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October 23, 2013

New Lanzmann film “The Last of the Unjust” will be in theaters November 2013

Claude Lanzmann has a new film, entitled The Last of the Unjust, which was shown at the New York Film Festival in September 2013. You can read a review of the film here.  I previously blogged about Lanzmann’s new film here.

The film is based on interviews, which Lanzmann did, in 1975, with Benjamin Murmelstein, the last Jewish Elder in the Theresienstadt ghetto.  Benjamin Murmelstein died in 1989, but his son Wolf Murmelstein is still vigorously defending his father’s reputation.

When Lanzmann’s new film is shown in theaters in November, I believe that many viewers will have some difficulty in understanding it.  To prepare for seeing this film, anyone who wants to understand it should read an essay, written by Wolf Murmelstein here.

The title of the film comes from a play on words, taken from André Schwarz-Bart’s novel, entitled The Last of the Just.  Benjamin Murmelstein was being sarcastic when he called himself “The Last of the Unjust.” His reputation had been ruined because of the accusations against him after he survived the Theresienstadt ghetto.  Murmelstein was acquitted of the charge of collaborating with the Nazis, but getting his reputation back was more difficult.

This quote is from the article in the New York Times:

But the first on-camera remarks of Murmelstein’s that Lanzmann includes in “The Last of the Unjust” refer to the rabbi’s own state of exile in Rome and the lessons of Rome for modernity. Just as the city of Rome endures long after the end of Roman civilization, so, Murmelstein explains, all of Europe is enduring the absence of another vanished civilization—that of Judaism. “Judaism is missing,” Murmelstein says. “It is lacking from the world that was destroyed.”

In “The Last of the Unjust,” Lanzmann attempts to put back some of the Judaism. He films a cantor chanting Kol Nidre (from the service of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement) and the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, in the last surviving synagogue in Vienna. He films the Old-New Synagogue in Prague—and there finds stelae inscribed with the names of Czech victims of the Holocaust, a litany of names that ring to the eye with a music of their own. There’s a defiant, in-your-face aspect to the filming of the liturgy—the destruction of the Jewry of Europe also meant an attempt to destroy Judaism, but Jewish religious observance has survived.

In the year 2000, I visited the Old-New Synagogue on Siroka street in Josefov in Prague, but I did not see the names of the Czech victims of the Holocaust.

Old-New Synagogue in Prague is still being used

Old-New Synagogue in Prague is still being used

I also visited the Pinkas Synagogue in the old Jewish quarter in Prague. Every inch of the stone walls in the interior of the Pinkas Synagogue was inscribed with the names of the 77,297 Jews from Bohemia and Moravia (now the Czech Republic) who died in the Holocaust.

Tourists line up to enter the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague

Tourists line up to enter the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague

According to information given at the Pinkas Synagogue, most of these Jews were sent first to the ghetto set up by the Nazis in the old military garrison in Theresienstadt, which is now the town of Terezin, and were then transported to the death camp at Auschwitz in Poland where they were murdered in the gas chambers.

For his film, Lanzmann also visited the train station where Jews got off the train for the Theresienstadt camp.  I blogged about the train station here.

The article in the New York Times continues with this quote:

Hanukkah means “dedication,” and the holiday celebrates a miracle by which the Second Temple, defiled by marauders, was rededicated, resanctified. “The Last of the Unjust” is itself a sort of rededication, an attempt by Lanzmann to restore something central to the Jewish world of Europe. And he achieves this through the words and the story of Murmelstein, a rabbi who took on an unbearable burden and came through it a pariah. Murmelstein’s efforts to save Jews are revealed to be inseparable from his work, under Nazi authority, to preserve the sham of Theresienstadt—he thinks of himself as a sort of Scheherazade who rescued Jews, and who rescued himself, by helping the Germans tell a propagandistic story. That astonishingly daring and dangerous moral calculus has a Biblical grandeur, horror, and authority.

The essay by Wolf Murmelstein is quite long, so I am quoting some of the most important text here:

During the Holocaust period, the Ghettos were not Jewish Communities but FORCED COMMUNITIES since the Nazis classified persons as Jewish on racial, not religious, criteria. So in the Ghettos, together with believing Jews, there were those converted to other faiths, and the agnostics, Zionists, Czech, German, and Austrian nationalists, persons having some Jewish ancestors, etc. etc. So persons, who did not share the same Faith and had not always been aware that they would share the same fate, now had to live and work together.

