History of Ghetto Theresienstadt
Americans normally think of a "ghetto"
as a section of a large city that is a rundown, dilapidated,
rat-infested slum inhabited by one ethnic group that has been
forced to live there because of discrimination or institutionalized
racism. In former times in Europe, "ghetto" was the
term for a walled section of a city where the Jews were forced
to live separately from the Christians according to the laws
of the city. Because of over-crowding and isolation, these ghettos
usually turned into slums. So when the
Germans turned the town of Theresienstadt into a Jewish ghetto
in November 1941, this was not by any means a Nazi innovation.
Even before the word ghetto came into use, and long before the
Nazis came upon the scene, the Jews were eventually segregated
into a ghetto in almost every city where they settled. Usually
they were already living in a separate part of the city, known
as the Jewish quarter. These segregated quarters became ghettos
only after walls were erected, a curfew for the Jews was established,
and the Jews were forced to wear distinctive clothing to instantly
identify themselves to non-Jews.
The word "ghetto" derives from the
name of an area of the city of Venice where the city's foundries
were located. In the Venetian dialect, a foundry was known as
a "geto" which meant a workshop or a factory. The word
"geto" was derived from the verb "gettare"
which means "to cast" as in to cast iron in a foundry.
After the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal
in 1497, many of them settled in Venice. In 1516, a city decree
forced the Jews of Venice to live on a small island with only
two access points which were sealed off at sunset. This island
had previously been the area of the "gheto nuovo" or
However, even before the word ghetto came
into use, the Jews, particularly in Poland, were confined to
walled sections of the city where they lived. In 1492 the Jews
of Krakow in Poland were put into a walled off section after
they were accused of setting fires in the city. There were never
any walled Jewish ghettos in the Old Reich, as Germany proper
was called, not even during Hitler's regime. Hitler sent the
German Jews to the Lodz ghetto, located in what had formerly
been Poland or to Theresienstadt, located in what was formerly
Czechoslovakia. After the Nazis invaded Poland and took over
the country, they initially put the Polish Jews into ghettos,
using the excuse, that had been used for centuries, that the
Jews were responsible for spreading disease. Later, these ghettos
became a convenient way to concentrate the Jews in one location
for eventual transport to the concentration camps for extermination
in Hitler's "Final Solution to the Jewish Question."
On October 10, 1941 the Germans initially
decided to make Theresienstadt into a ghetto for selected Jews
in the Greater German Reich, which included Austria, Bohemia,
Moravia and part of western Poland. The Jews who were to be sent
to Theresienstadt included those over 60 years old, World War
I veterans, prominent people such as artists or musicians, very
important persons, the blind, the deaf, and the inmates of the
Jewish mental hospitals and the Jewish orphanages.
The first Jews, who were brought to Theresienstadt
on November 24, 1941, were 342 men who were housed in the Sudeten
barracks on the west side of the old garrison, from where one
can see the Sudeten mountain range near the border between Germany
and the Czech Republic. This first transport, called the Aufbaukommando,
was brought there to prepare the 10 barracks buildings for the
Jews who would soon follow. On December 4, 1941 another transport
of 1,000 Jews who were to form the Jewish "self-government"
of the ghetto was sent to Theresienstadt. These two early transports
became known as AK1 and AK2.
A short time after the construction crews
had prepared the barracks, 7,000 Jews from Prague and Brno in
Czechoslovakia arrived in the ghetto; men and women were put
into separate barracks and they were not allowed to mix with
the townspeople. On Feb. 16, 1942, the 3,500 townspeople were
given notice that they had to evacuate the town by June 30th.
At that time, the whole town was converted into a prison camp
for the Jews.
Even before the transports departed to Theresienstadt,
the Jewish Council of the Elders (Ältestenrat) was appointed
in Prague to do the ghetto administration. The Nazis gave oral
orders to the Council each day and the Jewish "self-government"
informed the prisoners of the order of the day. There were three
Jewish Elders (Judenältester) who served as the head of
the ghetto "self-government." The first was Jakub Edelstein,
who served as the ghetto Elder from December 4, 1941 to November
27, 1943. He was arrested for falsifying camps records and was
sent to the Small Fortress across the river from the ghetto.
From there he was transferred to Auschwitz where he was executed
at the infamous "black wall" on June 20, 1944 after
being forced to watch as his wife and son were being shot. The
second Jewish leader of Theresienstadt was Dr. Paul Eppstein
who was taken to the Small Fortress on September 7, 1944 and
immediately shot without the benefit of a trial because he too
disobeyed the orders of the Nazis. The last Jewish leader of
the ghetto was Dr. Benjamin Murmelstein, who served from Sept.
7, 1944 until the end of the war. The ghetto guards were 150
Czech policemen; there was also an unarmed ghetto guard unit
which helped to maintain order in the ghetto.
By the time that the Nazis started deporting
the Jews from Germany, there were only 200,000 of them left in
the country; all the others had already emigrated to escape the
Nazi persecution. Forty percent of the remaining Jews in Germany
were over 60 years old, as the children and young people had
been the first to leave. After the Nazis took over Austria in
March 1938, the Jews were forced to emigrate to any country that
would take them, and only 15,000 old people were allowed to remain.
All of these elderly Austrian Jews were deported to Theresienstadt
where their mortality rate was the highest of all.
The first name that the Nazis gave to the
garrison town, which had been renamed Terezin by the Czechs,
was Theresienbad, which means Spa Theresien, implying that it
was a spa town where people could take mineral baths. Then the
name was changed to Reichsaltersheim, or State Old People's Home.
