Section: What were the ghettos and camps?


Map of Europe showing Czechoslovakia and highlighting Theresienstadt.
Map of Europe showing Czechoslovakia and highlighting Theresienstadt.

Established by the Nazis on 24 November 1941, Theresienstadt (Terezin in Czech) was situated some 50 kilometres north of Prague in Czechoslovakia.

Theresienstadt was neither a ghetto or a camp, having features of both. It had three main purposes:A transit camp for Czech Jews before being deported to Nazi forced labour camps and extermination camps in the east.A ghetto in which the Nazis held prisoner Jews from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia to hide the fact that they were being sent to thir deaths.A camp in which the Nazis held Jews deported from across Europe before sending them to the death camps.

Theresienstadt was operable for three and a half years until being liberated by the Soviet Army on 9 May 1945. By September 1942, the ghetto population peaked at 54,004.


Deportations to and from Theresienstadt

Deportations to and from Theresienstadt

A total of 140,000 Jews were taken to Theresienstadt during its three-and-a-half year existence. Initially, Czech Jewish leaders thought that being taken to Theresienstadt would save the Jews from being deported. However, upon arrival, they soon realised that in Theresienstadt conditions were similar to those of a concentration camp. Many thousands would pass through on the way to thir deaths. Many thousands would also die within the walls of the overcrowded facility.

Just two months after establishment, the first deportation of 2,000 Jews from Theresienstadt to Riga was carried out. From October 1942, SS authorities began regular deportations of Jews from Theresienstadt to other ghettos and concentration camps. Destinations included Riga, Warsaw, Lodz, Minsk and Bialystok.


Transportation to extermination camps

A total of 88,000 victims were transported from Theresienstadt to the extermination camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek and Treblinka. By the time deportations ended in October 1944, only 11,068 people remained in Theresienstadt. Of those deported, just 3,000 had managed to survive.

In April 1945 the Germans brought in thousands of prisoners who had been evacuated from concentration camps. Overcrowding led to the outbreak of epidemics.

On May 3 as the Soviet Army approached the area, the Nazis handed Theresienstadt over to the Red Cross and fled.

The ghetto was liberated on May 8 by Soviet troops.

Some 19,000 Jews had survived either in the ghetto or among the groups that the Red Cross had earlier transferred to Sweden or Switzerland.


Government and administration

Government and adminstration

Theresienstadt was established and operated by the SS, whilst Czech police acted as ghetto guards.

The internal administration was run in much the same way as the ghettos; an Aeltestenrat (Council of Elders) was established to oversee all day-to-day responsibilities.They were also responsible for supplying the Nazis with lists of those to be deported.

Although they were not supposed to, the Council of Elders secretly supported schooling and organised the many cultural activities within the ghetto.



Whenever possible, the Aeltestenrat worked to support and sustain Jewish prisoners of the ghetto. The activities of the council included overseeing work duties, housing, food, health and sanitation. They attempted to make sure that care was taken of the old and the young.

Children within Theresienstadt

Image: © 2012 Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority.

The many orphans were taken care of in the children’s home.


Conditions within Theresienstadt

The physical conditions in Theresienstadt were intolerable. With a population of 54,000, overcrowding led to the spread of epidemics. In all, 33,000 died within the ghetto itself, mostly from disease or starvation.

In 1942, the death rate was so high that the Germans built a crematorium capable of handling almost 200 bodies a day.


Health department

In order to deal with this serious situation for the Jews, the Council of Elders established a health department, within the ghetto. By the end of 1943, they had establish a hospital, resulting in reducing the mortality rate.


Red Cross visit

Danish Jews

By the end of 1943, people across the world were becoming aware of what was happening within the Nazi camps and ghettos. Following the deportation of 476 Danish Jews to Theresienstadt, the Danish Red Cross and the International Red Cross pressured the Nazis to permit them to make an inspection visit on 23 June 1944.


The Nazis attempted to mask the extermination of those who passed through Theresienstadt by presenting it as a model ghetto. Firstly, overcrowding was dealt with by the deportation of many Jews to their deaths in Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Nazis then set about creating an ellaborate hoax by painting and renovating buildings. They also planted trees and flower beds, built a fake cafe, a bank, kindergartens and a school. A football match was staged, along with other social and cultural events. All of these were made into a propaganda film portaying an idylic life.


