Theresienstadt concentration camp (often referred to as Terezín) was a Nazi German ghetto during World War II. It was established by the Gestapo in the fortress and garrison city of Terezín (German name Theresienstadt), located in what is now the Czech Republic.
The fortress of Terezín was constructed between the years 1780 and 1790 by the orders of the Austrian emperor Joseph II in the north-west region of Bohemia. It was designed to be a component of a projected but never fully realized fort system of the monarchy, another piece being the fort of Josefov. Terezín took its name from the mother of the emperor, Maria Theresa of Austria who reigned 1740–1780. By the end of the 18th century, the facility was obsolete as a fort; in the 19th century, the fort was used to accommodate military and political prisoners.
From 1914 till 1918 it housed one of its most famous prisoners: Gavrilo Princip. Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife on June 28, 1914, which led to the First World War. Princip died in cell number 1 from tuberculosis on April 28, 1918.
On June 10, 1940, the Gestapo took control of Terezín and set up the prison in the Small Fortress (kleine Festung), see below. By November 24, 1941, the Main Fortress (große Festung, i.e. the town Theresienstadt) was turned into a walled ghetto. To the outside it was presented by the Nazis as a model Jewish settlement, but in reality it was a concentration camp. Theresienstadt was also used as a transit camp for European Jews en route to Auschwitz.
Dr. Siegfried Seidl, an SS-Hauptsturmführer, served as the first camp commandant in 1941. Seidl oversaw the labor of 342 young men, known as the Aufbaukommando, who converted the fortress into a concentration camp. Although the Aufbaukommando were promised that they and their families would be spared transport, eventually all were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1943, for Sonderbehandlung, or "special treatment", i.e. immediate gassing of all upon arrival.
As in other European ghettos, a Jewish Council nominally ruled over the ghetto. In Theresienstadt this was known as the "Cultural Council" and eventually known by the residents as the "Jewish self-government of Theresienstadt". The first of the Jewish Elders of Theresienstadt was Jakob Edelstein, a Polish-born Zionist and former head of the Prague Jewish community. In 1943, he was deported to Auschwitz, where it is claimed he was shot together with his family. The second was Paul Eppstein, a sociologist originally from Mannheim, Germany. Earlier, Eppstein was the speaker of the Reichsvereinigung der Juden in Deutschland, the central organization of Jews in Nazi Germany. In the course of the liquidation transports in autumn 1944, when some two thirds of the ghetto population were deported to Auschwitz, it is claimed Eppstein was shot in the Small Fortress. He died on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Hebrew calendar, after he informed the deported people what was awaiting them in the "East". Benjamin Murmelstein, a Lvov-born Vienna rabbi succeeded Eppstein. His popularity in the ghetto was similar with the one of the SS command. In the last days of existence of the ghetto, rabbi Leo Baeck served as the Elder. In 1943 to 1945, he was the speaker of the Council of Elders of Theresienstadt, after being deported from Berlin, where he served as the head of the Reichsvereinigung der Juden in Deutschland.
This camp was established by the head of the RSHA and Reich Protector for Bohemia and Moravia, Reinhard Heydrich. It soon became the "home" for a great number of Jews from occupied Czechoslovakia. The 7,000 non-Jewish Czechs living in Terezín were expelled by the Nazis in the spring 1942. As a consequence, the Jewish community became a closed environment.
Many of the 80,000 Czech Jews who died in the Holocaust were killed in Theresienstadt, where the conditions were extremely difficult. In a space previously inhabited by 7,000 Czechs, now over 50,000 Jews were gathered. Food was scarce and in 1942 almost 16,000 people died, including Esther Adolphine (a sister of Sigmund Freud) who died on September 29, 1942; Friedrich Münzer (a German classicist), who died on October 20, 1942. Medicine and tobacco were strictly prohibited; possession could be punished by hard labor or death. Single men and women were officially forbidden to meet, or to communicate with a Gentile without German permission, however married couple often remained together and were able to sleep in the same quarters.
