Theresienstadt was established in 1941 in a garrison town located in the north-west of Czechoslovakia. It served as a ghetto, and a concentration camp. Its unique function was that it served as a tool for Nazi deception.
The purpose of the Theresienstadt ghetto was threefold: (i) as a holding point to concentrate most of the Jews from Bohemia and Moravia, as well as certain categories of Jews from Germany and western Europe — prominent individuals — those of achievement in the arts or in cultural life, as well as the aged and infirm; (ii) as a transit camp from which to transfer Jews to the extermination camps and (iii) to conceal the extermination of European Jews from the rest of the world by presenting Theresienstadt as a ‘model Jewish settlement’.
When news about the existence of death camps began to emerge, the Nazis decided to camouflage the true nature of deportations and the ‘resettlement of Jews in the east’. To this end they permitted members of the International Red Cross to visit Theresienstadt in June 1944. It was a façade — an elaborate ruse. In preparation for the visit, deportations to Auschwitz were accelerated in order to reduce over-crowding. The ghetto was “beautified”. Elaborate ‘sets’ – fake shops, café, bank, schools and kindergartens – were built. Gardens were planted, barracks were painted and renovated. The Red Cross representatives arrived in the ghetto on 23 June 1944. They were at Theresienstadt for 6 hours, two hours of which were spent at a sumptuous lunch with their Nazi hosts. They were under Nazi escort at all times and were shown only what the Nazis chose to show them. They met with pre-selected ghetto inhabitants, Social and cultural events, even dialogue with the visiting dignitaries, had been meticulously planned and rehearsed beforehand. The Nazis ordered a Jewish inmate, who had been a film maker before the war, to make a propaganda film about the ‘humane’ conditions, lauding the new life of the Jews in the east under German hegemony. In return the Nazis promised to spare his life. As soon as the filming was over, most of the ‘actors’ in the film, and the film maker, together with most of the ghetto leadership, as well as most of the children in the ghetto, were deported to the gas chambers.
Daily life was administered by the Judenrat (Jewish council), with Jacob Edelstein as its Chairman. Despite appalling conditions – over-crowding, food shortages, lack of hygiene and forced labour – the extensive educational and cultural life of the inhabitants reflected their determination to shield themselves from the bitter reality of their lives and the constant threat of deportations.;
Well known Jewish artists from the Czechoslovakia, Austria and Germany drew pictures and painted depictions of Theresienstadt’s bleak reality. Writers, academics, musicians and actors gave lectures, concerts and theatre performances. Rabbis were permitted to give sermons and conduct religious services for the observant. A vast library of 16,000 books brought by inmates, with emphasis on Jewish subjects, provided the opportunity to strengthen Jewish identity.
Fifteen thousand children were deported to Theresienstadt. Their education and welfare was delegated to the older member of the youth movements. Many of the children were housed in youth hostels (Jugendheime). Although school was prohibited, classes were held secretly and children were encouraged to paint, write and maintain vestiges of a normal life.
More than 155.000 Jews passed through Theresienstadt on their way to the killing centres at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek and Treblinka, until it was liberated on 8 May 1945; 35,400 perished in the ghetto from appalling over-crowding, malnutrition and disease. Of the 15,000 children who were deported to Theresienstadt, approximately 90 per cent were murdered in the gas chambers in the death camps.
Bondy, R. (1989). Elder of the Jews: Jacob Edelstein of Theresienstadt. New York: Grove Press.
Lederer, Z. (1953). Ghetto Theresienstadt. New York: Edward Goldston & Son.
Troller, N, (1991) Theresienstadt: Hitler’s Gift to the Jews. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina.
Volavková, H. (Ed.). (1978). I Never Saw Another Butterfly: Children’s Drawings & Poems from Terezin Concentration Camp, 1942-1944. 2nd edition. New York: Schocken Books.