Terezín Fortress—Unable to Prevent Suffering
HALFWAY between the central European cities of Dresden and Prague is the town of Theresienstadt (or Terezín). The town includes a vast fortress with massive ramparts. It was built to stop penetration of foreign armies into the country and provide protection for residents of the surrounding region.
Joseph II, king of Germany and Holy Roman emperor, ordered the construction of the fortress, and he was present both when the site was surveyed and later when the foundation stone was laid toward the end of 1780. The fortress was built to honor his mother, Empress Maria Theresa, and was therefore given the Czech name Terezín, meaning “Town of Theresa.” * As many as 14,000 workers were said to have been on site at a time. Most of the work was completed within four years.
At its completion in 1784, Terezín was the largest fortress in the Hapsburg lands. The engineering techniques used there were the most advanced in the history of fortress building up till then. Even before it was completed, however, military tactics and strategies had undergone striking changes.
Enemy forces no longer besieged a castle when they invaded a country. They surrounded nearby villages and plundered them. As a result, by 1888, Terezín lost its status as a military fortress. Its wide outer ramparts were transformed into charming parks with garden paths and benches.
The Fortress and the Town
Terezín Fortress had been designed as a fortified town. Behind its huge ramparts, there were accommodations for soldiers, their families, and other civilians.
Next to the main fortress, a smaller one was built that served as a military prison. In the early 1800’s, political opposers of the Hapsburg Empire were kept there. About a hundred years later, prisoners included the youths who were involved in the 1914 assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand in Sarajevo. They escaped the death penalty because they were under 20 years of age. Soon afterward, most of them died in prison. They were tortured, and some went insane. Gavrilo Princip, the actual assassin, died in that prison while World War I was still raging.
The Small Fortress had the reputation for being one of the worst penitentiaries in Austria-Hungary. Often, prisoners were kept in heavy shackles in cold, damp dungeons. During World War II, the fortress was used for even more horrible purposes.
“Spa Terezín”—What It Really Was
After the Nazis invaded and occupied what is now the Czech Republic, they began taking Jews to the main fortress in 1941. The town of Theresienstadt was turned into a closed Jewish ghetto by the Nazis. They claimed that racial segregation was necessary to avoid conflicts between Jews and non-Jews. Although Theresienstadt was presented to the public as a closed spa town where Jews could receive treatment, the Nazis secretly planned to annihilate all Jews.
In the eastern part of Europe, the Nazis had already established death camps where Jews from Theresienstadt and similar locations were gradually transported and killed. * Although the existence of such camps had been widely known since the mid-1930’s, Nazi propaganda portrayed them as simply correctional facilities. However, reports about conditions in the camps were increasing. As a result, pressure was placed on Nazi officials to answer the charges. So the Nazis schemed to provide the international public with answers to the charges. How did they do that?
During World War II, in 1944 and 1945, representatives of the International Red Cross were invited to inspect the main fortress to see firsthand what was going on. However, to create the illusion that the fortress was simply a spa town, the Nazis did extensive beautification work.
Block numbers were replaced with nice-sounding street names. A fictitious bank, a kindergarten, and shops were created. Even a café was opened in the ghetto’s center. Facades of houses were repaired, new greenery was planted in the central park, and a pavilion was built, where promenade music was played.
Afterward, Red Cross representatives were invited for a guided tour. They were allowed to talk with representatives of the Jewish “self-government.” These people, however, were carefully selected residents who answered questions exactly as they had been taught to by the Nazis during rehearsals. On two separate inspection tours, the Nazis successfully deceived Red Cross delegates. In their reports, the delegates erroneously described Theresienstadt as a regular Jewish town with residents who were well cared for. When the International Red Cross delegates left Theresienstadt, the Jews behind ghetto walls continued to suffer, starve, and die. Few lived to see the end of World War II.
The Small Fortress
The Small Fortress was also used by the Nazis as a prison. The conditions there equaled those of concentration camps. For many of the tens of thousands of men and women imprisoned in it, the Small Fortress was only a transfer stop on their way to some of the larger camps located in the territory of the German Reich.
At least 20 of Jehovah’s Witnesses, from Prague, Pilsen, and other parts of the country, were imprisoned in the Small Fortress. Their crime? Refusing to support the Nazis and maintaining their political neutrality. Despite the ban on their preaching work, the Witnesses continued to share with others the good news from the Bible. They suffered only because of their faith, some being executed or tortured to death.
A Lesson That Can Be Learned
The Bible says: “Do not put your trust in nobles, nor in the son of earthling man, to whom no salvation belongs. His spirit goes out, he goes back to his ground; in that day his thoughts do perish.” (Psalm 146:3, 4) Terezín Fortress is a vivid example of this truth.
^ par. 3 The empress was also the mother of Marie Antoinette, who eventually became queen of France.
^ par. 12 For more information, see Awake! issues of August 22, 1995, pages 3-15, and April 8, 1989, pages 3-20.
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JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES IN THE SMALL FORTRESS
Most of Jehovah’s Witnesses incarcerated in Theresienstadt were first interrogated at the Prague headquarters of the Gestapo. After Theresienstadt, they were usually sent to concentration camps in Germany. How did they cope not only with harsh prison conditions but also with isolation?
A Witness woman who was imprisoned in Theresienstadt recalls: “Because I did not want to forget Bible teachings, I went over them again and again. In every prison where I was transferred, I searched for other Witnesses; and if I found them, I tried to contact them. At the same time, I made an effort to preach to others as much as circumstances permitted.”
Her approach evidently worked. She remained faithful to God throughout the time of her imprisonment as well as through the years that followed.
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Stamp depicting an idyllic Terezín during World War II
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Newly arrived prisoners were led to the barracks. The sign reads in German: “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Makes Free)
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Plank beds in the women’s section of the fortress
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Main entrance to the Small Fortress
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Both photos: With courtesy of the Memorial Terezín