In the “TRIUMVIRATE” set up on the orders of [Adolf] Eichmann, Murmelstein had to work, in the capacity of “Second Deputy Elder,” along side the ”Elder” Eppstein, and the “First Deputy Elder” Edelstein and, by the subdivision of tasks, he had to supervise the “HEALTH AND WELFARE” and “TECHNICAL SERVICES” Departments.

In his tasks, Benjamin Murmelstein had to master the problem of different backgrounds and ideas:

Jacob Edelstein, in 1941, was hoping that Terezin would be a good training camp (HAKSCHARAH) for the Youth in preparation for a future life in Palestine. As a Zionist official, he felt bound to party-loyalty.

Paul Eppstein, a young promising sociologist, in 1933 joined the staff of the REICHSVERTRETUNG (after 1939 REICHSVEREINIGUNG) where he worked in the emigration sector and in 1940 he had to replace Leo Baeck as Chief Executive. Until his Martyrdom, he had difficulty in realizing that in the Reich, which was ruled by a criminal gang – internationally acknowledged as a government, assurances or other statements of a “state official” were only tricky ones.

But I am putting the cart before the horse. Benjamin Murmelstein had been in charge of deporting the Jews from Austria, starting in 1938.  After the war, he became famous as the last Jewish Elder at Theresienstadt.

This quote from Wolf Murmelstein’s essay explains why the Theresienstadt ghetto was set up:

But at a certain moment, the Nazis realized that the tale of “resettlement of Jews for work” could hardly justify deportation of aged or sick persons, war officers holding medals for merit, etc.

Furthermore, as explained by Heinrich Himmler: “Germans all agree on the idea of getting rid of the Jews. But then every German has his own Jews, stating that this is a righteous Jew; send away the others but let him stay here.” What Himmler did not explain was that some Germans could not be ignored at all. Besides, there were among the Jews highly qualified persons well known abroad, who could not simply disappear in the East.

The solution was THERESIENSTADT, a little town in Bohemia surrounded by walls and with many barracks, just on the Reich border, now better known under the Czech name TEREZIN. There Eichmann had the opportunity to set up a Ghetto under his own authority and to show the real meaning of his “great ideas.” Many Germans could then “be at peace with their conscience” having obtained for their “righteous Jew” – a relative, a divorced wife, etc. – a place in the “Model Ghetto.” Qualified Jews, known abroad, could for a while, send postcards.

From October 1941 until September 1942, Benjamin Murmelstein had to watch the deportations. At Yom Kippur 1942, he had a nervous crisis of desperation about things that happened in that year. He was in doubt about being ritually qualified to lead the prayer service for the very few believing Jews still in Vienna.

From the beginning to the end of the deportation waves, almost all Jews had been deported from Vienna. Besides the very few believing Jews – community staff members – there were many persons in mixed marriage and descendants of Jewish parents or grand-parents. In that year Benjamin Murmelstein had to face the Vienna Branch of the CENTRAL OFFICE FOR JEWISH EMIGRATION where the rule was “promises are valid only when served.” Amid harsh orders, he tried to save what was possible.

The number of the few believing Jews for the community staff had been the result of a difficult “bargaining” (requests had to be submitted in a suitable form) with SS Ltd Alois (Anton) Brunner. At end of August 1942, Benjamin Murmelstein, with his family, was about to be sent to Terezin. But Eichmann decided to delay the “re-organization” of Terezin “Jewish Self-Government.”

[…]

The delay of the Murmelstein Family deportation lasted only to the end of Jannuary 1943 because Eichmann wanted to report on JANUARY 30 – the anniversary of Hitler’s rise to power – the deportation of Jewish Leadership of Berlin, Vienna and Prague. So Murmelstein and some other Community Staff member with families had to go to THERESIENSTADT (TEREZIN).

[…]

The first Elder of Terezin, Jacob Edelstein, was suspected for some months of having contacts with the so-called Czech Resistance. Eichmann thought it right to follow a “cautious proceeding.” On January 31, 1943, Paul Eppstein became the new Elder of Terezin; he had just arrived from Berlin. Jacob Edelstein was downgraded to First Deputy Elder and Benjamin Murmelstein was named the Second Deputy Elder. All the three of them had been busy managing, in their communities, the emigration of fellow Jews to safe havens, and had failed to find safe havens for themselves and their families; now they shared the responsibility for the “Model” Ghetto.

