During the Second World
War, small bits of information about the extreme and horrific episodes
perpetrated under Nazi Germany's Third Reich reached a shocked,
unbelieving world. The Nazis needed to answer the world's growing concerns
and yet they wanted to continue implementing their "Final
Solution" to the "Jewish Problem". The Nazis decided to use
Theresienstadt to solve the growing outside pressure. Through deceit and
subterfuge, the Nazis transformed Theresienstadt into a "model ghetto."
Nazi Germany's most DIABOLICAL LIE.
By 1941, conditions for Czech Jews were growing worse. The Nazis were in
the process of creating a plan of how to treat and how to deal with Czechs
and Czech-Jews. The Czech-Jewish community had already felt pangs of loss
and disunion since several transports had already been sent East.
Jakob Edelstein, a prominent member of the Czech-Jewish community,
believed that it would be better for his community if they were
concentrated locally rather than sent to the East. At the same time, the Nazis were facing two problems. The
first was what to do with the prominent Jews that were being carefully
watched and looked after by Aryans. Since most Jews were sent on
transports under the pretension of "work," the second problem
was how could the Nazis peacefully transport the elderly Jewish
had hoped that the ghetto would be located in a section of Prague, the
Nazis chose the garrison town of Terezin. Terezin
is located approximately ninety miles north of Prague and just south of
Litomerice. The town was originally built in 1780 by Emperor Joseph II of
Austria and named after his mother, Empress Maria Theresa. Terezin
consisted of the Big Fortress and the Small Fortress. The Big Fortress was
surrounded by ramparts and contained barracks. After 1882, Terezin
was no longer used as a fortress. For the next several decades, the
garrison town of Terezin remained virtually the same, almost entirely
separated from the rest of the countryside. The Small Fortress was used as
a prison for dangerous criminals. Terezin changed dramatically when the
Nazis renamed it Theresienstadt and sent the first Jewish transports there
in November 1941.
The Nazis sent approximately 1300 Jewish men on two transports to
Theresienstadt on November 24 and December 4, 1941. These workers made up
the Aufbaukommando (construction detail), later known in the camp as AK1
and AK2. These men were sent to transform the garrison town.
The largest and most serious problem they faced was metamorphosing a town
which in 1940 held approximately 7,000 residents into a concentration camp
which needed to hold about 35,000 to 60,000 inmates. Besides the lack of
housing, sanitary facilities and bathrooms were scarce, water was severely
limited and contaminated, and the town lacked sufficient electricity.
To solve these
problems, to enact German orders, as well as coordinate the day to day
affairs of the ghetto, the Nazis appointed Jakob Edelstein as the
Judenälteste (Elder of the Jews) and a Judenrat (Jewish Council) was
established. As the Jews worked to transform
Theresienstadt, the population of Theresienstadt watched on. Though a few
residents attempted to give the Jews assistance in small ways, their mere
presence increased the restrictions on Jews' mobility. There would soon
come a day when the Theresienstadt residents would be evacuated and the
Jews would be isolated and completely dependent on the Germans.
has long been remembered for it's culture, it's famous prisoners, and it's
visits by Red Cross officials. What many don't know is that within this
serene facade lay a real and very deadly concentration camp. 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. But in many ways, life and death within
Theresienstadt became focused on the numbers of frequent transports to
For those arriving at Theresienstadt there were many diversified ways
people knew about their new home. Some, like Norbert Troller, had enough
information in advance to know to hide items and valuables.1
Others, especially the elderly, were duped by the Nazis to believe that
they were going to a resort or spa. Many elderly actually paid large sums
of money for a nice location within their new home. When they arrived,
they were housed in the same small spaces, if not smaller, as everyone
To get to Theresienstadt,
thousands of Jews, from orthodox to assimilated, were deported from their
old homes. At first, many of the deportees were Czech, but later many
German, Austrian, and Dutch Jews arrived. These Jews were crammed in
cattle cars with little or no water, food, or sanitation. The trains
unloaded at Bohusovice, the nearest train station to Theresienstadt,
approximately 2 km away. The deportees were then forced to disembark and
march the rest of the way to Theresienstadt while carrying all of their
Once the deportees
reached Theresienstadt, they went to the check point (called
"floodgate" or "Schleuse" in camp slang). The
deportees were then registered and placed in a registry index. Then, they
were searched. The Nazis or Czech gendarmes and capos were especially
looking for jewelry, money, cigarettes, as well as other items not allowed
in the camp such as hot plates and cosmetics.2 During this
initial process, the deportees were assigned to their "housing."
One of the many problems with pouring thousands of human beings into a
small living space had to do with housing. Where were 60,000 people going
to live in a town meant to hold 7,000? This was a problem the Ghetto
administration constantly tried to find solutions for. Triple-tiered bunk
beds were installed and every available foot of floor space was used. In
August 1942, (the camp population not yet at its highest point), the
allotted space per person was a mere two square yards, this included per
person usage/need for lavatory, kitchen, and storage space.3
living/sleeping areas were covered with vermin. These pests included, but
certainly were not limited to, rats, fleas, flies, and lice. Norbert
Troller wrote about his experiences "Coming back from such surveys
(of the housing), our calves were bitten and full of fleas that we could
only remove with kerosene."4 The housing was separated by sex. Women and children under
twelve were separated from the men and the boys over age twelve. Food was
also a problem. In the beginning there weren't even enough cauldrons to
cook food for all of the inhabitants.5 In May 1942, rationing
with differential treatment to different segments of society was
established. Ghetto inhabitants who worked at hard labor received the most
food while the elderly received the least. The food scarcity affected the
elderly the most. Lack of nourishment, lack of medicines, and general
susceptibility to illness made their death rate extremely high.
Initially, those who had died were wrapped in a sheet and buried. But the
lack of food, lack of medicines, and lack of space soon took its toll on
Theresienstadt's population and corpses began to outgrow the possible
locations for graves. In September 1942, a
crematorium was built. There were no gas chambers built with this
crematorium, it was built to dispose of the growing number of corpses. The
crematorium could dispose of 190 corpses per day.6 Once the
ashes were searched for melted gold (from teeth), the ashes were placed in
a cardboard box and stored. Near the end of the war, the Nazis tried to
cover their tracks by disposing of the ashes. They disposed of the ashes
by dumping 8,000 cardboard boxes into a pit and dumping 17,000 boxes into
the Ohre River.7 Though the mortality rate in the camp was
high, the largest fear lay in the transports.
to the East
Of those who arrived in the original transports to Theresienstadt, many
had hoped that living in Theresienstadt would preclude them from being
sent East and subsequently, their stay would last the duration of the war.
On January 5, 1942 (less than two months since the arrival of the first
transports in), their hopes were shattered. Daily Order No. 20
announced the first transport out of Theresienstadt. Transports left
Theresienstadt frequently and each one was made up of one thousand to five
thousand Theresienstadt prisoners. The Nazis decided how many people were
to be on each transport but they placed the burden of who was to go, on
the Jews themselves. The Council of Elders became responsible for
fulfilling the Nazis' quotas.
Life or death became
dependent upon exclusion from the transports East or,
"protection." Automatically, all members of the AK1
and AK2 were exempted from transports and five members
of their closest family. Other major ways to become protected were those
working in jobs that helped the German war effort, important workers in
the Ghetto administration, or being on someone else's list. Finding ways
to keep yourself and your family on a protection list, thus off the
transports, became a major endeavor of each Ghetto inhabitant. Though some
inhabitants were able to find protection, nearly one-half to two-thirds of
the population were not protected.8 For every transport, the
bulk of the Ghetto population feared their name would be chosen.
On October 5, 1943, the first Danish Jews were transported into
Theresienstadt. Soon after their arrival, the Danish Red Cross and the
Swedish Red Cross began inquiring about their whereabouts and their
condition. The Nazis decided to let them visit one location that would
prove to the Danes and to the world that Jews were living under humane
conditions. But how could they change the overcrowded, pest infected,
ill-nourished, and high mortality-rate camp into a wonderful spectacle for
the world? In December 1943, the Nazis told the Council of Elders of
Theresienstadt about the Embellishment. The commander of Theresienstadt,
SS Colonel Karl Rahm, took control of planning. An exact route was planned
for the visitors to take. All buildings and grounds along this route were
to be enhanced by green turf, flowers, and benches. A playground, sports
fields, and even a monument were added. Prominent and Dutch Jews had their
billets enlarged, as well as had furniture, drapes, and flower boxes
But even with the
physical transformations of certain areas of the Ghetto, Rahm thought that
the Ghetto was too crowded. On May 12, 1944, Rahm ordered the deportation
of 7,500 inhabitants. In this transport, the Nazis decided that all
orphans and most of the sick should be included to help the facade that
the Embellishment was creating. The Nazis, so clever at creating facades,
didn't miss a detail. They erected a sign over a building that read
"Boys' School" as well as another sign that read "closed
during holidays."9 Needless to say, no one ever attended
the school. On the day that the commission arrived, June 23, 1944, the
Nazis were fully prepared. As the tour commenced, well-rehearsed actions
took place that were created specially for the visit. Bakers baking bread,
a load of fresh vegetables being delivered, and workers singing were all
queued by messengers who ran ahead of the entourage.10 After
the visit, the Nazis were so impressed with their propaganda feat that
they decided to make a film depicting the story of Theresienstadt.
