Monday, November 17, 2014

Private guide in Prague and Terezín Concetration Camp


Just 50km outside of Prague lies Terezín, a magnificent former 18th century Austrian fortress with a terrible past. The former garrison became a refugee centre for Czechs fleeing Adolf Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland. When the rest of the country soon fell into Nazi clutches it became a Gestapo prison, a Jewish ghetto and then a deportation camp sending trains directly to Auschwitz. Terezín’s story is a combination of life and death: the tragedy of the Holocaust contrasts with the prisoners’ secret celebrations of culture, politics and faith.

A grave among graves, who can tell it apart,
time has long swept away the dead faces.
Testimonies, so evil and terrible to the heart,
we took with us to these dark rotting places.

Only the night and the howl of the wind
will sit on the graves' corners,
only a patch of grass, a bitter weed
before May bears some flowers...

 Written by Jaroslav Seifert poet and journalist a Nobel Prize–winning Czech writer in 1984

The Small fortress – The police prison

History of the small fortress before the Occupation
The small fortress existed long before it became a Nazi work camp as Terezín was easy accessible and easy to guard. Built from 1780 to 1790 and named by Emperor Joseph II after Empress Maria Theresa, it was originally intended to be a fortress that would keep the Prussians out of harm’s way. However, no battles were fought there. In the second half of the 19th century, the place also served as a prison. During World War I political prisoners were held there, including Bosnian Serbian assassin Gavrilo Princip, who killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife June 28, 1914 and was sentenced to 20 years there, though he died of tuberculosis after only a four-year stay.

History from 1940 to 1945
Black lettering on a gate at the small fortress of central Bohemia’s Terezín is the Nazi slogan, “Work makes you free.” Walking through the eerie courtyards, death seems almost tangible – visitors can feel the presence of the tortured, exhausted inmates lining up for roll call, cramped in overcrowded cells or sipping soup made of bad vegetables. The Gestapo prison, neighboring the SS-controlled Jewish ghetto, was in use from 1940 to

After Hitlers occupation of Czechoslovakia, the Nazis recognised the advantages of the Small 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 Small 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 Small 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.

The Small 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.

 The Terezín  Fortress

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.

The Ghetto Museum in the Terezin´s Main Fortress

The Ghetto Museum, located in the former ghetto, familiarizes tourists with the horrific daily life of prisoners. It also exhibits art work of children inmates. Visitors find out about the ghetto’s cultural activities and spiritual life as well as about the hunger, illness, fear of transports and death that permeated the camp until its liberation by the Soviets on May 8, 1945.

The Ghetto Museum

The Terezin Ghetto

The 7,000 Czechs who lived in the town before the Nazis took over were expelled during June of 1942, making way for some 50,000 Jews. About 155,000 Jews were brought there during the war. Approximately 87,000 were deported to concentration camps farther East, while about 34,000 died in the ghetto. S

Alice Herz-Sommer, 110 years old, "has the distinction of being not only the oldest Terezin survivor but also holds the title of the oldest Holocaust survivor in the world. Deported to Terezin with her husband and young son, the 21-year-old accomplished pianist gave music lessons to the children of the camp and played more than 100 concerts for inmates during her internment at Terezin."She is so beautiful. She died on 23/02/2014

The visit of the Red Cross

Delegates of the International Red Cross visited the ghetto on June 23, 1944. In preparation for the visit, changes took place. Flower beds added color while musical and children’s pavilions were also built. More cultural activities were offered. Sick prisoners were transported to Auschwitz. The Nazis also made a propaganda film. Most of the Jews in the film were deported East and murdered several months after the visit. The Red Cross delegates were duped, not realizing it was a concentration camp.

The Ghetto Museum

Daily life in the Terezin ghetto

A lack of water, medicine and toilets, the presence of insects and infectious diseases were rampant in the ghetto. Hunger, stress from slave labor and epidemics riddled prisoners’ lives. Housing was overcrowded with three-tiered bunks composed of beds only 65 centimeters wide. As slave labor, all ghetto inmates aged 16 to 60 had to work 52 to 54 hours per week; from November of 1944, the time spent working skyrocketed to 70 hours per week.

Other Sights

The crematorium

In June of 1942, bodies began to be cremated in four large furnaces that could hold up to four bodies each. In the Jewish cemetery around the crematorium, there are 9,000 numbered graves, nameless as these dead could not be identified. An exhibition in the foyer of the crematorium shows original documents stating the cause of death of prisoners and displays paper urns used during and after the war. At first urns were made of wood, but then the Nazis switched to paper ones. This is where the Nazis took the gold teeth from the dead. In 1944, the SS ordered the ashes of the deceased to be liquidated. Some 22,000 urns were thrown into the river, and another 3,000 were buried.

Visit Prague and Terezín Concetration Camp with

 private guide

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