Holocaust Memory in Early Postwar Czechoslovakia

Peter Hallama, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne

As recent scholarship has demonstrated, it was not only in the 1960s, with the Eichmann trial, or in the 1980s, with Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah,” that the memory of the Holocaust emerged.1 From the immediate postwar period and onwards, different actors, most of them Jewish survivors, sought to bear witness to the persecution and murder of the Jews during the Second World War and did so in different ways—by publishing eyewitness and literary accounts of their own suffering, producing films, writing about the Holocaust in the press (mostly, but not exclusively, in the media of the reestablished Jewish communities), collecting material about the persecution of the Jews, and working to create the first monuments and memorials in public spaces and in Jewish cemeteries.2

Why, then, has the idea of a blank space in Holocaust memory and of survivors’ “silence” circulated for such a long time?3 The reasons must be sought in the perceptions and attitudes of the society at large rather than within Holocaust memory itself. Postwar nationalism and narratives of wartime heroism have contributed to the marginalization of Nazi antisemitism and the Holocaust as minor aspects of the history of the Second World War, externalizing them as parts of German and Jewish history, but not of respective “national” historical narratives.

In postwar Czechoslovakia, these dynamics were more pronounced since the Second World War was seen as the culmination of the age-old conflict between Czechs and Germans in the Bohemian Lands. The indifference of Czech postwar society towards the fate of their fellow Jewish citizens was evident already at the very end of the war. Moreover, Jews in postwar Czechoslovakia had to face two major accusations—they were either passive victims during the war or, even worse, a nationally “unreliable” and disloyal element. Indeed, the fact that, in the past, a portion of the Jewish population in the Bohemian Lands had spoken German and/or had identified with German nationality contributed to the stereotype of Jews as Germans, i.e. foreign elements and enemies of the Czech nation—an important aspect of Czech antisemitism since the 19th century.4The result was that commemorating the Holocaust did not make any sense in the nationalist atmosphere of the early postwar period. For the reconstruction of the Czechoslovak state, the only meaningful thing was the memory of Czech and Slovak suffering and “patriotic” resistance during the Second World War.

Numerous representatives and Jewish community members criticized this indifference towards the Holocaust in the immediate postwar years. The Czech-Jewish author František Langer, for instance, reported in 1946 that many in the society were focusing on the suffering of the non-Jewish Czechs during the war and all too quickly forgetting, leading to the “easy exclusion of the fate of the Jews from the consciousness of other people.”5 In a similar way, Štěpán Engel, a regular contributor to the publications of the Council of Jewish Religious Communities in postwar Czechoslovakia, spoke about “statistical forgetfulness,” i.e. the tendency to omit Jewish victims in Czechoslovak reports about the Second World War.6 Many Jewish survivors who returned to their hometowns from ghettos, concentration camps, or exile experienced hostility. They perceived this, too, as an “injustice, when you read everywhere of the atrocities that people have suffered, and the poor Jews are not mentioned anywhere.”7 Zeev Shek also observed this indifference, noticing in August 1945 that “people have already gotten bored of reading concentration camp reports and the exhumation of corpses leaves them cold.”8 He therefore insisted that it was a “Jewish duty” to document the Nazi persecution and murder of the Jews, since Czech authorities were only interested in recording the Nazi persecution of Czechs and Slovaks and in the history of Czechoslovak resistance.9 The Czechoslovak state and society did not forbid expressions of Holocaust remembrance, at least until the Communist takeover in 1948, but they took no notice of the specific persecution the Jews had been subjected to. This resulted in a sort of separation of the “Czech” and “Jewish” memory of the Second World War, which can be observed since 1945 and, to a certain extent, still persists today.10

One example perfectly illustrates this assessment: the Terezín memorial.11 Terezín, or Theresienstadt, has a double meaning in the Czech context, corresponding to its dual role in the history of the Second World War. It has a “Small Fortress,” i.e. the former Gestapo prison for the Czech national (and communist) resistance, and a “Main Fortress,” commonly called the “Theresienstadt Ghetto,” associated with the Holocaust and the Nazi persecution of the Jews. In the immediate postwar period, Jewish survivors wanted to preserve the site of the former ghetto and the town of Terezín as a “memorial for all time.”12 Therefore, the Council of Jewish Religious Communities in Czechoslovakia, in cooperation with the Jewish Museum in Prague, appointed the so-called “Terezín commission.” Its priority was preserving the “Jewish cemetery” outside the fort’s walls, where the early victims of the ghetto had been buried before the crematorium was built (in this same cemetery). Another project was the creation of a memorial on the banks of the Ohře River, where, in 1944, the Nazis had dumped the ashes of more than 20,000 Jewish victims. The plans of this commission included the unveiling of commemorative plaques in the town of Terezín and the installation of panels at the town’s main road, informing visitors and passersby about the history of the former Terezín Ghetto. The “Terezín commission” even proposed setting up a museum in the town of Terezín that would commemorate the history of the former Jewish ghetto and would preserve the accommodations from the time of the ghetto in an “authentic” way.

