Salvaging The Fort

Mary C. Legg

© Copyright 2004 by Mary C. Legg


It rained and then rained. Then rained some 
more.   On the Vltava,  the Vodniks were busy 
invading houses along the river and the Pinkas Synagogue was swamped with water. The water 
rose to the bridge,  overflowedthe banks and 
broke into the metro tunnels, and still it rained 
until the water level rose through the houses in 
the Old Town Square.

The mini-bus hummed along the macadam road. Water crept along the sides, seeping through the marshy ground. Overhead a hawk swirled in the azure skies, his cries piercing the still augustan air with his craving for fresh dinner. An eagle flapped slowly from the ground where it had seized a victim and a roe deer bounded lightly through the waving summer grass into the sapling woods, springing up with resilient alder and birch mixed with willow. Ponds lay heavily upon the swollen wheat fields, their crops driven into ruin by relentless rains and flooding. In places the river had jumped a mile to make a new bed as streams fed off the sunken fields to meander into new paths and there a farmer's bridge had washed away where a yawning gap had opened to seize Proserpina from the earth once again. The van lurched to a stop. The drowsy occupants looked out to see about the delay. A bridge had washed out, the concrete torn in half from the stress of the earth splitting apart like an overripe pear. A massive utility tower law sprawled across the highway where the army had cut it into sections, opening the road to passing traffic before sending transport to haul it away. The heavy power cables snaked along the earth, dropping convulsively into the engorged stream adjoining the road. The neighboring field had become a small inland sea, rippling under the early slanting sun. A soldier waved the driver, requesting a transit pass. We were stopped at the border of quarantined towns, isolated by a raging flood. From here, only local residents and emergency workers were allowed. The passengers of the vehicle emitted sleepy groans, groggy still with last night's chatter and fresh with morning dreams. The cold burst of air awoke them from their silent thoughts while puffs of smoke drifted indolently to the inside of the truck.

"Almost there," a voice commented before lapsing back into the heavy silence of morning indolence. Voices murmered up front. The tourguide owner and the soldier exchanged comments on the road conditions and catastrophe of the surrounding area. The travel certificate inspected, the van's license plate listed and purpose of visit noted, the lone sentinel waved the driver on. We entered floodlands to pass through the gates of the Big Fort at Terezin after the massive flood that washed out central Europe from Vienna to Hamburg with Prague, Terezin, Dresden, Berlin in between.

For Vodniks, it was a particularly good season. Any Czech will tell you about the devilry that a Vodnik causes, from stealing fishing line to luring unwitting young women to their deaths in local baroque ponds. The Vodniks of the Vltava were probably out seizing all kinds of flotsam and furniture to sell at their annual warehouse sale, gloating over the amount of meat they had taken into their deep freezers with the deaths of uncounted cattle and sheep. Certainly some of them had spawned into newly born ponds that now dotted the Bohemian landscapes while others directed the new direction of nervous rivers, jumping about restlesly with too much destructive energy. Others were probably as frustrated as the Czechs themselves with their underwater domiciles demolished with uninvited roofs dropping in and power towers toppling into their parlors and sitting rooms. A few, soulless creatures raced out into the neighboring villages to take advantage of the opportunity to seize prospective brides from their land-dwelling counterparts, causing additional grief and misery. For farmers, the loss of crops and livestock was sufficient hardship to bear while digging out their sofas from incumbent mud.

Vodniks, anyone will tell you, are the mischievous water sprites that live in waterways and ponds of the Czech Republic—and until the rip-roaring flood of 2002, were largely ignored and pooh-poohed as imaginary creatures dwelling in Czech fairytale books. Search the internet, and you will not find them. Distinctly local legends, they have little yearning for travel. Among them is no Karel Gott, Vaclav Havel or Klaus, but being legendary, Dvorak dedicated an opera in their honor about the waterfey, Rusalka. And since they, like fish, cannot live long outside water, they wear heavy woollen socks the year long to keep their webbed feet wet. In this they might closely resemble those froggy Washingtonians with its drizzly Seattlelites or the drippy inhabitants of Portland. The difference might be, that they are more inclined to have long scraggly hair and dislike saltwater immensely. Vodniks horde teacups, trading in fine Dresden china, in which they maintain collections of human souls. Largely ignored by the press, Vodniks maintained the notoriety of gypsies while being trivialized as nonexistent; therefore a people of such substratum interest that they were dismissed rather than discriminated against. On the part of the Czech government, this oversight and neglect was to result in catastrophic dimensions as the Vltava,Ohre and Elbe overran their banks and dams to subdue the earth in rushing swells. With the onrush of flood waters, Czechs were daily reminded through the radio and newspapers that Vodniks were a thriving subculture within the country. Our mission that day was to recover what we could from them and remove the soggy discarded debris that the Vodniks had scattered behind them in their rush to plunder the treasures of the notorious Nazi transit camp.

