsed by the conductor Rafael Schachter in three different casts as transports gradually shipped away members of his choir and orchestra. Only with the knowledge of these facts are we able to approach and appreciate the phenomenon of culture at Terezin. And seen in this light, we can fathom the actual scope of the Nazi subterfuge involving visits to Terezin by delegations of the Red Cross and the shooting of a propaganda documentary in its Ghetto. On these occasions, cultural activities had a prominent role to play in creating an idyllic picture of a “self-administered Jewish settlement territory”. Immediately after those wool-pulling shows ended, their involuntary actors were bundled away to Auschwitz.
The last transport to the East was dispatched from Terezin on October 28, 1944. After the Battle of Stalingrad, the wave has changed and now, the Red Army slowly but progressively started to push Nazis back from the occupied territories. However, less than 17,500 inmates remained alive when the Soviet army liberated Terezin on May 9, 1945. The life of the Ghetto on the eve of liberation and in the first days after were marked by a new tragedy. In the final days of WWII, thousands of prisoners arrived to Terezin by transports from the concentration camps in Poland. Miserable, hungry, sick, often half-mad people, who had been on the road for several weeks without any help, they now needed all the attention. The newcomers, however, brought along typhus, which rapidly spread among all the inmates. Many prisoners attempted to leave the camp without medical check-up and doctor’s clearance, threatening to infect also the civil population living outside the ramparts of Terezin.
The Red Army undertook critical steps to manage this epidemic by establishing a well-equipped laboratory and medical hospital at the Fortress. On May 14, 1945 the camp was quarantined, but despite enormous efforts, hundreds of people still succumbed to the disease. In the end, not only Red Army soldiers but many Soviet doctors and medical staff gave their lives in this battle for Terezin and thanks to their immense contribution, thousands of former prisoners were saved from certain death.
February 22, 2016.
Finally, it was a sunny and clear day, which, according to a long-time Praguer, was a rare occasion. When I woke up, I had no plans of going to Terezin, more – I didn’t even know what Terezin was. But everything happens for a reason. After exploring Prague on my own for a few days (read my Prague Blog here), I decided to join Royal Walk Free Tour. I showed up early and struck up a conversation with an American guy who was guiding the tour. After chatting for a bit, I realized that the tour would cover pretty much all the places I’ve already visited, so I was offered to join his Czech colleague’s day tour to Terezin Concentration Camp, located 60 km from Prague. I agreed, thinking that it was a great opportunity to learn something new. After paying a fee of 750 kc ($34), Petra, our guide, gathered the group (8 of us) and we proceeded towards Prague Masaryk railway station. There we had about 20 minutes to use bathrooms and get something to eat before boarding a train to a small town Bohušovice nad Ohří.
From there, we took a public bus to Terezin and were dropped off not far from the cemetery. Throughout the journey, Petra has been talking about the history of Terezin and its Ghetto. She also mentioned its uniqueness in terms of cultural life and as a “spa” town for Jews. However, it wasn’t all that clear to me until I reached the site and had time to explore it. The Terezin Memorial consists of several sites:
- Jewish cemetery, Memorial to the Soviet Soldiers and Crematorium;
- Small Fortress with its model Prison Cells, execution grounds and mass graves (which we didn’t visit), and
- Terezin Town – Magdeburg Barracks, Museum of the Ghetto and hidden Synagogue on #17 Dlouha Street.
We approached the city from the side of the Jewish Cemetery (p.11), a sombre site flanked on both sides by the Memorial to Soviet Solders and the Monument to Russian Warriors “Who died in the foreign lands during the World War, 1914-1919”. Keep in mind, that no photos are allowed in any indoor spaces.
The northern side of the cemetery is occupied by the Crematorium, which was built by Ghetto’s prisoners, on orders of the SS Commandment, in the fall of 1942. The central part of it contains 4 oil-powered incinerators designed by Ignis Huttenbau from Teplice-Sanov. The front section served as a space to unload corpses from coffins. To the left, there was an autopsy room, while on the right, an annexed building housed the guards (who were Czech police officers) and prisoners working in the crematorium. At the peak of the Ghetto’s mortality rates, the crematorium had 18 prison-workers who rotated non-stop, while during the “slow” time, the number of workers would drop to 4. The crematorium was supervised by SS-Scharfuhrer Heindl, one of the camp’s most feared top officers, yet routine checks were carried out by other camp commanders as well.
