Theresienstadt concentration camp

For other uses of "Theresienstadt", see Theresienstadt (disambiguation).

Coordinates: 50°30′48″N 14°10′1″E / 50.51333°N 14.16694°E / 50.51333; 14.16694

Theresienstadt concentration camp archway with the phrase "Arbeit macht frei" (work makes (you) free), placed over the entrance in a number of Nazi concentration camps

Theresienstadt concentration camp, also referred to as Theresienstadt ghetto,[1][2][3] was a concentration camp established by the SS during World War II in the garrison city of Terezín (German: Theresienstadt), located in German-occupied Czechoslovakia.

Tens of thousands of people died there, some killed outright and others dying from malnutrition and disease. More than 150,000 other persons (including tens of thousands of children) were held there for months or years, before being sent by rail transports to their deaths at Treblinka and Auschwitz extermination camps in occupied Poland, as well as to smaller camps elsewhere.[4]


The fortress of Theresienstadt in the north-west region of Bohemia was constructed between the years 1780 and 1790 on the orders of the Austrian emperor Joseph II. It was designed as part of a projected but never fully realised fort system of the monarchy, another piece being the fort of Josefov. Theresienstadt was named for the mother of the emperor, Maria Theresa of Austria, who reigned as archduchess of Austria in her own right from 1740 until 1780. By the end of the 19th century, the facility was obsolete as a fort; in the 20th century, the fort was used to accommodate military and political prisoners.

From 1914 until 1918, Gavrilo Princip was imprisoned here, after his conviction for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife on June 28, 1914, a catalyst for World War I. Princip died in Cell Number 1 from tuberculosis on April 28, 1918.

After Germany invaded and occupied Czechoslovakia, on June 10, 1940, the Gestapo took control of Terezín and set up a prison in the "Small Fortress" (kleine Festung, the town citadel on the east side of the Ohře river). The first inmates arrived June 14. By the end of the war, the small fortress had processed more than 32,000 prisoners, of whom 5,000 were female; they were imprisoned for varying sentences. The prisoners were predominantly Czech at first, and later other nationalities were imprisoned there, including citizens of the Soviet Union, Poland, Germany, and Yugoslavia. Most were political prisoners.[5]

By November 24, 1941, the Nazis adapted the "Main Fortress" (große Festung, i.e. the walled town of Theresienstadt), located on the west side of the river, as a ghetto.[5] Jewish survivors have recounted the extensive work they had to do for more than a year in the camp, to try to provide basic facilities for the tens of thousands of people who came to be housed there.

From 1942, the Nazis interned the Jews of Bohemia and Moravia, elderly Jews and persons of "special merit" in the Reich, and several thousand Jews from the Netherlands and Denmark. Theresienstadt thereafter became known as the destination for the Altentransporte ("elderly transports") of German Jews, older than 65. Although in practice the ghetto, run by the SS, served as a transit camp for Jews en route to extermination camps, it was also presented as a "model Jewish settlement" for propaganda purposes.[6][7]

On November 11, 1943, commandant Anton Burger ordered the entire camp population, approximately 40,000 people at that time, to stand in freezing weather during a camp census (sometimes referred to as the "Bohušovicer Kessel Census"). About 300 prisoners died of hypothermia as a result.[8]

During a 1944 Red Cross visit, and in a propaganda film, the Nazis presented Theresienstadt to outsiders as a model Jewish settlement, but it was a concentration camp. More than 33,000 inmates died as a result of malnutrition, disease, or the sadistic treatment by their captors.[9] Whereas some survivors claimed that the prison population reached 75,000 at one time, according to official records, the highest figure reached (on September 18, 1942) was 58,491. They were crowded into barracks designed to accommodate 7,000 combat troops.[10]

In the autumn of 1944, the Nazis began the liquidation of the ghetto, deporting more prisoners to Auschwitz and other camps; in one month, they deported 24,000 victims[11] (about 18,000 in 11 transports between September 28 and October 28).

Small Fortress

The "Small Fortress" (Malá pevnost in Czech, Kleine Festung in German) was part of the fortification on the left side of the river Ohře. Beginning in 1940, the Gestapo used it as a prison, the largest in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. The first inmates arrived on June 14, 1940. By the end of the war, 32,000 prisoners, of whom 5,000 were female, passed through the Small Fortress. It was separate from and unrelated to the Jewish ghetto in the main fortress on the river's right side. An estimated 32,000 people were taken to the prison; most were usually deported later to a concentration camp.

