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Theresienstadt

THERESIENSTADT

THERESIENSTADT (Czech Terezín ), town in the Czech Republic, which served as a ghetto between 1941 and 1945. About 150,000 Jews, mainly from Central Europe, Holland, and Denmark were deported there by the Nazis. The town, located near the point where the Eger flows into the Elbe, was built as a garrison in 1780 by Emperor Joseph ii and half of its inhabitants were soldiers. The first Jew arrived there after 1848. In 1852 there were three Jewish families in the town and in 1930, 98 Jews, mostly soldiers, were recorded there. In 1941, before the town became a ghetto, it had 3,700 inhabitants, including ten Jewish families.

The first indication of the Nazi plan to establish a ghetto in Theresienstadt is to be found in a document dated Oct. 10, 1941. According to acting ReichsprotektorReinhard *Heydrich, Theresienstadt would serve as a temporary transit camp for Jews of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia until their final deportation to the East. At the *Wannsee Conference of January 21, 1942, Heydrich mentioned the second purpose of Theresienstadt: Jews from the Reich and the Ostmark over the age of 65, invalids of World War i, and Jews with war decorations would be concentrated there in a ghetto for the elderly (while all the other deportees were to be sent "for work" near the eastern front). The third purpose, to represent Theresienstadt as a model ghetto and show the world how humanely the Jews were treated, came to the fore after the first official proclamation of the Allies about the destruction of the Jews of Europe was published on December 17, 1942.

The Jews of the Protectorate hoped that the establishment of the ghetto in Theresienstadt would halt the deportations to Poland, which had started in October 1941, and that they would remain in their native country until the war ended. The first deportees reached Theresienstadt from Prague late in November 1941, and by the end of May 1942, one third of the Protectorate Jews (28,887) had been deported there. During the first seven months of the ghetto's existence, living conditions differed little from those in Nazi concentration camps. Families were torn apart; men and women with children were housed in separate barracks and were not allowed to meet. The hopes that the ghetto would serve as a safeguard against future deportations were soon dashed. In January 1942 the first two transports of 1,000 deportees each left Theresienstadt for Riga and from then on the threat of deportation to the East hung over the ghetto inhabitants. Conditions in the ghetto improved after the entire non-Jewish population of Terezin was evacuated and from July 1942 the inmates were at least free to move inside the ghetto walls and to meet their families after work. In June 1942 thousands of Jewish deportees from Germany and Austria began arriving. Most of them were in the special categories mentioned above. They were brought to Theresienstadt under the pretext they would be well taken care of in old age homes. The populations of the ghetto reached its height in September 1942, when 53,000 persons were crowded into its approximately 150,000 sq. yds. (114,000 sq. m., an average density of 2.9 sq. yds – 2.15 sq. m. per person). During that months 18,639 person arrived in Theresienstadt; 3,941 persons, mostly the old, died in the ghetto itself and 13,004 were deported from there to Sobibor, Treblinka, Maly Trostinec, and other extermination camps in the Lublin region. From October 1942 all transports from Theresienstadt were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Deportations from the ghetto were stopped between February and September 1942. After the interlude 17,500 Theresienstadt inmates were sent in September

and December 1943 and in May 1944 to the so-called "family camp" in Auschwitz-Birkenau and most of them were sent to the gas chambers in March and July 1944. In the last wave of deportations 18,412 ghetto inmates were sent to Auschwitz; only 1,496 of them survived. In Theresienstadt there remained 11,068 inmates, including 456 Danish Jews who were protected from deportation.

Most of the deported to Theresienstadt were assimilated Jews, but there were some strictly Orthodox and many partly observant Jews too. The Zionists constituted a small minority, but influenced ghetto life strongly, because some of them had come to the ghetto voluntarily with Jacob *Edelstein, the first Judenaeltester (elder of the Jews), an ardent Zionist, and took special care of the young and the working population as the kernel of future Jewish life.

Organization and Administration

The ghetto was administered by the ss. The first commandant appointed by Reinhard Heydrich was Siegfried Seidl (December 1941–June 1943), who was replaced on Adolf Eichmann's orders by Anton Burger (June 1943–February 1944). The last commandant was Karl Rahm (February 1944–May 1945). Seidle and Rahm were executed after the war. The ghetto was guarded by Czech gendarmes, but internal affairs were run by the Aeltestenrat (Council of Elders), composed of Jewish leaders. It was headed by the Judenaelteste, appointed by Eichmann and his superiors. Jacob Edelstein, the first elder of Jews (Dec. 4, 1941–Jan. 28, 1943), was executed in Auschwitz in June 1944; the second, Paul *Eppstein (Jan. 28, 1943–Sept. 9, 1944), was shot by the ss in September 1944; the last, Benjamin Murmelstein (Sept. 7, 1944–May 3, 1945), survived. During the third period and after the liberation, the Council was composed of representatives of five groups according to country of origin, i.e., German, Austrian, Czech, Dutch, and Danish Jews, headed by Rabbi Leo *Baeck. On May 10, 1945, Jiri Vogel was appointed head of the community by the Council and was responsible for the liquidation of the ghetto.

