The subject of the “Malá pevnost” came up in a comment on my blog a couple of days ago, so I decided to write about it today. I visited the Small Fortress in October 2000 and took some photos, which I am posting.
The main entrance into the Small Fortress
The Small Fortress is now a Memorial Site, located in the Czech Republic, on the east side of the Ohre river, which divides the two parts of the old military fortress, originally known as Theresienstadt. The former Theresienstadt ghetto, which was turned into a concentration camp in World War II, is on the west side of the Ohre river. The Main Fortress, where the Nazi concentration camp was formerly located, is now the town of Terezin.
When Theresienstadt was originally built as a military fortress in 1780, it consisted of two parts: the Main Fortress, where the Jews were later imprisoned by the Nazis in World War II, and the Small Fortress which was originally built as a prison and was used as such from the time it was completed until a few years after World War II, when the last of the German war criminals, who were incarcerated here by the victorious Allies, were executed.
The Small Fortress was turned into a Gestapo prison in June 1940, more than a year before the Main Fortress was turned into a ghetto and a transit camp for Jews in November 1941. My tour guide said that 90% of the inmates in the Small Fortress during the war were non-Jewish Czech Communists.
The following quote is from a pamphlet that I obtained on the my tour in October 2000:
People were sent [to the Small Fortress] for taking part in the democratic and communist resistance movement, for aiding parachutists sent from the west and east to help the Czech resistance, for supporting partisans, escaped prisoners-of-war and Jews, or for individual acts against the Nazi regime. They were intellectuals, workers, farmers, clericals, artists and students, men and women. The fate of the Jewish prisoners here was particularly tragic. After arrest by the Gestapo for taking part in the resistance movement or breaking the rules established for Jews in Terezin town, they were sent here, given the hardest work and subjected to the worst terrorism by the guards. It was actually a transit prison as most of the inmates were sent after a certain time before a Nazi court and from there to other prisons and penitentiaries or to concentration camps in Germany, Poland and Austria.
Before we got to the Small Fortress, the road went through the old walled town of Theresienstadt, which is now called by the Czech name Terezin, but at that point I didn’t know yet that this was the old ghetto because, from the road, it looks much like all the other small towns that we had passed through.
The road that goes through the town of Terezin, October 2000
Suddenly I saw the zigzag brick walls of the ramparts that surround the Small Fortress. The red brick fortifications around the two fortresses are 4 kilometers long. There are double walls around the fortress with a dry moat in between them.
When the bus stopped at the Small Fortress, I was startled to see a cemetery in front of it with a large Christian cross in the middle and a much smaller Star of David behind it, placed closer to the entrance gate. I soon learned that this was not an insult to the Jews, but a representation of the truth since, contrary to what I had read in several tourist guidebooks, very few Jews had died in the Small Fortress, according to our guide.
Graves in front of Small Fortress
Star of David marks Jewish graves near wall around the Small Fortress
I learned that the Small Fortress was used by the Nazis, beginning in 1940, as a Gestapo prison for Communists, anti-Fascist resistance fighters, partisans and guerrilla fighters who were captured during in the war. There were 27,000 men and 5,000 women sent to the Small Fortress for “interrogation.” According to our guide, there were approximately 1,500 Jews sent to the Small Fortress for fighting with the resistance movement or for breaking the rules of the Theresienstadt ghetto. The guide told us that 90% of the inmates in the Small Fortress during the war were non-Jewish Czech Communists.
According to a pamphlet that our tour group was given when we entered, there were 10,000 corpses buried at the Small Fortress between 1945 and 1958 after the bodies were exhumed from mass graves at the Small Fortress, the Theresienstadt ghetto and the nearby Litomerice concentration camp. In the two photos shown above, there are 2,386 individual graves in the cemetery in front of the Small Fortress.
Gate inside the Small Fortress
The main gate into the Small Fortress, which is shown at the top of my blog post, was designated Number 1 on the tour of the Small Fortress. After going through the main gate, our tour group walked a few yards into the prison, then turned left to go through the Administration Court which was Number 2 on the tour. You can see the number 2 on the left side of the square archway in the foreground of the photograph above. The sight of the sign “Arbeit Macht Frei” on the arch over a doorway in the background of the photo was very upsetting to the Jews on the tour because “Arbeit Macht Frei” has now become the slogan of the Holocaust.
The “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign was only put over the gates into camps where prisons had a chance of being released. According to a booklet that I purchased at the Small Fortress Museum, there were 5,600 prisoners released from the Small Fortress, which was a Gestapo prison for political prisoners and captured partisans, not a death camp for Jews.
Prison Cells in the First Courtyard of the Small Fortress
The First Courtyard of the Small Fortress at Theresienstadt, which is shown in the photograph above, was divided into Blocks A and B. There were 17 group cells and 20 small cells for solitary confinement. Up to 1,500 prisoners used this small courtyard as their exercise yard.
