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Melancholy Terezín

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In aerial photographs Terezín looks like a diamond or a snowflake. The city’s fortification system, with its massive walls and the sharp corners of its ravelins and bastions, radically separates fort from the rest of the landscape. Festung Theresienstadt was constructed in a pragmatic, unorganic way, according to strategic military plans. These days the town is struggling to come to terms with its military heritage and the dark period during World War II.

A proud fortification on the Ohře river
“Josef II, the builder of empire, father of the country, laid this founding stone for this eternal structure on 10 October 1780,” the plaque on the fort’s founding stone proudly displays. But the empire did not continue expanding after that: It started shrinking because the expansionist Prussians took over Silesia. The Habsburgs could not afford the loss of another economically important region. In order to prevent a Prussian invasion of Bohemia, they built Terezín and Josefov, two fortifications in the northern part of the monarchy.

It took only 11 years to build Terezín in the swampland near the confluence of the Labe and Ohře rivers. The complex structure with a pair of defensive circles and a mine and irrigational system was able to resist artillery fire and was very hard to conquer. The internal town planning was subordinated to defence as well. The checkerboard system of straight streets enabled a fast movement of troops and artillery. The military authority required that even civilian buildings be equipped with resistant vaulted ceilings and that houses not be taller than the internal rampart. The military element prevailed over the civilian one in all aspects.

“The architectural monotony of the fortified town, which was built in a short period of time, was strikingly different from the variety of architectural styles in historic towns,” the historian Andrej Romaňák wrote. The classicistic Terezín is a flat and horizontal town, as if one-dimensional. The tower of the local garrison church is the only major vertical there. Perfectly straight streets delimiting the plain space do not provide any mystery, protection or comfort. At first sight, it seems impossible to get lost here. “The town used to make me stressed,” says a local water utility worker. Like most other people, he refused to give his name. Perhaps the military paranoia is still present in Terezín. In the end, he at least said that he got used to the town and that he enjoys coming back.

The fortress for 10,000 soldiers cost the empire’s coffers 12 million golden florins, but it was never involved in war operations. Military leaders innovated their seizing strategies and simply avoided military forts. Rather than long-term blockades, generals chose the method of quick attacks and decisive battles. Despite that, Terezín fulfilled its role of a military base by simply being there, Romaňák said.

Silence in Terezín
When arriving from Prague, the entry to Terezín is a long line of tombstones built in front of the Small Fortress to commemorate the victims of the Nazi oppression. Along with a huge Star of David and a big cross with a crown of thorns, it makes the area a place of reverence, a national cemetery.

The Small Fortress in Terezín functioned as a place for the oppressed as early as during the monarchy, when cells for political prisoners were built there. “On the first floor of the wing on the left, the Sarajevo assassin Gavrilo Princip died of tuberculosis in April 1918,” a sign next to the former military hospital says. After the Nazi occupation, the entire town became a prison. Some 37,000 people died in the concentration camp, and 160,000 others passed through it on their way to death facilities in Poland.

By entering Terezín, we are entering the universe of a death camp, which, because of the extent and burden of what happened, defies words, as philosopher Slavoj Žižek wrote in Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?. In the text, he quotes a Hassidic master, the Rabbi of Kotsk, as having said “There are truths which can be communicated by the word; there are deeper truths which can
be transmitted only by silence; and, on another level, there are those which cannot be expressed, not even by silence.” Because of its tragedies, Terezín has become a place where one cannot even remain silent.

Every year, 300,000 people visit the Holocaust memorial. Most of the visitors don’t leave the path connecting the parking plot and the Small Fortress and don’t go to the centre of Terezín. And maybe they don’t even know at all that there is another, much bigger fortress behind Ohře.

Empty town
Mayor Růžena Čechová comes from a military family and has lived in Terezín since 1955. She says she was unhappy there, as she only saw misery everywhere, and wanted to move away as soon as possible. “Now I am a patriot and won’t hear a word against Terezín,” she says resolutely in her modern office.

Terezín used to be a garrison town in the times of the pre-Munich republic. By 1942, the Nazis displaced all civilians and changed the entire town into a concentration camp. After the war, it was a typical garrison town with people migrating and no one being at home there for a longer time. The army supervised all activities there, from mowing lawns to repairing water pipes. After the military left in 1997, the town lost its major source of finance and its identity. The population has dropped by more than one-half. These days, the population is at its wits’ end with Terezín. The town is experiencing some strange stopgap period, suffering from a shortage of flats and jobs, but having a surplus of idle barracks and military premises that are slowly falling into ruins. The fortification system tightens the town like a loop and restricts its development.

On this cold day, Jiří Klokočík is riding his bicycle in the empty streets of Terezín. When asked what it is like to live in the town, he waves his hand swiftly: “There is nothing here!” Like most of the local residents, he once depended materially on the army. When the soldiers left, he failed to find a permanent job and now lives on social allowances. “I am homeless. My cow and my garden is what keeps my head above water.”

Disco in a concentration camp
Terezín’s first attempted recovery came in 2002. Under a generous project, it was to become an international university campus. But disastrous flooding came rather than EU funding. Even a special government commission for Terezín failed to launch the project, worth CZK 10 billion to CZK 12 billion. “It was all megalomaniac and impossible to finance,” Čechová said. “No university wanted to participate in it.”

The historical barracks, with their beautifully arched passages, are therefore falling into despair. The clacking of the shoes of army horses and the commands from officers are a distant history. The original cobblestones peep through the asphalt of Terezín’s streets, and semiwild cats occupy the empty quarters. It is difficult to find a new purpose for the buildings that are protected as monuments. “Just guarding and insurance costs us CZK 4 million a year, ” Čechová said. That is a huge burden for a town with a CZK 35 million budget.

What can prevent Terezín, which is known in the world as a point on the map of the Holocaust, from decaying? Only tourists perhaps. The town hall wants to draw attention to the historical military heritage and build an artillery museum. As Čechová said, to “also offer something other than just the concentration camp”. The town even organised Jozefínské slavnosti festivities, and citizens and visitors liked them. But we are still talking about the site of a former concentration camp. “I can see death and misery behind every corner,” former inmates told the mayor. “How can you have fun here? How can you laugh here?”. The media in the world dealt with a similar problem years ago in connection with Auschwitz: Can there be a disco on the premises of a former concentration camp? The present residents think yes because they want to live normal lives, which involves having fun. However, Auschwitz and Terezín are not “normal” towns. They will never get rid of their stigma.

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