Theresienstadt became famous as a “model ghetto” because of the two Red Cross visits.  You can read about how the ghetto was cleaned up, in order to fool the Red Cross about the real conditions in the camp here.

May 28, 2013

the train station for Theresienstadt was at Bauschowitz

Filed under: Holocaust — Tags: , , , , — furtherglory @ 11:45 am

I read in a news article today that Claude Lanzmann’s new documentary The Last of the Unjust mentions the train station where Jews got off for the Theresienstadt ghetto. What train station?

Theresienstadt, now known as Terezin, is a tiny 18th-century walled town which is located on the main road that connects the German city of Dresden with Prague, the capital city of the Czech Republic.  This is the place that the Germans turned into the Theresienstadt Ghetto, where Jews were imprisoned during World War II.

The train station for Theresienstadt was at Bauschowitz

The train station for Theresienstadt was at Bauschowitz (Bohusovice)

On one of my bus trips to Terezin, the Czech town where the Theresienstadt ghetto was formerly located, our bus passed through Bohusovice, (Bauschowitz), the village where the Jews had to get off the train and walk to the Theresienstadt ghetto, carrying their bundles.

Later, a branch railroad line to the Theresienstadt ghetto was constructed by the Nazis, using the labor of the Jewish inmates of the ghetto.  However, there is no train station inside the present town of Terazin.

Jews carrying their luggage from train station to Theresienstadt ghetto

Jews carrying their luggage from Bauschowitz train station to Theresienstadt ghetto

This quote from this website describes the arrival of the Jews at the Bauschowitz (Bohusovice) train station:

These Jews were crammed in cattle cars with little or no water, food, or sanitation. The trains unloaded at Bohusovice, the nearest train station to Theresienstadt, approximately 2 km away. The deportees were then forced to disembark and march the rest of the way to Theresienstadt – carrying all of their luggage. Once the deportees reached Theresienstadt, they went to the checking point (called “floodgate” or “Schleuse” in camp slang). The deportees then had their personal information written down and placed in an index. Then, they were searched. Most especially, the Nazis or Czech gendarmes were looking for jewelry, money, cigarettes, as well as other items not allowed in the camp such as hot plates and cosmetics. During this initial process, the deportees were assigned to their “housing.”

Each train transport to the Theresienstadt ghetto consisted of around 1,000 Jews. Upon arrival at the ghetto, the Jews went through a checkpoint, which was called “die Schleuse”, which means the lock, as in a lock on a canal.

You can see the location of the railroad branch line and the barracks where the first transport arrived, on a map of the Theresienstadt ghetto, on my website here:

28. Bahnhofstrasse – Railway branch line built by the prisoners and first used in June 1943. Near the Hamburg barracks from which the transports left for Auschwitz.

32. Block E I — Sudeten Barracks where the first transport of men arrived in November of 1942.

The first Jews, who were brought to Theresienstadt on November 24, 1941, were 342 men who were housed in the Sudeten barracks on the west side of the old garrison, from where one can see the Sudeten mountain range near the border between Germany and the Czech Republic.

Sudenten Barracks were inside the wall of the old Theresienstadt fort

Sudenten Barracks were inside the wall of the old Theresienstadt fort

This first transport, called the Aufbaukommando, was brought to Theresienstadt to prepare the 10 barracks buildings for the rest of the Jews who would soon follow. On December 4, 1941 another transport of 1,000 Jews who were to form the Jewish “self-government” of the ghetto was sent to Theresienstadt. These two early transports became known as AK1 and AK2.

During World War II, when the Jews in the Greater German Reich, including what is now the Czech Republic, were sent to the former military garrison in Theresienstadt, they were housed in eleven former barracks buildings used by the Austrian soldiers in the 18th century.

Podmokly Barracks at Theresienstadt

Podmokly (Bodenbach) Barracks at Theresienstadt

The photograph above, taken in 2000, shows the Podmokly barracks, which the Germans called the Bodenbach barracks; in the background is the bastion on the north side of the old fort. There was a metal barrier in front of the bastion, hiding it from view, and it was off limits to tourists when I visited the former camp in the year 2000.

