In March 1939, Adolf Hitler placed the region known as Rest-Tschechei (also known as “rump” of Czechoslovakia) under administration of the German Reich as the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. In November 1941, they converted the garrison town of Theresienstadt into an assembly and transit camp as part of the solution to the Jewish problem. The camp was to predominantly fulfil the following four purposes:
# act as a Gestapo prison (small fortress)
# be used as an assembly and transit camp (main fortress)
# used to aid in the extermination of Jews
# employed as a propaganda tool
Even though Theresienstadt was not an extermination camp, approximately 35,000 people died there between 1941 and 1945. The main groups to be deported to the camp were the Jewish elderly, and famous Jews, most of whom were cultural and societal figures, scientists, or award-winners.
#The Gestapo prison – the Small Fortress
The Gestapo used the Small Fortress at Theresienstadt as a prison for political prisoners from as early as 1940. It was under the management of the Gestapo headquarters in Prague and was led by the SS-Hauptsturmführer, Heinrich Jöckel. It was initially intended for male prisoners only. However, from June 1942, women were also imprisoned in the Small Fortress.
Approximately 27,000 men and 5,000 women were detained in the Gestapo prison from 1940 to 1945, many of whom were later deported to other prisons or concentration camps. While only 150 people were arrested in 1940, the number rose to 600 new prisoners in 1941, 1,200 in 1942 and approximately 2,000 new prisoners in each of the following two years. In 1945, the prison reached its highest capacity of 5,500 prisoners.
Reasons for imprisonment included acts of resistance, breach of the anti-Jewish rules, sabotage, amongst others. Oppositionists from all classes, workers, scientists, doctors, priests, Jews and prisoners of war were arrested.
The prison conditions were abysmal. Up to 2,500 people died of malnutrition, disease, forced labour (in the industrial, agricultural or mining sectors) or were killed in the Small Fortress. The hygienic conditions were catastrophic, and the cells were dark and damp. 60 to 90 people had to share one cell filled with three-tier bunk beds. There were even mass cells for up to 600 prisoners.
17.5% of all prisoners were released immediately, while the rest were relocated to either the concentration camps in Flossenbürg, Buchenwald, Auschwitz, Mauthausen or Ravensbrück, or prisons in Dresden, Bautzen, Zwickau, Berlin or Bayreuth. Hundreds of people were sentenced to death.
The Gestapo prison was liberated by the Red Army at the beginning of May 1945 and Soviet medics attended to the survivors, but a typhus epidemic claimed the lives of another 1,000 people before it was brought under control at the end of the month.
#The Ghetto – the Main Fortress
Theresienstadt was built as a fortress in the 18th century, and was later used as a garrison town. At the beginning of the 1940s it was inhabited by approximately 7,500 people, consisting mainly of Czech civilians and Wehrmacht units. The town consisted of 219 houses, 11 barracks, and various administration buildings, crafts businesses, shops, restaurants, as well as a parade ground, church and hospital. There was also an underground maze (casemates) that spanned 25km.
The Nazis decided in autumn 1941 to adapt Theresienstadt into a ghetto. They decided upon the old fortress town, since it was precise symmetrical structure, therefore making it easy to control and shield from the outside world. Additionally, the large number of barracks was suitable to house many people. From the middle of 1942, mainly old Jews from the German Reich were deported to Theresienstadt. Later, Jews from occupied territories were also brought there. The number of Jews from each territory that were housed at Theresienstadt are as follows:
# German Reich: 43,000
# Austria: 15,000
#The Netherlands: 5,000
# Denmark: 466
# Slovakia: 1,500
# Hungary: 1,000
By the end of the war, an additional 13,000 people arrived by evacuation transport from the East. The number of ghetto inhabitants increased quickly and, even though the Czech civilians started leaving the town, there was a shortage of living space and food. People dwelled in mass accommodations, which were established in attics, house entrances, cellars and the city’s underground tunnels. In the barracks, 50 people lived in rooms designed for 10 people. There was no privacy and the hygienic conditions were disastrous due to the lack of sufficient water or sanitation facilities. Therefore, disease spread quickly.
The inmates’ lives were not only marred by those shortages, but also by the many prohibitions and regulations imposed upon them. Sending and receiving mail was prohibited, as was smoking, haircuts or walking on pavements. An evening curfew was enforced and money, tobacco, cigarettes, tinned food, stationery, medicines and jewellery had to be surrendered. The 15,000 children in Theresienstadt were not allowed to go to school. Anyone who violated any of these regulations face severe punishment – or even death.
From the age of 14, inhabitants were subjected to forced labour for up to 12 hours a day. They were appointed jobs in the agricultural sector, war production or self-governance positions. All the while, death transports continued to depart for the East.
