Terezín (Theresienstadt) is a strangely quiet little town with a bizarre history.  About an hour’s drive from the bustling city of Prague, it was built in 1780 as a fortress by the Hapsburg Emperor Joseph II and named for his mother, Maria Theresa.  It served as a garrison town over the next 150 years; in 1930, it had a population of 7181, half of them military personnel housed in barracks.

In November, 1941, the Nazis converted Terezín to their own purposes: "The Theresienstadt ghetto was created by the Germans to solve an awkward problem they had unexpectedly come upon in their war against the Jews: what to do with certain ‘special’ categories of Jews."  These "special categories" included decorated veterans of the first World War, many old people, and the renowned and artistic among Europe's Jews: film stars, composers, musicians, actors, and artists.  By August, 1942, 41,552 human beings were crowded into Terezín.

Visual Arts

Artwork on this page:Terezin survivor Helga Weiss

Artwork on this page:Terezin survivor Helga Weiss

The Nazis established a Technische Abteilung (Drafting Studio) in Terezín and put the artists to work creating propaganda.  But the Germans, in exploiting the skills of the Jewish artists, unwittingly and unintentionally provided them with a place to work and with access to materials: "paper, canvas, pencils, crayons, ink, paints." And so, at night and in secret, the artists recorded and interpreted their own artistic vision of the world of Terezín.  Enough of this secret work was preserved – hidden in double walls, buried in the ground, or smuggled out by friendly guards – to make this the largest surviving collection of art from the camps.

It was not only adult artists, but the children of Terezín who also contributed to this astonishing creative output.  The children of Terezín left a remarkable legacy in their poetry and art.  No less remarkable were the teachers who defied camp rules to offer the children art therapy in the guise of art lessons, to teach literature, and to organize poetry contests, recitations, and cultural programs in the dorms.

Drawing by Helga Weiss

The teachers saw that the children of Terezín needed a form of artistic expression as a way to moderate the chaos of their lives ... to help restore a balance to terrified children. They helped the students to set aside the horrors of the moment by giving them a sense of dignity through artistic experience. They created a center of meaning at the heart of a universe that was hollow, absurd and finally, unbearable.

In two and a half years, the children in Terezín created about five thousand drawings and collages. Of the fifteen thousand children deported from Terezín to Auschwitz, only 100 survived.  But 5,000 children’s drawings lived on.


In addition to art, music held a prominent place in the cultural life of the camp.  Choirs, chamber music groups, orchestras, and other musical ensembles abounded.  Some of the most promising composers and musicians of the time (including Viktor Ullman and Gideon Klein) were among the inmates of Terezín, and frequent concerts and recitals were part of the cultural life of the camp.

Brundibár, the children's opera composed by Hans Krása, with a libretto by Adolf Hoffmeister, was by far the most popular musical attraction in Terezín.  Written in 1938-39 for a children's opera competition (which, because of the Nazi occupation, never took place), it had been produced only once in Prague, in the winter of 1942-43, by the boys' choir at an orphanage.  By that time, however, Krása had already been deported to Terezín.  And when the children and the director of the orphanage, Rudolf Freudenfeld, were also deported there, Freudenfeld smuggled in with him the piano score.  Krása re-wrote it for the available instruments and rehearsals began, under the direction of Rafael Schaechter.  Brundibár had its first performance in Terezín on September 23, 1943.  In all, there were fifty-five performances, all played to full houses of enthusiastic audiences.  In June of 1944, the final scene of the opera was immortalized by the Nazis in a propaganda film, and the children performed for a visit of the International Red Cross.  By the fall of 1944, when the Nazis' propaganda purposes had been served, the composer, the conductor, and most of the cast were deported to Auschwitz, where most of them perished.


Terezin Statistics

- established as a concentration camp in November, 1941

- liberated (by the Russian Army) in May, 1945

- before Nov., 1941 , town had 7181 inhabitants

- by December, 1942, there were 58,497 prisoners

- total number of prisoners in Terezin: 140,000 (74,000 Czech; 43,000 German; 15,000 Austrian; 5,000 Dutch; 466 Danish; 1,500 Slovak; 1,000 Hungarian)

- 33,430 prisoners died in Terezin (100 - 150 persons/day)

- 87,000 were transported (84,000 to Auschwitz)

- 5,000 children's drawings were turned over to the State Jewish Museum in Prague in 1952

- 1st collection of drawings published by the State Jewish Museum in 1962

Drawing by Helga Weiss


To learn more about the children of Terezin go to www.modelghetto.com