As I already mentioned, there were no gas chambers or mass executions at Terezin, so the crematorium was used as a quick way to get rid of mounting dead bodies. Corpses were placed in the incinerators without coffins, resting only on the bottom board to which they were attached to. This way, the coffins could be reused. Autopsies were performed on some of the bodies before cremation in order to establish the cause of death. Once the body was cremated, workers, operating the incinerators, had to get all the human remains out one by one, placing them properly in the assigned urns, however, it wasn’t so easy. The SS officers demanded that all fragments of gold (mostly teeth) and dentures, to be brought and handed to them.
Crematorium records were kept in daily logs and each urn listed basic information about the deceased that were copied from a card attached to the corpse’s foot. According to the information at the crematorium, records contain approximately 30,000 names of people cremated here from 1942 to 1945. This information included the name, transport number and cremation number. Urns were first stored in the back of crematorium and then transported to the Columbarium, located in the casemates of the fortification embankment opposite the funeral ceremony rooms and the central mortuary. Thousands of urns were places in shelves there, as SS officers wanted prisoners to believe that the remains would eventually be buried.
Not only the Ghetto’s inmates were cremated here. Unfortunate prisoners from the Gestapo prison of the Small Fortress were also brought to the crematorium. Their corpses were accompanied by the prison police in order to make sure that crematorium workers wouldn’t catch a glimpse of the bodies. However, blood seeping from the coffins and soaked-through body-bags were hard to miss or ignore.
Just ahead, I could already see the walls of the fortress and the moats (p.4), where the prisoners used to grow fruits and vegetables for the camp command. Only after visiting the galleries of paintings, created by the inmates and hosted at the Magdeburg Barracks, I could see just how authentic their representation of those walls (and other parts of Terezin) were.
At the edge of the city there are a series of casemates and tunnels that served as a Mortuary, Columbarium and ceremonial rooms. Most of the rooms had only one item on display – a cart that was used to transport corpses, a stone memorial with the names of every city from where Jews came to Terezin, a casket and its removable wooden bottom. One room was staged as a mortuary, where the bodies were prepared to be cremated and placed in the coffins.
Across the street, the space was used as a columbarium, where the Nazis deposited cardboard boxes containing the ashes of dead prisoners, with a promise to rebury them after the war. However, in 1945, before abandoning Terezin, the ashes of all victims were dumped into the New Ohre River.
Just outside the Columbarium, there are railway tracks. In the very beginning, Jews arrived at the train station at Bohusovice (where we arrived just 30 min prior), and then had to walk the remaining 3 km to Terezin. This was too public a display for the Nazis, who didn’t want townspeople to observe the transport and become suspicious. So the Jewish prisoners at Terezin were forced to construct a railway line that led right to Terezin… and back out again to Auschwitz.
For some reason, Petra didn’t take us to the Small Fortress, though I would like to say a few words about this structure. During the second half of the 19th century, the fortress was already used as a political prison camp for thousands of Russian supporters. But the fortress’ most infamous inmate was Gavrilo Princip, who assassinated Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria and his wife Sofia, and who died there of tuberculosis in 1918. Since 1940 it served as a Gestapo prison and over 30,000 people came through it during the war – Jews, Soviets, but also, Brits, New Zealanders and other Allied POWs. Even though, only 300 prisoners were executed, the appalling living conditions, with up to 1,500 people held in a cell designed to contain no more than 150, led to many deaths.
And now, we entered the city. I have to say that today, Terezin’s wide, empty streets seem more inhabited by history’s ghosts than contemporary townspeople. The city understandably carries the gravitas of the past, as its every building was utilized as a prison ward.
The sun was still shining, however dark clouds unexpectedly started to roll over the horizon, as if giving us a warning to stay away, or to take it seriously.
The very first building we visited in the city was the Magdeburg Barracks (p.3). It served as a seat of the Jewish Council of Elders and now, after renovation, it is the largest museum recreating the life of Terezin during WWII.