The van jolted back to action, rumbling along the winding road leading into the notorious area of Sudetenland, rich for heavy industry and farming and ceded by the Munich Pact to the Nazi's in 1938. The embattled area caught in the constant power struggles between east and west, settled by Germans colonists became the ideal region for Hitler to target his propaganda of re-uniting the German people at the early outbreak of the war. Traditionally considered a part of Bohemia, German was spoken as much as Czech. Across the border lay Poland, the gateway to the east. Here, nestled under the soft hills, hidden by a screen of trees and shrubs lay the massive star fort of Terezin or Theresienstadt.

 Theresienstadt was built under the supervision Emperor Josef II, who named it after his mother. The plans were conceived in 1757, but the construction order was finally issued in 1780. Stratigically, it lays at the exact mid-point between Vienna, Dresden and Prague, becoming a defense for all three cities simultaneously. Constructed with the presumption of a Prussian invasion, the fort could hastily bring re-inforcements from each of the three cities while lending them protection. The fort lays on the juncture of the Elbe (Labe) and Ohre (Eger) rivers which provide a major shipping route for trading, spreading over 398 hectares or 995 acres, built with a double wall and moat. Three villages were demolished to accomodate it as well as major engineering feat of re-channeling the Ohre River for over four kilometers, approximately two miles. In addition to the double walls, false hills were constructed to surround it so that the fort developed a natural sheld of forest which screens it from view. Not until the van makes a sudden turn to cross over a moat, that the imposing walls tower over you with the infamous zebra striped doorway with lettering to greet you: Arbeit Macht Frei.

Theresienstadt or Terezin is actually two forts joined together with the Small Fort, "Mala Pevnost" acting as a relatively large guardhouse for the Large Fort. The Little Fort is on the right side of the riverbed, while the Large Fort or Main Fortress is on the left between the two channels of the rivers, the natural and the re-channeled. The double walls of the Main Fort act as a trap to any invading army. Engineered with a canal system so if an invasion happened, the sluice would open, flooding the moat surrounding the fortress and the area between the doubled walls, drowning any stranded men who had managed to enter the no-man's land. If the invaders weren't caught by the sudden flood, they could be easily shot down from the surrounding ramparts and targeted by concealed infantry behind the rifle slits along the inner walls. The French Military Academy of Mesieres designed the fort, allowing every possible form of invasion and resistance. Beneath the ground level of the fort, is a complicated maze to confuse invading forces who might find their way in from the river. The construction took more than eleven years, utilizing more than 20 million bricks annually in construction. The cost of the fort proper was around twelve million Gulden and the roadwork system at forty Gulden. In 1790, the fort was finished. The flood system tested and drained. Occupied, it became operational, housing a small garrison—but in all the years of its existence, it was never threatened or used.

Historically, it became the endzone for political prisoners under the Hapsburgs and later the Communists. Virtually impossible to penetrate, political agitators disappeared into its bowels, never to be seen again—following the notorious French custom. However, here was no sea for a desperate prisoner seeking escape.

In 1933, the Czech Lands became a refuge for Jews seeking escape from Germany and Austria. In Germany, Jews had already been classified into two classes: Geltungsjuden (legally defined) and Glaubensjuden (believing) with the enforcement of the Nuremberg Laws. The Jewish population shifted over the Czech border, seeking escape. This increased the population within the Sudeten area. In Most and Ostrava and throughout the Sudetenland, synagogues were set afire and inhabitants deported to Dachau while new concentration camps were established in the area. Between October 1, 1938 and March 15,1939 when the Nazi troops entered Prague, the population of Glaubungsjuden had already decreased by more than 14,000. At this time there were 118 310 Jews living within the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Nearly 70% of all Czech industry including heavy industry and arms was within the Sudetenland. Therefore it was important to the Reich that the Czech lands and people be assimilated into the grand plan of war with the least amount of chaos or rebellion within the population. Systematically, Jews were deprived of their professions, income and businesses through a progressive system of laws, while at the same time reassuring them that they were being re-settled elsewhere. At the same time, Hitler was searching for the Final Solution, demanding that all Jews be cleared from Munich, Vienna and Prague by December 31,1941. Already the Lodz Ghetto was overcrowded and further transport of Jews to Riga and Minsk impossible.