However, when in 1947 the official Terezín Memorial was eventually established, it was done on the site of the Small Fortress. Following the strong wave of patriotism in the immediate postwar period, the memorial was named the “Memorial of National Suffering.” The “National Cemetery” was built in front of the Small Fortress, where, in the future, major events, especially national rallies commemorating the Second World War every May, were organized. Nowhere was it mentioned that the majority of the human remains buried in the “National Cemetery” were Jewish victims of the ghetto.

The plans of the Jewish community to unveil commemorative plaques and to build a museum could not be realized. Suggestions to underscore the high number of Jewish victims buried in the “National Cemetery” fell on deaf ears. Already in 1946, representatives of the Jewish community had stated that the atmosphere in the town was characterized by indifference toward the memory of the Holocaust. Many Czechs who began to resettle in the town of Terezín in 1946 tried to acquire or reacquire houses. Their attempts to hastily renovate them frustrated the idea of preserving the objects for a museum.13

Finally, only two sites served as reminders of the history of the Jewish ghetto in Terezín. A small monument could be erected by the Ohře River, but any reference to Jewish victims was removed in 1946. The site was not generally accessible because it was part of a military zone. The “Jewish Cemetery” with the crematorium represented, therefore, one of the main “lieux de mémoire” of the Holocaust for the post-war Jewish community in Czechoslovakia. Yet, both sites remained marginal—they were not perceived as an integral part of the official Terezín Memorial and it was only owing to the efforts of the Jewish community that these sites were maintained. Moreover, both stood outside the fortress of Terezín and were thus hardly visible to visitors and passersby.

The situation in post-war Terezín reminds us of the obstacles that the memory of the Holocaust encountered in Czechoslovak society at large. The patriotic, nationalistic, and ethnocentric perception of the war led to the marginalization of the Holocaust and to a clear separation between “our” Czech and “their” Jewish history. The Second World War was perceived as a prolongation and climax of the eternal conflict between Czechs and Germans. The Jews merged with the Czech victims; no clear distinction was made between the Small and the Main Fortress; and the number of prisoners of the Small Fortress was exaggerated in order to balance, or even invert, the quantitative importance of the two parts of Terezín.14 According to most publications from the early postwar period, the prisoners of “Terezín”—in the singular form, as if Terezín had been one camp—were “Czech people” and “patriots,” suffering and fighting for the Czech homeland, “dying so that the Czech nation may live.”15

This marginalization of Holocaust memory in Czech society did not, however, lead to its suppression, and that is true, too, for the period following the Communist takeover in February 1948. For instance, Jewish survivors in Czechoslovakia met every year at the Jewish cemetery in Terezín to commemorate the Holocaust. They erected numerous commemorative plaques and memorials in Jewish cemeteries all over Czechoslovakia, and Jewish writers and journalists continued to publish accounts of the Holocaust. The exhibition of children’s drawings from the Terezín Ghetto, which the State Jewish Museum in Prague had prepared in the 1950s, met with international success. Nevertheless, it was not until the 1990s that larger segments of Czech society took notice of these manifestations of Holocaust memory.


1 ‒ Laura Jockusch, Collect and Record! Jewish Holocaust Documentation in Early Postwar Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); Imke Hansen, “Nie wieder Auschwitz!” Die Entstehung eines Symbols und der Alltag einer Gedenkstätte 1945-1955 (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2015); Regina Fritz, Eva Kovács, Béla Rásky (eds.), Before the Holocaust Had Its Name: Early Confrontations with the Nazi Mass Murder of the Jews / Als der Holocaust noch keinen Namen hatte: Zur frühen Aufarbeitung des NS-Massenmords an Jüdinnen und Juden (Vienna: New Academic Press, 2016); Simon Perego, Pleurons-les: Les Juifs de Paris et la commémoration de la Shoah (1944-1967) (Ceyzérieu: Champ Vallon, 2020); Kata Bohus, Peter Hallama, Stephan Stach (eds.), Growing in the Shadow of Antifascism. Remembering the Holocaust in State-Socialist Eastern Europe (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2022)