The entire first floor is taken up by permanent exhibition. The left-hand section houses a reconstruction of prisoners’ barracks from the time of the Ghetto, a true-life example of accommodation in a typical Terezin barracks. The next room houses an exhibition “Music in the Terezin Ghetto” highlighting the importance of music for the life of the Ghetto inmates as well as the main personalities of its musical life. The exhibition premises come complete with a study corner for visitors who have profound interest in these issues. Equipped with a sound system, the whole area is furnished with a small number of seats for visitor’s comfortable listening to recordings of compositions made by musicians who lived, worked and performed in the Ghetto. The main permanent exhibition on this floor is devoted to “Art in the Terezin Ghetto”, covering the whole central part of the floor. On display are works by the best-known artists in the Ghetto as well as many other lesser known authors whose works – in their entirety – offer a unique testimony of the life, hopes and anxieties of the prisoners. The right side of the floor features the displays “Literary Work in the Terezin Ghetto” and “Theater in the Terezin Ghetto”. Employing various theatrical means, the latter exhibition, situated at the end of the corridor, opposite the reconstructed sleeping quarter from the time of ghetto, aptly recreates the atmosphere of the life in the primitive conditions of the Ghetto’s accommodation premises.
Reconstructed Prisoner’s Dormitory. The first exhibition hall to be built in Terezin’s former Magdeburg Barracks houses a reconstruction of prisoners’ sleeping quarters from the time of the Ghetto. And that is hardly accidental: before viewing other exhibitions, mostly relating the different sides of the cultural life, this hall gives an overall picture of the actual living conditions of the inmates. In fact, one of the salient features of the Terezin’s everyday life during the war was its overcrowding – absolute lack of privacy was just as traumatic as malnourishment. Almost 60,000 inmates had to be crammed into a town where just 7,000 civilians and troops had lived before the war. In the summer and fall of 1942, when the Ghetto reached its peak prison population, each inmate had at his or her disposal a mere 1.6 m2 of living space. Life in the crowded barracks was very harsh indeed, one of the reasons being, for instance, a catastrophic shortage of water and bathrooms (on average, there was one toilet per 100 people). No wonder that this inevitably resulted in a recurrent spread of contagious diseases.
The Ghetto SS Command had a single solution to the problem – deportations. Even though the Terezin prisoners had no precise information on what was actually going on in the East, the final destination of virtually all the transports, reports leaked out from time to time speaking of a high mortality rate in those camps. Another sinister sign was the loss of contact and communication with the deportees. That was why the Ghetto inmates were prepared to bear the hard but familiar living conditions in Terezin as a lesser of the two evils.
Initially, Terezin’s prison population was accommodated solely in the barracks (which were 11). Nevertheless, their capacity was extended to and beyond tolerable limits. People had to sleep in three-tier bunks stuck close to each other. A bunk was 65 cm wide, and the vertical space above each bunk measured as little as 80 cm, making it virtually impossible for the inmates to sit up. Three-leveled bunks were installed wherever possible. As many as 500 people managed to be “accommodated” in some large halls. Later on, as the whole town was turned into one large prison, the inmates also lived in former civilian houses. But that proved to be hardly sufficient either, and attics and cellars, former casemates in the fortress, various sheds and outbuildings had to serve as living quarters as well. Makeshift wooden huts without any insulation whatsoever were also put up. But the worst type of accommodation was in the attics of the barracks where as many as 6,000 prisoners, mostly old people, languished, sometimes without water, toilets, heating, and sometimes light. People lived on the floor which was sparsely covered with straw, often sleeping on their suitcases.
The reconstructed quarters in the former Magdeburg barracks represent a typical smaller barrack-type accommodation, in this case, containing 57 bunks. The largest part of the room is taken up by three-level bunk beds laid out in blocks separated by lanes. There are also benches, several tables and stools, with shelves hanging above the bunks. The room also has a small stove with a coal scuttle, several jugs, pots and pans. In addition, the whole room is full of prisoners’ suitcases, ready for transport. Prisoners’ clothes is hanging everywhere with various objects of daily use, books, glasses, etc. laying around. Laundry is “drying” on several clothes lines hung across the room which represents a women’s dormitory.
