Terezín (Theresienstadt), 60km northwest of Prague, was originally a fortress built in the 18th century to protect the road to Prague from Dresden. Today it’s a museum visited by many for its more recent history. Terezín Ghetto became a transit camp in November 1941. A place to hold Jewish prisoners before transporting them to extermination camps. 155,000 men, women and children passed through Terezín Ghetto with 118,000 of them perishing. Built to house approximately 7,000 people, Terezín’s population increased to over 50,000 within the first year. With overcrowding came limited food rations and unsatisfactory sanitary conditions. Disease spread quickly.
By the end of 1943, word spread about death camps so the Nazis presented Terezín for investigation by the International Red Cross. The intention; to convince the Red Cross this camp and others were safe, the occupants happy and all prisoners treated humanely. It’s here the propaganda began. Transport to Auschwitz and other extermination camps was increased to reduce overcrowding. Shops and cafés appeared, fully stocked with produce the prisoners had not seen since their arrival. Parts were played by prisoners to approach the Red Cross tour group calling Nazi officers “uncle”, intimating good relations. Children performed an opera for their guests. The Red Cross tour was filmed depicting happy people living well. The visit over and the film complete, all participants, including the children, were transported to Auschwitz.
The train takes us on the original track used for prisoner transport. We see a short film (including snippets of the propaganda film) and confronting exhibitions in the museum, crematorium and cemetery. Conversely, we hear of brave individuals risking all to save children; the smuggling of artwork and journals to preserve history; Auschwitz escapees risking recapture by returning to Terezín to warn friends of what to expect. The courage facing adversity is humbling. Much of the artwork has been preserved and is exhibited throughout the buildings. A section on children’s art is particularly unsettling. I doubt anyone would come away from this tour unaffected. Publications and guides are available for purchase, but photography is not allowed within the exhibitions
Terezín is best experienced with a guide. We booked through Sandemans New Europe Tours, a volunteer-based tour company where guides rely on tips. €30 covers train fare and all Museum tickets. Filip Huta (firstname.lastname@example.org), guides this tour a couple of times a week. The 1-hour train journey allows him time to survey the group’s interests and tailor the tour accordingly. Knowledgeable, informative and well prepared, he kept 16 of us to the schedule, while allowing time for exploration and contemplation. Filip made the difference between this tour being simply good and being excellent. Contact him directly on the email above or through Sandemans.
Back at Hotel King’s Court lobby bar Johnny and I take a moment to reflect. Being reminded of how lucky we are: it’s a thing we love….