The fortress town of Terezin


Today we visit a small town in North Bohemia that many of you are already familiar with. Some 30,000 tourists visit Terezin every year. The town is mainly associated with the horrors of the Holocaust, when the Nazis turned it into a ghetto for tens of thousands of Jews from across Europe. Given this grim legacy, it is ironic that Terezin is also one of the more interesting and unusual historic Czech towns, much studied by architectural historians and town planners. It has one of the oldest and best preserved Baroque defence systems in Europe. For generations it was a garrison town, and now it hopes to become a place of learning.

Terezin is a fortified town. A view from above shows that it is made up of two star-shaped areas, which are known as the Large and Small Fortress. The town was built from 1780-1790 in a style that was very modern for the time, after the French school of Mezieres, to serve as a northern defence point for the Austrian Empire against the Prussian Army.

The order to build was given by Emperor Joseph II, who had it named after his mother Empress Maria Theresa - hence, the name Terezin, or Theresienstadt as it is known in German. For one hundred years, the town was only a garrison town, with a capacity for 50,000 soldiers. Since it was never attacked, as the Prussian army bypassed it in subsequent conflicts with the Austrians, the defence system is still very much intact today. Jan Hornicek is the Mayor of Terezin:

"Terezin's defence system is a classic of its kind. It has a natural defence, which is the Ohre River that could be used to flood the artificial basin in front of the fortress. I should add that part of the town was built on swampland, using oak pilings and grids that were filled with stone. For defence, an underground network of passages was built that spread some eighty metres into the fields around. They were on two levels - three and six metres deep - and could either be used as escape routes or for explosives to blow up the ground from underneath approaching infantry."

Although closed to tourists, the 30km long underground passages are in good condition and can still be visited today.

When Terezin was opened to civilians in the late nineteenth century, some two thousand, mostly craftsmen, moved to the town, mainly to provide their services to the five thousand or so soldiers stationed there. The Small Fortress was turned into an Army prison and later served as a prison camp during WWI.

But the town's bleakest period was in the early 1940s. Nazi Germany occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939. The Small Fortress was first used as a political prison. A year later, the Gestapo took control of it to turn it into a police prison for members of the resistance and prisoners of war. In all, about 32,000 prisoners passed through the Small Fortress during WWII, of whom 2,500 perished due to hunger, disease, the brutality of the guards, and executions.

Administration court of the Small Fortress
In the adjacent Large Fortress, the whole population was forced out and the entire town was turned into a ghetto for Jews from all over Europe. Kamila is a tour guide in Terezin:

"The ghetto was established in 1941 and Terezin was chosen for several reasons. Terezin was a fortified town, making it easy to guard. It was a garrison town, so there were many barracks for a great number of people. Prague was close to the town, so that was seen as an advantage too. The nearby prison meant that there were hundreds of guards readily available. In Warsaw in Poland the Nazis closed off only part of the town to separate the Jews. Theresienstadt or Terezin was a closed town and an international ghetto."

It is estimated that some 155,000 people passed through the ghetto, and around 34,000 did not survive the harsh living conditions and frequent outbreaks of infectious disease. The ghetto was also a transit station from which tens of thousands were transported eastward to the death camps.

"I would call the establishment of a ghetto the second step of the persecution of the Jewish people. The first step was when they were prohibited by the Nazis to go to schools, their factories and firms were taken from them, they weren't allowed to walk on pavements, and couldn't go to the theatre or cinemas. The third step was when they were sent to concentration camps from the ghettos and were killed by torture and mainly in the gas chambers. That was the third and final step in the liquidation of the Jews."

Today, two museums in the Large Fortress remind us of Terezin's dark days in the first half of the 1940s:

"There are two museums. The Ghetto Museum covers everything generally about the ghetto and the persecution of the Jews starting from the beginning to life in the ghetto until the transportation to the east. There are also the Magdeburg Barracks which exhibit everything about art that was created by prisoners. There is literature, there are many paintings and drawings, and there is a room showing how Jewish people lived at the time. I think the drawings are the best guides because they show everything about life in the ghetto."

When Ukrainian Red Army divisions came to Terezin on May 8 1945 to liberate it from the Nazis, they found an almost empty town. The Germans had anticipated the enemy and the ghetto was losing its battle against a typhoid epidemic. Following the liberation, pre-war civilian inhabitants were not allowed to return to Terezin for an entire year. The mayor Jan Hornicek again:

"Terezin is a European town in a very unusual sense. The project to build the town was French, the fortress was built during the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which covered half Europe at the time, and the young soldiers who served in Terezin were recruited from all over Austro-Hungary. During the First World War, Terezin's Small Fortress was used as a prison camp, bringing Russian soldiers to the town. During the Second World War, people of 36 nationalities were held in Terezin, and after the war, when it became a garrison town again, recruits from all over Czechoslovakia were stationed here. Of course, many of the young soldiers fell in love with local girls, got married and had a family. So, every resident of Terezin today not only has a forefather who came here to serve in the Army but also has roots somewhere else."

As Mayor Hornicek just mentioned, Terezin served as a garrison town during the Communist years of Czechoslovakia. Between 5,000-7,000 soldiers were stationed here and forty percent of buildings, mainly barracks, were owned by the Army. But in 1996, the Army started pulling out of the town, leaving numerous empty buildings and hundreds of unemployed people behind.

"The biggest employer has always been the Army and hundreds of people lost their jobs because the Army from 1996 started to pull out of the town and was gone within a year. Since Terezin is a heritage site, it is not possible to build factories, destroy the defence system, and build large warehouses. There is high unemployment and more than ninety percent of the population has to look for a job beyond Terezin's borders. The biggest employer at the moment is the Prague Institute for Social Care, which owns a building here housing the ailing aged or people with disabilities. It employs some 120 people, most of whom are residents of Terezin."

Today, Terezin has a population of about 2,000. The Large Fortress falls under the management of the town authorities, while the Small Fortress is a National Cultural Heritage Site and falls under the Culture Ministry. It is now the Terezin Memorial - an institution dedicated to remembering victims of Nazi Germany. But to add to the plight of Terezin, the town was not spared during the massive floods that hit much of the Czech Republic in the summer of 2002. Experts say it would have been able to withstand the water had the Czechoslovak Army not damaged much of Terezin's natural anti-flood protection.

The long and costly reparation of flood damage - reconstruction of the town's school alone took two years of dedication and hard work- as well as the numerous empty dilapidated buildings left behind by the army - leave the Large Fortress with a large burden. Most of Terezin's buildings are protected historic monuments and complete renovation would be costly and difficult. But the authorities believe to have come up with a development plan that could bring new life to the town. The massive empty barracks could be turned into dormitories and Terezin transformed into a university town:

"The main idea is that when we compare soldiers to students, we find quite a number of similarities - one group lives in barracks and the other in dormitories, they both eat in canteens, need a cultural programme and sports facilities, as well as space for lecture halls. So the use of the buildings makes sense. We do not want to create a new university. We are just offering our facilities to those institutions which would be willing to move some of their students and part of their educational programmes to this town."

The mayor has already approached several universities and has met with a positive response. But he has yet to convince the state to support the project and is still looking for financial support. Terezin's Large Fortress, however, has the support of Swedish EU Commissioner for Environment Margot Wallstrom, who back in April announced before the European Parliament that she would like to see a European university founded in Terezin.