People really only remember Auschwitz, but there was more than one concentration camp that harboured terror during the holocaust. Terezin Concentration Camp located under an hour from Prague was used as a transit camp for prisoners who were then sent on to the bigger extermination camps. Today the place is a memorial site and visitors can take a half day Terezin Concentration Camp tour from Prague to visit this historic site.
Terezin Concentration Camp Tour from Prague
Situated 70 km from the German border in the small quiet town of Terezín in the Czech Republic lies a concentration camp not many people have heard of. The Theresienstadt (its official name) or “camp-ghetto” existed for three and a half years, between November 24, 1941 and May 9, 1945. This so called “paradise ghetto” housed no gas chambers, no mass machine-gun executions, and no medical testing rooms. Instead it primarily served as a transit camp for European Jews on their way to the more “severe” death camps of Auschwitz in Poland and Dachau in Germany.
While it was in no way as big as the likes of Auschwitz or Dachau, what went on behind the walls of this fortified concentration camp were just as horrific and inhuman as all the others. The 33,000 lives that were lost here are not any less important than the hundreds of thousands of lives that were taken in the bigger camps either and they deserve to be remembered too, which is why the town of Terezín has dedicated itself to the remembrance of those who suffered and died there and the education of the Nazi occupation of this ghetto fortress.
Terezin Concentration Camp is just under 1 hour drive north of Prague. Its close proximity to the city has made it an easy day trip option and there are multiple Terezin Concentration Camp tours available to take from the city, either half day or full day.
Touring the camp takes no more than 2 to 3 hours maximum. There is a lot to see and a knowledgeable guide is recommended to fully understand the sights at the camp and what each building and area was used for.
History of Terezin Concentration Camp
The history of the fortress dates back as far as 1780, originally built as a defensive fort to defend against the Prussians. It became obsolete and was only revived during the First World War when it was turned into a political prison with famous inmates such as Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip, who killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife June 28, 1914. It was only turned into a prison camp once the Nazi’s invaded Czechoslovakia in 1940.
Divided into two, the small fort was used as a Gestapo prison and the main fortress adapted into a Jewish ghetto. It is estimated that the prison processed over 32,000 prisoners and the ghetto some 150,000 Jews from Czechoslovakia, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and Denmark. 15,000 of them were innocent children. Rough statistics estimated that 90,000 of the prisoners where deported and sent my rail to further camps in the east almost certainly facing death.
Although Terezin was not an extermination camp, 33,000 people still died here due to poor living conditions, hunger and disease. By the end of the war, there were only 17,247 survivors from Terezin’s Concentration Camp, a far greater number than those at Auschwitz, Birkenau or Treblinka.
Propaganda videos at Terezin Concentration Camp
Terezín is probably most known for its use in many of the videos that the Nazi’s produced as propaganda. In 1944 the camp received an inspection from three people, two of which came the Red Cross. Their visit was to see if the rumours of ill treatment and abuse were false claims or not. They left with was a pleasing impression of happy children putting on shows and learning in staged schools, prisoners reading newspapers, women exercising and well stocked supply shelves of goods.
What they didn’t know was this was all purposely staged for their visit. Prisoners were forced to build new bathrooms for the inspections that were closed down and never used post inspection and 7500 of the elderly and the sick were shipped off to Auschwitz to avoid the impression of overcrowding. Once the inspection was over, the horrific life of living in a concentration camp resumed.
Filmed towards the end of the war, the film was never completed, nor distributed as the Nazis intended. Most of the film was destroyed but small snippets of footage has been salvaged and can be seen in the video below.
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Visiting the Terezín Concentration Camp
Most Terezin Concentration Camp tours will include a guide which will escort you around the numerous courtyards, blocks and rooms of the camp. Without a guide, you would struggle to know what each area was used, so for this reason we highly recommend taking a tour.
While walking around the camp it is hard not to feel completely overwhelmed with sadness. It is should go without saying but I feel inclined to still remind people that it is important to remember the significance of the camp and to act respectfully throughout your visit. This is a memorial site where thousands of people were murdered so please act accordingly and if you’re guide asks for no photos to be taken in specific areas please respect their request.
Areas of the camp worth visiting
Conditions inside the camp were unimaginable. Cells were overcrowded, there was a severe lack of water and many people died from starvation and sickness. Healthy inmates from the ages of 16 – 60 were made to work up to 70 hours per week and those were weren’t fit for work were shipped off East to face even more horrific living conditions and eventually death.
This first courtyard (pictured above) is where prisoners and Jews would have been ushered into for administration purposes. Men would have been stripped of their belongings and their heads shaved and everyone including the women and children would have been given clogs, a metal bowl and a spoon. Administration offices line both sides of the courtyard.
Afterwards, the prisoners would have been ushered underneath the arch, marked by the “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” (“Work sets one free”) sign and then shown to their cells.
The second courtyard (pictured below) is where some of the men’s cells are located. Visitors to the camp can see 17 cells. Each small cell was used for 60 to 90 people at a time. Wooden planks made up bunk beds that were three tiers high and very little blankets or pillows were provided, even in the depths of the winter. There was one toilet and one sink, and water had to be reused. It was extremely common for men to suffer from poor hygiene, hypothermia and disease from living in these conditions.
The last courtyard you visit makes up the largest space in the ghetto. Built in 1943, these cells often housed up to 400 to 600 people who all shared one table and one single heater.
“Learning the Holocaust is not meant to scare you but to deepen your understanding about the world.”
― Sarah Enchanted
Liberation of the Terezin Concentration Camp
On 3 May 1945, three days before the ghetto was liberated by the Red Army, the Nazis handed over control of the ghetto to the Red Cross. The last Jews left Terezín on 17 August 1945. Of the remaining prisoners when the camp was liberated, 1,633 were children under 15 years old, half of them having only just arrived on “evacuation” transports” from the death camps being liquidated by the retreating Nazis.
The large cemetery was built after the war ended to commemorate all those innocent people who were murdered in Terezin’s Concentration Camp. Relatives of those who had died there requested the cemetery to be built and for the remains of bodies to be exhumed from six large mass grave sites. A present it contains the graves of 2386 people and thousands more are interred in the mass graves marked by five pylons, totalling over 10,000 victims within the National Cemetery.
Visiting as a day trip from Prague
Terezín is just a short one hour drive from the city and it is very easy to visit on a day trip from Prague. The easiest method is to take an informative tour to Terezin Concentration Camp from Prague which includes a pick up and drop off from your hotel.
Alternatively, you can also reach Terezín by public transport. Buses regularly leave from Nadrazi Holesovice and Florenc bus stations (both of which can be reached by tram or metro). There are two stops in Terezin and you’ll want to get off at the first stop which is closest to the camp.