In an effort to make this room as authentic as possible, old window panes as well as doors were fitted into the frames. Windows are shaded with period hard paper as a black-out precaution. Equally authentic are the lighting fixtures with funnel-shaped metal shades, switches and plugs.
Music in the Terezin Ghetto. Despite the bulk of preserved documents on the Terezin’s musical life, this particular historical phenomenon has not been definitely described. It is known that when coming to Terezin, all those “racially marked” people found themselves in a close community, sharing their lot and encouraging one another in their belief that even in such an inhospitable separation from normal life they can survive until the end of the war. It was true, up to a point, that what they had been prohibited to do in their homes, villages and towns in Protectorate, they were now allowed to do in Ghetto. All of a sudden, they could devote themselves to activities and hobbies they had been denied outside – sing and play works by Jewish composers, rehearse choral cantatas with Jewish themes, perform cabaret with Jewish sketches, etc. They could now perform compositions by composers like Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schonberg and many others, banned anywhere else. Nobody understood the substance of that paradox but the prisoners didn’t seem to mind, since they were the one who benefited from that. Since there was nothing normal in their lives in the Ghetto in terms of living conditions, hunger for culture of all kinds was genuine, palpable, it was something worth living for, something that offset the poverty and hardship. The SS Command seem to have overlooked that cultural activities were not only a past time for the inmates but also a source of education, giving them valuable encouragement in their desire to survive.
Nevertheless, members of Jewish communities from different countries lived their own lives in keeping with their traditions and those of the country they came from and were connected with. That is why, there were Czech and German singing choirs, one group interpreted the operas mainly by Czech authors and Mozart (since Mozart’s works have been traditionally domesticated in Bohemia), while the other specialized in the so-called “world repertoire”. Only ensembles such as Municipal Orchestra, Ancerl’s Chamber Orchestra, the popular Ghetto-Swingers or opera soloists were nationally mixed ensembles, since music knows no ethic boundaries.
The first opera which demonstratively outlined the future trends in this particular field was Smetana’s “Prodana Nevesta” (“The Bartered Bride”), rehearsed by Rafael Schachter (1905-1944), a conductor who was immensely competent both in artistic and organizational terms. In the fall of 1942 he conducted Smetana’s opera from a half-broken piano set on several wooden boxes, accompanying the choirs and singers from a piano extract someone had smuggled into the Ghetto in his or her 50 kg luggage. Commenting on the premiere of the opera, Egon Redlich noted: “November 25, 1942 – Wednesday:… Milk froze in the pot. It is dangerous cold. Children don’t take their clothes off anymore, and lice keep thriving. The Bartered Bride had its premiere today. It was the nicest performance I have seen here.” Also the young writer Ivan Klima was enchanted by this opera. In his book “How to Survive Affluence” he recollects: “… visiting an attic of a barrack, I watched a performance of “The Bartered Bride”, a performance given in this small hot space, without costumes, without an orchestra, only to the accompaniment of an old piano – the impression was far stronger than in ordinary life, people were listening in utter exaltation, many wept… everything that had any connection with art lifted you above the horrors of the camp life, transporting you from your anxiety which accompanied you at every step.” But other performances were also so powerful and impressive that nobody wanted to miss them. “The Bartered Bride” was followed by Mozart’s operas “Figarova Svatba” (“The Marriage of Figaro”) and “Kouzelna fletna” (“The Magic Flute”) and Smetana’s “Hubicka” (“The Kiss”). Taking leaf out of the Czech ensemble’s book, the former conductor of the Viennese State Opera Franz Eugen Klein (1912-1944) rehearsed the opera “Rigoletto” by Verdi, “Tosca” by Puccini and “Carmen” by Bizet with his German ensemble. Working with a different group of singers, Hans Jochowitz (1920-1944) prepared Mozart’s early opera “Bastien and Bastienne”, while Karel Berman (1919-1995) rehearsed Vilem Blodek’s opera “V Studni” (“In the Well”).
Another outstanding artist was architect Frantisek Zelenka (1904-1944) who designed the stage and costumes for the performances. And even though his costumes had to be made from the simplest materials, they managed to add to the profound artistic impression of each production. Some of the costumes and production sets are on display at the museum.
