Theresienstadt Concentration Camp

Terezín, Czech Republic

The fortress of Theresienstadt in the north-west region of Bohemia was constructed between the years 1780 and 1790 on the orders of the Austrian emperor Joseph II. It was designed as part of a projected but never fully realised fort system of the monarchy, another piece being the fort of Josefov. Theresienstadt was named for the mother of the emperor, Maria Theresa of Austria, who reigned as archduchess of Austria in her own right from 1740 until 1780. By the end of the 19th century, the facility was obsolete as a fort; in the 20th century, the fort was used to accommodate military and political prisoners.

After Germany invaded and occupied Czechoslovakia, on June 10, 1940, the Gestapo took control of Terezín and set up a prison in the 'Small Fortress' (kleine Festung, the town citadel on the east side of the Ohře river). By the end of the war, the small fortress had processed more than 32,000 prisoners, of whom 5,000 were female; they were imprisoned for varying sentences. The prisoners were predominantly Czech at first, and later other nationalities were imprisoned there, including citizens of the Soviet Union, Poland, Germany, and Yugoslavia. Most were political prisoners.

By November 24, 1941, the Nazis adapted the 'Main Fortress' (große Festung, i.e. the walled town of Theresienstadt), located on the west side of the river, as a ghetto. Jewish survivors have recounted the extensive work they had to do for more than a year in the camp, to try to provide basic facilities for the tens of thousands of people who came to be housed there.

From 1942, the Nazis interned the Jews of Bohemia and Moravia, elderly Jews and persons of 'special merit' in the Reich, and several thousand Jews from the Netherlands and Denmark. Theresienstadt thereafter became known as the destination for the Altentransporte ('elderly transports') of German Jews, older than 65. Although in practice the ghetto, run by the SS, served as a transit camp for Jews en route to extermination camps, it was also presented as a 'model Jewish settlement' for propaganda purposes.

More than 33,000 inmates died as a result of malnutrition, disease, or the sadistic treatment by their captors. Whereas some survivors claimed the prison population reached 75,000 at one time, according to official records, the highest figure reached was 58,491. They were crowded into barracks designed to accommodate 7,000 combat troops.

In the autumn of 1944, the Nazis began the demolishing of the ghetto, deporting more prisoners to Auschwitz and other camps; in one month, they deported 24,000 victims.

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