The Small Fortress

A paved pathway leads to the reddish stone wall surrounding the prison, and you are confronted with a large arched entranceway that is painted with thick white and black stripes. Beyond the entrance is a gravel main courtyard with rows and rows of barracks. Inside the barracks are long hallways and bare prison cells, some with rows of wooden bunks for numerous occupants and others for solitary prisoners. Stepping into one of the solitary confinement cells was deeply disturbing. You find yourself in a tiny square shaped room with stone floor, walls, and a ceiling which rises high above you. High up on the wall is a long narrow window, too high for a person to see out of, except perhaps a patch of blue sky and light on sunny days. On the day I visited there was nothing visible from the window but dim gray light and clouds and within the cell was a sense of crushing bleakness. It seemed to me that this was a place that was meant to break human spirits and take away all hope. The feeling lingered with me as we wandered through the courtyard, in and out of barracks, and explored a tunnel that stretched for many meters beneath the grounds of the Small Fortress. And especially when I saw the words Arbeit Macht Frei painted above a prison gateway. The Nazis no doubt knew exactly what this place could do to a human spirit, I was sure of it.

By the time we left the Small Fortress, the rain was pounding the buildings, roads and earth heavily and the dark gray sky reflected my mood on leaving the Small Fortress. We soon caught our bus back to Prague, and though I had been at Terezin for less than a day, its impact on me was profound. Above all, the voices of the artists echoed in my mind and wouldn’t let me go. At that time I did not yet know that sharing their stories would become a kind of mission for me. And I never dreamed that nearly four years later I would meet one of the few children who survived Terezin.