Apart from operas starring adult singers, the best-known and best-loved work in the Ghetto was the opera for children voices “Brundibar”, composed by Hans Krasa and librettist Adolf Hoffmeister (1902-1973). It is hard to say whether its success was due to the unusual story which the Jewish children in the Ghetto experienced as part and parcel of their most contemporary world, or due to the musical concept which fascinated and enraptured the child performers. They could identify themselves with the story which seemed so familiar. In their eyes, the hurdy-gurdy man named Brundibar was no abstract, imaginary figure from a fairy-tale world but the very personification of evil which the children were encountering every day. They accepted the task of fighting against him with joy, getting used to their story and putting themselves into their roles with utmost earnestness. After all, each time they succeeded in conquering Brundibar, they won their own struggle.
But the true highlight of Terezin’s cultural life was “Requiem” by Verdi. The importance of its staging went far beyond the walls of the Terezin fortress. Only thanks to Rafael Schachter’s enormous, almost fanatical, dedication to the beauty of that work, this composition by the Italian master appeared on the repertoire of a Czech singing choir. With the foresight of a visionary Schachter envisaged that even in a concentration camp for the Jews it was necessary to demonstrate through artistic means the link connecting the cultural aspirations of Jewish artists with the Western Cultural traditions based on Christianity. While singing “Requiem” mass about death and redemption, the Christians were holding hands with the Jews in their joint struggle. The mass was supposed to be a memorial ceremony for all the victims of this horrible fight with the hydra of Nazism. After its premier in the camp, all the 120 members of Schachter’s choir who had rehearsed the mass were deported to death in gas chambers. Only the conductor and solo singers remained. With a good deal of passion and will Schachter rehearsed the requiem anew with another 120 singers. But after several weeks of the performances the entire choir was again deported to an extermination camp. Schachter’s third attempt didn’t attract enough participants, more and more it looked as a choir of condemned people singing a requiem mass for themselves.
But chamber music was also performed in Terezin. The Ledec and Terezin Quartets, together with other performing artists, played works by classical as well as modern composers, including pieces written in Terezin. It was really invigorating to see the tenacity and perfectionism with which orchestras worked in the conditions of a camp and the composers continued to write music. Is there an explanation to this phenomenon? Truly and briefly speaking, this was a tough struggle for the preservation of human dignity, it was a never-ending fight to accentuate the basic human attribute and objective to remain a cultural being when all the other attributes of normal life have failed.
Art in the Terezin Ghetto. Visual arts in the Terezin Ghetto grew out of the same ground as theater and music whose impact was, however, much more immediate, covering larger audiences. Works of graphic art were usually created in private, and could not be publicly displayed. As a result they were known only to their authors or their friends. Despite lasting material difficulties visual arts thrived in the Ghetto, being particularly widespread not only among professional artists but also among dozens and possibly hundreds of amateurs, both adults and kids.
In all their specific forms and genres Terezin’s fine arts were immediately linked with the conditions of their origin and their function in the life of the Ghetto. Only thanks to that, they served as an authentic evidence of the actual life in the Ghetto in all its diversity. The works by most of Terezin’s artists invariably display motifs of a rebellion against the loss of freedom and the inhumane conditions in the Ghetto, whether expressed by wholehearted efforts for a truthful depiction of the environment, by endeavors to differentiate and embellish one’s small living space or by a simple need to formulate a personal message in an impersonal and cruel world.
The genuine center of Terezin art was the Drafting Room of the Technical Office, located on the first floor of the Madgeburg Barracks. Most of the credit for its establishment goes to Otto Zucker (1892-1944), Deputy of the Jewish Elder, who was not only an accomplished architect but also a versatile and gifted scholar well-versed in music and arts. The Drafting Room prepared constructional and technical plans for various operations of the Terezin Self-Administration, however, its key mission was to compile charts, statistics, overviews and annexes to diverse reports and in-depth accounts on the activities of the Self-Administration required by the SS Command. As the time went by, as many as 15-20 graphic artists worked in the Drafting Room. Their admission into the staff made it possible for them to devote themselves at least partly to their profession but also to find time and scarce means for their own work.
