Every time I read about the Theresienstadt concentration camp, and the author calls it Terezin, it is like the sound of fingernails scraping across a blackboard. Today I read this on a blog named “The Adventures of History Girl” and it was upsetting to me that a person calling herself “History Girl” used the name Terezin for Theresienstadt.
Here is a quote from her blog:
“It began as a fortress northwest of Prague built by Joseph II in 1780 and named after his mother, Maria Teresia, though it was called Terezin.” [...]
“The Gestapo turned Terezin into a Jewish Ghetto, calling it Theresienstadt.”
History Girl has it ass backwards. The 18th century walled town in what is now the Czech Republic was originally called Theresienstadt and it was called Theresienstadt at the time that Hitler sent the Jews there. Theresienstadt means Theresa’s city in German; the city was originally named after the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. Only after the formation of the new country of Czechoslovakia, following World War I, did the town became known by the Czech name Terezin (pronounced TARA-zeen which rhymes with kerosene). When Hitler took over what was left of Czechoslovakia in 1938, the name reverted back to Theresienstadt.
At one time, the Czechs had their own dynasty, known as the Premyslides; the “Good King Wencelas” was the ruler of the Czechs in the 10th century. The Czech homeland of Bohemia, which along with Moravia, now constitutes the Czech Republic, came under the rule of the Austrian Hapsburg empire in 1526.
It was Joseph II of the Hapsburg family, the ruler of the Austrian Empire, who built the town and named it Theresienstadt, after his mother, the Empress Maria Theresa. This is the same Joseph II, in whose honor Josefov, the Jewish quarter in Prague, was originally named Josefstadt in 1850.
The history of the German people in Europe goes back 2,000 years to the early days of the Roman Empire, but Germany was not yet a united country when Theresienstadt was built; in 1780 the German people lived in a collection of small states, each separately ruled by a prince or a duke. The two most powerful German states were Prussia, ruled by the Hohenzollern family, and Austria, ruled by the Hapsburg family.
In 1780, when the town of Theresienstadt was originally built as a military garrison at the junction of the Ohre and Elbe rivers, near the Sudeten mountain range in the province of Bohemia, the Czech people, who had lived in this area since the 5th century, did not have an independent country of their own. Bohemia was part of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation in 1780.
It was in the middle of a territorial fight between Prussia and Austria that the Austrians thought it necessary to build a military garrison at Theresienstadt for protection against the Prussians and their powerful army, led by Frederick the Great.
Intended to accommodate 14,500 soldiers at the most, Theresienstadt was originally built as a fortified town surrounded by two sets of brick walls and bastions jutting out on all sides, resembling the points of a star, with a wide moat between the walls. The construction of these ramparts and the barracks for the soldiers took ten years to complete.
The anticipated attack by the Prussians never came, and the fortifications were never tested; the moat was never filled, except for a little water used as a test just after the walls were built. Theresienstadt is on the west bank of the Ohre river, and on the east bank, the Emperor built a separate smaller fortress, also surrounded by brick walls, bastions at the corners, and a moat.
The Small Fortress was built as a prison and was used for this purpose throughout its history, up until recent times when it was converted into a museum. The Small Fortress was not part of the Theresienstadt concentration camp.
The two photos above show the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign inside the Small Fortress.
The most famous inmate of the Small Fortress was Gavrilo Princip, the teen-aged anarchist from Serbia, who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, an act that touched off World War I in 1914. Princip is today regarded as a hero by the people of the Czech Republic because they gained their independence from the Germans as a result of World War I.
The last prisoners to be held at the Small Fortress were German war criminals who were incarcerated there by the Allies from 1945 to 1948, awaiting trial and execution. Thus, the fortress at Theresienstadt, which had never been used for its original purpose, was nevertheless involved in two world wars.
Most of the graves outside the Small Fortress are Christian graves, but the photo that is usually shown has a Star of David in the section of Jewish graves.
During the Holocaust, Theresienstadt was one of the most infamous transit centers in Hitler’s systematic plan to exterminate European Jewry. Theresienstadt is usually called a ghetto, but it was classified as a concentration camp by the Nazis. Today, the town is inhabited by Czech citizens. The photo above shows how the town looked in the year 2000.
Near the end of World War II, the camp was turned over to the Red Cross and it was liberated by the Soviet Union in May 1945. As soon as a typhus epidemic was brought under control, the prisoners were released and the Small Fortress became a prison for German Nazis from 1945 to 1948.
With the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, Czechoslovakia became a country again, and all the ethnic Germans, except for the few who could prove that they were anti-Fascist during the war, were expelled from their homes and sent into war-torn Germany, many of them dying along the way from hunger and exhaustion.
The Czechs and the Jews exacted their revenge by attacking these refugees as they fled to Germany. Many of the refugees had to live for as long as 18 years in the former Nazi concentration camps, such as Dachau, until they could find new jobs and homes, as Germany was slowly rebuilt.
On January 1, 1993, the states of Bohemia and Moravia became the Czech Republic.