The Podmokly barrack building, shown in the photo above, is in two parts, separated by a narrow courtyard. This photo was taken from near the end of Langestrasse. The Podmokly barracks is directly in line with the Hannover barracks on the opposite side of the garrison town.

On the left in the photograph above, you can see the walls of the bastion which juts out from the garrison on the north side. Directly opposite, on the south side of the garrison, there is another identical bastion. There were buildings located between the double walls of each bastion. Between the bastion walls was the Aussig barracks which was the “die Schleuse” where the prisoners were registered when they first arrived. This building was very primitive with a latrine instead of flush toilets and rough stone floors.

Inside the walls of the bastion on the south side of the old fort was a bakery during the time when the present town of Terezin was the Theresienstadt Ghetto.

Until June 1943, the incoming prisoners had to walk two kilometers from the nearest railroad station in the town of Bohusovice (originally called Bauschowitz by the Germans) and they entered the ghetto on the same road on which the bus coming from Prague enters the town today.

The branch railway line from Bohusovice to the Theresienstadt Ghetto ended in front of the Hamburg barracks, shown in my 2000 photo below.

Hamburg Barracks in former Theresienstadt ghetto

Hamburg Barracks in former Theresienstadt ghetto

May 27, 2013

Holocaust fiction for children, and Holocaust poetry for children…a new literary genre

Filed under: Holocaust — Tags: , , , — furtherglory @ 9:54 am

I was shocked to learn recently that there are books of fiction about the Holocaust that are deemed suitable reading material for children in the third grade. Holocaust fiction for young children is a whole new literary genre, replacing the Grimm’s Fairy Tales, that children used to read.

What’s next?  Baby’s first Holocaust ABC book?

Children in the fourth grade in American schools are required to read fictional books such as Number the Stars before listening to a Holocaust survivor speak in their classroom.  I always thought that Holocaust education began in the fifth grade in America, but now it seems that children are being indoctrinated at younger and younger ages.

What really got to me was when I learned about the poetry of Paul Janeczko, for example, his Requiem: Poems of the Terezin Ghetto  which was written for children.

Terezin is now a town in the Czech Republic, but Janeczko’s poems are about the ghetto for Jews, named Theresienstadt, which was set up by the Nazis during World War II.

According to Wikipedia, Janeczko’s Requiem: Poems of the Terezin Ghetto was the recipient of the following awards:

·       CYBILS’ Poetry Award Winner for 2012
·       Children’s Books of the Year 2012
·       Notable Books for a Global Society 2012
·       Notable Children’s Books in the English Language Arts 2012
·       Teachers Choice 2012

This quote is one of the poems, spoken by the fictional SS Captain Bruno Krueger, in Requiem:

We herded all the Jew swine
close to the gallows
where the old Jew stood on the wagon
noosed.
I ordered my Jews closer.
Close enough to hear
the twig snap of his neck.
Close enough to smell
when he shit himself in death.
Close enough to see his face darken,
his tongue poke from his mouth.

The speaker in the poem (fictional SS Captain Bruno Krueger) then forces a different Jew to throw stones at a boy until the boy dies.

In another poem, the manager of the camp’s crematorium describes, in graphic detail, what happens to a human body as it burns.
The following quote is from this blog:

Requiem, written in free verse, is a valuable asset to the collection of Holocaust literature and gives a courageous voice to the 140,000 European Jews who suffered unspeakable and inhumane treatment by Nazi guards. Although Hitler hailed the Czech collection and transport camp, Terezin, as a haven for artistic and intellectual Jews, it was little more than a pit stop en route to the gas chambers. In “SS Captain Bruno Krueger” an older Jewish man and a young boy tried to escape but were dragged back for “the lesson.” Captain Bruno narrates their fate: (We herded all the Jew swine/ close to the gallows/ where the old Jew stood on the wagon/ noosed./ I ordered my Jews closer./ Close enough to hear the twig snap of his neck.) These harrowing poems are sure to fill readers with undeniable feelings of sadness, anger, and confusion about how something this despicable could happen.