During their official working hours, these artists tried to provide an image of the Ghetto corresponding to the Nazi ideas, emphasizing that all the Ghetto inmates worked at full tilt and that life in the camp proceeded along the strict organizational rules. They designed and overviewed the construction of the Buhosovice railway siding, Terezin’s waterworks and Crematorium. While drafting the illustrative annexes, the artists depicted workers and artisans in workshops. Some illustrations were used by the Self-Administration to draw the SS Command’s attention to a critical situation in the Ghetto’s health care, accommodation, supplies and hygiene. Those sketches eventually gave rise to a series of 25 illustrations to Zucker’s manuscript entitled “History of the Ghetto Terezin” made in early 1944 in which Fritta, Haas, Ungar, Kein and Spier participated. Without using any futile embellishments, these drawings show all the major manufacturing plants and workshops, public projects as well as health care facilities, and some cultural events undertaken by the Self-Administration.
The staff at the Drafting Room directly participated in the beautification campaign in preparation for a visit by the Red Cross committee on June 23, 1944. Posters and advertising slogans were painted, a children’s pavilion, built during the campaign, was decorated with wall paintings of exotic animals and regions, jolly scenes of old Prague were decorating the walls of barracks. Dutch painter Josef Spier had to draw a commemorative album “Views from Terezin” which was given out as a souvenir to the members of the delegation, foreign visitors and Nazi officials. In addition to exemplary run operations, such as bakery, steam kitchens and workshops, it contained a series of drawings showing the “make-believe” facilities which were built in the Ghetto solely for the visit – Market Square with its beds of flowers in full bloom, the music pavilion housing a Municipal Orchestra, a town center with camouflaged shops where virtually nothing could be bought, save for things confiscated from the inmates’ luggage, etc.
Besides the official, made-to-order art production, completely different works depicting the most common reality and life in the Ghetto were made in Terezin, invariably in private, during evenings, and behind the drawn blackout blinds in the Drafting Room. These showed the omnipresent overcrowding in the Ghetto, its endless food lines, crowds of people from arriving and departing transports, a maze of numbered figures waiting for deportation, heaps of deserted luggage, burial carts drawn by people and carrying old, sick and dead, overcrowding sleeping quarters in the casemates and attics, the eery figures of the blind, the handicapped and mentally ill in Kavalier Barracks, the constantly rising heaps of coffins and corpses in the morgue. The motifs of the individual drawings supplement one another, creating a coherent cycle portraying genuine life in the Ghetto and capturing its suffering, absurdity and grotesqueness. Indeed, these works make up a modern “Danse Macabre” that grew to be an everyday reality.
The painters who worked in the Drafting Room kept in touch with Leo Strass, a merchant from Nachod and a passionate Czech art collector whose “Aryan” family maintained illegal contacts with him through Czech policemen. So, in exchange for food the painters often gave him their own drawings which were then smuggled out of the Ghetto. They came along the same route used to smuggle food and tabacco in the Ghetto. As time went by, the painters learnt that Strass’ relatives succeeded in establishing contact with foreign countries, and that their drawings had found their way into Switzerland. Buoyed up by the news, the painters worked with greater zeal and intensity.
However, in preparation to the announced visit of the Red Cross, Nazis searched all the premises and found some “unofficial” sketches in the Drafting Room and Leo Strass sleeping quarter. Whatever wasn’t found, artists buried in the ground, bricked in the walls or hid in the attics (many paintings were found during the reconstruction work at the Barracks in the 1990s). Right after the Red Cross visit, most of the artists at the Drafting Room were arrested and only few of them survived the interrogations.
The works by the leading Terezin artists reveal an affinity with the mainstream of modern art in the prewar period and during the Protectorate. Despite its adversities, the critical socio-political situation at the turn of the 1930s and 1940s eventually established similar conditions for life in an occupied country and in a camp. The same applied to some aspects of creative work in art. The art of the Terezin painters futures not only in the contemporary cultural context but also occupies its place in the history of 20th century art, providing a cogent answer to the profound question about the meaning and mission of art in extreme condition of human existence.