According to the visitor’s pamphlet that we were given, the group cells held up to 100 prisoners at one time. Cell number 1 was reserved for prisoners from the Soviet Union. Cells number 2 and number 3 were used to imprison Jews who were “arrested for political activities and violating anti-Jewish regulations.”
Notice that the photograph above shows grass growing on the roof. The prison cells were rooms between the double walls around the fort, and the roof was covered with dirt.
Door into Prison Cell in Small Fortress
The photograph above shows the door to one of the group prison cells in the First Courtyard. The Plaque on the right hand side, which is written in Czech, English and Hebrew, reads as follows: “In the years 1940 to 1945 more than 1500 Jews were imprisoned in the Small Fortress. Their destiny was worst of all the groups of prisoners. About 800 from them were tortured to death here, most of others perished after the deportation to concentration camps. Dedicated to the memory of the victims by the Embassy of the State of Israel.”
There were approximately 32,000 prisoners who passed through the Small Fortress during the time that it was a Gestapo prison from June 1940 until May 8, 1945.
According to a pamphlet that tourists were given on the tour, between 2,500 and 2,600 of the prisoners died, including between 250 and 300 who were executed. However, our tour guide told us that most of the prisoners at the Small Fortress were Communist resistance fighters who were fighting against the Nazi Fascists. (Remember that there was a war going on.)
After the arrival of the Soviet Army on May 8, 1945, the prisoners at both the Small Fortress and the Theresienstadt ghetto had to be held under quarantine until the typhus epidemic could be brought under control. In just the two months of April and May, 1945 there were approximately 1,000 deaths from typhus in the Small Fortress.
The pamphlet that we were given at the entrance of the Small Fortress has this map on which all the places of interest are numbered for easy reference. The entrance shown at the top of this page is number 1 on the map and the graveyard in front of the fortress is number 34, the last thing that visitors see as they walk toward their tour bus in the parking lot.
Entrance into the tunnel at the Small Fortress
Door Number 18, shown on the far right in the photograph above, opens into the mortuary room, which I saw only from the outside on my tour. This is where corpses were stored until they could be taken to the crematorium to be burned.
Door Number 17, shown in the middle of the photo above, is the entrance to a tunnel which goes through the old fortifications on the north side of the Small Fortress to the former military firing range which, according to a pamphlet that I was given at the Small Fortress, was used by the Nazis for executions.
The tunnel is about a quarter of a mile long, although it seemed more like a mile, as I was walking through it. The tunnel is not underground, as you can easily see by looking through a few narrow slits in the wall along the way, but it feels like it is underground. The tunnel goes through the double walls of the original fortifications, but it was not used during World War II. It is shown to tourists because it is one more scary feature in this place of horror.
Exit from the tunnel in the Small Fortress
When you first enter the tunnel, it doesn’t seem to be very long, but just as you think you are nearing the end, the tunnel makes a turn and continues on. The exit from the tunnel is shown in the photograph above, where you can readily see that the tunnel is above ground. However, if you suffer the least bit from claustrophobia, it would be wise to let the tour leader know in advance so that arrangements can be made for you to reach the execution site through the door used by the condemned prisoners. The sandy path from the tunnel leads to the execution site which is between the ramparts.
Firing range at the Small Fortress is at the end of the tunnel
The photograph above shows the place where prisoners were executed in the Small Fortress at Theresienstadt. One of the fortification walls is in the background and the spot where the condemned prisoner stood is in the center of the picture. The concrete form in the foreground was one of three places, under a free-standing roof, from which the firing squad would shoot while in a prone position.
According to a small booklet which I purchased at the Museum, between 250 and 300 of the 32,000 prisoners, who were inmates at the Small Fortress, were executed. This included 49 men and 3 women who were shot on May 2, 1945 just before the prison was liberated. Most of members of this group were in either the Predvoj resistance or the Communist party which had been banned by the Nazis.
The first recorded execution in the Small Fortress was on May 11, 1943 when a leader of the Communist resistance, Frantisek Prokop, was shot at the firing range. On September 28, 1944, Dr. Paul Eppstein, the second Elder of the Theresienstadt Ghetto was executed here because of his resistance activities.
The “Gate of Death” at the Small Fortress is No. 21 on the tour
After visiting the firing range in the Small Fortress at Theresienstadt, our tour group went through the Gate of Death which was the gate through which condemned prisoners had to walk to reach another execution site outside the fortress. If you don’t want to go through the tunnel to get to this execution site, you can reach the Gate of Death by walking straight ahead when you enter the Small Fortress, instead of turning left into the Administration Court.
You will then enter the Fourth Courtyard which is where our tour group emerged when we came through the Gate of Death. The photograph above shows the Gate of Death, taken from inside the Fourth Courtyard. In the background, you can see the high wall of the firing range.
Continue reading Part 2. After World War II ended, the Small Fortress was used as a prison for ethnic Germans.