On September 27, 1941, Reinhard Heydrich succeeded von Neurath as Reichsprotector. By October 10, 1941, Heydrich had a plan: Theresieinstadt. According to the census at that time, 88,000 Jews lived in the Protectorate; 48,000 in Prague; 10,000 in Brno; and 10,000 in Moravska Ostrava. The plan? Concentrate them into a single area for forced labor through the use of "collection camps." Theresienstadt stood immediately available with a small garrison town with 218 civilian houses. At the time, it had 3,498 Czech and 347 German inhabitants. The town had never exceeded the population of 7,200 within its entire history. The Prague Jewish Council was given the problem of making up a work battalion to renovate it. The system of having the Jews oversee their own imprisonment and transports began. The Czech population of Theresienstadt had to move out in order for the Nazis to concentrate the Jewish population within it, making it an official Transit Camp. Moreover, Heydrich had simultaneously worked out other details of using the occupants for forced labor while maintaining a front for propaganda. The Nazi military units were transferred to other areas while the fort maintained a guard of 600men who were assigned into three shifts. When asked where the massive influx of Jews would live in such a small garrison, the response was "Die Juden haben sich Wohnungen in die Erde hinab zu schaffen". (The Jews can dig their homes in the ground.) On November 9, 1941, the first Aufbaucommando was sent to Terezin to prepare for the future transports. At the same time, the propaganda campaign kicked in between Goebbels, Heydrich and Hitler that Theresienstadt would be known as Theresienstadtbad—a retirement place for elderly Jews or a spa town.

By June 1942, Terezin was already strictly segregated by sexes. In January, ten prisoners had been executed for smuggling letters outside the fort. Before June, whole familes were being deported into the camp and by December 1942, Terezin held 7 350 prisoners. In the first half of 1942, 25, 862 persons were interned and another 28,366 before the end of the year. To maintain civil order, The Nazis instituted rule through the Jewish Council of Elders and appointed Jewish guards to replace the original gendarmes. Thus they could proclaim to the entire world that Terezin was under self-rule by the Jews. The transports rolled in and by September 1942, 53,264 people lived in a garrison town which had been designed for a maximum population of 7,000. However, the rails ended in Bohuvice, nearly two kilometers away and the straggling lines of people on forced marches were obvious. Allowed to carry 50kg of goods with them and four weeks supply of food, the marchers struggled to maintain the pace of their tormentors who used dogs and guns. A new spur was laid leading to Terezin to reduce the detection of incoming traffic and convenience the death transports set to Minsk, Sobibor, Majdanek, Maly Trostinets, Riga and later Treblinka and Auschwitz.

Such was the thermal baths that Jews awaited with showers of poisoned gases, mass executions in the woods and worked to death.

But in the meantime, Terezin served as a front, promoted internationally as a retirement village for Jews, the Nazis selling fraudulent stocks and tickets to the unwary in western Europe. The fortress had to be reconstructed internally to handle the massive influx of people. The threat of plague was imminent without proper bathing and delousing facilities and adequate water supply. Ironically, the Nazi overseers were afraid that epidemics such as cholera might turn the fortress into a death trap, while delivering the inmates to death elsewhere. Impressed into labor, the inmates built their own waterworks, digging wells and installing their own water pipes. Originally, the dead were buried; their bodies prepared in a "burial chamber" where gold and silver fillings were extracted from their teeth before being carted by handcart out to the gravesite. But within a short time, too many were dying at such a rate that this was no longer feasible. To accomodate the increased mortality, crematoriums were installed to facillitate more efficient disposal after robbing the corpse of hair and fillings.

To isolate Terezin further from its neighboring villages, a by-pass was contructed from Prague to Teplice and wooden fences erected along the roads. Isolated from the rest of the world with a trapped population invisible behind walls, the Propaganda Ministry effectively duped the world into believing that The Jews had a city of their own. Every crook and cranny within the walls of the old fort had to be used to accomodate the ever growing population with bunkbeds tiered to three levels.

About 90% of the labor generated in Terezin was expended on its maintainance and the remaining 10% on minor industry such as repairing stockings, making uniforms or boxes. Terezin was also used for mica production which is used in the insulation of airplanes, producing ink powder, camouflaging uniforms, silk cultivation, and manufacturing cartridge boxes as well as small toys. The work helped to create an illusion of a normal village and maintain stability within the population while satisfying war demands. Vegetable gardens were maintained to support the 600 soldiers and the Nazi commanders and his entourage, adding to the illusion of an idyllic village.