In the spring of 1945, the inhabitants of Theresienstadt were screened by the Gestapo who made a classification that took note of prominent individuals. These 150 - 200 prominent individuals were given usually a single room for just two people, so that a family of husband and wife could live by themselves. Several of these were members of the Cultural Council who were included among the prominent due to the influence of Benjamin Murmurstein who was himself already classified as "prominent" as the "Jewish Elder" of Theresienstadt. Not surprisingly Murmurstein's popularity in the ghetto was similar with the one of the SS command. It is inferred in statements from ex-residents that there were often issues with nepotism and protection of individuals by those Jews who held positions of authority over the other Jews.
Theresienstadt supplied the German war effort with a source of Jewish slave labor. Their major contribution was the splitting of mica mined from local Czechoslovakia. Blind prisoners were often spared deportation by assignment to this task. Others manufactured boxes or coffins. Others sprayed military uniforms with a white dye to provide camouflage for German soldiers on the Russian front. According to ex-residents, Theresienstadt was also a sorting a re-distribution centre for underwear and clothing confiscated from Jews.. "from all parts of Germany, the baggage taken away from the Jews was sent to Theresienstadt, and there it was packaged, sorted-out in order to be sent out all over the country, to various cities, for the people who were bombed-out and suffered a shortage of underwear and clothing."
456 Jews from Denmark were sent to Theresienstadt in 1943. These were Jews who had not escaped to Sweden before the arrival of the Nazis. Included also in the transports were some of the European Jewish children whom Danish organizations had been attempting to conceal in foster homes. The arrival of the Danes is of great significance as the Danes insisted on the Red Cross having access to the ghetto. This was a rare move, given that most European governments did not insist on their fellow Jewish citizens being treated according to some fundamental principles. The Danish king, Christian X, later secured the release of the Danish internees on April 15, 1945. The White Buses, in cooperation with the Danish Red Cross, collected the 413 who had survived.
On February 5, 1945, the SS chief Heinrich Himmler allowed a transport of 1,210 Jews from Theresienstadt, most of them originating from the Netherlands, to Switzerland. According to an agreement between Himmler and Jean-Marie Musy, a pro-Nazi former Swiss president, the group was released after $1.25 million were placed in Swiss banks by Jewish organizations working in Switzerland.
On May 1, 1945, control of the camp was transferred from the Germans to the Red Cross. A week later, on May 8, 1945, Terezín was liberated by Soviet troops.
After the victory of the Allies in 1945, Theresienstadt was used by Czech partisans and former inmates to hold German SS personnel and civilians as retaliation for their atrocities.
Theresienstadt was originally designated to be seen to house privileged Jews from Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Austria. Many educated Jews were inmates of Theresienstadt, and the camp was publicized by the Nazis for its rich cultural life - whilst some claim that this was simply a masque to conceal the horror of the place, ex-resident's own words describe the cultural development slightly differently; "We had . . . During the early period there were no (musical)instruments whatsoever, And the cultural life came to develop itself only when the . . . when the whole management of Theresienstadt was steered into an organized course." . At least four concert orchestras were operated in the camp, as well as chamber groups and jazz ensembles. Several stage performances were produced and attended by camp inmates. Many prominent artists from Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Germany were imprisoned there. There were artists, writers, scientists, jurists, diplomats, musicians, and scholars.
The community in Theresienstadt tried to ensure that all the children who passed through continued with their education. Though the Nazis decreed that all camp children over a certain age must be gainfully employed, working on stage was considered employment, and the children's education often continued under the guise of work or cultural activity. Daily classes and sports activities were held and the magazine Vedem was edited there. This affected some 15,000 children, of whom only about 1,100 survived to the end of the war. Other estimates place the number of the surviving children as low as 100.
The camp served as a place of internment for conductor Rafael Schächter, who formed a chorus within the camp and gave a performance of the massive and complex Requiem by Giuseppe Verdi. Schächter would go on to conduct 13 more performances of the work within the chorus before his eventual deportation to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Julius Stwertka, violinist and a former leading member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and co-leader of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra perished in the camp on 17 December 1942.
Artist and art teacher Friedl Dicker-Brandeis created drawing classes for children in the ghetto. This activity resulted in the production of over four thousands children's drawings, which Dicker-Brandeis hid in two suitcases before being sent to Auschwitz. This collection was thus preserved from destruction by the Nazis and was not discovered until a decade later. Most of these drawings can now be seen at The Jewish Museum in Prague, whose Archive of Holocaust section is responsible for the administration of the Terezin Archive Collection. The children of the camp also wrote stories and poems, some of which were preserved and later published in a collection called I Never Saw Another Butterfly.