The visit

During the visit the Nazis described Theresienstadt as a spa town where elderly Jews could retire in safety. Those prisoners who met with the Red Cross committee members had been warned how to behave and what to say.

As a result of the SS propaganda a cover-up, the Red Cross committee was completely duped.

After the visit the Nazis resumed deportations from Theresienstadt, the first deportees being those who had been used by the Nazis in their lie to the Red Cross.


Cultural life within Theresienstadt

A 1943 still life of a violin and sheet of music behind prison bars by Bedrich Fritta (1909-1945), Czech Jewish artist who created drawings and paintings depicting conditions in the Theresienstadt. Fritta was deported to Auschwitz in October 1944; he died there a week after his arrival.
A 1943 still life of a violin and sheet of music behind prison bars by Bedrich Fritta (1909-1945), Czech Jewish artist who created drawings and paintings depicting conditions in the Theresienstadt. Fritta was deported to Auschwitz in October 1944; he died there a week after his arrival.

© 2012 United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Despite the harsh conditions and constant threat of deportation, the prisoners of Theresienstadt had a rich cultural life due to the large numbers of scholars, artists and writers amongst the prisoners.

Artists from Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Germany produced drawings and paintings of conditions within the ghetto. Writers and professors gave lectures. Musicians gave concerts and actors put theatre performances. The ghetto even maintained a lending library containing 60,000 books.



In total 15,000 children passed through Theresienstadt. Whilst there, despite being forbidden by the SS, children attended school taught by the many teachers and artists. Children painted pictures, wrote poetry, and grew plants in order that they may experience some small portion of normality.

Approximately 90 percent of these children were sent on to their deaths in the extermination camps.

Image: © 2012 Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority

Children from the cast of Brundibar, an opera performed in Theresienstadt. The picture was taken from a Nazi propaganda film made in 1944.


Leo Haas: Living culture in the ghetto

The Theresienstadt ghetto

This image depicts the Jewish ghetto-labour camp of Theresienstadt.

Theresienstadt was set up by the Nazis to be the “perfect ghetto.” The camp had fake buildings that were nicely painted so that from the outside the ghetto would look pretty and pleasant. It had trees, gardens, and a bank and a café. However, the bank had no money, and the café had no food.

The Nazis sent many Jewish artists, such as Leo Haas, to Theresienstadt in order to create pictures that lied about the ghetto-labour camp. They wanted the pictures to depict Theresienstadt as a carefree living space where the people were happy and treated well. However, the truth was that Theresienstadt was a brutal place. It was very small and Jews were forced to live in very crowded, unsanitary, and poor conditions.

Leo Haas made a series of pictures to show what life was really like in the ghettos under the Nazis and he risked his life by doing so. Whilst there, he produced numerous illegal prints, which he hid in the walls and among the other inhabitants of Theresienstadt.


Red Cross visit

In 1944, while Haas was still in Theresienstadt, the Red Cross went to visit the ghetto-labour camp. In order to fool the Red Cross, the Nazis made Theresienstadt look like a model ghetto.

A video was made to show how wonderful life in Theresienstadt was, and The Red Cross left with a positive impression of Theresienstadt. After the visit the people who had participated in the video were sent to Auschwitz.

After this Red Cross visit, in 1944, Leo Haas began to be suspected of producing truthful images such as ‘Ghetto’, and was arrested and imprisoned in Theresienstadt for “smuggling atrocity propaganda abroad” and sent to Auschwitz. He was subsequently moved to other labour and death camps before being liberated in 1945 by American troops.

After the war he moved back to Czechoslovakia and retrieved his more than 400 drawings from Theresienstadt.

For more information about the art resources of the Ben Uri gallery in collaboration with the London Grid for Learning click here.

Leo Haas

Born in Opava, Northern Czechoslovakia in 1901, Leo Haas studied in Karlrusche, Berlin between 1919 and 1922, and later in Austria. He returned to work in Opava 1926 from where he was deported to Theresienstadt in 1939. Many of the drawings he produced during his time in the camps have survived.

He returned to Czechoslovakia after the liberation and settled in Prague. Haas reunited with his wife and adopted the son of Bedrich Fritta (also an artist), who had been a friend of Haas’ and who died in Auschwitz. He moved to East Berlin in 1955.

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What was the Final Solution?

What was the Final Solution?

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