Visiting the Terezín Concentration Camp and Ghetto, Near Prague

I didn’t know what to expect when I decided to visit the Terezín Ghetto and Concentration Camp, near Prague in the Czech Republic. But whatever it was, it wasn’t what happened to me there.

Feeling the Sun

When I step off the tour van in the parking area to visit the Terezín/Theresienstadt concentration camp/ghetto and prison, the sun is shining brilliantly and the sky is a piercing blue. I hadn’t paid much attention to the weather when we left Prague an hour ago. But now I notice that the sun is making everything vivid, alive, almost sparkling.

Walking from the parking area to Terezín’s “Small Fortress,” I stroll beneath a row of trees in full leaf—although every now and then a butter-yellow leaf drifts towards my feet, signaling the onset of autumn. If I were wearing one-sided blinders, I could imagine I was walking in a peaceful park on a sunny day, for then I could not see the rows and rows of stone tablets beyond the trees to my right—thousands of them—set into the lush grass to mark the resting places of so many who died earlier than they should have. Most of the plaques have names; some do not. A few are marked only by a number, just a few digits to sum up an entire life.

The 5-digit number tattooed on a woman's arm, a survivor of Auschwitz and the Nazi Holocaust.

This is what they did at Auschwitz. This is how they turned people into numbers. This is what I saw tattooed on the arm of a survivor
on a hot summer day in Amsterdam in 1971.

Seeing the number on one gravestone takes me back to a day in 1971, the first time I lived abroad. I was standing in line at the post office in Amsterdam, fanning myself with the letter I was waiting to mail. It was summer, and hot. Everyone was in short sleeves. Uncomfortable and impatient, I counted how many people were before me. And glancing down, I saw the arm of the woman standing directly in front of me. It was a freckled arm, I remember, dusted with soft light hairs. And among the freckles there, on the outside of her left arm, were the blue-black marks of a tattoo. Five digits. Etched into the freckled skin of her arm. She had been at Auschwitz, the only concentration camp where the Nazis, with their so-German efficiency, marked their victims in this way, the better to maintain their meticulous records of life and death.

I do not know what to expect here, in Terezín, which the Germans called Theresienstadt. I have never been to a Nazi concentration camp. I suppose I hope to see in reality what before had been only old and cracked black-and-white photos of Auschwitz, Dachau, and Treblinka, of gaunt prisoners in striped uniforms clinging to wire fencing. I did not expect to see grass and flowers and a yellow leaf floating down under a bright blue sky.

The Small Fortress Prison at Terezín

The walls of the star-shaped Small Fortress at Terezín are built of rusty red brick topped with grassy mounds. It was not built as a concentration camp. It was used as a political prison for more than 150 years before the Nazis came. But they knew how to make what they considered very good use of it.

We cross a bridge over a moat, dry now, filled with grass, and enter through an arched entryway. Soon after, we walk through a second portal, the entrance to the prison itself. This one is adorned with that favorite bit of Nazi camp irony… the ubiquitous Arbeit Macht Frei painted over the portal, the motto that greeted those who entered so many of the camps. “Work Will Make You Free.”

The sign  at the entrance to Terezín Prison Camp, near Prague, "Arbeit Macht Frei,"--Work Will Make You Free

The Nazi’s favorite ironical device–the ubiquitous sign at the entrance to most of their concentration camps.
“Arbeit Macht Frei,” or “Work Will Make You Free.” It didn’t.


A well-informed guide shows us around the camp and tells us what we are looking at. I see rooms lined with three-tiered wooden bunks. I see tiny isolation cells just big enough for a cot. I am shown the showers where prisoners and their clothes were de-loused. I see dead-bolts on doors and barbed wire atop walls.

What I do not see are gas chambers, for Terezín was not an extermination camp, like Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Small Fortress was used by the Germans as the Prague Gestapo prison. It held political prisoners, trouble-makers, Czech resistance fighters. Jews from the town who were caught stealing paper to make art or write music on were sent here. But no, there are no gas chambers.