#The crematorium, death chambers & columbarium
Approximately 33,430 people died between December 1941 and August 1944; often at a rate of 120 people per day. At first there were individual funerals and religious ceremonies, but soon the bodies were unceremoniously buried in mass graves. Out of fear of polluting the groundwater, the SS had the prisoners build a crematorium in May 1942. This gave them the ability to cremate up to 180 bodies a day. As a result, 30,000 corpses were burnt in the six available ovens between 1942 and 1945.
Two death chambers and a columbarium were established in the walls, near the graveyard on the city’s outskirts. The dead were laid out in the death chambers and the ashes were kept in paper urns in the columbarium. Up to 20,000 urns were stored there, each of which included the occupant’s name and an assigned registration number.
#Nazi propaganda and “the Show Camp”
Theresienstadt was advertised by the Nazis in the Reichszeitung as a “retirement home in Bohemia”, equipped with medical care and quality nursing care. It was propagated as a town with self-administration and as a present for the Jewish people from the Führer. Many Jews fell for it, hoping to avoid being transported to the extermination camps. They paid large amounts of money for a place in the retirement home in the ghetto and packed lace dresses, top hats and photo albums. However, the packing of essentials such as blankets, food or warm clothes was neglected. Many died of scarlet fever, jaundice, typhus, diarrhoea or pneumonia shortly after their arrival.
Since the Nazis could not keep their extermination camps completely secret from the allies, and relied on the resources and food from the neutral states, they allowed a contingent of the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit Theresienstadt. For that, the town needed to be glamourised: firstly, approximately 7,500 people were deported to Auschwitz in order to depopulate the camp; after that the town was renovated. Plants were laid out on the parade ground, and new gardens and green areas were created. Various shops, a theatre, a library and a café with live music were opened; the hospital was cleaned and given new equipment; and even a new school (that was not to be used) was set up. Additionally, the Nazis produced the propaganda film Terezin: A Documentary Film of the Jewish Resettlement (commonly known as Die geschenkte Stadt [The Führer gives a village to the Jews]). The characters in the film seemed happy, healthy and clean. They are shown to lead good lives filled with coffee parties, football, gardening and other leisure activities. Old and sick people were hidden in the casemates and the misery was covered up. After filming was finished, all actors were deported to Auschwitz.
# Closure & Liberation
From September 1944, the Nazis began to slowly but steadily vacate the camp. More and more people were deported to the extermination camps as the SS tried to cover their tracks. At the beginning of November, the prisoners were forced to remove all 22,000 urns from the columbarium and scatter the ashes on the Ohře. Simultaneously, the paper urns and various documents were burnt. With the Red Army approaching, the SS, Wehrmacht and Gestapo deserted Theresienstadt. At the beginning of May, the International Red Cross assumed control and administration of the ghettos and set up delousing baths and hospitals. However, the town had to be put under quarantine until the end of May, since the epidemics could not be contained (200-300 infections spread daily). Up until the quarantine was lifted, another 800 to 1,000 people in the ghetto died of epidemic typhus. The evidence of four years is overwhelming. Between 1941 and 1945 approximately 160,000 people were imprisoned in the ghetto, 88,000 of which were deported into various extermination camps – where 35,000 of the 88,000 died. Of the 15,000 children that were imprisoned at the camp, only 100 survived.
# Address and opening hours
Principova alej 304
41155 Terezín, Czech Republic
Admission fee: 14€ per person. Each ticket includes visits to:
# The ghettos
# The Small Fortress
# The graveyard
# The crematorium, columbarium and the death chambers.
Summer opening hours: 1st April to 31st October: 8am – 6pm daily
Winter opening hours: 1st November to 31st March: 8am – 4:30pm daily (closed from 24th to 26th December and on the 1st January)
#All the pictures were mady by Nancy Eisold
# Personal visit to Theresienstadt
# Yad Vashem – Internationale Holocaust Gedenkstätte „Das Gehtto Theresienstadt“. Abrufbar unter: http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/de/holocaust/about/03/terezin.asp (Stand 12.07.16)
# Deutsches Historisches Museum (Berlin) – LEMO: Lebendiges Museum Online (2002) „Das Ghetto Theresienstadt“. Abrufbar unter: https://www.dhm.de/lemo/kapitel/der-zweite-weltkrieg/voelkermord/ghetto-theresienstadt.html (Stand 12.07.16)
# Gelsenzentrum: Portal für Stadt- und Zeitgeschichte (2008) „Ghetto Theresienstadt“. Abrufbar unter: http://www.gelsenzentrum.de/kz_theresienstadt_terezin.htm#a17 (Stand 12.07.16)