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Holocaust remembrance site in Terezin is crumbling

Nadine Wojcik
May 7, 2021

Under the Nazis, the entire town of Terezin was a Jewish ghetto that served as a transit camp during the Holocaust. Today, there is much to be done to keep the memory of the town alive.

Interior of Dresden Barracks, the largest and most damaged building in the Main Fortress of Theresienstadt
Inside Dresden Barracks, the largest and most damaged building in the main Theresienstadt fortressImage: The Theresienstadt Centre for Genocide Studies

Jiri Hofman bought the gravedigger's house, right by the cemetery, for his young family. It is, he argued, "a good house in an isolated location." The proximity to the dead does not bother him, he added — they are omnipresent in Terezin (which the Germans once called Theresienstadt) anyway.

Hofman runs the local tourist information office. People are always asking him about the whereabouts of the gas chambers, the wooden barracks, the barbed wire fences.

The tourists are looking for remnants of an extermination camp, which Terezin never was — it was rather a hybrid concentration camp and ghetto. "And then they are disappointed and somehow dissatisfied," Hofman told DW.

There is hardly a more complex place of remembrance than this small Czech town, which is exactly what makes commemoration so difficult. Where was the Jewish ghetto, where Jews from mainly Central and Eastern Europe were herded together before the Nazis deported them to extermination camps like Auschwitz?

The answer is: everywhere.

That is why there is no entrance gate to a fenced-in area people could exit after what would have been a harrowing visit. In Terezin, commemoration is not locked in. It has literally saturated every stone, every wall. The entire town was a ghetto.

And since the end of World War II in 1945, life there has simply gone on.

railway, building on the left
Railway tracks to TerezinImage: Imago/imagebroker

Apartment buildings, schools, a kindergarten, restaurants and stores stand on the site of the former ghetto.

Several institutions commemorate World War II crimes, including the Terezin Memorial and the Ghetto Museum. About half of the historic buildings have been painstakingly renovated since the fall of communism, but others are visibly crumbling.

'Physical evidence' of the Holocaust

"The buildings are physical evidence of the Holocaust. That is why it is important to preserve them," Simon Krbec, head of the Theresienstadt Center for Genocide Studies, told DW.

Ever since parts of the roof truss of the so-called Dresden Barracks, a building that was used for female inmates, collapsed in 2020, he has become increasingly frustrated. For him, the huge military building is a symbol of Terezin's role as transit camp during the extermination of the Jews.

A pile of old documents
Documents and personal items of the inmates in Terezin have been left to molderImage: Ondrej Hajek/CTK/dpa/picture alliance

The barracks gained dubious fame for a perfidious soccer match in its courtyard in 1944 that had two Jewish teams from the ghetto competing, and the match filmed for a Nazi propaganda film. The supposed documentary aimed to prove to the outside world that "the Jews are fine." What the film did not show was that the soccer teams were subsequently deported to the Auschwitz extermination camp.

The SS staged the camp at Terezin as a "showcase ghetto." Celebrity and elderly Jews even paid for a stay at what was propagated as a health resort. But instead of rest, unbearably overcrowded accommodations, malnutrition and disease awaited them.

By the time it was liberated in May 1945, more than 155,000 Jews had passed through Terezin. At least 33,000 perished in the ghetto and some 88,000 were sent to the death camps.

The cemetery in TerezinImage: Petr D. Josek/AP/picture alliance

Traces in attics and basements

"Theresienstadt was planned long in advance, it was just for show to make the world think Germans were letting Jews live there in peace," said Roland Wildberg, a journalist and book author with a keen interest in the former ghetto he has visited countless times, mapping the places of remembrance.

The Dresden Barracks first piqued his interest when his wife, Uta Fischer, was part of an urban planning project to convert the building to social housing in 2004 — a project the city liked but never realized. "It's still hard to understand why the site was allowed to fall into such disrepair," Wildberg told DW.

Uta Fischer and Roland Wildberg know the town like few others. For years, they have been scouring attics and basements in Terezin for traces of prisoners, coming up with prisoner numbers or drawings carved into walls, images they publish as part of the online documentation "Ghetto Traces."

Fischer initiated the project, which is funded by Germany and the EU, in 2014. She is regularly contacted by survivors who can identify a relative on the basis of the prisoner numbers and names mentioned.

A bird's eye view of Terezin, buildings, forests, fields
A bird's eye view of the town in 2006Image: Vachal Milan/CTK /imago images

"We saw things that probably no one ever noticed before," Wildberg said. The couple has meticulously examined about 20% of the small town so far, and fewer than half of the attics were still in their original condition as people were increasingly renovating their houses. "It's heartbreaking," Wildberg said.

Rich historic legacy

This is not only about the memory of the ghetto. Terezin is also a gem of fortress architecture. The town was built in the 18th century as a garrison town of the imperial and royal monarchy surrounded by massive fortress walls.

Emperor Joseph II himself was present at the laying of the foundation stone and named the fortress after his mother Maria Theresa. Prussia never attacked the fortress, however, so Terezin, at that time one of the most modern and expensive fortresses, never had to prove itself.

The fact that there was an intact fortress wall allowed the Nazis to set up a camp in the course of the "final solution" plan to eliminate the Jews — it made the town easy to cordon off and monitor.

Originally planned for about 7,000 people, up to 58,000 Jews were crammed in with the equivalent of about 1.6 square meters of living space per inmate.

Totally dilapidated building, roof fallen down
The Dresden Barrracks are in a sorry stateImage: The Theresienstadt Centre for Genocide Studies

Today, 2,000 people live inside the ramparts. In the past the military, stationed in the barracks since the 18th century (except for the ghetto years), kept the city thriving, but when the last military base closed down in the 1990s, the municipality faced a gigantic legacy without adequate resources.

The Terezin Memorial, sponsored by the Ministry of Culture, receives an annual budget about three times the size of the city's administration budget. The memorial is mainly located in the "Small Fortress," and has about 300,000 visitors every year. The former prison is located outside the actual garrison town and the former ghetto.

No one feels responsible for the Dresden Barracks

Authorities at the memorial declined a DW interview request concerning the dilapidated Dresden Barracks, saying the building they are housed in is in good condition, and they are not responsible for other buildings.

"Factually, of course, that is true," said Jiri Hofman, adding that when it comes to Jewish history, he would rather look for joint solutions, including how to fill the huge Dresden Barracks with life and give the city's residents a perspective.

The Czech Culture Ministry does not seem to see an urgent need for action, either. In a written answer to DW, it listed a number of renovations that have already been funded, but refers the Dresden Barracks to government level. A committee, the ministry wrote, has been established — true, said Hofman: It exists on paper.

Men play soccer in a large courtyard, old black and white photo
A photo of the infamous soccer match in September 1944Image: Beit Theresienstadt

Simon Krbec is downright shocked at the years of standstill on the part of both the Ministry of Culture and the government. "The deterioration of the Dresden Barracks and other buildings and parts of the fortification would mean a significant intervention into the architectural structure of a unique fortress city, and an irreplaceable loss of cultural heritage," he said.

Simon Krbec plans a crowdfunding campaign, hoping that, where the government and the Culture Ministry fail, civil society might step in. He wants to save the memorial site at any cost.

He and the Czech Football Association have organized a nationwide youth tournament in Terezin — in memory of the 1944 soccer match and the fates of the many who passed through the Jewish ghetto.

This article has been translated from German by Dagmar Breitenbach

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