Main Gate into the Small Fortress

Tourists enter the Small Fortress at Theresienstadt

I visited the Small Fortress at Theresienstadt in the first week of October 2000 on a tour which I purchased from one of the many tourist businesses in the city of Prague. The tour was advertised as a five hour tour, but much of that time was taken up by the drive to and from Theresienstadt, which took about two hours, although the distance was only 60 kilometers one way.

The road from Prague to Theresienstadt is the main road which goes northwest to Dresden and then on to Berlin; it has been in existence for centuries, but it is still only a two lane road with opposing traffic for most of the way.

For me, it was like traveling back in time: the road to Theresienstadt is exactly the same as it was in the days of the Third Reich and the railroad tracks which brought the Jews to the ghetto are still there.

About two miles from Theresienstadt, our bus passed through Bohusovice, the village where the Jews had to get off the train and walk the rest of the way, lugging their heavy suitcases, in the days before a branch railroad line to the ghetto was constructed by the Jewish inmates.

The bus drove through beautiful farmland with corn fields and many hop fields; in some places, the road was lined with trees, displaying fall color. There were no farm houses; the red-roofed houses were all grouped together in small villages, just like in Germany. Beside the road, I saw one of the "little chapels" which are typically seen in Poland. These are wooden frames designed to display a statue of the Virgin Mary near dangerous intersections, but the statue was missing in this one.

There were signs on the road warning drivers to look out for farm tractors, but I didn't see any during our trip. As we approached Theresienstadt, I could see the distant outline of the blue Sudeten mountains on three sides of us. Theresienstadt is just over the border between the Sudetenland region and the rest of the state of Bohemia.

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. 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 moat in between them, as shown in the photograph below.

Double walls around the Small Fortress with a 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.

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.

Jewish star of David in cemetery in front of brick wall around the Small Fortress

Christian cemetery at Small Fortress has cross with a crown of thorns

According to a pamphlet that our tour group was given when we entered, there were 10,000 corpses buried here 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. There are 2,386 individual graves in the cemetery in front of the Small Fortress. On September 16, 1945, a National Funeral was held here so that the families could mourn their dead.

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 and between 2,500 and 2,600 of them died, including between 250 and 300 who were executed, according to the pamphlet. There is another Jewish cemetery at the location of the Crematorium building near the Theresienstadt ghetto. However, our guide told us that most of the prisoners at the Small Fortress were Communist resistance fighters who were fighting against the Nazi Fascists.

Before we got to Theresienstadt, our tour bus went through the ancient town of Litomerice where I saw a spectacular white Baroque Christian church. Near an old and very elaborate gateway on the road through the town, I caught a glimpse of some old concrete posts of the type used for the barbed wire fences around the concentration camps. I learned that in the spring of 1944, a sub camp of the Flossenbürg concentration camp was set up in Litomerice.

Around 18,000 prisoners were brought to this sub-camp and given the job of building an underground factory, which was code named "Richard." A large kommando (work group) from the Small Fortress was sent to this underground factory every day to work. The Nazis had started building all their munitions factories underground because every city in Germany was being bombed by the Allies. Working conditions at the "Richard" factory were horrible and when the typhus epidemic in the eastern concentration camps spread to the Litomerice camp, it resulted in the deaths of 4,500 prisoners in less than a year, including some of those from the Small Fortress.

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 has a map of the fortress 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 is number 34, the last thing that visitors see as they walk toward their tour bus in the parking lot.

Arbeit Macht Frei gate

Administration Courtyard

First Courtyard

Escape Route

The Long Tunnel

Execution Spot

Gate of Death

Commandant's House


Fourth Courtyard

Third Courtyard