Terezin was built in the 1780s as a fortress town in northern Bohemia. Also called Theresienstadt in German, the town was named for Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresia. But in 1941, the resident population was ousted by the Nazis, who turned Terezin into a Jewish ghetto, a “model town” for propaganda purposes. Its real use was as a transit camp before prisoners were deported to the “east,” typically the Auschwitz extermination camp.
Preparing for the trip to Terezin
The day before the Prague Summer Program’s field trip to Terezin, our Jewish Studies class had a small field of its own. We went to Prague 7, where we saw the collection point of the Jews. There’s now a memorial there. We also saw the train station that was used to haul Czech Jews to Terezin. The Nazis did not want to use the main train station in the city.
Meeting Terezin survivors
Our Jewish Studies class had the opportunity to meet with and interview two Terezin survivors. One had only been eight years old when deported. Another wore a butterfly, the symbol of the Terezin survivors, because “there were no butterflies in Terezin.”
These survivors, who were so young when sent to Terezin, knew that Jews were in trouble when they had to give up their dogs. For Czechs, this was huge — anyone familiar with the Czech culture knows how important dogs are to them.
After two hours and a box of tissues with each of them, they had moved me beyond words.
But it was Terezin’s Main Fortress that held more of my interest. This is where most of the Jews had been crushed into squalid conditions. They died of disease and starvation. Today, the buildings and streets eerily bear the remains of their deadly past.
The Muzeum Ghetta has many exhibitions that highlight the music and art that was produced in the ghetto, such as Hans Krasa’s Brundibar children’s opera and the jazz band called the Ghetto Swingers. Many of the children’s drawings have been on display and some have been published.
Message for writers
There’s no way I could write all that I learned in this blog post. I won’t even try. There are many books about Terezin and you could learn more from them.
I asked my Jewish Studies teacher how he felt about visiting Terezin. He is a second-generation survivor — both his parents survived Terezin and Auschwitz. He said it was his duty and it was a way of demonstrating that the Final Solution did not succeed. If he could visit this site, knowing what his parents endured, I figured so could I.
For more information, get a hold of the DVD, A Distant Journey. While fiction, this movie was filmed on location in 1948.