A History of the WWII Czech Concentration Camp Terezín

Front archway via Wikimedia / Godot13
Front archway via Wikimedia / Godot13
Most people know this former military prison under the German name, Theresienstadt. Built between 1780 and 1790, on the orders of Emperor Josef II, it was named for his mother, Empress Maria Theresa. It served as a military prison until the early 20th century.One notable prisoner of Terezín was Gavrilo Princip, the Serbian anarchist who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his Czech wife, Sophie Chotek, and sparked off World War I, “the war to end all wars”. Princip, sent to Terezín in 1914, did not live to see the end of the war he started; he died in prison on April 28, 1918.The infamy of Terezín began on June 10, 1940. The Gestapo took it over and began sending prisoners there on June 14. Most of them were political prisoners from Czechoslovakia; as the years went on, however, Poles, Russians, Germans, and people of other nationalities found themselves incarcerated in Terezín.In November of 1941, Terezín began to serve another purpose. As part of Hitler’s Final Solution, Terezín’s Main Fortress was used as a Jewish ghetto and a concentration camp. Before that time, approximately 7,000 non-Jewish Czechs were living there; the Nazis simply booted them out and took over the area. The Main Fortress, using Jewish labor, was turned into one of the dreaded camps. The camp was to operate as a sort of stopover for many Jews whose final destination was the death camps, including (and especially) Auschwitz. The Jews of Bohemia and Moravia were sent here, as were Jews from other countries, including Denmark, The Netherlands, and Germany. German Jews above the age of 65 were usually sent to Terezín.With their customary and frightening efficiency, the Nazis set up Terezín to be a “model camp”. The first camp commandant was Siegfried Seidl, who reported to that proponent of industrial-scale death, Adolf Eichmann. Terezín had its own Jewish police force, subordinate to the Jewish administration (and, of course, to the SS). The real administrators were, of course, Seidl, a dozen or so SS officers, and certain Czech police officers. Terezín was categorized as a “category 4” concentration camp, which meant that it was among the least horrible of the camps.In Terezín, as in the other camps, a Jewish Council was also in place, as if the Council were actually able to make any decisions that mattered. The first Jewish elder of Terezín was Jakob Edelstein, who had been a member of the Prague Jewish Council before his deportation. In 1943, Edelstein was deported to Auschwitz, forced to watch his wife’s and son’s executions, then shot to death. A German Jew named Paul Eppstein then took on the role. Eppstein was shot in Terezín’s Small Fortress in 1944. The next elder of the Jewish Council of Terezín was Benjamin Murmelstein. Although he was deported to Auschwitz, he survived the war, passing away in 1989. Finally, in the waning days of Terezín, a Czech named Jiří Vogel acted as elder.The Council had to deal with a lack of plumbing in Terezín, and the fact that, although wells were available, many were infected with typhoid bacteria. The piping was extended using prison labor, and the prisoners were able not only to access (relatively) safe drinking water, but also to flush toilets.Click here for the next part of this article.
Erin Naillon

Erin Naillon

I am an American living and working in Prague. I freelance in various areas, including photography/film, voice work, and, of course, writing.
Erin Naillon
About Erin Naillon 290 Articles
I am an American living and working in Prague. I freelance in various areas, including photography/film, voice work, and, of course, writing.