The various departments of the Council dealt with the organization of work, food distribution, accommodation, sanitation and public health, care of the aged and the young, and cultural activities. Its greatest achievements were in public health, education of the children, and organization of cultural life. One of the cruel duties imposed on the Council of Elders was the compilation of candidates for deportation after receiving instructions from the ss command as to the number of persons, their age groups, and country of origin to be included in the next transport.

Education and Cultural Life

One of the main concerns of the Jewish administration was the education of the young, which was carried out mainly by young instructors, members of the Zionist youth movements. Children's homes were established, inhabited by a large proportion of children between the ages of 10 and 14 where the instructors tried to shield them from the harsh realities of the ghetto as far as possible. Despite the prohibition of teaching, a school curriculum was secretly followed in the children's homes. The educational system of Theresienstadt was imbued with a spirit of dedication and optimism that the children would survive. The deportees to Theresienstadt included many musicians, painters, actors, writers, and scholars, with whose aid an intensive cultural life was gradually organized in the ghetto. This included several orchestras and theater groups, opera performances (without staging), choirs, and satirical entertainment. Series of lectures and study circles were organized, and a library of 60,000 volumes (confiscated from their deported owners) was established. The study programs, which comprised any Jewish subject, opening for the participants new dimensions in Judaism and strengthening their moral and religious life in the Theresienstadt ghetto, was conducted under difficult conditions, but was not officially restricted. A small Catholic and Protestant community of inmates also existed in the ghetto.

Concealment of Extermination

The intensive effort of the ghetto inhabitants to improve their living conditions was exploited by the Nazis for their own ends. In 1943, when information on the extermination camps began to spread in the free world, the Nazi authorities decided to show off Theresienstadt to representatives of the International Red Cross. For this purpose the external appearance of the ghetto had to be improved: overcrowding was lessened by additional deportations to Auschwitz-Birkenau; a bank, fictitious shops, a café, and a kindergarten were set up and the town underwent the Verschoenerungsaktion, a beautification action. The visit of the committee, whose schedule was fixed to the last detail in advance (June 23, 1944), was successful from the Nazi point of views: its three members saw only what the ss wanted them to see and the report of its head, Dr. Maurice Russell, spoke about Theresienstadt as a town like any other. After the visit, a propaganda film on the "new life of the Jews under the protection of the Reich" was filmed. After the filming was finished, most of its participants, almost all the members of the ghetto administration, and most of the ghetto children were sent to the Auschwitz gas chambers.

End of the Ghetto

In the last six months of its existence, 1,454 Jews arrived in the ghetto from Slovakia, 1,200 from Hungary, and 5,932 from the Protectorate, Germany, and Austria who were married to gentiles and had been exempted from deportations until then. The International Red Cross was able to transfer 1,200 Jews from Theresienstadt to Switzerland in February 1945 and 413 Danish deportees to Sweden in April 1945. A last shockwave hit the ghetto when in late April 1945 about 12,700 prisoners of various concentration camps in Germany were dragged by foot or loaded onto freight cars before their liberation by the Allied forces and arrived in Theresienstadt more dead than alive. From them the ghetto inmates heard for the first time the truth about the gas chambers and the extermination of their families and friends. On May 3, 1945, five days before the liberation by the Soviet army, the Nazis transferred command of the ghetto to the Red Cross representative. The last Jew left Theresienstadt on Aug. 17, 1945. After the war a national Czechoslovak cemetery and memorial was established in the Small Fortress outside Theresienstadt which had served as a Gestapo prison. Only after the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia ended in 1989 was a ghetto museum established in the town itself, in the former school which had served as a boys' home in ghetto times. The former main administrative building in the Magdeburg barracks, was renovated and now houses permanent exhibitions on the cultural life of the ghetto.

Between Nov. 24, 1941, and April 20, 1945, around 144,000 Jews were deported to Theresienstadt, of whom approximately 33,000 died in the ghetto and about 88,000 were deported to the death camps; only 4,889 of them survived. There were 18,967 inmates in the ghetto when it was liberated; 12,737 prisoners arrived there from the camps. Of the total deportees to Theresienstadt 76,036 came from Bohemia and Moravia, 43,570 from Germany, 15,537 from Austria, 4,924 from Holland, 475 from Denmark, 1,545 from Slovakia, and 1,200 from Hungary.

bibliography:

Z. Lederer, Ghetto Theresienstadt (Eng. 1953); J. Bor, Terezín Requiem (Eng., 1963); Council of Jewish Communities in the Czech Lands, Terezin (Eng., 1965); Czechoslovakia, Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare, Terezin-Ghetto (Czech and Eng., 1945); Y. Rezniczenko (Ereẓ; ed.), Theresienstadt (Heb., 1947); H.G. Adler, Theresienstadt 19411945 (Ger., 19602), incl. bibl.; idem, Die verheimlichte Wahrheit: Theresienstaedter Dokumente (1958).

[Otto Dov Kulka /

Ruth Bondi (2nd ed.)]

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