This quote, which includes another poem in the SS Captain Bruno Krueger section, is from the same blog:

Spotlight Poem
Excerpt from: SS Captain Bruno Krueger
As he hung and finished his death dance,
a guard brought forth the other man.
Man? Was he old enough to shave?
No matter.
He will be a teacher,
playing his part in today’s lesson.
He was, perhaps, saving other Jews
who dreamed of freedom.
Hands tied behind his back,
kneeling in the mud
he looked at me with defiance.
I enjoyed the chance to show him,
to show all,
the impracticality of defiance.
Another Jew fetched a bucket
filled with paving stones.
I selected a stone,
carefully,
looking for one with sharp corners.
The only way that poems like this should be taught to American school children is in a class about Jewish propaganda. The class should learn, at the same time, the truth about the Theresienstadt ghetto.

 

May 21, 2013

Did Adolf Eichmann set up the Theresienstadt ghetto? I don’t think so.

Filed under: Germany, Holocaust, World War II — Tags: , , — furtherglory @ 5:39 am

Claude Lanzmann’s new documentary film, featuring Benjamin Murmelstein and the Theresienstadt ghetto, has been getting a lot of ink in the press lately.

This quote is from an article which you can read in full here:

For three and a half hours, the viewer [of Lanzmann’s documentary] is taken through an exploration of Benjamin Murmelstein, the last president of the Jewish Council in the “model ghetto” of Theresienstadt in Nazi-annexed Czechoslovakia.

Set up by SS colonel Adolf Eichmann as a bogus town run by Jews themselves – a Potemkin village designed to dupe the world – Theresienstadt was one of the grimmest chapters in the long record of Nazi atrocities.

Theresienstadt was not in “Nazi-annexed Czechoslovakia” at that time; it was in the German protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.  You can read all about Theresienstadt on my website here.

According to Wikipedia, Adolf Eichmann “was a German Nazi SS-Obersturmbannführer (lieutenant colonel) and one of the major organizers of the Holocaust. Because of his organizational talents and ideological reliability, Eichmann was charged by SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich with the task of facilitating and managing the logistics of mass deportation of Jews to ghettos and extermination camps in German-occupied Eastern Europe.”

Nowhere on the Wikipedia page does it say that Eichmann SET UP the Theresienstadt ghetto.  He might have been in charge of the transports to and from Theresienstadt, but he did not have the authority to set up a ghetto or anything else.  Eichmann was “small potatoes,” not important enough to be in charge of setting up camps or ghettos.

This quote from the news article also resonated with me:

Murmelstein’s recollections, said Lanzmann, are doubly precious, as they prompt a new interpretation of Eichmann, who was kidnapped by Mossad agents in Argentina and hauled to Israel for trial, culminating in his execution in 1962. […]

If Eichmann was “small potatoes,” why did the Mossad go to the trouble of kidnapping him and taking him to Israel?  I think it was because Eichmann was the one who wrote the minutes of the Wannsee Conference where the genocide of the Jews was allegedly planned.

The Israelis wanted Eichmann to admit that he left out the part of the Conference where the men talked about killing the Jews, not “transporting them to the East,” as Eichmann wrote in the minutes.

Eichmann at his trial in Israel

Eichmann at his trial in Israel

During his trial in Jerusalem, Eichmann testified as follows during session 107 on July 24, 1961:

What I know is that the gentlemen convened their session, and then in very plain terms – not in the language that I had to use in the minutes, but in absolutely blunt terms – they addressed the issue, with no mincing of words. And my memory of all this would be doubtful, were it not for the fact that I distinctly recall saying to myself at the time, Look, just look at Stuckart, the perpetual law-abiding bureaucrat, always punctilious and fussy, and now what a different tone! The language was anything but in conformity with the legal protocol of clause and paragraph. I should add that this is the only thing from the conference that still has stayed clearly in my mind.

When the Presiding Judge asked Eichmann what Stuckart had said “in general” “on this topic,” Eichmann answered, “The discussion covered killing, elimination, and annihilation.”

On the basis of Eichmann’s testimony, it is now accepted that the minutes of the Wannsee conference were written with euphemisms, instead of the actual words used at the conference.

May 13, 2010

Gas chamber at Theresienstadt…

A few years ago, I was shocked to hear newsman Sandor Vanocur say, in a very serious tone, on a TV program, that there was a gas chamber at Theresienstadt.  He didn’t give any details, just moved on to the next subject, after dropping that bombshell. Theresienstadt is an old fortified town in what is now the Czech Republic; the Czechs have renamed it Terezin. During World War II, Theresienstadt was turned into a Nazi concentration camp for elderly and prominent Jews, including musicians and artists.