Painter Malva Schalek (Malvina Schalkova) was deported to Theresienstadt in February 1942. She produced more than 100 drawings and watercolors portraying life in the camp. Because of her refusal to portray a collaborationist doctor, she was deported to Auschwitz (May 18, 1944) where she perished. Here you can see a few of the paintings she did at Theresienstadt ()
The composer Viktor Ullmann was interned in September 1942 and murdered at Auschwitz in October 1944. He composed some twenty works at Theresienstadt, including the one-act opera, Der Kaiser von Atlantis (The Emperor of Atlantis or The Refusal of Death), first performed in 1975, shown in full on BBC television in Britain, and still performed today. It was to be performed in the camp, but permission was withdrawn when it was in rehearsal, probably because the authorities perceived its allegorical intent. Another composer who died in Theresienstadt was Zikmund Schul.
Inmates at the concentration camp composed the music on Terezín: The Music 1941-44, a 2-CD set released in 1991. It contains chamber music by Gideon Klein, Viktor Ullmann, and Hans Krása, the children's opera Brundibár by Krása, and songs by Ullmann and Pavel Haas. All the composers died in the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1944, except for Klein, who died the following year in Fürstengrube. Many of the works were written at the end of their lives, in 1943 and 1944.
In 2007, the Swedish singer Anne Sofie von Otter released a well-reviewed CD of music composed in Theresienstadt, assisted by baritone Christian Gerhaher, pianists and chamber musicians. In 2008 Austrian baritone Wolfgang Holzmair, and American pianist Russell Ryan, presented an intense Theresienstadt recital that drew on a different selection of songs, causing Washington Post critic Anne Midgette to comment on the wealth of material available; when the recital was issued on a CD in 2009 reviewers praised its artistic merit.
Ex-resident Friedrich Schlaefrig describes how the residents with the assistance of the Germans, overcame the lack of water to the town; "We had no water system in Theresienstadt... a number of wells were contaminated in a short time with typhoid fever. That was the reason that we had to close a number of wells, and had to undertake to extend the existing water pipe system. That was really a great piece of public works created under Jewish inventiveness and by Jewish labor. They expanded the water supply system, and have achieved [a condition] that we not only produced for the people good drinking water or, at least, not objectionable drinking water, but that also the toilet installations could be flushed with water, so that these unhygienic conditions were removed... The Germans have permitted it, and we even obtained through them the material, because otherwise it would have been impossible..."
After this a Fire Police with an acting Fire Chief was established from the Jewish residents using the newly created water system.
On June 23, 1944, the Nazis permitted the visit by representatives from the Danish Red Cross and the International Red Cross in order to dispel rumors about the extermination camps. The commission included E. Juel-Henningsen, the head physician at the Danish Ministry of Health, and Franz Hvass, the top civil servant at the Danish Foreign Ministry. Dr. Paul Eppstein was instructed by the SS to appear in the role of the mayor of Theresienstadt.
To minimize the appearance of overcrowding in Theresienstadt, the Nazis deported many Jews to Auschwitz. Also deported in these actions were most of the Czechoslovakian workers assigned to 'Operation Embellishment.' It is claimed that they also erected fake shops and cafés to imply that the Jews lived in relative comfort, but ex-residents recall these shops as something different. Friedrich Schlaefrig recalls in an interview with David Boder just after the war ended; "By that time(autumn of 1944), I received a different assignment in the technical service; I have undertaken the management of a quadrant, that is a 'quarter' of the city, and I had my own office with adjoining small service apartment, with my shops nearby—carpenter shop, locksmith [machine] shop, installation [electrical, plumbing] shops" which were all available to the Jewish residents."
The Danes whom the Red Cross visited lived in freshly painted rooms, not more than three in a room. These could possibly have included the homes of the "prominent" Jews of Theresienstadt who were afforded special privileges whereby as little as two people shared a single room. The guests enjoyed the performance of a children's opera, Brundibar, which was written by inmate Hans Krása.
