Treatment of the ill in the Small Fortress

This article is the second part of story originally published in Newsletter 1/2009 which provided a general overview of the health care conditions in the former Gestapo police prison in Terezín.

Throughout the period of the prison’s existence, the state of health of the prisoners was adversely affected by the bad living conditions, bad food and heavy work activities, which resulted in minor but also more serious diseases and injuries. The dismal state of things was in no way improved by permanent reluctance of the prison management to take reasonable action in order to resolve it.

A partial help came in 1943 in the form of increased number of beds in sick rooms and provision of basic medical equipment in the treatment room. A permanent complication was nevertheless formed by the continuous rise in the number of prisoners who since 1943 ever more overwhelmingly outnumbered the capacity of the Small Fortress, up to the point where their number reached several times the object’s capacity. This resulted in severe deterioration of hygiene, outbreak of dangerous insects, the already low quality prison food dropped lost even more of its nutritional value. The overcrowded cells thus facilitated the spread of various diseases, which often culminated in deathly epidemics.

Among the most dangerous epidemic diseases was dysentery which befell the prisoners at the end of 1944. Due to the absence of counter-epidemic measures which had been proposed by the police physician Benno Krönert, not only male prisoners in the individual prison yards were struck down with dysentery, but, at the beginning of 1945, also women in the female prisoner section. Medics later estimated the number of dysentery victims at up to one third of those initially diagnosed with the disease.

The infected could not be properly isolated from the rest of the prisoners, only the most serious cases were removed to the then newly established prison camp hospital, the so-called Krankenrevier. The 60 bunk beds located there were nevertheless nowhere near enough for the influx of patients, some of whom were thus forced to lie in straw on the ground. The Krankenrevier’s conditions moreover prevented thorough care of the ill, patients with different diagnoses could not be isolated from each other and it was thus not rare for a cured but still weak patient to immediately become infected with a new disease. In this situation, prison commander Jöckel did not allow for transport of the most gravely ill patient to be treated in Litoměřice, and hundreds of people died in the horrible conditions of the prison hospital.

Shortly after dysentery was suppressed, symptoms of a new, fever-like disease began to surface among the prisoners, in particular in the IV yard. For a long time, the doctors who had no access to laboratory tests could not clearly identify the disease which in most cases culminated in death of the patient. The disease in question was in fact highly dangerous epidemic typhus, brought to the prison by prisoners of the IV yard, who were forced to labour daily in the Richard factory in Litoměřice. The situation was made even worse by an influx of infected people in extremely woeful condition from the evacuation transports, arriving at Terezín from the concentration camps being shut down as the battlefront advanced. Apart from epidemic typhus, the prison doctors also struggled with typhoid fever. Considering the total lack of medication and catastrophic conditions in the prison, the typhus epidemic broke out with full force in the last month of the war.

Despite the selfless efforts of the doctors, many patients fell victim to the ongoing reluctance of the SS commanders to react effectively to the alarming state of things. Heinrich Jöckel ignored the proposals of imprisoned doctors, among them doctor Krönert, who suggested through quarantine of the ill, decrease in the overall number of prisoners and abolishment of the work commandos sent to work outside the camp. It was only at the end of April when the work groups could no longer be assembled in required numbers due to the overall sickness rate, that work outside the Small Fortress ceased. Subsequently, on April 30, Jöckel, acting on Krönert’s recommendation and due to the no longer containable conditions in the IV yard, had the whole yard closed and the 3,000 men inside completely isolated from the rest of the prison. The IV yard was only opened again on May 4, the day when the medic squad of the Czech Auxiliary Action was finally allowed in the Small Fortress following lengthy negotiations.

On the arrival of the Red Army at Terezín on May 8, its medics immediately joined the efforts to contain the typhus epidemic. Civilians from the nearby villages were not indifferent towards the fate of former prisoners, either and tried to help in various way. The assistance was not restricted to the ill of the Small Fortress but also extended to those from the former ghetto who were by that time in a similarly woeful state. For more details on the post-war situation, check the Newsletter 1/2005.

The medics managed to accomplish their primary goal of containing the typhus epidemic (and other diseases) and prevent them from breaking out of the Terezín area. As is nevertheless documented by the death dates found on the headstones of the National Cemetery in front of the Small Fortress, they could not prevent many gravely ill patients from dying during the first few weeks following the liberation.


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