Main fortress

In the spring of 1942, the Nazis expelled the 7,000 non-Jewish Czechs living in Terezín, and closed off the town. The Nazis established the ghetto and concentration camp in the main fortress on the east side of the river.

SS-Hauptsturmführer Siegfried Seidl[12] served as the first camp commandant, beginning in 1941. Seidl oversaw the labour of 342 Jewish artisans and carpenters, 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, during the liquidation of the camp in September 1944, all were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau[13] for Sonderbehandlung, or "special treatment", i.e. immediate gassing of all upon arrival.[14]

Command and control authority

The camp, Theresienstadt/Terezin, was a hybrid of ghetto and concentration camp, (KZ), with features of both. It was established by order of the SS-Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA) in 1941 and administered by its GESTAPO Amt of the RSHA, Department IV-B-4, (Jews), headed by Eichmann who oversaw the ghetto and its SS-Commandant; he, in turn, was in charge of the daily ghetto administration, the SS officers, about 12, and the Czech gendarmes, who collaborated with the Germans; these last two were in charge of security and guard duties. An internal police force, run by Jewish inmates, answered directly to the Jewish self-administration and indirectly to the SS-commandant. Thus was the organisation responsible for the enslavement, deportation, and murder of the Jews. Theresienstadt was also the only KZ excluded from the control of SS-Wirtschafthauptamt (main economic administration office) under Pohl and was classified as "concentration camp, class 4" (mildest). Furthermore, the SS-men in this ghetto/concentration camp were not members of the Waffen-SS usually guarding concentration camps, as reported sometimes. Pohl and the SS-Wirtschafthauptamt were in control of all concentration camps except Theresienstadt.

Stone marking the burial of ashes of 15,000 victims of Terezín at the New Jewish Cemetery, Prague

Gestapo and Sicherheitsdienst oversaw the day-to-day operations of the Kleine Festung, (Small Fortress), a prison of the Prague Gestapo which was controlled by the 'Higher SS and Police Führer', (HSSPF), Karl Frank, who reported directly to Himmler rather than the Office of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, a civilian department.

SS-Hauptsturmführer Ernst Möhs (1898–1945) was Eichmann's liaison-officer in Theresienstadt. During the camp's operations, three officers served as camp commandant: Siegfried Seidl, Anton Burger, and Karl Rahm.

Internal organisation

As in other European ghettos, the Nazis required the Jews to select a Jewish Council, which nominally governed the ghetto. In Theresienstadt, this was known as the "Cultural Council"; later it was called the "Jewish self-government of Theresienstadt".[15] The first of the Jewish elders of Theresienstadt was Jakob Edelstein, a Polish-born Zionist and former head of the Prague Jewish community. He served until 1943, when he was deported to Auschwitz and shot to death after being forced to watch the executions of his wife and son.[16] 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 organisation of Jews in Nazi Germany. He served until the autumn of 1944, when he was allegedly shot in the Small Fortress on Yom Kippur.

Benjamin Murmelstein, a Lvov-born rabbi from Vienna, had been part of the Cultural Council in Vienna after the Anschluss. As in other cities, the Jews were charged by the Nazis with organising actions in the Jewish community, including selection of people for transport when the Germans decided to deport them, beginning in 1942. Murmelstein was also deported to Theresienstadt. In the autumn of 1944, he succeeded Eppstein. He and other prominent Jews of the Cultural Council were deported to Auschwitz in the liquidation of the ghetto, but he and some others survived the war. He and other Jewish elders have been extremely controversial figures, condemned for years for what was seen as their collaboration with the Nazis.

In the 21st century, there has been some reassessment, given the conditions of the times. The Last of the Unjust, released in 2013, is a documentary centring on interviews with Murmelstein that were filmed by Claude Lanzmann in 1975, during the production of his masterwork Shoah. The interviews were not used in the earlier film.[17][18]

In the last days of the ghetto, Jiří Vogel of Prague served as the elder. From 1943 to 1945, Leo Baeck was the speaker of the Council of Elders of Theresienstadt. Before being deported to the camp from Berlin, he had served as the head of the Reichsvereinigung der Juden in Deutschland. He survived Theresienstadt, and emigrated to London after the war.[19]

Industrial labour

Theresienstadt was used to supply the German war effort with a source of Jewish slave labour. Their major contribution was the splitting of local ore mined from Czechoslovakian mica. Blind prisoners were often spared deportation by assignment to this task. Others manufactured boxes or coffins, or sprayed military uniforms with a white dye to provide camouflage for German soldiers on the Russian front. According to ex-prisoners, Theresienstadt was also a sorting and 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.[15]

Western European Jews arrive at camp

Among the western European Jews deported to the camp were 456 Jews from Denmark, sent to Theresienstadt in 1943. They had not been able to escape to neutral Sweden before the Nazis started the deportation. Included also in the transports were European Jewish children whom Danish organisations had tried to conceal in foster homes.

The arrival of the Danes was significant, as their government gained access to the ghetto for the International Red Cross in 1944, to view conditions there. (This took place after the D-Day Invasion of Normandy by the Allies). Most European governments, when occupied by the Nazis, had not tried to protect their fellow Jewish citizens. Historians believe the Germans were trying to keep the Danes satisfied as they had impressed many of their workers in war factories. In addition, the tide of war was changing.

Improvements made by inmates

Survivor Friedrich Schlaefrig described in 1946 how the early residents of Theresienstadt, 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 ...[15]

After this, a fire department was established, made up of Jewish prisoners, with an acting fire chief. They relied on the newly constructed water system. Constructing the water system was only part of the major work undertaken by Jews, in what was called the technical service, in the first year of the camp. They had to make many more changes to buildings to adapt the fortress and barracks for the overcrowded conditions that the Germans imposed.[15]

Unequal treatment of prisoners

After the changes and sprucing up to prepare for the Red Cross visit, in the spring of 1944, the Gestapo screened the Jews of Theresienstadt, classifying them according to social prominence. Many of the "Prominente" were profiled, with photographs, among a collection of documents smuggled out after the liberation.[20] The Gestapo reassigned some 150 to 200 prominent individuals to single rooms that would be shared by only two people, so that a husband and wife could live by themselves. Several members of the Cultural Council were included among the Prominente, due to the influence of Benjamin Murmelstein, then the "Jewish elder" of Theresienstadt. Former prisoners suggested in statements that those who held positions of authority practised nepotism, trying to protect individuals close to them, while struggling to avoid deportation and death in the closing days of the war. Murmelstein and other members of the Cultural Council were still deported in the final liquidation, but he and some others survived the war.[15]

Cultural activities and legacy

Theresienstadt was originally designated as a model community for middle-class Jews from Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Austria. Many educated Jews were inmates of Theresienstadt. In a propaganda effort designed to fool the western allies, the Nazis publicised the camp for its rich cultural life. In reality, according to a Holocaust survivor, "during the early period there were no [musical] instruments whatsoever, and the cultural life came to develop itself only ... when the whole management of Theresienstadt was steered into an organized course."[15] An extremely rich cultural life then ensued, with lectures, recitals, poetry readings, concerts, and so on. At least four concert orchestras were organised 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 at Theresienstadt, along with writers, scientists, jurists, diplomats, musicians, and scholars, and many of these contributed to the camp's cultural life.

The community in Theresienstadt tried to ensure that all the children who passed through the camp continued with their education. The Nazis required all camp children over a certain age to work, but accepted working on stage as employment. The prisoners achieved the children's education under the guise of work or cultural activity. Daily classes and sports activities were held. The community published a magazine, Vedem. The history of the magazine was studied and narrated by the Italian writer Matteo Corradini in his book "La repubblica delle farfalle" (The Republic of the Butterflies"). The English actor Sir Ben Kingsley read that novel, speaking on January 27, 2015 during the ceremony held at Theresienstadt to mark International Holocaust Memorial Day.

Ilse Weber, a noted Czech Jewish poet, writer and musician for children, was held in the camp from February 1942, and worked as a night nurse in the camp's children's infirmary. She volunteered to join a transport of children to Auschwitz in November 1944, where she, her son Tommy, and all the children with her were murdered in the gas chambers immediately on arrival.

Czech composer Rafael Schächter

The conductor Rafael Schächter was among those held at the camp, and he formed an adult chorus. He directed it in a performance of the massive and complex Requiem by Giuseppe Verdi. Schächter conducted 15 more performances of the work before he was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau.[21]

Violinist Julius Stwertka, a former leading member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and co-leader of the Vienna Philharmonic, died in the camp on December 17, 1942.

The pianist Alice Herz-Sommer performed 100 concerts while imprisoned at Theresienstadt. She and Edith Steiner-Kraus, her friend and colleague, both survived the camp, emigrated to Israel after the war, and became professors of music, Herz-Sommer at the Jerusalem Academy of Music, and Steiner-Kraus at the Tel Aviv Academy of Music.[22] In March 2012, a biography of Herz-Sommer was published.[23] At the time of her death in London in February 2014, at 110, she was the oldest known Holocaust survivor.[24]

Martin Roman and Coco Schumann were part of the jazz band Ghetto Swingers.

Artist and art teacher Friedl Dicker-Brandeis created drawing classes for children in the ghetto, among whom were Hana Brady ("Hana's suitcase"). They produced more than 4,000 drawings, which she hid in two suitcases before she was deported to Auschwitz in the final liquidation. The collection was preserved from destruction, and was discovered a decade later. Most of these drawings can now be seen at The Jewish Museum in Prague, whose archive of the Holocaust section administers the Terezín Archive Collection. Others are on display at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

The children of the camp also wrote stories and poems. Some were preserved and later published in a collection called I Never Saw Another Butterfly, its title taken from a poem by young Jewish Czech poet Pavel Friedman. He had arrived at Terezín on April 26, 1942, and later died at Auschwitz.

Painter Malva Schalek (Malvina Schalkova) was deported to Theresienstadt in February 1942. She produced more than 100 drawings and watercolours portraying life in the camp. On May 18, 1944, because of her refusal to paint the portrait of a collaborationist doctor, she was deported to Auschwitz, where she was killed.[25]

The artist and architect Norbert Troller produced drawings and watercolours of life inside Theresienstadt, to be smuggled to the outside world. When the Gestapo found out, he was arrested and deported to Auschwitz. His memoirs and two dozen of his artworks were published in 1991.[26]

The composer Viktor Ullmann was interned in September 1942, and died 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). It was planned for performance at the camp, but the Nazis withdrew permission when it was in rehearsal, probably because the authorities perceived its allegorical intent. The opera was first performed in 1975, and shown in full on BBC television in Britain. It continues to be performed.

Music composed by inmates is featured in Terezín: The Music 1941–44, a two-CD set released in 1991.[27][28] The collection features music composed mostly in 1943 and 1944 by Pavel Haas, Gideon Klein, Hans Krása, and Viktor Ullmann while interned at Theresienstadt. Haas, Krása, and Ullmann died in Auschwitz concentration camp in 1944, and Klein died in Fürstengrube in 1945.[29]

In 2007, the album Terezín – Theresienstadt of music composed at Theresienstadt was released by the Swedish singer Anne Sofie von Otter, assisted by baritone Christian Gerhaher, pianists, and chamber musicians. In 2008, Bridge Records released a recital by Austrian baritone Wolfgang Holzmair and American pianist Russell Ryan that drew on a different selection of songs.

Use as propaganda tool

Main article: Theresienstadt (film)

Late in the war, after D-Day and the invasion of Normandy, the Nazis permitted representatives from the Danish Red Cross and the International Red Cross to visit Theresienstadt in order to dispel rumours about the extermination camps. The commission that visited on June 23, 1944, 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.[30]

Weeks of preparation preceded the visit. The area was cleaned up, and the Nazis deported many Jews to Auschwitz to minimise the appearance of overcrowding in Theresienstadt. Also deported in these actions were most of the Czechoslovak workers assigned to "Operation Embellishment". The Nazis directed the building of fake shops and cafés to imply that the Jews lived in relative comfort.

The Danes whom the Red Cross visited lived in freshly painted rooms, not more than three in a room. Rooms viewed may have included the homes of the "prominent" Jews of Theresienstadt, who were afforded the special privilege of having as few as two occupants to a room.[15] The guests attended a performance of a children's opera, Brundibár, which was written by inmate Hans Krása.

