Terezin Concentration Camp: a solemn discovery

My family and I, along with a close friend visiting from Berlin, spent a long afternoon at the Terezín Memorial and Ghetto Museum a week or so ago. We walked through the Memorial and Ghetto Museum trying to get our minds around the past horrors of what happened here, while contemplating the significance of events both before and after WWII, with those unfolding in our world now.

Terezin Concentration Camp - Small Fortress

I’ve lived in the Czech Republic on and off for a long time but never once managed to visit this town, its memorial or museum. But after an afternoon walking the old prison grounds, I realized I could spend days here drifting from building to building, trapped in an endless loop of my own solemn discovery of history; making pictures of empty cells, courtyards, textures and intricate details that seemed to cry out for recognition and remembrance.

above: The gate leading into the first courtyard of the Small Fortress where men prisoners were housed in group and individual isolation cells. The phrase, ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ or ‘Work Makes [one] Free’ over the entrance has become synonymous with the Nazi concentration camps of WWII because it was displayed over most of the camps during that time.

Terezin Concentration Camp - Small Fortress

Terezín is a 45 minute trip by car, just north-west of Prague. Its fortifications were constructed between 1780 and 1790 by the Austrian emperor Joseph II, as part of a planned system of defensive forts for the monarchy. It is made up of a Main Fortress which houses the town itself and the Small Fortress just 800 meters across the Ohře River. By the end of the 19th century, it became obsolete as a fort and was later used as military barracks and a prison during the 20th century.

above: Visitors touring the registration office where incoming prisoners were first processed into the camp form ghostly shadows reflected in the museum glass.

Terezin Concentration Camp - Small Fortress

above: A line of sinks and mirrors in the washroom next to the delousing chamber in courtyard I. This area was not originally part of the facility but was built as part of the ‘beautification’ project to mask the true conditions in the camp prior to an inspection by the International Committee of the Red Cross in June 1944. The Nazis attempted to present not only the Small Fortress where prisoners were held as a ‘model camp’ for prisoners, but also revamped the Main Fortress where the Jewish Ghetto was located for the same purpose.

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above left: Light from an outside door illuminates the end of tunnel from the original 18th century fortifications. These tunnels wind their way through the interior of the massive walls surrounding the Small Fortress but were never used as part of the concentration camp. above right: An old bed frame in a cell off courtyard I. bottom right: Group cell for men in courtyard IV.

Terezin Concentration Camp - Small Fortress

After the invasion and occupation of Czechoslovakia by the Nazis in 1939, the Small Fortress was used as a police prison where Czech and Moravian patriots, members of numerous resistance groups and organizations, were sent by various branches of the Gestapo. An estimated 32,000 people ended up here, most of them eventually deported to concentration camps. All told, 2,600 people were executed, starved, or succumbed to disease in the prison.

above: Courtyard IV with rows of isolation cells on the left and group cells on the right.

Terezin Concentration Camp - Small Fortress

above: Looking out a small square hole in an isolation cell door off courtyard IV.

Terezin Concentration Camp - Small Fortress

In 1942 the Nazis expelled 7,000 non-Jewish residents living in Terezín and closed off the town, creating a ghetto and concentration camp in the Main Fortress. More than 140,000 people were rounded-up and held prisoner here, an estimated 35,000 of them died from stress, hunger, disease and atrocious living conditions. From the end of 1942, more than 87,000 people held in Terezín were transported to extermination camps, most sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Of these, only 3,800 people lived to see liberation. The youngest prisoners, 7,900 children were also sent to camps, a mere 142 of them survived to see the end of the war.

above: Rows of isolation cells in courtyard IV.

Terezin Concentration Camp - Small Fortress

This is a place where, as I’m drawn in by the complexity of structures, angles and colors, I feel a sensation of guilt bubbling up in my gut for not being consciously aware of the dark history and its significance the moment I click the shutter. That’s why making pictures here takes time. Time to merge the visuals of the now, with the emotion, meaning and history of what was here.

above: The Gate of Death, leading to the execution yard where prisoners were either shot or hung.

Terezin Concentration Camp - Small Fortress

Terezín is not only a place, but a time in history I will return to, time and again in the coming years as I try to get my head around making more meaningful pictures here.

above:  Execution yard. It was here, against the fortification wall of the Small Fortress where 250-300 prisoners were shot.

Terezin Concentration Camp - Small Fortress

above: Steel door leading to and from the execution yard.

Terezin Concentration Camp - Small Fortress

above:  The National Cemetery outside the gates of the Small Fortress where an estimated 10,000 victims of Nazi atrocities that took place in Terezín and neighboring town of Litoměřice are buried. The cemetery was built from 1945-1958 and is the first – and last – site visitors pass when touring the concentration camp.

More information is available here at the official Terezín museum website here.

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