Which is not to say people did not die here. Thousands did, from poor conditions and from murder. I am led to the execution grounds. There on the ground, beside the grass and shaded from the sun, are three cement forms, looking exactly like crosses, where marksmen laid with their rifles aimed at a grass knoll a few meters away. Here prisoners could be shot and the hill behind them would conveniently absorb the bullets.

The wooden gallows at Terezín Prison Camp, with their rickety steps and rough wood platform, look like something a child would build.

The gallows on the killing grounds of the Nazi Prison Camp at Terezín, near Prague, looks amost like a toy,
an oversized version of a child’s game of “Hangman” come to horrible life.

At one corner of the area stands a gallows, almost insignificant looking, a feeble wooden framework with two steps leading up from the platform, crude and easiy pulled away. It seems far too small to be so lethal. It looks like something built in the back yard by children to play a particularly sick game.

Off to one side of the execution grounds is another grass-covered hill. Here, some 600 bodies were found in a mass grave after the war.

But no, there are no gas chambers. No spot where the local equivalent of Dr. Mengele stood and casually divided fresh arrivals, pointing these to the left and those to the right, these to slavery and hard labor and starvation and those to a more immediate death. Terezín, you see, was not a “death camp.”

And I am shocked to realize that I am disappointed.

Disappointed that it was not more cruel? More inhuman? Disappointed that I will not be able to see face-to-face how barbaric we as a race can be to each other? Sorry that I will not get the entire effect of the brutality of war thrown in my face?

Feeling Numb

I disgust myself with this observation, with its overtone of pining for the sensational. But disgust is the strongest emotion I allow myself to feel. Mostly, I feel numb. I look at the cells and the bunks, the meager toilets and the barbed wire, and even the feeble little gallows; and I feel numb. I concentrate on the settings of my camera. I look up at the blue sky. I frame a shot just so and wonder if I should print it in black and white for better effect. I have detached myself completely from what is in front of me, unable to let the horror all the way in.

A desolate wall topped with broken barbed wire marks the edge of the Terezín Concentration Camp/Prison.

Decaying barbed wire tops the wall at Terezin Concentration Camp/prison, n ear Prague. a desolate reminder of what happened here

As we leave the Small Fortress, I watch my feet step across the square stones of the path. I pick up a mahogany-colored chestnut fallen from one of the trees, full and lush overhead with their deep-green leaves. I polish the nut on my pants leg and drop it into my pocket, not knowing why. (Later, when I return safe and whole to my own comfortable home in central Mexico, I will decide to place it carefully on the table altar in my meditation niche, beside a Buddha figure, a Mayan carving and a Virgin of Guadalupe.)

The Terezín Ghetto

We leave the prison and move on to the town itself, the fortified village of Terezín. Once again, the Nazis had a new use in mind for the old village, realizing that the high walls and sturdy gates designed to keep people out also made it perfect for locking people in.

Built to hold some 5000 residents, at its height during the war the ghetto at Terezín enclosed more than 58,000 Jews behind its fortified walls. In the over-crowded conditions, here they died—some 34,000 of them—of malnutrition, disease and stress. But most of those who were sent here, thousands of Czech Jews but also those from Austria, Hungary, Germany, the Netherlands, stayed here only until they were chosen for the next transport east…usually to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Almost 90,000 of them left here, packed into the cattle cars of the transport trains. 15,000 of them were children. 90% of them never returned.

Train tracks lead away from the Terezín Ghetto and Concentration camp, heading east, toward Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The trains that left Terezín Ghetto and Concentration Camp were generally headed to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Of the almost 90,000 people shipped east from here, 90% never returned.

The town was doubly useful to the Nazis—as a “holding camp” for Jews on their way to be used up or disposed of elsewhere, and as a “picture-book” resettlement area that could be used to show the world how well the Jews were being treated. For a while, it even worked.