As a result of the vanishing Jewish population from western countries, inquiries were being made internationally regarding their well-being. In 1943, Terezin underwent a beautification program to dupe the visiting International Red Cross officials of its real purpose. Fake money was created along with fake business fronts so that the visiting diginitaries would be convinced by what they saw. A schedule of concerts was created to entertain them, including a performance of Brundibar, a children's opera, by Hans Krasa. Although Brundibar was originally composed in 1938, it had to be re-orchestrated for the skeletal group which performed under Karel Ancerl . Ancerl survived to become the first conductor of the revived Prague Symphony after the war. At the same time, people were dying within the ghetto of hunger and illness at an increasing rate. During the time of beautification, the transports increased to reduce the overcrowded conditions. In June 1943, the Red Cross Delegation with Dr Rossel visited Terezin. Everything was absolutely picture perfect. The main square of the city had been cleaned up with a carousel and playgrounds for children, while elsewhere children were engaged in sports. Dr. Rossel praised Terezin, telling the world that the Jewish town was remarkable. The Nazi propaganda was effective with its creation of a Potemkin Village. Rossel's statement was used as proof to discredit any rumors about the extermination and concentration camps and the obviously diminishing population of Jewish people within the Nazi occupied Europe. However, when Rossel had appeared in Terezin, only about 28,000 people were left within the fortress as the results of the intensified transports to death camps.

After the success of the duping the Red Cross Delegation, the Propaganda Ministry used Terezin to make a film for international distribution, Der Fuehrer schenkt den Jueden eine Stadt (The Fuhrer Gave the Jews a Town). The film incorporated the children's opera by Hans Krasa, while Krasa himself was transported. It portrayed life within Terezin as idle while idle eaters were sent to death camps. Krasa died in Auschwitz on October 17, 1944. The Nazi authorities used Terezin to concentrate the intellectuals of Jewish society and so within the fort an Underground University developed with the chief purpose of maintaining minds and morals while providing education and hope for the children. Lectures by professors and rabbis were established with placards announcing their schedules. A symphony was organized, and although unstable in instrumentation, it provided on demand entertainment for the Nazi overlords within the fort, performing works of leading composers at the time. A prison of death, it became a living museum of culture and art. Costumes for opera and theater performances were made from rags, exquisite in detail. Toys were made from scraps of wood and artists depicted daily life in sketches that they hid. Forbidden to hold services, inmates met in secret "synagogues," hidden chambers of prayer.

Within these walls, music was composed by Viktor Ullmann, a student of Arnold Schonberg. A son of an Austrian military officer, he became the assistant director to The German Theater of Prague under Alexander Zemlinsky. A gifted pianist, he wrote an operatic parody, Der Kaiser von Atlantis oder die Todverweigerung, as a satiric answer to the propaganda film, Der Fuehrer Schenkt den Juden eine Stadt, which was produced for visiting Nazi dignitaries. Like many others, he was sent to Auschwitz where he was gassed on October 18, 1944. Included in the musical circle, were Pavel Haas and Gideon Klein. During his residency at Terezin, Ullmann also became the father figure of younger musicians, encouraging them to compose and create music in the the bleak world they endured. Art and intellectual activities became the main escape of the people living within the walls of Terezin. Like birds, they sang against the cruel elements they endured. Through Ullmann's eyes, it is possible to gain insight to the daily life ongoing within the hidden city as he maintained a daily journal, Der fremde Passagier, which contained daily thoughts, essays and poetry, exposing his inner life.

Ironically, the propaganda film was not only filmed in Terezin, but written, directed and acted by the inmates of the the fort. Later Frido Mann, the uncle of Thomas Mann (Magic Mountain), published a novel, Der Fuehrer Schenkt den Jueden eine Stadt, regarding his experiences within the walls. Although the novel does not mention Ullmann by name, he bases his main character, Peter Kien a librettist, on Ullmann's leadership and presence within the ghetto. Written as a parable on the creative life within the fort, Mann is able to present the paradox of daily life: the bitternesss of the imprisonment while revealing the ingenuity of the inmates. The creativity of the inmates transcended the walls as today the music and other creative works composed here travels around the world.

