Terezín was chosen by the Nazis as a reception and transit camp for the Jews from the Protectorate, Germany, Netherlands, Denmark and Austria. Later on, the Jews from Hungary and Slovakia were also interned here.
The fortress of Terezín was founded in the 18th century by Emperor Joseph II. The purpose of the town can be seen from its architecture and is the reason the Nazis chose it: Terezín was fortified, located close to the Protectorate’s border with the Reich and had numerous barracks, which could accommodate many. Until June 1942, because the civil population also lived here, the deported prisoners were prohibited from leaving the barracks.
In June 1940, the Nazis rapidly established a Gestapo prison for political prisoners from the Protectorate in the Malá pevnost (Small Fortress).
The SS headquarters has its seat in Terezín but the ghetto was run by the Jewish self-rule. It had to fulfil the orders of the SS and helping the prisoners was almost impossible. Even worse, the self-rule was forced to choose the people for the transports to the east.
From November 1941 to 8th May1945 around 140,000 people, 10,000 of them children, went through Terezín. Ninety thousand prisoners were deported to the east. 6,875 Jews from the Protectorate and about 240 from the sequestrated Czechoslovakian border areas, the so-called Sudetenland, lived to see the end of the war in Terezín.
Terezín was marked as a Jewish ghetto. The mandatory manual labour for people age 16 - 65 was in force here, but in fact, much younger children worked as well. The inhabitants of the ghetto suffered from shortages of food, bad hygienic conditions, diseases and lack of space. Terezín was overcrowded: the town planned before the war for a population of about 7 thousand people now had to hold 50 to 60 thousand prisoners. The hard living conditions resulted in a high mortality rate: in June 1942 approximately 32 prisoners died every day, in September the number had risen to 131.
The fear of the transports to the east was a day-to-day reality in Terezín. Nobody knew the fate of the transports in detail: it was said that work in the Reich was involved, but the fear of the unknown still existed.
Children were an important part of the population in Terezín. The Jewish self-rule was aware of the fact that it was necessary to help the children as much as possible. The children were torn from their life and often separated from the rest of their family. The department of youth looked after the material and health support, education and upbringing of the children ages 4 – 16. They tried to protect the children from moral devastation and psychical deprivation.
During the course of 1942, homes for children and teenagers – so-called kinderheims, abbreviated heims – were formed in some buildings in Terezín. The children lived together in these boys’ and girls’ homes, about 30 children to a room, under the supervision of caretakers. The children had their meals together, went in for prohibited classes (hidden under the title “programme”) and played games together as well. Some children worked: they helped in the garden or learned a trade (carpenter, locksmith, gardener).
In many homes, self-rule was established – the children themselves were to look after tidying up, hygiene and finishing their tasks. Children in these homes also made their own magazines. The most well-known magazine was the Vedem (We Lead).
By 31st December 1941, 517 children under 15 years were interned in Terezín. By the end of June 1942, there were 1,408. In further period about 3 000 children stayed in Terezín. After the liquidation transports from Terezín to Auschwitz in Autumn 1944, eight hundred and nineteen children remained in Terezín until 30th October 1944. Of the more than 10,000 children who were deported to the east, only about 240 of them returned. About 880 children were liberated in Terezín.