Before I tell you about our second day in Prague, I want to write specifically about one of the places we visited during our time in the Czech Republic – Theresienstadt, or the Terezin ghetto and concentration camp. As I’ve mentioned many times before in other posts, I have deep connections to the Holocaust with my family’s history, but this was the first time I actually went to a ghetto and concentration camp from the Holocaust. This wasn’t just a ghetto or concentration camp though, this was the ghetto where my relatives had been sent before being murdered here or in other concentration camps. To walk in this place, to hear how people were forced to live and under what conditions, to see what was done to them – it’s incredibly terrifying and disturbing, but then to have to understand that members from your own family were some of those people, that’s just something words cannot actually describe.
The buildings used for the concentration camp and ghetto were fortresses constructed in the late 1700s, but by the end of the 19th century they were no longer used as forts. The Theresienstadt concentration camp and ghetto were established by the SS in World War II in this fortress and garrison city of Terezin. In 1941, Siegfried Seidl, the first camp commandant, oversaw the labor of 342 Jewish artisans and carpenters, known as the Aufbaukommado, who were forced to convert the fortress into a concentration camp.
In 1942, the Nazis expelled 7,000 non-Jewish Czechs who had been living in Terezin so that they could close off the town and make it a place to send and hold Jews. In the ghetto, 50 people would be forced to live together in one dorm room with one person as the head of the room. Men and women, including those who were married, had to live separately. Imagine being an adult, even elderly, and having to give up everything and move into a situation where someone else was the boss of you, living with 49 other people in small quarters, having no privacy or space. Lice spread typhoid and other infectious diseases. But this was only the beginning.
More than 33,000 people lost their lives in this concentration camp. Some died from sadistic treatment of their captors, others died from malnutrition after being starved, or from disease because of the unsanitary conditions. According to official records, the highest documented number of people in the camp was in September 1942 with 58,491 people. They were crowded into barracks designed for 7,000 troops.
Each room like this one would only have one bucket or toilet and a tiny stove for heat with dozens of prisoners sharing the space.
Over 150,000 people, including tens of thousands of children, were kept in Theresienstadt for months or years before being sent to their deaths at Treblinka and Auschwitz extermination camps in Poland. These aren’t just numbers though – that large of a number is abstract and difficult to really comprehend, but some of these people were my relatives. My great grandparents and great-great grandparents were here.
Towards the beginning of the camp and ghetto’s existence during the war, prisoners were actually given three small meals a day, but as time went on and more people arrived, it went down to eventually being only one cup of water turnip soup and 200 grams of bread a day (that’s as little as 2 slices of bread). People often became half their weight within the camp due to the combination of the inhumane amounts of labor and lack of food. Survivors described how every morning dead inmates would be found after waking-up time.
Theresienstadt is infamous for this phrase being posted over the entrance that translates as “work will set you free.”
People’s clothing was burned for diseases, but with the unsanitary and inhumane living conditions, diseases like Typhoid were inevitable.
Doctors were not actually allowed to treat Jews, but some did in secret. If surgeries had to be completed, doctors had no real supplies and had to use razors and saws or whatever they could find.Surgeries were performed in cells like this one without anesthesia:
There was a small room originally used for solitary confinement. Later on the guards would force 100 people into this tiny room that only had a hole as big as my hand for air. They would lock them in there overnight where many people died from lack of oxygen.
The prisoners of the camp were allowed to shower once a week. But when they showered, 100 people were squeezed into one large room, they were given 3 minutes to share one small shower head with 5 other people. The water would start semi-warm at the beginning, but get colder until there was no heat for the prisoners. Jews were always made to go last, meaning they always had to shower in freezing water. Most people today cannot shower for three minutes alone, imagine sharing it with 5 other people in a room with 100 people for just those three minutes. Important note – these showers were actually showers and never used as gas chambers.
The guards forced prisoners to build a large water storage unit for firefighting purposes. Inmates were only given spoons or just their bare hands to build it. 60 people died during the process. After it was completed, the guards just used the massive water unit as a swimming pool on hot days.
On November 11, 1943 the commandant Anton Burger made the entire camp population, around 40,000 people, stand in the freezing weather in order to do a camp census. 300 prisoners died that day from hypothermia.
In the fall of 1944, Nazis began the liquidation of the ghetto. Prisoners were transported to Auschwitz for Sonderbehandlung, or “special treatment.” This meant the immediate gassing of all upon arrival. It only took one month to deport 24,000 people to their deaths. 88,000 in total were transported to Auschwitz, Treblinka, or other camps. My relatives were some of these people.
They had executions in the camp as well where people were forced to lie down in these cross shaped boxes and soldiers would stand high on the hills (you can see in the background of the photo) and would use the people in the boxes as target practice. 50 people were shot here within one hour on May 2nd before the end of the war.
When prisoners were brought through this tunnel, they knew they were going to be killed. Actually walking that path decades later was a very intense experience.
Many of the bodies of victims who died within Theresienstadt were cremated:
The Germans presented Theresienstadt to outsiders as a model Jewish settlement during a 1944 Red Cross visit and in a propaganda film. For example, there was a room of sinks and mirrors created so Nazis could claim to the Red Cross that they even had a barber shop area in the camp to present how clean and sanitary the camp was.
The Red Cross never actually got to see the camp though, they only saw the ghetto section of the town and got an illusion of what was really going on. At the end of our visit we were able to see parts of that propaganda film shown to outsiders that was made to prove Theresienstadt was not a bad place to be. They showed Jewish families playing soccer together, laughing in the sunshine with their yellow Stars of David sewn to their clothing. They intentionally picked very stereotypical looking Jews to emphasize their underlying messages.
During our visit, we watched another film in which they read off statistics of different trains that took victims to the death camps from Theresienstadt. Each train began with 1,000 people on it and then the number of survivors after the war was over would be read. By the end of the war, most of the original 1,000 was within the range of 0-5 survivors. This was intensely powerful to listen to. Over and over hearing 1,000 people sent to this camp, 1 person survived. 1,000 people sent to this camp, 2 people survived. 1,000 people sent to this camp, 0 people survived. After hearing over a dozen of these numbers, I felt sick because it really is incomprehensible. And this was after these people had survived such a horrific place already.
This is what the ghetto town looks like today. Just looking at this photo, it’s nearly impossible to imagine what happened here a few decades ago:
We were able to see a cemetery where many of the victims’ remains or ashes have since been buried. As Jews we lay rocks and not flowers on the gravestones.
But many of the graves do not have names because the victims’ names are not known.
Visiting Theresienstadt is something I will never forget. I’ve heard stories my entire life about my relatives who were sent here, but actually seeing it profoundly changed my understanding of it.
This photo was taken in 1940 of my great grandparents, Albert and Johanna Kleinstrass, who were sent to Theresienstadt before being deported to Auschwitz where they were killed: