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Section: What were the ghettos and camps?

Theresienstadt Ghetto

Philip Manes, a German Jew and a prolific writer, and his wife Gertrud were sent to Theresienstadt in 1942. Whilst incarcerated, Manes kept a detailed account of life in the ghetto in several diaries. This map shows a hand drawn ground plan of the ghetto from 1943.
This post-war report of Theresienstadt compiles figures from the ghetto. This page discusses the number of people who passed through the ghetto, where from, and the number of those who perished in Theresienstadt itself.

Whilst all ghettos were unique, Theresienstadt was distinctly so.

Theresienstadt was a ghetto, but also had features of a transit camp. It was used as a temporary holding place for Jews on their way to camps further east.

The town of Theresienstadt, or Terezín in Czech, was a town established around a military fortress. Construction began in 1780. The town was divided into two parts, the small fortress and the large fortress. These fortresses were separated by River Ohře. Until the Nazi occupation, the town had an average population of just under 4000 people.

The Nazis established the ghetto on 24 November 1941. Following this, an average of 35,000 people were incarcerated at any given time between 1941 and 1945.

DID YOU KNOW...

Kurt Gerron

Kurt Gerron was a Jewish film director from Germany. After fleeing from Nazi Germany to France in 1933, he was later captured in Amsterdam and deported to Westerbork in 1943. From Westerbork, he was sent to Theresienstadt in February 1944.

At Theresienstadt, Gerron was forced to plan and direct a propaganda film for the Nazis depicting Theresienstadt in a positive light. This film was entitled Theresienstadt: A Documentary Film from the Jewish Settlement Area but became unofficially referred to as The Führer Gives a City to the Jews. It was filmed in August and September 1944, with many parts of the ghetto beautified to make it appear in a more positive light.

After directing the film, Gerron, and many of the prisoners featured in it, were deported to Auschwitz and murdered. The film was completed in March 1945, but due to its timing and the imminent end of the war, was never fully released or utilised for mass propaganda.

Kurt Gerron

This document is one of the original draft overviews of the film, suggesting potential scenes.

Establishment of Theresienstadt

The Nazis invaded and annexed what remained of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. As part of the Theresienstadt Ghetto had served as a prison previously, the Gestapo quickly re-established their own prison in the small fortress on 10 June 1940.

On 10 October 1941 Heydrich identified Theresienstadt as the desired Jewish settlement for German, Austrian and Czech Jews over the age of 65, First World War veterans, or well-known cultural or political figures. Theresienstadt was intended to serve as both a holding site for Jews on their way to extermination camps in the east or for Jews of cultural or political fame until their eventual deportation or death.

Later, Theresienstadt was also an important propaganda tool to disguise the nature of the Nazis treatment of elderly or prominent Jews. It was used to explain the deportation of elderly Jews from Germany, since it was implausible to suggest that they were being deported to complete forced labour due to their frail state and age. Instead, the Nazis claimed, these elderly Jews were sent for ‘retirement’ in the spa town of Theresienstadt.

The establishment and jurisdiction of the ghetto was assigned to the Gestapo, Adolf Eichmann and the Prague Office for Jewish Emigration.  Administration inside the ghetto was the responsibility of the elected Theresienstadt Jewish Council, led by chairman Jacob Edelstein.

On 24 November 1941, the first Jewish prisoners arrived in Theresienstadt. These prisoners were forced to convert the former military garrison into a ghetto. More prisoners soon arrived.

Just two months later, on 9 January 1942, the first transport of Czech Jews left Theresienstadt for other ghettos in the east. By the time the ghetto was liberated in May 1945, almost 90,000 Jews had been deported from Theresienstadt.

Conditions inside Theresienstadt

Conditions for prisoners held inside Theresienstadt were very poor. Of the 140,000 prisoners who were imprisoned there during its existence, 33,000 perished at the ghetto due to deprivation, starvation, and disease.

The ghetto was overcrowded, with between 40,000-50,000 people crammed into the living quarters. Initially, the first Jews to arrive at Theresienstadt were housed in the converted barracks, sleeping in triple decker wooden bunk beds, with several people sharing each bunk. However, overcrowding soon meant that some were also forced to sleep in the attics, cellars, and hallways.

Food was scarce. It was handed out three times a day and typically consisted of bread, soup made with lentils or potatoes, one slice of salami or meat (although this was rare), and coffee. When coupled with the lack of sanitation, the poor quality and lack of food often resulted in starvation and poor health. Food packages (which were a lifeline) could be received in the post from those outside of Theresienstadt, but as the war continued, and many of the prisoners’ family and friends disappeared, these often dwindled.