When the International Red Cross insisted on sending a delegation to the ghetto, they were shown a nice façade—cleaned up, dressed up, whitewashed and filled with luscious baked goods in the bakery, children’s soccer games and temporarily well-dressed and forcibly smiling Jews. They were treated to a brilliant concert of Verdi’s “Requiem” performed by some of the hundreds of professional Jewish musicians sent to Terezín. And after they left, they gave the ghetto a clean bill of health. While the people behind the walls starved.

We are shown briefly around the town. From the outside, it looks not so different from any other small Czech town, with its 18th-century façades and neatly cobble-stoned courtyards. But behind the walls, I do see more barracks full of multi-tiered wooden bunks and tiny wood-burning stoves. A wall is covered with the names of the dead. Photographs, documents, and the yellow stars embroidered with “Jude” that were sewn to clothing are on display. They are in showcases, behind glass, a barrier that not only protects them from me but also me from them. I find it all… “interesting.”

Feeling Sick

We go into the museum. And it is here, finally, the numbness lifts. The change is sudden and violent, a sucker-punch to the gut, and I feel as though I am about to throw up.

Why here? The crematorium did not do it, that ugly room where the bodies of the thousands of dead were burned, their ashes stored in urns only later to be dumped into the river when the Nazis saw the end was near and tried to cover up the scope of the deaths. No, for all its ugliness, the crematorium did not make me feel sick. The rows of bunks, the barbed wire, the execution grounds could not lift the veil of numbness and make me nauseous.

No, it is the drawings—hundreds of drawings made with colored pencils, crayons, charcoal. Drawings made by the children, who were protected as far as possible, both physically and psychically, by the Jewish elders in the town, given better food and access to sports and music and art lessons. It is the drawings of home, of nature, of happier times and future hopes. That is what makes me feel sick, because I, unlike the children, know what their future held.

Here is a drawing of a house covered in red hearts to show the love inside, there a charcoal sketch of a beloved black dog, a crayon picture of a carrousel, another of a rainbow, flowers, butterflies. Below each drawing is a note: Name of child artist, date of birth, date and place of death. Most were between 10 and 14 years old.

Children's art at Terezín Ghetto, Czech RepublicChildren's Art at Terezín Ghetto, Czech Republic
Names of some of the children from Terezín who died at Auschwitz

I try to hold my camera steady, to concentrate on framing a picture, exposing it correctly, eliminating glare from the glass in front of it. But my hands are shaking and I realize I can’t breathe. I need to leave. I need to leave now. I am afraid I will be sick here on this nice clean marble tile floor.

I walk out of the museum and cross the street to the park. I notice again that it is a beautiful day. I can smell the flowers and hear the soft breeze rustling the leaves of the chestnut trees.

I sit on the cool soft grass, close my eyes and turn my face up to the sun.


Terezín ghetto and concentration camp lies 40 miles west of Prague. Several companies offer day tours from Prague. Tours run around $50-60 and last about 5 hours. I took my tour from Prague to Terezín/Theresienstadt Concentration Camp and Ghetto with Viator.


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29 replies
  1. Franca
    Franca says:

    Wow! This is such a strong experience that I can totally relate with, I visited two concentration camps of which one was Auschwitz-Birkenau and I cannot even explain how powerful the whole experiences have been for me. No matter how sad and painful it was to walk around these camps, I’m glad I went, it’s an horrible part of our history that doesn’t have to be forgotten.

    Reply
    • Donna
      Donna says:

      Thanks for your comment, Franca. I can only imagine how emotionally powerful it must be to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, which was actually much worse than Terezin. I can’t say I “want” to go there, but I plan to. I think it is something everyone should be made to see and understand. We owe it to the millions who died.