Apparently the Red Cross representatives were easily fooled by the Germans as the tour was conducted by following a pre-determined path designated by a "red line" on a map. The hapless Red Cross apparently didn't attempt to divert from the "official" tour route as led by the Germans who also posed questions to the Jewish residents along the way. If the Red Cross attempted to ask the residents questions directly, they were ignored and not answered. Despite this, the Red Cross still apparently formed a positive impression of the town.
The hoax against the Red Cross was apparently so successful for the Nazis that they went on to make a propaganda film at Theresienstadt. Production of the film began on February 26, 1944. Directed by Jewish prisoner Kurt Gerron (a director, cabaret performer, and actor who appeared with Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel), it was meant to show how well the Jews lived under the "benevolent" protection of the Third Reich. Despite this being a German propaganda film that was supposedly distorting the real living conditions in Theresienstadt, Gerron made no attempt to include any subtle or hidden messages in the film that later could have been used to expose its fraudulent nature.
Instead the film, if taken on face value, positively documents the Jews of Theresienstad living a relatively comfortable existence within a thriving cultural centre, functioning successfully during the hardships of WW2. This is perhaps puzzling considering the circumstances in which the film was made, by Jewish "residents" themselves. However, as they were all prisoners acutely aware of their fate should they step out of line, and considering that anything they made would certainly be screened and edited by their Nazi overseers, there was little they could do but comply.
After the shooting of the film, most of the cast and even the filmmaker himself were eventually deported to Auschwitz. Gerron and his wife were murdered by gas chamber on October 28, 1944. The film was not released at the time, but was edited into pieces and only segments of it have remained.
Often called The Führer Gives a Village to the Jews, the correct name of the film is: Theresienstadt. Ein Dokumentarfilm aus dem jüdischen Siedlungsgebiet (Terezin: A Documentary Film of the Jewish Resettlement). (Cf. Hans Sode-Madsen: The Perfect Deception. The Danish Jews and Theresienstadt 1940–1945. Leo Baeck Yearbook, 1993)
Juan Mayorga, the award-winning Spanish playwright, wrote his play Way To Heaven (Himmelweg) inspired by the visit of the Red Cross to Theresienstadt. The play has been produced world-wide, including London, Paris, Madrid, Buenos Aires and, most recently, New York.
Residents working at the camp were also paid in this currency.
Approximately 144,000 Jews were sent to Theresienstadt. Most inmates were Czech Jews. Some 40,000 originated from Germany, 15,000 from Austria, 5,000 from the Netherlands and 300 from Luxembourg. In addition to the group of approx. 500 Jews from Denmark, also Slovak and Hungarian Jews were deported to the ghetto. Some 1,600 Jewish children from Białystok, Poland, were deported to Auschwitz from Theresienstadt; none survived. About a quarter of the inmates (33,000) died in Theresienstadt, mostly because of the deadly conditions (hunger, stress, and disease, especially the typhus epidemic at the very end of war). About 88,000 were deported to Auschwitz and other extermination camps. At the end of the war, there were a mere 17,247 survivors. 15,000 children lived in the camp's children's home; only 93 survived.
Small Fortress (Malá pevnost in Czech, Kleine Festung in German) was part of the fortification on the left side of river Ohře. Beginning in 1940, the Gestapo used it as a prison (the largest one in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia). It was separate and unrelated to the Jewish ghetto in the main fortress on the river's right side. Around 32,000 people arrived there and were usually sent to a concentration camp later. 2,600 people were executed, starved, or succumbed to disease there. Of the 15,000 children sent there, a possible 1,100 survived. Anton Malloth was a notorious prison guard at Small Fortress who was convicted of beating at least 100 prisoners to death, and was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2001, after escaping justice for 55 years.
The Small Fortress was also used as a prison for Allied prisoners of war who had persisted in escaping from POW camps.
For many years the Australian and New Zealand governments denied that any of their servicemen had been sent to Terezin, but after several years of campaigns the Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke established a committee of investigation in 1987 which eventually ordered $10,000 compensation payments to the surviving veterans. Australian journalist Paul Rea produced the 1985 film Where Death Wears a Smile which made sensational allegations about the supposed murder of dozens of Allied prisoners at Terezin. These claims have been refuted by one of the veterans, Alexander McClelland, in his book The Answer - Justice.
Documentaries about Theresienstadt:
Movies about Theresienstadt