Seen in this light, the works of art created by the painters of Terezin during the WWII have made it quite clear that the role of fine arts in a captive society may be far more crucial and versatile than under normal circumstances. They have emphasized the importance of art as a way of protest, as a mark of human freedom and as an educational instrument strengthening human integrity in extreme situations, underscoring its great significance for man’s spiritual and physical survival. In this case, visual arts are also known to have played a major documentary role – primarily thanks to them, we can now clearly visualize the conditions in which the inmates actually lived in the Terezin Ghetto.
Literary work in the Terezin Ghetto. Czech literature in the Terezin Ghetto had its own destiny, sometimes interrupted and definitely unfinished. Yet it succeeded in cogently reflecting the spiritual attitudes of the prewar Jewish community, especially its links with the cultural life in the Czech lands. Characteristically enough, many Czechs took their books with them for the transports. They were allowed to carry a maximum of 50 kg of luggage, and so the question was: what to take and what to leave behind? Add another pair of shoes, a jumper, food or meds? But in the end, they found in their poor luggage enough space for a book, a sheet of music, or a musical instrument.
Terezin “Ghettobucherei” (Ghetto Library), ran by imprisoned philosopher Emil Utitz, contained some 130,000 volumes. These were mostly books brought in from the libraries of Jewish religious communities. But no small portion was accounted for by books brought by the individual inmates, especially in fiction, medical and technical literature, and books for kids. Unlike authors and performing artists involved in drama and music, whose art was deliberately addressed to their fellow prisoners, original literary work in Terezin mostly took form of hidden, confidential entries of a man who was being dragged along in a close formation of a noisy crowd but who was actually lonely in his heart. These were notes, diaries, rarely verse written without witnesses and usually disappearing with their authors in an unknown. It is impossible to estimate just how many prisoners, children included, wrote. The surviving diaries (for ex. those of Willy Mahler, Hana Platovska, Hana Steidlerova, Paul Weiner, Eva Ginzova-Pressburger and others) or their fragments spell out the author’s agony of the loss of personality, human dignity, family, friends, their fears of the threat of further deportation to the East, their foreboding of death.
Nevertheless, literature too, going beyond the framework of private expression, constitutes a strange chapter of Terezin’s prison culture. The Czech jews were the first and permanently the largest community in the Ghetto, sharing their multicultural traditions which were affected by their feeling that in Terezin they were still in their native country. That was why they could lean on a fairly imaginary but still existing and lively intellectual background that the other groups of inmates seemed to be losing faster and quite hopelessly.
Czech prison literature, whenever assuming more general forms, has always been characterized by its links to the traditions of Czech national and socially involved literature. This is quite evident, for ex., in Karel Svenk’s cabarets, which were inspired by Prague’s Liberated Theater and which are definitely original literary works in their own right, in the dramaturgy of literary programs and lectures in the Ghetto, in poetry-reading evenings in which actress Vlasta Schonova recited Macha’s romantic poem “May” in response to the works and personality of Karel Polacek, in the content of Terezin’s underground magazine “Vedem”.
The exhibition of literary works from the Ghetto doesn’t seek any outlines of a category that could be called prison literature. Instead, it would like to be an anxious and urgent call, a warning against apathy and indifference whose wounds often run much deeper that those left by injustice and violence.
Theater in the Terezin Ghetto. Theater in the Terezin Ghetton represents a truly specific phenomenon. Just like any other artistic activities pursued by the Ghetto inmates, theater, too, spelt out their human aspirations for meaningful self-assertion, a need felt in the Ghetto much more urgently than outside its walls. Prepared under extremely adverse conditions, stage performances in Terezin were severely affected by those circumstances. The early days of theater life were best characterized by what are known as small-form genres, such as poetry reading, songs, short turns and scenes, which made up the programs staged in the first weeks of the Ghetto. Known as “varied evenings”, these performances were held spontaneously by the inmates living in the individual barracks.
In Terezin, drama – which invariably portrays human life and destiny “here and now” – grew to be one of the few opportunities for people to meet in public. Even at times when the Nazis used theater for their propaganda presentation of the Terezin Ghetto, drama performances, thanks to their aesthetic, humanizing and resistance overtones and qualities, created islands of spiritual freedom in an otherwise straitjacketed Ghetto.
