Sunday, May 30, 2010
A group of us, Patty, Louise, Judy, and I, planned a trip to Terezine, which is an hour away from the city. Terezine is an old garrison town founded by the Hapsburg Emperor Joseph II. In German it is Theresienstadt. It has a long history as a prison, a fortress, and a military town.
The most famous prisoner held there was Gavrilo Princip, who died in Cell 1 in 1918. The cause of death was listed as TB, but considering the conditions....Princip was the man who finally managed to kill the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 thus starting the First World War.
I found that cell very unnerving. The way it was lit and just the feel of it.
Terezin, is more well known than just as a place for long dead assasins. Terezin was the Nazi version of a Czech concentration camp. While never a death camp per say many people died there of beatings, malnutrition, disease, and neglect.
As a fortress dating back to the 18th century it was uniquely adapted to Nazi uses. It was first used as a police prison(Gestapo) for patriots of the Czech homeland, outlawed parties(Communists mostly), resistance fighters and some POW's. People from all over the world were held here. Australia POW's, Czech patriots, Soviet Union citizens, religions that the Nazis disliked, and of course Jews from the area. The small fortress was first a political prison. People who were 'dangerous' or broke the rules of the Jewish ghetto in the nearby town ended up in the Small Fortress.
According to our guide(Louise hooked us up with a tour group from Boston who had a great guide) the conditions as a prison worsened as time went on. Food became rationed, more and more people were crammed into cells together, heat was not turned on, and bugs and disease became rampant. The cells were very humid and with only 15 kg of fuel per week, you could turn on the stove once or twice a week at most. Not enough to dry out the air and kill the bugs. Plus all those people sharing a toilet.
One of the old barrack cells we saw would have between 80-90 people in them at once. It was probably constructed for 20 or so men max. The Jewish cells were even worse. About 1/3 the size of the barrack cells. Indeed they weren't even made for humans originally. The Jewish cells were horse stalls. They would pack 50-60 Jewish people in those tiny rooms at once. You couldn't sit down or move.
The only window was always closed(for escape prevention I guess) and the only oxygen came from a tiny hole in the wall near the door. People suffocated because the air couldn't circulate fast enough and they were all crushed together.
Any medical attention came from Doctors who were prisoners themselves and supplies had to be smuggled in from the town, by sympathetic guards and workers. Those people risked their lives to help any in the fortress.
We saw the shower room and the delousing station. Once a week you were allowed one 5 minute cold shower. You removed your clothes and tried to kill the germs, and lice that infested them by using steam and pressure in the machine. If it worked right your clothes were clean for a while. But they were still wet and so were you, when you put them back on and went back to your hideously overcrowded cell.
But there was time to visit with other people. To learn news, say hello to relatives and find out if others were alive. The shower time was a shining moment of hope for the prisoners there.
Some of the prisoners feared the showers at first, because they often were disguised as a gas chamber in other camps. Not in Terezin. The Nazis were building one outside the fortress but it was never finished. The Red Army liberated the camp first. Although the forced laborers from the camp did everything they could to sabotage it before it was done.
As the war went on and more Jewish people came to Terezin the barracks in the town filled up and they were sent to the fortress. At the end of the war it was estimated that nearly 60,000 people had been packed into the whole town of Terezine, which maybe was built for 12,000 people.
We went through the old Austrian tunnels which had been blocked up during the war. Very cold and spooky. The tunnels were part of the defense of the area. They could flood the moat and still control the waterways and be safe in the tunnels to defend the area.
They come out onto the execution range of Terezin. The Gestapo used to use it as target practise, but that didn't last long. One of the group members was a survivor of Terezin. He had been forced into the ghetto at the age of 21. He had a hard time in the tunnels, but to come back even years later had to have been hard.
I know just seeing some of it was hard for me, and I didn't live through it.
And life didn't get easier after the war was over. With the overcrowding and more refugees arriving everyday and the Nazi administrators fleeing the place was in chaos. Epidemics were rampant. Typhus, dysentery and typhoid were three major disease that ripped through the camp.
Here's the link to the Terezin Memorial website. http://www.pamatnik-terezin.cz/showdoc.do?docid=164.
So a very heavy day. I'm glad we went, and it's something we won't forget, but it wasn't a fun thing.
I will be posting all the photos of Terezin, probably on Facebook. If you want to see them all.