Without creating beauty, there was none left in their world. Inside Terezin, the intellectual world expanded while the external walls closed on their lives. On March 5, 1945, the Second Delegation of the Red Cross arrived in Terezin. The city was again beautified with the streets washed down and curtains hung in windows where previously there had been none. The report by Otto Lehner was enthusiastic. The Nazis were losing the War; transports increased and forced marches imposed to kill those who were already weakened by starvation and forced labor. April 15, 1945, Buchenwald was liberated by American soldiers who found corpses stashed in mountains. Throughout the east, camps were being discovered and liberated. Caught in the midst, Terezin received massive transports of victims, half dead, arriving from death camps. Spotted fever arrived with the skeletal remains of people tumbling out of overcrowded cattle cars from Romania, Poland, France, Soviet Union, Greeks, Belgians, Italians from Auschwitz, Birkau, Hannover and Buchenwald.

On May 8, 1945, the Soviet Army liberated Terezin on its way to Prague. Just before they entered the fort, the Nazi overseers demanded the elimination of "evidence" ordering 8000 urns of ashes dumped into the Ohre. However, the Nazis were very fond of paper and statistical data recording the efficient murder of people. Terezin holds an archives, recording every known person transported there. The books are extremely heavy with the weight of so many corpses.

And that is what I did that day inside a very muddy fort, where exhibits stand in honor of the thousands slain: I cleared the archives of their very heavy volumes of registration records, occassionally opening them to look at the names inscribed tidily in black indelible ink: name, number, birthdate, death, transport or illness—reason given for death. Everything logged as neatly in the style of a public certified accountant. The IRS would be ecstatic if companies kept such records. Fortunately, the archives were on the first floor as the ground floor was thoroughly flooded. The first floor was soggy with water stains beneath the windows, but the documents were off the floor on heavy military shelving. The Nazis evidently understood that the moat could flood the fort. The water squished beneath our feet as we trudged up and down the stairs, trucking out the ruined furniture and disposing of all the waterlogged exhibitions into a huge pile in the courtyard. What could be dried, we spread under the sunlight, littering the table and chairs we dragged out. Musty from years of dust and forgotten tragedy, the buildings smelled of the past. The grimy walls streaked with age and the cheap linoleum warped with water.

A national monument to all those who were transported, persecuted and murdered—how could it be neglected? Other towns were surrounded by water, cattle and livestock drowned, people stranded and cats clinging to roofs; but in Terezin only the past remained: the death marches, transports and Potemkin Village of an international farce. Forgotten among the living, we came, a group from Bejt Simcha in Prague to liberate the concentration camp from the flood. We worked in gangs, going from room to room, clearing out the exhibits and old furniture, clearing everything into the streets and courtyards. The air stunk of sodden paper, old furniture and sewage. Mud from the rivers covered everything, silting the floors of rooms and leaving watermarks on the walls of buildings on the first floors. Tourist brochures and books were stacked in cases on the street, awaiting collection for disposal.

The deserted town, once a garrison is permamently stained by the bloody crooked cross. The houses built under Joseph II, withstood the flood. The waters washed through them, leaving the foundations intact after centuries of their original construction-- a tribute to genius. Few people live there, perhaps three hundred or less. It's hard to live in a public graveyard, a graveyard where the tombstones stand over empty graves and doorways open into empty hallways and windows stare into vacant rooms.

For a break, we walked over to the execution grounds where the gallows were erected, climbing up onto the watch tower to look down into the neighboring inner courtyard of the fort still well under water. By the Commander's house, the swimming-pool was dry, the tile floor bleached white underneath the sun. The mentality of the Nazi overlord completely unfathomable. While thousands lived huddled with 1.6 square meters per person in crawl spaces or rooms crowded with triple bunks, the Nazi commander has a swimming-pool constructed by those he consigned to death. Yet survivors vivdly recall cells in the small fort so crowded that prisoners died from lack of oxygen or exposure to cold. They know of double-walled cells without windows where prisoners were isolated to go insane in the dark.

Despite of the sweeping influx of the flood, the most amazing thing happened—the exhibits on the second floor of the schoolhouse were untouched and preserved. The others that we emptied from the cellblocks were reproductions. The real artwork and costumes survived along with the archives.

So ironic it seems, that a fortress constructed to withstand a major military assault in the Austro-Prussian Wars and became a prison for unknown thousands on their way to death camps under Nazi occupation, succumbed to natural forces, needing to be rescued by descendents of the very people who were exterminated—the Jews.

Obviously, the Vodniks of the Labe and Ohre understood what they could take, leaving the artifacts for future generations. They knew that within Terezin, there were no teacups and no souls to snatch from the empty graves. Only shadows remained, too thin for their hands.

Mary C. Legg aquarian-vodnik, survived the Deluge, regularly review for CompulsiveReader and Midwest Book Review. pogo can be found on the web at anytime with "pogomcl". CE, fairytales and myths at

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