Breathing new life into Terezin

The entire garrison town of Terezin served as a ghetto for Czech and European Jews during the Second World War and housed a Gestapo-run prison. Tens of thousands died within its walled fortresses, which were taken over by the Czechoslovak army after the war, and then abandoned in 1996. The debate over how best to both preserve -- and breathe new life -- into the northern Bohemian town took on a new urgency after it was devastated by floods in 2002. But as Brian Kenety reports, Terezin is still waiting for a miracle.

"Since the soldiers, military personnel and their families left, Terezin is dead," says local shopkeeper Josef Tolar.

In less than a year, the population dropped by some seven thousand. The military left behind a legacy of joblessness and decaying buildings; then came the floods -- and what Father Time left standing Mother Nature submerged in a metre of unforgiving muddy waters.

What future is there for Terezin? Last year, the town hall and preservationists finalised a comprehensive plan -"Terezin Europroject"- which would see the garrison town become home to a European centre for Holocaust studies, with the participation of branches of Czech universities, and a new Holocaust museum. Under the ambitious project the town would also be host to an international music centre.

Some 30,000 tourists visit Terezin every year, mainly to visit the Museum of the Jewish Ghetto and the Magdeburg Barracks, which exhibits the extraordinary artistic, literary and musical legacy of those interned in the Large Fortress here by the Nazis. But tourism provides few jobs for local residents of Terezin - which has been officially demoted to the status of village, due to its shrunken population.

Nadace Terezin foundation chairman Karel Tolde
"The best concept for developing Terezin is of revival - and that revival could involve having more young people come here to help the town prosper. The idea is to establish a kind of university centre for specialised studies. This would bring new life, prosperity and interest in this town," says Karel Tolde, director of the foundation Nadace Terezin.

Mr Tolde, along with dozens of other participants in an international conference of experts held this week, have called on the Czech government to take a definitive stand on its vision for the future of Terezin ahead of the 2007 to 2013 European Union budgetary cycle.

Dr Bernd Karl Vogel is head of the Association of friends and supporters of Theresienstadt, as the town is known in German. He too would love to see Terezin become a living town "full of students." But to realise this dream, Dr Vogel says, it is crucial that the Czech government successfully negotiates an exemption from the European Union's co-financing rules: the cost of implementing Terezin Europroject, which would include the complete renovation of 18 former military buildings, is an estimated 350 million US dollars.

"Who will finance it?" asks shopkeeper Josef Tolar. At the end of the day, that remains an open question.