      Reply
  2. Anita @ No Particular Place To Go
    Anita @ No Particular Place To Go says:

    When we visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC I can remember the same feeling of numbness envelope me… What really hit me was a room filled with bags of hair shaved from the heads of prisoners and another room filled with piles of shoes. Your post was so haunting and I can imagine how the horror of what occurred so long ago affected you when you saw those happy and innocent children’s pictures…
    Anita @ No Particular Place To Go recently posted…“Greetings and Good Riddance” (We Arrive in Cartagena, Colombia)My Profile

    Reply
    • Donna
      Donna says:

      Yes, the children’s pictures. A real kick in the gut. But I am gad they woke me up from my coma. We need to FEEL the full horror of what happened to be sure it does not happen again.

      Reply
  3. Larry Berle
    Larry Berle says:

    I found your blog thru my friend Tom Bartel. First of all this is a fantastic piece of writing. Its as if I were there– perhaps I am– certainly in my mind I am

    I visited Dachu in 1967 a short 25 years after this camp was in use. I had similar emotional experiences seeing the bunk houses, photos, the ditch around the perimeter with guns pointed at it and a clear message that if you enter this ditch, you will not live to tell about your escape attempt.
    The gas chambers were horrible to walk through the door and know where I may have been headed but what I also experienced was the stench– the death smelled horrible… I can almost close my eyes and smell it now
    thanks

    Reply
  4. Elaine
    Elaine says:

    Thank you for sharing your visit to Terezin. I have not been there but I did spend a day at Yad Yashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. It tells the story of Hitler’s plan to exterminate the Jews and other groups like the Roma and gay people, from the rise of Nazism through the trial of Adolph Eichmann in the 1950s. The grounds are huge; they house a cattle car that was used to transport people to the camps, memorials to those who were slaughtered, gardens honoring the righteous who often lost their own lives trying to save others, and a host of other tributes and memorials.

    The Memorial to the Children is striking: you enter a darkened building – it is really pitch black – and all you can see are hundreds of thousands of tiny twinkling lights on the ceilings and walls that surround you in a 360 degree circumference. You really do stumble through – in part because of the darkness and in part because of how moving an experience it is. I think the fact that visitors find themselves stumbling is deliberate, an effort to mimic what it might feel like to be lost in years of a horrible darkness that descended over Europe in the 30s and 40s.

    Your readers might want to find a copy of the book I Never Saw Another Butterfly, a book of drawings and poems written by the children of Terezin:
    http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/178991._I_never_saw_another_butterfly_

    Thanks again for your heartfelt description of your visit there.

    Reply
    • Donna
      Donna says:

      Thank you for a such a long and thoughtful comment, Elaine. I have not been to Yad Vashem, but your description makes it sound heart-breaking and very well designed for maximum effect. And that is exactly what we need… maximum effect. We need to have this horrible piece of history shoved in our faces so we are made to face the fact that this actually happened. And that it is STILL happening in the world today. People are still being killed. Genocide still happens. We need it to stop. And I believe the only way that can happen is for the world to be reminded of the horror over and over, brutally if necessary. Thanks again.

      Reply
  5. Donna Janke
    Donna Janke says:

    This is a beautiful piece of writing about a disturbing experience. You took me along with you. I can understand feeling numb.at first. It may be the body’s way of protecting you. By the end I felt almost as nauseous as you did. I don’t know if I could handle a visit to a place such as this, but I do think we need to reminded of the horrors in order to strengthen and reawaken resolve to do what we can to prevent future atrocities.
    Donna Janke recently posted…Ancient Heart of PhoenixMy Profile

    Reply
    • Donna
      Donna says:

      I can understand that, Carole. Actually, though I had thought about going, I had pretty much decided not to. Then my ex, who is Jewish, basically challenged me to do it and said he would pay for the trip. He said he would never be able to go himself and asked me to do it for him and report back. I’m glad I went.

      Reply
      • Arnie
        Arnie says:

        It made me laugh so hard. It’s so wrong but at least someone had a sense of humor. I’m still trying to work out whether Prague is more Russian or German. It’s certainly not very Czech. To quote a discussion with a professor, Prague is about as Czech as NY is American.

