Arts and Culture at Terezin
Situated northwest of Prague, Terezín was originally founded as a garrison city under Emperor Joseph II at the end of the 18th century. After the destruction of Czechoslovakia by the national socialist occupiers in 1938, a Gestapo prison was established in Theresienstadt’s so-called “Small Fortress.” In the autumn of 1941 this civil town, whose inhabitants were relocated bit by bit, became a transit and collection camp for Jews of the region then called the “Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.”
Terezín became the so-called “old-age ghetto” for war invalids and persons of special merit in the First World War, as well as for well-known Jews including scholars, philosophers, scientists, visual artists, and musicians of all types, some of whom had achieved international renown, and many of these contributed to the camp’s unique cultural life.
The Nazis kept a tight rein on the world’s perception of activities within Terezin proclaiming it a “village gifted by the Führer to the Jews.” In a propaganda effort designed to fool the Western allies, the Nazis publicized the camp for its rich cultural life. This included preliminary deportation of the more sickly to Auschwitz to minimize the appearance of overcrowding and a late 1943-44 beautification and embellishment campaign constructing fake shops and cafés along a controlled tour path in preparation for a June 23, 1944 delegation from the International Red Cross to view the camp.
Imprisoned visual artists including Bedřich Fritta, Norbert Troller, Leo Haas, Otto Ungar, and Petr Kien, were officially employed by the Arts Department to create drawings of life and work at Terezin on the orders of the SS. The artists, however, depicted the ghetto’s actual conditions in their spare time. Several of these artists were caught smuggling their work out of the ghetto and accused of “atrocity propaganda” and tortured. Much of their artwork was not rediscovered until many years later, and has been a useful tool for historians.
Drawings and paintings by the children interned at the camp were also smuggled out or hidden in the walls at Terezin and have become testimony to the courage of the children and their teachers, who continued to live, to teach, to paint, to learn, and to hope, despite the constant fear of violent death, a fear based on a realistic assessment of the situation in which they found themselves.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
The Defiant Requiem Foundation, defiantrequiem.org