Our Visit to the Ghetto
Back in 2004, while in Prague for a few days, my wife, my son and I took a side trip to tour the notorious Nazi concentration camp at Theresienstadt. It was a sobering experience for us, but especially for me because it had a personal connection with my family. Among other relatives who died there, my uncle Paul Rehfisch perished en route, after he had been imprisoned in Bergen Belsen. (You’ll find this in more detail in my earlier blog, “The Lost Transport“.)
Contrary to the prevailing belief, with the installation of gas chambers there, Theresienstadt had actually become another death camp – a lesson I only learned during my visit. It was done as a matter of practicality near the end of the WWII. By then, transporting Jews to Poland was no longer a viable option, since the gas chambers at Auschwitz and the other death camps had already been shut down, to hide the evidence from the advancing Allies. However it was too late in the war for the ones at Theresienstadt to be activated.
The History of Terezin
As a concentration camp, Theresienstadt had a unique yet horrifying history. It was probably best known for the depraved charade that the Nazi’s played on the International Red Cross, which was led to believe that this was really a model Jewish settlement. Meanwhile the Nazis were methodically exterminating thousands of Jews.
Established in NW Czechoslovakia as a fortress/town in the late 18th Century, it was built to protect the city of Prague. That was during the reign of Emperor Joseph II, who named it after his mother, Empress Maria Theresa. Terezin is its original Czech name. The Nazis dubbed it Theresienstadt after they took over.
Terezin was first mentioned by the Nazis in a document written late in 1941. Their initial plan was to make the town into a showcase Ghetto. The Jews they selected for “resettlement” were to come mainly from Germany and other western European countries. To make their plan work, the Nazis wanted prominent Jewish scientists, academics, musicians, composers and other artists. Among the elderly they selected many decorated veterans, who had served in the German Army during WW 1. Some of them even believed the Nazi lies, that they would be able to wait out the war in comfort and safety in the Ghetto.
The Final Solution
But the idea of a “Paradise Ghetto” changed dramatically within a few short months. After the Wannsee Conference, in January 1942, the Nazis agreed on the'”Final Solution to the Jewish Problem” From then on Jews from all over Europe were methodically rounded up and herded into cattle cars. Those who were resettled in Theresienstadt, would ultimately be transferred east to the Nazi death camps in occupied Poland, at Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, and Majdanek. But mainly to the most notorious death camp of all, Auschwitz.
But contrary to the plan to use their gas chambers to kill Jews, the Nazi’s transported 2000 of them from Theresienstadt to Riga, Latvia, where they were systematically massacred in the Rumbuli forest. This was the first group from the “Paradise Ghetto” to be exterminated as part of the “Final Solution”.
During the summer of 1942 thousands more Jews were dumped in Theresienstadt. By the following December, the population peaked at 58,500 prisoners – all of them trying to exist in an area, that before the Nazis invaded, held less than 7,000 townspeople and garrison troops.
Overcrowding was monumental, and food supplies were limited. What little there was, was severely rationed with so many prisoners to feed. Children were given priority. That meant the elderly received the short end, and many died from either starvation or disease.
Meanwhile, the Nazi Commanders oversaw the selection of a Council of Jewish Elders, or “Judenrat”, to run the internal affairs of the camp. But of course the Council was totally controlled by the dictates and prohibitions of their Nazi overlords.
Besides managing housing, the distribution of food, educating the children, and trying to maintain the general welfare of the prison population under horrendous conditions, the Judenrat was also given the heart rending task of making up the deportation lists, choosing which was the next group of prisoners to be transported east to one of the Nazi death camps.
Most of the inmates had little idea of what was in store for them. They could only imagine what happened to those who had already been sent east. As a result, they all feared the word “Transport”, because the unknown was a fate far worse than the famine, disease and brutality they currently lived with.
A Cultural Life?
Ironically, because of the large number of writers, artists, and musicians in the ghetto, cultural life flourished even while residents were regularly dispatched to the gas chambers in the East. Participation in the arts was a welcome and necessary distraction, at least for those fortunate enough to be involved. It was a way to keep alive the hope that someday they would find freedom and a better life.
Even though the performers constantly disappeared, the prisoners successfully created an orchestra, a cabaret and theatre troupe, a choir and even a childrens’ opera that put on 55 performances of the children’s fairy tale,”Brundibar”, albeit with an ever changing cast.
The Perceptions of Gifted Children
Most of the children had no idea of their potential fate. But under the guidance of some very brave adults, like the artist/teacher, Friedel Dicker-Brandeis, many of them were able to project their hopes, fantasies and fears onto paper in the form of paintings, drawings and poetry. One of the older boys created a regular newsletter for the other children which displayed their work.
It broke my heart, when I discovered this during my visit to the Terezin Museum. Seeing the actual pictures of those lovely and gifted children displayed alongside their works of art, only to learn that they all perished in Auschwitz. That was a deeply disturbing moment for me.
There were also a number of celebrity prisoners in the Ghetto. Among them were Rabbi Leo Baeck, and the well known German actor/director and cabaret star, Kurt Gerron. They were known as “Useful”, or “Prominent Jews” and given special housing and privileges.
The Nazis began to feel the heat of public opinion, and needed to convince the world that their Jewish prisoners were being well treated. Some European countries were raising serious questions about the disappearance of so many of their Jewish neighbors, and wanted to know how they were being cared for.
A Depraved Deception Begins
At the end of 1943, the Nazis agreed to allow an International Red Cross investigation committee to visit Terezin the following year. In preparation for this visit they transported an additional 7,500 prisoners to Auschwitz, to reduce the severe overcrowding.
Meanwhile, they brought in trees, flowers, clothing, and even sewing machines, to be used as dressing, props and fresh wardrobe for the prisoners. In addition, they made many hasty changes to the town, like the construction of dummy stores, a café, a kindergartens, a bandstand in the park, a school, a library and a huge flower and vegetable garden.
The Red Cross visit was set for June 23, 1944. But instead of sending a group of delegates, they only sent a single 26 year old representative to investigate. Sadly, in his youthful naivete, he was completely duped into believing that Theresienstadt was a humane resettlement village for all those Jews. He never considered that they had all been rounded up and forced from their homes and villages. Then shipped to this destination in cattle cars.
And Now a Movie!
Buoyed by the success of their hoax, the Nazis then decided to create something even more perverse: A propaganda film for the rest of the world to see, depicting Theresienstadt as a model settlement for its Jewish people.
Kurt Gerron was one of the best-known German directors before 1933. He was the obvious choice to make the film, and was ordered by the Nazis to write, direct and produce it. The film was titled, “The Führer gives the Jews a town”. It was going to show the world how well the Jewish prisoners were being treated.
Although the Nazis had promised him safety in exchange for making the movie, instead when he was done shooting, he was transported to Auschwitz, along with the cast, and most of the children. Then the Nazis simply erased all the human evidence. Kurt Gerron was dead by November 15, 1944. The film was edited and finished without his help.
On May 3, 1945, five days before the ghetto was liberated by the Red Army, the Nazis handed over Theresienstadt to the Red Cross.
In less than 3 1/2 years, 140,000 Jews had been “resettled” in Terezin; 33,000 of them died there, while 88,000 were deported to the other Nazi extermination camps in Poland. Miraculously, at the time of liberation, 19,000 of the remaining Jews were still alive, or had already been transferred to neutral countries. Of those Jews who had been deported to the other death camps, only 3,000 survived, mainly in Auschwitz.