        Reply
        • Donna
          Donna says:

          What was it that made you laugh so hard, Arnie? The story about the concentration camp? I’d love to know why. As for New York, since I lived there for 20 years, I think I’d have to say that New York is at least as/perhaps MORE American than a lot of the rest of the country. How can 8 million US citizens in one place NOT be American?

          Reply
  6. Cathy Sweeney
    Cathy Sweeney says:

    This is such an excellent and beautifully-written piece. I could totally relate to your emotions and reactions as I read it. Thank you for sharing your thoughtful insights and personal perspectives. I didn’t know about Terezín ghetto and concentration camp although I’ve been to Prague. I appreciate learning about it and will make a point to visit next time.
    Cathy Sweeney recently posted…South Lake Tahoe: Sail, Spa, and Spin(ners)My Profile

    Reply
    • Ekha
      Ekha says:

      I totally know what you mean. I took courses on Nazi Germany and Holocaust history, and some of the present-day sentiments were just really surprising. Also, I heard there is a McDonalds near Krakow; I don’t know if that is true, but someone told me that, and I found that a little disturbing

      Reply
      • Donna
        Donna says:

        I don’t know either, about the McDonald’s, but it is disturbing to think about that. And I think younger visitors perhaps feel less of a connection to the horror of the Holocaust. I have actually met and spoken with people who survived the camps. That makes it very real for me.

        Reply
  7. alison abbott
    alison abbott says:

    Donna- Your piece is so moving, I hung on every word. My son visited Auschwitz when he was in high school and came back visibly changed. The heartbreaking story you have written helps me to understand his emotions more clearly. Like Irene, I recently visited a plantation in the south and was shocked to see how much of the history had been “creatively” told. Perhaps the lack of honesty keeps the healing process from moving forward. These atrocities certainly need to be told and retold so everyone remembers.
    alison abbott recently posted…Quinoa Salad Recipe for Meatless MondayMy Profile

    Reply
    • Donna
      Donna says:

      Thank you, Alison, and everyone who has commented, for your supportive words. This post was difficult to write… because I am not used to putting so much of myself into what I write (Here’s a hint: I used to write romance novels!!! HaHa!) But writing this piece, and the positive feedback I have had from it, makes me want to do a lot more of this kind of introspective essay writing. I appreciate the feedback from all of you more than you know.

      Reply
  8. Elaine
    Elaine says:

    Donna Meyer said:
    People are still being killed. Genocide still happens. We need it to stop. And I believe the only way that can happen is for the world to be reminded of the horror over and over, brutally if necessary.”

    Yes! As a docent at a local holocaust memorial, I was very disheartened when a group of middle schoolers came to the memorial. Why? They were so ignorant of current events that they knew nothing of about any of the genocide happening in today’s world. I was surprised that the teachers – who did a several week unit on the Holocaust – did not help them understand that.

    It took me decades to work up the courage to go to Yad Vashem but I am very glad I did.

    Reply
  9. Shobha
    Shobha says:

    Beautifully written, Donna. I didn’t realise that they had that “Arbeit’ sign over all the camps. I’ve never been to a concentration camp as I was not sure I would cope. I cried through the Jewish museum at Prague (which was turned into a Holocaust memorial and had children’s drawings as the only testament that they ever lived as well). Just so horrible. But I agree must be visited to ensure history and those that died are remembered. I’m sure I’ll take the kids when they are older as we have only just touched upon World War II in our travels (the Anne Frank House and the Normandy cemeteries). I’ve never heard of Terezin before but maybe that would be a better place to start with them than Auschwitz.
    Shobha recently posted…The House of The Brazilian GaudiMy Profile

    Reply
    • Donna
      Donna says:

      Thanks Shobha. Yes, I think Terezin would be a good place to start, especially if the kids are still youngish when you go. It is effective, but at least you are not looking at piles of shoes, mountains of suitcase, mounds of glasses, all representing people who owned them and then died. I also knew very little about Terezin before I went. You might have heard the name Theresienstadt. That is what the Germans called it. I now know far more than I wish I did about it. It haunts me.

      Reply

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