This has been one of the world’s dark places. A place where humanity has faced the limits of its deep internal inhumanity.There are many, far too many, such places around the world. Some places are bloodier, more drenched in man’s visceral savagery, than others. But all these places have some- thing in common. Something that hangs over them like a lin- gering silence in the middle of a symphony.
Things have happened in these places that I and – I sin- cerely hope – most of us might be aware of, perhaps even imagine the horror of, but can never truly comprehend. The things men can do to others when placed in a particular set of circumstances.When they, as men, are degraded to such an extent that they see their debasement of others as normal. Mundane. Just a job. Part of the daily routine.
Theresienstadt had its small role to play in the carnal mad- ness that gripped Europe by the throat during the twentieth century’s early decades.The Nazi’s vile system for the depor- tation and murder of European Jews used Theresienstadt as a hub, and this gives the place its macabre celebrity. Over 140,000 Jews from various nations were forced through the town between 1942 and 1945. Up to 50,000 lived here at one time, in a town that had been fully occupied by just 7,000 peo- ple before the war. The hellish conditions, overcrowding, star- vation, disease and brutality of the ghetto killed 33,000 people, almost half of them children. There were 17,247 people still alive when the town was handed over to the Red Cross on May 1st 1945.The grim mathematics are stomach churning to do, but one must ask: where are the 90,000 people who did not succumb to the regime of the ghetto, and yet were not among those found by the Red Cross?
And yet, and yet, this is not the full story of Theresienstadt in those years. For instance, there was an unusually high propor- tion of artists, writers and musicians among the damned.There is which includes an opera.There are the paintings and the poetry, town, actually made by a forced labour production team of inmates – all subsequently moved on, through that hideous and meticulous transportation system, to Auschwitz.
the Hapsburgs built Theresienstadt at the end of the eighteenth smaller fortress alongside. This was to be a military prison, and such was its function for many years.And then Stellvertretender Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Gestapo, found it a century and a half later. He was setting up the Reich’s terror network in Bohemia and Moravia, and he knew he had found the perfect hub for his web. Horror central.
The prison in the Small Fortress was not built with aesthetics in mind. This is functional, military-engineer-designed archi- tecture, equipped with everything necessary for the operation of a prison at the blunt end, the brutal end, of a system of state terror and repression. Under the Gestapo, this was not the sort of prison you would be sent home from with a “sorry, you’re clearly innocent, we got the wrong man”. If you left here alive, it was in a cattle truck.
There are large cells for holding male and female prisoners Nazis built more, even larger, cells.
keep track of all those troublesome ‘units’ sent to the prison by the state security police.There is the disinfection room, to keep the rampant contagious diseases down to an acceptable level.
What you see is the penultimate stop on a journey that starts with the midnight knock on an apartment door in Prague. A shocked and tearful wife, screaming children. A man, hurriedly dressed. Manhandled from door to car to police cell. Interro- gated, brutalised, humiliated, then sent on down the line To the Small Fortress.
In the cell complex, in the dead silence, I can hear the clanging of doors, the stamping of boots, the barking of orders, and the screams. I can hear the sergeant, alternatively laughing at his own jokes and then terrifying those over whom he has complete and utter power.
These old buildings have some nobility, like dumb witnesses. Now crumbling, they point at the perpetrators, singling them out: what you did has not been forgotten, they say. As long as we stand those who come here will know what you did.
Next to the large prison cells is the prison infirmary. Primo Levi writes in If This is a Man, his memoir of Auschwitz, that time spent in the sick-bay was a blessed relief from the crippling physical labour that filled the prisoner’s daylight hours, but brought other horrors. Released from the constant struggle to do the work, and thereby to survive, the body gave the mind the energy to think.The thoughts come unstoppably, Levi says.Why are they doing this? How can they do this? On a normal day his thoughts are unconcerned with anything beyond surviving the next few minutes, but given a day or two without beatings and unbearable physical demands, the questions come. And the answers are unsatisfactory.Why are they doing this? Because it’s their job. How can they bestialize other human beings to such an extent that their very existence becomes meaningless? Because this has become normality for them.
In 2001 a man called Anton Malloth was convicted of murder by the sinister Stille Hilfe organisation. Stille Hilfe, which translates as “Silent Help”, is run by a lady whose married name is Gudrun Burwitz. Gudrun Burwitz is Heinrich Himmler’s daughter.
Malloth, or “beautiful Toni” as he was known at the time, was a degraded crime, but in this context a typical one. He beat a Jewish prisoner to death for going straight to his cell at the end It was a symbolic conviction.The disgusting Malloth had, accord- ing to witnesses, beaten to death approximately one hundred prisoners in these cells. Frau Burwitz and her friends had suc- cessfully kept Malloth out of court until most of the survivors of the prison had died, but one brave Czech man came forward, and the case was made.
The question of whether an old man should be put to trial for an offence committed half a century earlier is, in my view, irrelevant. This was an unrepentant man. It was pointed out at the trial that he was not the kind of SS man who had drifted into Himmler’s legions, as so many others had. He was a willing volunteer. Someone who had truly found his ghastly métier, who relished the opportunity to exercise the power of life and brutal death over other human beings, on a whim.
This is the kind of man who walked these halls. Sat in these – ette in a cell doorway made other men – better, braver men – shudder in fear.The kind of man who liked to share a few bottles of schnapps with his colleagues at the end of the day, to have a laugh, maybe even take a swim in the pool on a warm summer afternoon.
And this is also the kind of man for whom there are will- ing helpers today. Standing in the shadows, offering money and assistance, a nice place to live, in today’s Germany. The demo- cratic, liberal Germany of the 21st century.They help him – not out of kindness, because he is an old man in need, in spite of who he is – but because of who he is. For these people he is a hero. There are not many of these people, but they are there still, to this day.And their queen is Gudrun Burwitz.
This town, that Emperor Josef II of Austria founded and named in honour of his mother Maria Theresa, is now called Terezín. are people who call this place home. But why shouldn’t they? The world turns and life moves forward. At least, by re-claiming some of the town for their families, these people are placing the diseased and bloody period where it belongs, in the past.
This is hardly the only former ghetto in central Europe: Budapest, Krakow, Lublin, Lviv,Warsaw, the list goes on. In most cases the centres of these cities became lethally overcrowded prisons for the Jewish population during the Nazi era, yet now each is a part of a thriving modern city. Indeed, often the old ghetto areas are on the sightseeing map, tourists admire the quaint beauty of the buildings that once held inconceivable numbers of people.
There is also a certain charm about this 18th century model municipality. It is far from ugly. The well proportioned buildings, the wide cobbled streets, the open squares, all lend a certain elegance. But most importantly there is life here.There are fami- lies and children.We can hope for a bright future for Terezín, but we must never forget the blackness of the past.