Theresienstadt

Paul visited Terezín in the northern Czech Republic in November 2003. During the previous year the area had been badly damaged by the flooding that affected large parts of central Europe, and reconstruction work was being carried out. The timing of his visit, however accidental, added poignancy. Signs of flood damage can be seen in several of the pictures, but the tragic drama enacted in this place almost sixty years before is the central character here.

Terezín, as it is now called in Czech, was built as a fortified garrison town by the Hapsburg empire at the end of the eighteenth century, and named Teresienstadt. It consisted of two fortresses, referred to as the Große Festung, or Large Fortress, comprising the actual town, and the Kleine Festung, or Small Fortress, which was used as a military and political prison from the beginning. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, as the strategic importance of the fortifications diminished, its use as a prison increased to the point, during the First World War, when it was the main function of the fortress. The Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip, whose assassination of the Hapsburg Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 had sparked the war, was held in the harsh conditions of the Small Fortress until his death from tuberculosis in April1918, in cell number 1.

With the annexation of Czechoslovakia by Germany in 1938 the fortress fell under the control of the Nazis.

This has been one of the world’s dark places. A place where humanity has faced the limits of its deep internal inhumanity. There are many, far too many, such places around the world. Some places are bloodier, more drenched in man’s visceral savagery, than others. But all these places have something in common. Something that hangs over them like a lingering silence in the middle of a symphony.

Things have happened in these places that I and – I sincerely hope – most of us might be aware of, perhaps even imagine the horror of, but can never truly comprehend. The things men can do to others when placed in a particular set of circumstances. When they, as men, are degraded to such an extent that they see their debasement of others as normal. Mundane. Just a job. Part of the daily routine.

Theresienstadt had its small role to play in the carnal madness that gripped Europe by the throat during the twentieth century’s early decades. The Nazi’s vile system for the deportation and murder of European Jews used Theresienstadt as a hub, and this gives the place its macabre celebrity. Over 140,000 Jews from various nations were forced through the town between 1942 and 1945. Up to 50,000 lived here at one time, in a town that had been fully occupied by just 7,000 people before the war. The hellish conditions, overcrowding, starvation, disease and brutality of the ghetto killed 33,000 people, almost half of them children. There were 17,247 people still alive when the town was handed over to the Red Cross on May 1st 1945. The grim mathematics are stomach churning to do, but one must ask: where are the 90,000 people who did not succumb to the regime of the ghetto, and yet were not among those found by the Red Cross? 

Auschwitz.

And yet, and yet, this is not the full story of Theresienstadt in those years. For instance, there was an unusually high proportion of artists, writers and musicians among the damned. There is the music that was written and performed in this stifling ghetto, which includes an opera. There are the paintings and the poetry, the plays. There’s the Nazi documentary film made about the town, actually made by a forced labour production team of inmates – all subsequently moved on, through that hideous and meticulous transportation system, to Auschwitz.

And even yet the story of the Nazi era isn’t finished, for when the Hapsburgs built Theresienstadt at the end of the eighteenth century as a fortified garrison town, they also built another smaller fortress alongside. This was to be a military prison, and such was its function for many years. And then Stellvertretender Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Gestapo, found it a century and a half later. He was setting up the Reich’s terror network in Bohemia and Moravia, and he knew he had found the perfect hub for his web. Horror central.

The prison in the Small Fortress was not built with aesthetics in mind. This is functional, military-engineer-designed architecture, equipped with everything necessary for the operation of a prison at the blunt end, the brutal end, of a system of state terror and repression. Under the Gestapo, this was not the sort of prison you would be sent home from with a “sorry, you’re clearly innocent, we got the wrong man”. If you left here alive, it was in a cattle truck. 

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