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The most powerful aspect of Terezín is that you don't need much imagination to visualize how it looked under Nazi rule. When it was a Jewish ghetto, more than 59,000 people were crammed into this camp. Terezín was actually an exception among the many Nazi concentration camps in Central Europe. The Germans, for a time, used it as a model city in order to deflect international criticism of Nazi policy toward the Jews. In the early years of the war—until as late as 1944—detainees had a semblance of a normal life, with limited self-rule, schools, a theater, even a library. (Pictures drawn by the children at Terezín are on display in Prague's Jewish Museum.) These areas can be experienced in more detail through exhibitions in the Magdeburg Barracks. As the Nazi war effort soured, the conditions for the people in Terezín worsened. Transports to Auschwitz and other death camps were increased to several times a week, and eventually 87,000 Jews were murdered in this way. Another 35,000 died from starvation or disease.
The enormity of Terezín's role in history is difficult to grasp at first, but the Památník Terezín (Terezín Memorial) encompasses all the existing buildings that are open to the public and has produced an excellent guide to direct you around the city. Buildings include the Magdeburg Barracks, where the Jewish Council of Elders met, and the Jewish cemetery's crematorium just outside the town walls.
The Malá Pevnost (Small Fortress) functioned as a jail, mainly for political prisoners and others resisting the German occupation, holding them in abject conditions. Around 30,000 prisoners came through here during the war. A tour through the fortress is chilling; you'll first visit the administrative area, where new prisoners were brought, and then glimpse their cells; crudely furnished with stone floors and long wooden beds. Not much has been done to spruce up the place for visitors, leaving the original atmosphere intact. As a military prison, 150 people could be held in the cells; under the Nazis, it was typical to have 1,500 prisoners held in the same space. There was no gas chamber here; but the appalling hygienic conditions led to many deaths, and about 300 prisoners were executed. Many of the juxtapositions are deeply cruel, such as the swimming pools for guards and their families, which prisoners would pass on their way to their execution.
Those who did not die in detention were shipped off to other concentration camps. Above the entrance to the main courtyard stands the horribly false motto ""arbeit macht frei" (Work Brings Freedom). At the far end of the fortress, opposite the main entrance, is the special wing built by the Nazis when space became tight. These windowless cells display a brutal captivity.
Told in words and pictures, the town's horrific story is depicted at the Museum of the Terezín Ghetto, just off the central park in town. A short documentary is also shown in many languages. Tell the staff that you speak English; they'll let you roam the building and flag you down when the next English-language video is being shown. Komenského ul., 411 55. 416-782-577.
- Address: Principova alej 304, Terezín, Bohemia, 411 55
- Phone: 416-782-225
- Cost: One unit 160 Kc; all units 200 Kc
- Hours: Small Fortress Apr.--Oct., daily 8--6; Nov.--Mar., daily 8--4:30. Ghetto Museum and Magdeburg Barracks Apr.--Oct., daily 9--6; Nov.--Mar., daily 9--5:30. Crematorium daily 9--5
- Website: www.pamatnik-terezin.cz
- Location: Terezín
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