Once the Embellishment was over, the residents of Theresienstadt knew
there would be further deportations.11 On September 23, 1944,
the Nazis ordered a transport of 5,000 able-bodied men. The Nazis had
decided to liquidate the Ghetto and initially chose able-bodied men to be
on the first transport because they were the most likely to rebel. Soon
after the 5,000 were deported, another order came for 1,000 more. The
Nazis were able to manipulate some of the remaining Jews by offering some
of those who had just sent family members an opportunity to join them by
volunteering for the next transport. After these, transports continued to
leave Theresienstadt frequently. All exemptions and "protection"
were abolished; the Nazis now chose who was to go on each transport.
Deportations continued through October. After these transports, only 400
able-bodied men, plus women, children, and elderly were left within the
What was going to
happen to these remaining inhabitants? The Nazis couldn't come to an
agreement. Some hoped that they could still cover up the inhumane
conditions that the Jews has suffered through and thus soften their
punishment after the war. Other Nazis realized that there would be no
clemency and wanted to dispose of all the incriminating evidence,
including the remaining Jews. No real decision was made and in some ways,
both were implemented. In the course of trying to look good, the Nazis
made a few deals with Switzerland. Even a transport of Theresienstadt
inhabitants were sent there. In April 1945, transports and death marches
reached Theresienstadt. Several of these prisoners had left Theresienstadt
just months before. These groups were being evacuated from concentration
camps such as Auschwitz and Ravensbrück and other camps farther East. As
the Red Army pushed the Nazis farther back, they evacuated the camps. Some
of these prisoners arrived on transports while many others arrived on
foot. They were in terrible ill-health and some carried typhus.
Theresienstadt was unprepared for the large numbers that entered and were
unable to properly quarantine those with contagious diseases; thus, a
typhus epidemic broke out within Theresienstadt. Besides
typhus, these prisoners brought the truth about the transports East. No
longer could Theresienstadt inhabitants hope that the East was not as
terrible as the rumors suggested - instead, it was much, much worse.
On May 3, 1945, the
Ghetto Theresienstadt was placed under the protection of the International
View of the train station in
Theresienstadt-Bauschowitz (Bohusovice) taken
during the arrival of a transport of Dutch Jews. (February 1944)
A view of the barracks and the crematorium
in Theresienstadt concentration
camp. (After May 1945)
Arrival of Jews into the Theresienstadt
A transport of Dutch Jews arrives in Theresienstadt. Close-up of a man
wearing a yellow star walking down a ghetto street. Behind him a man pulls
a wagon of bread. (February 1944)
A transport of Dutch Jews arrives in
Theresienstadt. A teenage girl,
carrying two small pots, walks along a Ghetto street. (February 1944)
A transport of Dutch Jews arrives in
Theresienstadt. A woman receives
a bowl of soup. (February 1944)
A transport of Dutch Jews arrives in
Theresienstadt. Dr. Paul Epstein,
chairman of the Council of Elders, greets the new arrivals.
1. Norbert Troller, Thersienstadt:
Hitler's Gift to the Jews (Chapel Hill, 1991) 4-6.
2. Zdenek Lederer, Ghetto Theresienstadt (New York, 1983) 37-38.
3. Lederer, 45.
4. Troller, 31.
5. Lederer, 47.
6. Lederer, 49.
7. Lederer, 157-158.
8. Lederer, 28.
9. Lederer, 115.
10. Lederer, 118.
11. Lederer, 146.
12. Lederer, 167.
Lederer, Zdenek. Ghetto Theresienstadt.
New York, 1983.
Schwertfeger, Ruth. Women of Theresienstadt:
Voices From a Concentration Camp. New York, 1989.
Troller, Norbert. Theresienstadt: Hitler's
Gift to the Jews.
Chapel Hill, 1991.
Yahil, Leni. The Holocaust: The Fate of
European Jewry. New York, 1990.