It’s exactly 81 years since the first transport of Czechoslovak Jews left Prague, bound for the garrison town of Terezín, transformed by the Nazis into a ghetto and concentration camp.
They were sent there to prepare the town for the arrival of thousands of others – Jews from all over occupied Europe – who were crammed into the squalid barracks, and when the 18th-century fortress could take no more, into the surrounding houses.
Lodged in a fortress built between 1780 and 1790, it was presented by the Nazis as a “model” Jewish community, with some visits permitted from the Red Cross and other observers.
However, most of the 80,000 Czech Jews who died in the Holocaust died in Terezin, and of the 144,000 Jews who passed through the camp, only 17,000 survived — including, by most estimates, fewer than 100 of 15,000 children.
Terezin was a transport point to Auschwitz; 88,000 Terezin inmates were ultimately shipped there or to other death camps.
Many artists, musicians and highly cultured Jews were confined in Terezin, and much of the art and culture that emerged from the Holocaust was created there, including some 4,000 drawings by children, many of which are on display at the Jewish Museum in Prague.
In 1942 the Nazis expelled 7,000 Czechs who lived in Terezín and isolated the Jewish community in a closed environment.
The Nazis intended the camp to house elderly, privileged, and famous Jews from Germany, Austria, the Czech lands, and western Europe.
To dispel rumours about the extermination camps, the Nazis permitted the visit, but they arranged an elaborate hoax.
They deported many camp residents to Auschwitz to minimize the appearance of overcrowding and erected fake stores and cafés to give the appearance of a life of comfort and ease. The Red Cross visited the Danish Jews—no more than two or three in a room—in freshly painted quarters.
A children’s opera, Brundibar, was performed for the guests. The hoax succeeded so well that the Nazis made a propaganda film at Theresienstadt showing how well the Jews were living under the benevolent protection of the Third Reich.
When the filming was finished, the Nazis deported most of the cast, including nearly all of the children, to Auschwitz.