There was also a hospital within Theresienstadt. Although the lack of medicine meant that chances of recovery from illness still remained low, care was significantly better than care in other ghettos and camps in Nazi occupied Europe.

Running water in the ghetto existed, but was often temporarily faulty or broken. As a result of this, the overcrowded living barracks and the small amount of facilities, hygiene and sanitation were extremely poor.

Many of the prisoners in Theresienstadt were elderly or too sick to be able to work. Those who did work had jobs either working in the ghetto itself or carrying out hard labour outside of the ghetto. Whilst hard labour was often more demanding, it also provided an opportunity to leave the camp, and potentially to smuggle extra food to supplement their diets.

Culture inside Theresienstadt

Prominent Jews who were famous for their professions nationally or internationally made up one of the main prisoner groups at Theresienstadt. As a result of this, and the Nazi desire to use the ghetto as a propaganda tool, culture within the ghetto flourished.

Artists, poets, philosophers, writers, musicians, professors and scientists all depicted life in the ghetto through paintings, poems, drawings, essays, books, pamphlets, lectures and more.

Culture also provided a means of temporary escape, as the over 2,300 lectures which took place there show. Many focused on expressing themselves on pre-war topics, transporting prisoners’ minds away from the harsh realities of their situation.

The ghetto also had a functioning lending library, which held more than 60,000 volumes, 10,000 of which were in Hebrew. Many of these texts supported religious life in the ghetto, which was practiced widely and with relative freedom.

Actors also performed several plays, such as Faust by Goethe. Musicians also put on performances, including a rendition of Giuseppe Verdi’s Messa da Requiem.

Red Cross visit

This fifty kronen bank note was issued in the Theresienstadt Ghetto in 1943. The currency was initially designed by Peter Kien, a Jewish artist incarcerated in the camp, but the image of Moses was edited from the original to create a more stereotypical image of a Jew. On arrival at the ghetto, all residents had to convert their money into this ‘local currency’. This made escape from the camp more difficult, as the currency was worthless outside of the camp. The existence of this currency also added to the façade presented to the Red Cross during their visit to the camp in 1943, to make life in the camp resemble normalcy.

This fifty kronen bank note was issued in the Theresienstadt Ghetto in 1943. The currency was initially designed by Peter Kien, a Jewish artist incarcerated in the camp, but the image of Moses was edited from the original to create a more stereotypical image of a Jew. On arrival at the ghetto, all residents had to convert their money into this ‘local currency’. This made escape from the camp more difficult, as the currency was worthless outside of the camp. The existence of this currency also added to the façade presented to the Red Cross during their visit to the camp in 1943, to make life in the camp resemble normalcy.

Courtesy of The Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

By 1943, word had spread about the Nazis’ treatment and mass murder of Jews. Following the deportation of 476 Danish Jews to Theresienstadt in October 1943, the Danish Red Cross, the International Red Cross, and Danish Government pressured the Nazis into allowing them a visit to inspect conditions at the ghetto.

The Nazis were keen to allow such a visit in order to counteract reports which had leaked the true conditions and functions of the camps and ghettos being established across Europe.  The visit was scheduled for the 23 June 1944.

In order to ensure the Red Cross reported positively on Theresienstadt, the Nazis attempted to mask the true conditions there by presenting it as a model ghetto.

The Nazis removed 7503 Jews from Theresienstadt between 16 and 18 May 1943 to reduce overcrowding at the ghetto, holding them in a special camp at Auschwitz in case the Red Cross requested to visit them there.

Buildings along the inspection route were painted, a football match was staged and cultural activities were promoted to add to the façade.

As the Red Cross arrived and toured the ghetto, they followed a specific route, which had been pre-planned to portray the camp in the best light possible. They met prisoners who had been warned in how to act and what to say. The Red Cross were duped, and their report did not reveal the ghetto’s true purpose or conditions.

Following the visit, the deportations to Auschwitz and other camps and ghettos across Eastern Europe resumed. The prisoners who had met the Red Cross were deported in attempts to remove any evidence of the lie. The so-called Theresienstadt Family Camp at Auschwitz was also liquidated.

Liberation of Theresienstadt

As the Allied forces closed in, the Nazis began to empty ghettos and camps in Eastern Europe and send prisoners on death marches to camps and ghettos closer to the Germany. Approximately 15,000 such prisoners arrived in Theresienstadt in the last weeks of April 1945. This increase almost doubled the camps population at that time to approximately 30,000 people.

Following two further visits in April 1945, the International Red Cross took over the running of Theresienstadt on 2 May 1945. One week later, on 9 May 1945, Soviet forces liberated the ghetto.

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Conditions inside Theresienstadt

Conditions inside Theresienstadt

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