Town in the Czech Republic, 50 kilometers north of Prague. Terezín (Ger., Theresienstadt) was established in 1780 as a fortress town with a military garrison. Presumably, a small number of Jews (mainly soldiers and merchants) lived there from the town’s beginnings. A Jewish military doctor is mentioned in a record dating from 1836, three Jewish families lived there in 1843, and a prayer room was functioning by 1861. Jewish settlement reached its height in 1890 (with 222 persons, representing 3% of the total population). The local prayer society was connected to the religious community of Litoměřice (Ger., Leitmeritz). The cemetery contains about 90 Jewish graves, including those of residents, prisoners of war, and civilian refugees from Galicia and Bucovina from the World War I period.
In 1941, Terezín was turned into a Jewish ghetto by order of the supreme command of the Nazis. In 1942, the local population was evacuated and by the end of the year some 56,700 Jews were interned there (previously the town had held an entire population of just 7,000). Terezín then served as a temporary transit camp for people subject to the Nuremberg Laws and destined for liquidation. Jews were brought there from occupied countries in Central and Western Europe, and were then gradually deported aboard 63 railway transports to extermination camps and ghettos in Poland, Belorussia, Latvia, and Estonia. The first transport left Terezín on 9 January 1942 bound for Riga, with the last departing on 28 October 1944 to Auschwitz.
Forced labor at the Terezín concentration camp, Czechoslovakia, ca. 1942. (YIVO)
By 1945, roughly 152,000 Jews from 16 states (half of whom were citizens of the former Czechoslovakia) had passed through Terezín. In all, 34,000 prisoners died in the town; 30,000 survived and were eventually liberated; and 87,000 were sent to be liquidated in the camps of Eastern Europe.
Despite very difficult conditions, internees in the overpopulated ghetto managed to provide basic social services and health care, clandestine lessons for children, and cultural events. They also managed to maintain religious functions. Terezín had at least eight Jewish prayer halls as well as Catholic and evangelical services for Christian prisoners. Many famous personalities were interned in Terezín, including rabbis (e.g., the prominent Berlin rabbi Leo Baeck), scientists, artists, and politicians.
In 1944—in connection with a forthcoming visit by officials of the International Red Cross, the Danish Red Cross, and a Swiss diplomat—the new commandant of the ghetto, Karl Rahm, tried to transmit the impression that Terezín was a “model self-governing town” with a healthy and happy populace. Now termed a jüdisches Siedlunggebiet (Jewish settlement area) rather than a ghetto, Terezín featured a park with a “promenade orchestra” and a host of sham institutions, including a school, bank, and café; shops with goods on display; a social center with a theater hall, library, and prayer center; a sports area with a playground for soccer, volleyball, and basketball; a riverside swimming pool; a children’s playground with swings and a merry-go-round; and a spruced-up cemetery with a grove of urns, among other objects. Several thousand inmates, above all tuberculosis patients and orphans, were removed from the ghetto before the visit by the international observers, and a propaganda “documentary” film was made describing the “idyllic” life in the town.
Richard Feder at a memorial ceremony at the former Terezín concentration camp, Czechoslovakia, 1969. (The Ghetto Fighters’ Museum/Israel)
The mortality rate in the ghetto was high: 22 percent of the internees died there. At first the dead were buried (in 1,250 individual and 217 mass graves), but beginning in autumn 1942, they were cremated (about 30,000 cremations took place). On the order of the Nazis, in 1944 the ashes of more than 20,000 victims were dumped into the local river (a memorial is now located on the site). A historical exhibition is mounted in the crematorium of 1942, and the cemetery was carefully restored in 1974–1975.
Several buildings connected with the history of the ghetto are open for public viewing in the town; many sites are marked with memorial plaques; and a ghetto museum has been in operation since 1991. The neighboring small fortress (during the Nazi period it was used by the Gestapo as a prison through which 35,000 prisoners passed) and the national cemetery (where several thousand people are buried, including about 8,000 urns containing ashes of Jewish victims) also function as museums.
The Terezín Memorial—a member organization of the International Task Force for Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research—currently sponsors memorial and cultural activities, including annual ceremonies, plays, concerts, exhibitions, and educational events for young people. In association with universities and the Czech ministry of education, the organization carries out research projects (including the updating of the inmate database) and publishes the journal Terezínské listy. In 2003, the ghetto museum was visited by 115,000 people (80% from abroad) and the small fortress had 194,000 visitors.
Rudolf Iltis et al., eds., Theresienstadt (Vienna, 1968); Miroslav Kárný et al., Terezin Memorial Book: Jewish Victims of Nazi Deportations from Bohemia and Moravia, 1941–1945; A Guide to the Czech Original with a Glossary of Czech Terms Used in the Lists (Prague, 1996).
RG 101, Art and Artifacts, Collection, 18th c.-1980s; RG 116, Territorial Collection: Czechoslovakia, , 1938-1945, post-1945; RG 717, Berthold Jeiteles, Papers, 1942-1946; RG 718, Karl Löwenthal, Papers, 1939-1945.
Translated from Czech by Stephen Hattersley