Terezín - a painful history

Terezín is a small (tentative) UNESCO Heritage Site town in the Ústí nad Labem Region about 80 kilometres north-west of Prague. The town is situated on the banks of the Ohře river, about a kilometre away from the point at which the Ohře flows into the mighty Elbe river, and the same distance away from the much larger nearby town of Litoměřice. Of course, since WWII, Terezín has been associated with the notorious Theresienstadt concentration camp established by the SS.

Terezín, photo: Magdalena KašubováTerezín, photo: Magdalena Kašubová But before looking into that painful association, it’s worth examining Terezín outside of this context. One only need look at a map of this place, or see a satellite image, to notice that Terezín is hardly designed with any sort of conventional urban planning in mind. On one side of the Ohře is a grid of dead straight roads built around a huge central square. Surrounding this entire structure are a series of bastion walls built in a spike-like octagonal design; from above, they resemble cat ears or a horse chestnut seed sliced in two. On the other side of the river is a much smaller citadel, which also mirrors this design. The entire area is surrounded by a defensive moat.

The reason for this odd appearance is that Terezín was once a fortress town, comprising a Main and Small fortress on either side of the river. Built at the end of the 18th century by Emperor Joseph II, ruler of the Hapsburg lands of which Bohemia was then part, the settlement was designed as a defensive measure against a potential military incursion by the Prussians from the north. But as a fortress, Terezín – named after Habsburg ruler Maria Theresa – was soon obsolete. After that, Terezín became a garrison town, and then a prison during the First World War. After the Nazi occupation, the Main fortress was turned into a “special” Jewish ghetto by the Gestapo, while the Small fortress became a concentration camp. Unlike, say, Auschwitz, Terezín was not an extermination camp, but rather a transit camp from where Jews and other elements deemed undesirable by the Nazis could be deported to death camps further to the east. Many horrors were endured by those imprisoned here. After WWII, Terezín also served as a transit camp for ethnic Germans being expelled expelled from Czechoslovakia.

Small fortress, photo: Denisa TomanováSmall fortress, photo: Denisa Tomanová It is a rich and painful history, and anyone interested in Terezín can find many additional sources of information in order to delve deeper and learn more about this place. Today, the former concentration camp is a museum opened to visitors. Its a highly evocative experience - no frills; far less about interactive video screens and the like, and far more about simply enabling visitors to walk through the well-preserved grounds, absorb the atmosphere, and reflect... Countless buses filled with tourists make the roughly hour-long trip from Prague every day.

But the Terezín of today is also a town with its own inhabitants – the grid of houses in the former Main fortress now a residential area. There are a number of museums here, too, some related to WWII, others not - for example an auto museum which looks back at the design of homemade cars spanning 1960-1990. There is also a cultural centre, horse riding school, a sports centre featuring a tennis court, and even a campsite. Not to mention a university of applied psychology – meaning that Terezín is also, to some degree, a student town. Evidently, many tourists visiting Terezín tend to see the former concentration camp and then leave. At night, Terezín’s long roads, military design and quiet streets, can give the impression of a near ghost town. There are very few shops here, even in the central square.

But visiting a local restaurant for an evening meal, this visitor was pleasantly surprised by a welcoming atmosphere and an even more surprising genuine pride in the quality of food on offer. There were even some delicious local potato chips to be had proudly made in nearby Litoměřice.

Small fortress, photo: Denisa TomanováSmall fortress, photo: Denisa Tomanová Naturally, the reason most foreign visitors will end up in Terezín is to see the former concentration camp and ghetto. But there is also a wider experience to be had in this context. A real town, with an understandably eerie atmosphere. It’s well worth coming – to learn, reflect, grieve – but perhaps also to stay just a little longer than one might have planned, and to delve a little deeper into this fascinating place.