On November 24, 1941, the first Jewish deportees – a thousand in number – arrived at Theresienstadt, in German-occupied Czechoslovakia, to prepare the Habsburg-era military garrison for service as a concentration camp. Early the next year, Theresienstadt was to begin functioning in several capacities: as a transit station for Jews destined for death camps further to the east; as a benign-appearing settlement for elderly Jews and for decorated German-Jewish veterans of World War I; and as a “model community” for Jewish intellectuals, artists and other professionals. Both of the latter categories served solely for German propaganda purposes.
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The garrison town of Theresienstadt (in German; its Czech name is Terezin) was established in 1784 by the Habsburg Emperor Joseph II, who named it in memory of his mother, Empress Maria Theresa. Physically, it consists of a small military fortress on the eastern side of the Ohre River, southeast of Leitomerz in the modern-day Czech Republic. Across the river is a larger complex that served as a residential village for the families of the soldiers serving at the fortress.
After the Germans occupied Czech Bohemia and Moravia, in March 1939, the Gestapo began using the small fortress as a prison, and the larger fortress as a military base.
In October 1941, as the Nazis began planning the first deportations of German, Austrian and Czech Jews to the east, they decided to evacuate the 7,000 soldiers and civilians living there, and convert the town into a transit camp and ghetto. On October 30, SS First Lieutenant Siegfried Seidl was given the duty of setting up the camp. For that purpose, he ordered the leaders of the Jewish community of Prague (about 65 kms away), to supply 1,000 Jews to undertake design and construction work. That group arrived at noon on November 24.
Distraction and deceit
Theresienstadt’s function was discussed at the January 20, 1942, Wannsee Conference, where planning for the “Final Solution” was carried out. The German security chief, Reinhard Heydrich, proposed using it as something of a “retirement community” for elderly Jews and decorated or disabled Jewish war veterans, who were unfit for the labor for which, according to the fiction then being disseminated by the Nazis, Jews were supposedly being relocated in the east.
To Heydrich’s thinking, setting up this model town could “eliminate at one stroke the many interventions” that might be anticipated from various quarters – whether it be suspicious citizens of the Reich or foreign officials – on behalf of Jews in these categories.
Similar reasoning was behind the later decision to expand the qualifications for deportation to Theresienstadt to include people of “special merit”: professors, artists, musicians, jurists and the like, from Czechoslovakia and, to a lesser extent, from the Netherlands and Denmark.
Realizing the propaganda value that could accrue from having a showcase camp, the Germans allowed the Jewish inmates of Theresienstadt to organize for themselves a rich cultural program, which included musical ensembles, theater, art workshops, public lectures by many of the distinguished intellectuals imprisoned there, and a full school curriculum for the children.
Nonetheless, behind the polished façade, physical conditions at Theresienstadt were appalling, and mortality from disease and starvation was very high. Whereas the barracks, for example, were intended for a maximum capacity of 7,000 residents, at its most crowded, in September 1942, the Theresienstadt ghetto was home to 58,000 Jews.
That same month, a crematorium was built to accommodate the growing number of dead bodies.
Theresienstadt, the movie
In June 1944, the Germans capitulated to pressure from the Danish Red Cross, and allowed it to send a delegation to visit the camp. Once the effort was made to clean up Theresienstadt, it was decided to produce a propaganda film about it as well. The result was “The Fuehrer Gives the Jews a City,” a highly idealized depiction of Theresienstadt as something akin to a resort, produced entirely by Jewish prisoners.
The day after filming ended, nearly all of those involved in the movie were deported to Auschwitz.
By the end of the war, approximately 144,000 Jews had been imprisoned in Theresienstadt. Fewer than 20,000 of them would survive the war.