I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
In 1941, Germany opened a camp in the Northwestern Czech town of Terezín, which it renamed Theresienstadt. The place was run by the SS and was part concentration camp and part ghetto. The Israeli Holocaust documentation centre Yad Vashem notes that while the community “served as a transit camp for Jews en route to extermination camps, it was also presented as a ‘model Jewish settlement’ for propaganda purposes.”
Camp Used for Deception
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) says, “the Nazi regime employed the general fiction, primarily inside Germany, that the deported Jews would be deployed at productive labour in the East.”
But, a few people asked, how could the elderly Jews that were being rounded up be put to productive labour? To answer this annoying question, some old prisoners were sent to Theresienstadt that, according to USHMM “was cynically described as a ‘spa town’ where elderly German Jews could ‘retire’ in safety.”
The reality was that most of these people just passed through Theresienstadt on their way to the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
Approximately 144,000 Jews went through the camp. About a quarter of these died inside Theresienstadt, mostly from disease and malnutrition. The rest were murdered, but the killing machine didn’t get to 17,247 of them before liberation.
Theresienstadt Ghetto Expands
Initially, a few thousand inmates were housed in the army barracks of the garrison town. But, as the transports brought more captives, the need for more accommodation was apparent.
In February 1942, Theresienstadt’s 7,000 inhabitants were told to leave and the entire community was turned into a Jewish prison camp. Tens of thousands more people were shipped into the ghetto so that, as the Jewish Virtual Library points out, “With nearly sixty thousand Jews inhabiting an area originally designed for only seven thousand―extremely close quarters, disease, and lack of food were serious concerns.”
Even with the overcrowding, conditions in Theresienstadt were better than those in concentration camps such as Bergen-Belsen or Treblinka; this gave rise to the place sometimes being called the “Paradise Ghetto.”
Attempt to Deceive Inspectors
But, persistent reports of Jews being mistreated in the so-called labour camps kept leaking out. So, says Yad Vashem, “The Nazis decided to present Theresienstadt to an investigative commission of the International Red Cross. In preparation for the commission’s visit more deportations to Auschwitz were carried out in order to reduce the overcrowding in the ghetto.”
The whole place was gussied up with fake stores, and a bank and coffee house were opened. Flower gardens were planted all over the town, houses were painted, and children dressed up and sent off to school.
This sprucing up was all for the benefit of the visiting inspectors, who were treated to scenes of bakers turning out loaves of bread, a carefully timed delivery of vegetables, and workers everywhere singing as they toiled away at forge and sewing machine.
The Nazis even made a propaganda film showing the citizens happily going about their work in a blacksmith shop and a handbag factory before heading off to enjoy a game of soccer or to listen to a concert.
According to Yad Vashem most of the people in the film, Theresienstadt’s Jewish leadership, and the children were shipped off to extermination camps after the movie was completed.
The Inspectors Report
A three-member inspection group visited Theresienstadt on June 23, 1944. Two Danish government officials, Frants Hvass and Juel Hennigsen were joined by Maurice Rossel of the Red Cross from Switzerland.
They had a carefully staged eight-hour tour that highlighted the pleasant living conditions within the camp. Then, they wrote their reports.
The two Danes were taken in by the Nazi deception although, as reported by Holocaust Czech Republic “they expressed sympathy to the Jews.”
The Red Cross’s Maurice Rossel gave full-throated praise for the freedoms allowed to the inhabitants by the SS.
Conditions in the camp were harsh. Potatoes were as valuable as diamonds. I was hungry, scared, and sick most of the time. For my eighth birthday, my parents gave me a tiny potato cake with a hint of sugar; for my ninth birthday, an outfit sewn from rags for my doll; and for my tenth birthday, a poem written by my mother.”
Theresienstadt prisoner Inge Auerbacher who survived and emigrated with her parents to the United States in 1946
In 1979, the French documentary maker Claude Lanzmann filmed an interview with Rossel. Writing about the interview the USHMM notes that “Rossel admits that he gave Theresienstadt a clean bill of health and would probably do so again today, and that he was also given a tour of Auschwitz, which he did not realize was a death camp despite the sullen, haunted looks he received from the inmates.
“Lanzmann’s questioning raises the issues of to what degree Rossel and others like him were manipulated by the Nazis and to what degree they were willing to be manipulated as a consequence of their own politics and prejudices.”
A Few Lucky Ones
After the successful duping of the inspectors, the Nazis began emptying Theresienstadt. In the fall of 1944, about 24,000 Jews were shipped out to the gas chambers at Auschwitz and elsewhere.
The first to be transported to regular concentration camps were the able-bodied men; the idea being to get rid of those who might be troublesome first.
But a tiny number got a reprieve.
In exchange for a ransom of $1.25 million, SS chief Heinrich Himmler gave permission for 1,210 Jews, mostly from Holland, to go to Switzerland.
And, as the war wound down, the King of Denmark, Christian X, negotiated the freedom of about 400 Danish Jews.
But, as the Soviet Red Army advanced across Eastern Europe, the Nazis started to empty their concentration camps and evacuate the emaciated residents. Many of these people were force-marched to Theresienstadt, where thousands of them were found in appalling condition when the ghetto was liberated in April 1945.
- An early inmate of the Terezín fortress was Gavrilo Princip. He was the Serbian anarchist who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo. The June 1914 murders precipitated World War I. Princip was held until April 1918 when he died in the fortress from tuberculosis.
- One of the commandants of Theresienstadt was Anton Burger. In November 1943, he decided to take a census of the camp’s 40,000 inmates. They were made to stand outside in freezing temperatures as they were counted. As a result, about 300 prisoners died of hypothermia. Burger was sentenced to death in 1947 by a Czech court but he escaped. He was arrested again in 1951 and escaped a second time. He changed his identity several times and avoided detection until his death in Essen, Germany in 1991, at the age of 80.
- “The Ghettos, Theresienstadt.” Yad Vashem.
- “Theresienstadt.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
- “Theresienstadt: the “Model” Ghetto.” Jewish Virtual Library.
- “Der Fuhrer Schenkt den Juden eine Stadt.” (“The Fuhrer Gives the Jews a City”). Produced by the Ministry of Propaganda of the Third Reich, 1944.
- “Embellishment and the Visit of the International Committee of the Red Cross to Terezín.” Matěj Stránský, Holocaust Czech Republic, July 19, 2011.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on September 07, 2018:
Hello, Rupert, this is terrible!
RTalloni on September 07, 2018:
It is so important to continue discussions about this time and place in history, particularly so we can continually examine ourselves, our governments, and societies. We think we would never be a part of something, or be deceived by those doing such things, but we need to be careful of jumping on any bandwagon for or against movements.