2 ‒ For all the different forms of Holocaust memory in early postwar Czechoslovakia, see, among others, Peter Hallama, Nationale Helden und jüdische Opfer. Tschechische Repräsentationen des Holocaust (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015); Lisa A. Peschel, ‘A Joyful Act of Worship’: Survivor Testimony on Czech Culture in the Terezín Ghetto and Postwar Reintegration in Czechoslovakia, 1945-48’, Holocaust and Genocide Studies 26, no. 2 (2012): 209228; Michal Frankl, ‘The Sheep of Lidice. The Holocaust and the Construction of Czech National History’, John-Paul Himka and Joanna Beata Michlic (eds.), Bringing the Dark Past to Light. The Reception of the Holocaust in Postcommunist Europe, ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013), 166–194; Elisa-Maria Hiemer, Jiří Holý, Agata Firlej, Hana Nichtburgerová (eds.), Handbook of Polish, Czech, and Slovak Holocaust Fiction. Works and Contexts (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2021)

3 ‒ For the pioneers who began to challenge this “myth of silence,” see Hasia R. Diner, We Remember with Reverence and Love: American Jews and the Myth of Silence after the Holocaust, 1945-1962 (New York: New York University Press, 2009); David Cesarani, Eric J. Sundquist (eds.), After the Holocaust: Challenging the Myth of Silence (London: Routledge, 2012).

4 ‒ Magdalena Sedlická, Ethnic Homogenization and Its Impact on Jews in the Bohemian Lands After 1945, in this edition; Magdalena Sedlická, ‘Němečtí Židé’ v Československu v letech 1945-1948’, Historie – Otázky – Problémy 8, no. 1 (2016): 120131; Kateřina Čapková, ‘Germans or Jews? German-Speaking Jews in Poland and Czechoslovakia after World War II’, Kwartalnik Historii Żydów / Jewish History Quarterly 246, no. 2 (2013): 348362.

5 ‒ Frant[išek] Langer, ‘Zapomínání’, Věstník Židovské obce náboženské v Praze 8, no. 15 (1946): 138139.

6 ‒ Št.E. [Štěpán Engel], ‘Zapomnětlivá statistika’, Věstník Židovské obce náboženské v Praze 9, no. 3 (1947): 2829.

7 ‒ Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (CAHJP), P 209/14. Letter from Lotta [Lotte Liebsteinová] to Gustav Sicher, 1. 7. 1946.

8 ‒ Yad Vashem Archives (YVA), O.7cz (Documentation regarding the Jews of Bohemia and Moravia, mainly during the Holocaust), file no. 263, fol. 161-162. Letter from Zeev Shek to R. Adler [Salomon Adler-Rudel], 29. 8. 1945.

9 ‒ Peter Hallama, ‘Theresienstadt – das Golgota der tschechischen Nation? Externalisierung und Marginalisierung des Holocaust in der Tschechoslowakei der unmittelbaren Nachkriegsjahre, Regina Fritz, Eva Kovács, Béla Rásky (eds.), Als der Holocaust noch keinen Namen hatte: Zur frühen Aufarbeitung des NS-Massenmords an Jüdinnen und Juden, (Vienna: New Academic Press, 2016), 399421.

10 ‒ See also Tomas Sniegon, ‘Their Genocide, or Ours? The Holocaust as a Litmus Test of Czech and Slovak Identities’, Klas-Göran Karlsson, Ulf Zander (eds.), Echoes of the Holocaust. Historical Cultures in Contemporary Europe, (Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2003), 177–200.

11 ‒ For the following, see Hallama, Nationale Helden und jüdische Opfer, 81-93.

12 ‒ Archives of the Jewish Museum in Prague (AJMP), fonds Hana Volavková, box 44. Letter from the Council of Jewish Religious Communities (Kurt Wehle) to Hana Volavková, 12. 6. 1946.

13 ‒ YVA, O.64 (Theresienstadt Collection), no. 109, fol. 20-22. Letter from Jiří Vogel and Erich Kohn to the Council of Jewish Religious Communities in Czechoslovakia, 22. 6. 1946.

14 ‒ In today’s estimates, about 32,000 prisoners were incarcerated in the Small Fortress. Early postwar accounts often speak of 90,000 or more prisoners. See, for instance, ‘Terezín v číslech’, Služba repatriantům, no. 20 (1945): 4; Gustav Hajčík, Jaroslav Volejník, Nezapomínáme. Fakta a data o památných dnech a událostech boje proti fašismu (Praha: Naše Vojsko, 1956).

15 ‒ See, among many others, ‘Kalvarie českého národa’, Hlas osvobozených 2, no. 20 (1946): 3.