The Red Cross representatives were conducted on a tour following a predetermined path designated by a red line on a map. The representatives apparently did not attempt to divert from the tour route on which they were led by the Germans, who posed questions to the Jewish residents along the way. If the representatives asked residents questions directly, they were ignored, in accordance with the Germans' instructions to the residents prior to the tour. Despite this, the Red Cross apparently formed a positive impression of the town.[15]

Following the successful use of Theresienstadt as a supposed model internment camp during the Red Cross visit, the Nazis decided to make a propaganda film there. It was directed by Jewish prisoner Kurt Gerron, an experienced director and actor; he had appeared with Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel. Shooting took eleven days, starting September 1, 1944.[31] After the film was completed, the director and most of the cast were deported to Auschwitz. Gerron was murdered by gas chamber on October 28, 1944.[32]

The film was intended to show how well the Jews were living under the purportedly benevolent protection of the Third Reich. If taken at face value, it documents the Jews of Theresienstadt living a relatively comfortable existence within a thriving cultural centre and functioning successfully during the hardships of World War II. They had to comply and perform according to Nazi orders. 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").[lower-alpha 1] As the film was not completed until near the end of the war, it was never distributed as intended, although a few screenings were held. Most of the film was destroyed, but some footage has survived.


Approximately 144,000 Jews were sent to Theresienstadt. Most inmates were Czech Jews, but 40,000 were from Germany, 15,000 from Austria, 5,000 from the Netherlands, and 300 from Luxembourg. In addition to the group of approximately 500 Jews from Denmark, Slovak and Hungarian Jews were deported to the ghetto. 1,600 Jewish children from Białystok, Poland, were deported from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz; none survived. About a quarter of the inmates (33,000) died in Theresienstadt, mostly because of the deadly conditions, which included hunger, stress, and disease. The typhus epidemic at the very end of war took an especially heavy toll.

About 88,000 prisoners were deported to Auschwitz and other extermination camps, including Treblinka. At the end of the war, 17,247 had survived. An estimated 15,000 children lived in the ghetto. Willy Groag, one of the youth care workers, mistakenly claimed after the war that only 93 survived.[34]

Allied prisoners of war

During the war, Allied prisoners of war (POWs) who repeatedly attempted to escape from POW camps were sent to Theresienstadt as punishment. 21 British, 21 New Zealand, and 17 Australian POWs were held there.[35] Keeping POWs from signatory countries of the Geneva Convention in such camp conditions was a war crime. Many of the survivors suffered chronic physical and mental health problems for most of their lives.[35]

In 1964, Germany paid the British government £1 million as reparation for the illegal transfer of British POWs to Theresienstadt.[35] Britain made no provision for dominion troops. For many years, the governments of Australia and New Zealand denied that any of their servicemen had been held at the camp. In 1987, Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke established a committee of investigation. It confirmed that POWs were held at Theresienstadt. The government then authorised payments of A$10,000 each to the Australian survivors of the camp. The New Zealand government also arranged for compensation for the New Zealand survivors.[35]

Notable prisoners who died at the camp

Notable survivors

Final months at the camp in 1945

On February 5, 1945, SS chief Heinrich Himmler allowed a transport of 1,210 Jews, most of them from the Netherlands, from Theresienstadt to freedom in neutral Switzerland. Himmler and Jean-Marie Musy, a pro-Nazi former Swiss president, had arranged the transport. Jewish organisations working in Switzerland deposited a ransom of $1.25 million in Swiss banks for the Germans.

As the war turned against Nazi Germany, the Danish king Christian X secured the release of the Danish internees from Theresienstadt on April 15, 1945. The White Buses, organised in cooperation with the Swedish Red Cross, collected the 413 who had survived and took them home.

In April 1945, after the Dutch Jews had been transported to Switzerland, the International Red Cross visited the camp twice. The relief agency took over administration of the camp on May 2, 1945, as Soviet troops approached from the east.[43] Commandant Rahm and the rest of the SS fled on May 5 and 6. On May 8, 1945, Terezín was liberated by Soviet troops.

Postwar trials

Works about Theresienstadt

Documentary films

Dramatic films




See also


  1. cf. Hans Sode-Madsen: The Perfect Deception. The Danish Jews and Theresienstadt 1940–1945, Leo Baeck Yearbook, 1993.


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Further reading

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