Growing out of its modest beginnings, theater life in Terezin gradually flourished into an organism that was both extensive and multi-faceted. There were many professional theater people as well as experienced amateurs, who were joined by dozens of enthusiasts who found their love for stage only in Terezin (some of the Ghetto survivors later became professional actors). Eventually, the theatrical events covered virtually all types and genres: drama, operetta, opera, cabaret, musical shows, puppet or marionette performances, combined poetry reading, drama programs, and dancing. Actually, Terezin’s theater life evolved along with the organization of Ghetto itself. Initially, the inmates were kept in closed barracks. However, after the town’s non-Jewish population was evacuated in June 1942, and the whole town was turned into a camp, could its inmates move and meet freely. This, in turn, helped them in pursuing artistic activities in public. Yet, each new staging was a very challenging project – plays were limited, space for performance was even more scarce. As a result, performances were held in uninhabited attics, in a school gym in one of the children’s homes and in barrack halls. These premises were temporarily adapted for theater performances, and furnished with the simplest of equipment: usually only a few lines of wooden benches for spectators, a makeshift stage, and essential lighting device. With a lack of materials, the theater performances were extremely poor and modest, however, thanks to inventiveness and ingenuity of the authors, whatever it lacked in stage props and costumes, was more than made up for by wealth of fantasy, improvisation and enthusiasm.
The actual variety of stage programs reflected the ideological, cultural and linguistic milieu of Terezin’s heterogeneous community. The category of “speaking” stage performances, where the spoken word was the dominant factor, was divided into Czech-speaking and German-speaking. However, there was not language barrier in musicals and cabarets, which proved to be particularly popular because of their prompt response to current problems in the Ghetto. These productions reflected the need of addressing oneself to the current events, articulating one’s emotions, worries and hopes. Another important category was poetry-reading, combined with drama programs, and what was called “table theater”, i.e. spoken renderings of dramatic texts.
Not surprisingly, the Czech drama repertoire in Terezin was dominated by Czech plays including works by Czech playwrights normally banned during the Nazi era. However, the distinctly Jewish-oriented line undoubtedly enriched the spectrum of Terezin’s stage life, so richly diversified by the interpretations of Czech, German and Jewish traditions and influences.
After leaving the barracks, we proceeded to the city’s Main Square (Namesti Ceskoslovenske Armady) (p.1). During the war, the giant circus tent and barbed-wire fence once stood on the square. Jewish workers boxed special motors for German vehicles being used on the frigid Soviet front. As part of year-long (!!!) preparation for the famous Red Cross visit in 1944 (which lasted only 6 hours), the tent and fence were replaced by flower beds and a pavilion for outdoor music performances.
Just around the corner is Museum of Ghetto (p.2) whose two floors explore the rise of Nazism, the development of the Nazis’ “Final Solution”, and daily life in the camp, using the discarded bric-a-brac of the time to evocative effect. Erected in the 19th century to house the local school, the building was used by the Nazis to accommodate the camp’s 10 to 15-year old boys. The children’s haunting artwork still decorated the walls. At the ground floor movie theater, we got to see the infamous propaganda movie “The Terezin Ghetto”, which after the war was renamed “The Fuhrer gives the Jews a City”.
Our last sight, Hidden Synagogue (p.9), was just off the main road, at Dlouha #17. Here, in a former farm house of one of the typical town courtyards, a bakery hid the synagogue behind. The atmospheric space is still inscribed with two Hebrew captions, which are translated as “May my eyes behold, how You in compassion return to Sinai,” and “If I forget Jerusalem, may my tongue rot and my right arm fall off.” These words indicate that the prayer room belonged to a congregation of Zionists, who, one would expect, were specifically targeted by the Nazis. While synagogue remained a secret place, other spaces in this building were converted into the prisoners’ quarters.
Only precious few people who had taken part in the Terezin’s history survived until the end of the war to “be laughing on the Ghetto ruins” as Svenk’s cabaret song went on. The fascinating history of this unique chapter in the annals of European culture constitutes a message with a very strong appeal to the people of today, an appeal that should never be forgotten. And today, the camp stands as a memorial to the dead and a monument to human depravity.