I did some research and learned that it was really true: Theresienstadt did have a gas chamber, but according to Martin Gilbert, a British Holocaust historian, the gas chamber was never “activated.”

There were rumors circulating in all of the major Nazi concentration camps toward the end of the war that Hitler had given the order for all the inmates to be killed before the arrival of the Soviet or American soldiers. This was believed to be the purpose for building a gas chamber at Theresienstadt in 1945 at the tail end of the war.

In the northwest section of the old garrison town of Theresienstadt, there is a building, called the Bauhof by the Nazis, that was used for craft workshops. It is the yellow building shown in the photograph below. To the right you can see part of the old fortifications; the road shown in the photograph goes through an opening in the fortifications here.

Bauhof where workshops were located near Litomerice gate

According to the Ghetto Museum at Theresienstadt, a homicidal gas chamber was built in 1945 in a corridor of the town’s fortifications wall near the Litomerice gate, which is right by the Bauhof building, shown in the photograph above. (Click here to see a map of the ghetto. The Bauhof building is number 14 on the map.)

The Theresienstadt homicidal gas chamber is directly across from the Jäger (Hunter) barracks, an identical building on the opposite side of the town, which was used as a disinfection station where the prisoners and their clothing were deloused. The prisoners were disinfected by being completely submerged in a tub containing a chemical which would kill the lice on their bodies. At the same time, their clothing was disinfected by hot steam, and they would have to put their clothes back on while they were still wet and then return to their barracks. The oldest inmates of the ghetto were housed in the Jäger barracks so they wouldn’t get chilled by walking through the cold in wet clothes. Behind the Jäger barracks is the Südberg or South Hill where a soccer field was built for the inmates.

The ghetto inmates became aware of the Theresienstadt homicidal gas chamber and were planning to blow it up, but the war ended just in time to save the Theresienstadt Jews from being gassed right in the ghetto.

The photograph below shows the fortifications on either side of the Litomerice gate on the northwest side of Theresienstadt. When Theresienstadt was a ghetto for the Jews, this road was closed off and there was no traffic through the garrison town.

The Litomerice gate is an opening between the fortification walls

By my calculation, the Theresienstadt gas chamber was located in the part of the fortifications shown in the background of the photo above, since this is the fortification section that is the closest to the Bauhof workshops.  The gas chamber was not shown on the tour that I took at Theresienstadt in 2000 and there was no sign that marked it.

On May 3, 1945, Theresienstadt was turned over to the Red Cross by Commandant Karl Rahm. According to Martin Gilbert in his book Holocaust Journey, Commandant Karl Rahm told the Red Cross that he had received orders from Berlin to kill all the inmates in the ghetto before the Russians arrived, but he had disobeyed the order. Because of this, Gilbert wrote, Rahm was allowed to leave the camp unmolested on the day before the Russians arrived on May 8, 1945. He was later captured and tried in a Special People’s Court in nearby Litomerice; he was held in the Small Fortress until he was executed in 1947.

According to information in a Theresienstadt guidebook, the clothing was disinfected by steam in an old brewery, which is shown in the photo below.

Old brewery where clothing was disinfected with steam

Apparently, the Germans did not use Zyklon-B to disinfect the clothing at Theresienstadt.  Or did they finally decide to use Zyklon-B in the last days of the war when a typhus epidemic broke out in the camp?  Did they set up disinfection chambers in the old fortifications?  The German word for a disinfection chamber, where clothing is deloused with Zyklon-B, is Gaskammer, which means gas chamber.  Is this the gas chamber that the prisoners heard about?  I don’t know, but it’s possible.

May 12, 2010

Terezin or Theresienstadt?

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.

Bastion on southeast side of the old fortress, Sudeten mountains in background

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.

Theresienstadt fortress, built in 1780

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.

Gate into the Small Fortress, which was built as a prison

My photo taken inside the Small Fortress

Close-up of the Arbeit Macht Frei sign inside the Small Fortress

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.

Moat around the Small Fortress was never filled with water

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.

Christian graves outside the walls of the Small Fortress

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.