Some of the unsuspecting German elderly Jews actually paid for
an apartment in the ghetto and signed contracts for housing,
food and medical treatment which was to be provided. They were
very disappointed when they got to Theresienstadt and learned
that it was nothing like the spa town or old folks home that
they were expecting and that they were not going to have luxury
accommodations, even though they had paid. Since they were too
old to work, their rations were less than the amount given to
the workers, and their mortality rate was extremely high.
Theresienstadt is frequently referred to as
the "Paradise Ghetto," although this was never a name
used by the Nazis. For most of its existence, the Theresienstadt
ghetto was called the Jewish Self-administration or Jüdische
Besides the ordinary people who were sent
to the Nazi concentration camps, there were also many well known
and prominent Jews, such as the French premier Leon Blum, who
were incarcerated along the others. In every camp where these
prominent people were confined, they were given privileged treatment
and Theresienstadt was no exception. Important people, such as
Rabbi Dr. Leo Baeck of Berlin, whom the Nazis called "the
Pope of the Jews," were given private apartments in Theresienstadt.
The rest of the Jews were housed in large barrack rooms where
they were crowded together into three rows of triple decker wooden
bunk beds. As the ghetto filled up, the newcomers were forced
to live in attic space without heat, running water or toilets.
Each transport to the camp contained around
1,000 Jews. Upon arrival the Jews went through a checkpoint,
which was called die Schleuse, which means the lock as in a lock
on a canal. Here they were searched for items that were forbidden
in the camp. After that, the men and women were assigned to separate
barracks. The barracks were named after towns in Germany, for
example, the Dresden and Magdeburg barracks for the women, the
Hanover barracks for men and Hamburg barracks for women. The
Magdeburg barracks also housed the offices of the Jewish "self-government."
On the wall near the entry door, there is a plaque which lauds
the Jewish leaders in the ghetto for their resistance to the
Nazis, even though it meant death for two of the Elders.
The first transport to be sent to the east
from Theresienstadt consisted of 2,000 Jews who were sent to
Riga on January 9, 1942 from the Bohusovice station. According
to Holocaust historian, Martin Gilbert, all 2,000 were taken
to the nearby Rumbuli forest where they were shot. The most horrible
aspect of this is that the Jewish "self-government"
in the camp was initially in charge of selecting the people for
the transports, although they did not know what their fate would
be at that time.
A total of 44,693 Jews from Theresienstadt
were sent to Auschwitz, where all but a few of them perished.
On September 8, 1943 a transport of 5,006 Czech Jews was sent
to Auschwitz where they were put into a "family camp"
which was liquidated six months later. There
were 22,503 Jews from Theresienstadt who were transported to
unknown destinations in the east. In keeping with their stated
policy at the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942, the plan
was to evacuate all the Jews to the east. Eight thousand were
sent from Theresienstadt to Treblinka and 1,000 to Sobibor, two
death camps that were right on the border between Poland and
Russia. Another 1,000 were transported from the ghetto to a concentration
camp near the village of Maly Trostenets, just outside of Minsk
in what is now Belarus, formerly known as White Russia. Two thousand
were sent to Zamosc, 3,000 to Izbica and 3,000 to Lublin, all
of which are cities near the eastern border of Poland.
Although the Theresienstadt ghetto was originally
supposed to be a home for elderly Jews, the Nazis started including
some of the older inmates in the transports after the camp population
on September 18, 1942 had reached 58,497, its highest number
of prisoners. With such horrendous overcrowding, the death toll
was around 4,000 just for the month of September in 1942 and
most of them were elderly people. Between September 19, 1942
and October 22, 1942, there were 11 transports carrying ghetto
inmates from Theresienstadt to other camps in order to relieve
In the southwest section of the old garrison
town, there is a former barrack building, called the Bauhaus
by the Nazis, that was used in the ghetto for craft workshops.
An identical building sits at the opposite corner on the southeast
side of the town. This was the Hunters barracks, which was used
to house the oldest of the ghetto prisoners, those in their seventies
and eighties, and even some as old as ninety. This was also the
delousing station where clothing was disinfected with Zyklon
B, the same gas used in the homicidal gas chambers in Auschwitz.
Behind this barracks was the Südberg or South Hill where
there was a soccer field for the inmates.
According to the Ghetto Museum, in 1945 a
homicidal gas chamber was built in a corridor of the town's fortifications
wall near the Litomerice gate, which is right by the Bauhaus
building. According to Martin Gilbert, this gas chamber was never
"activated." The homicidal gas chamber is on the opposite
side of the town and directly across from the Hunters barracks,
where the disinfection gas chambers were located in an identical
building. The ghetto inmates became aware of the Theresienstadt
homicidal gas chamber and were planning to blow it up, but the
war ended just in time to save the Theresienstadt Jews from being
gassed right in the ghetto. In October 1944, the Jews at Birkenau
(Auschwitz II) did manage to blow up one of the homicidal gas
chambers and shortly thereafter, Heinrich ordered the gassing
operation to be stopped.
There were rumors circulating in all of the
major Nazi concentration camps toward the end of the war that
Hitler had given the order for all the inmates to be killed before
the arrival of the the Russians or the Americans. This was believed
to be the purpose for building a gas chamber at Theresienstadt
in 1945 at the tail end of the war. At Auschwitz, the inmates
were given the choice to stay in the camp, or to follow the Germans
on a death march to the camps in the west before the Russian
army arrived. Very few stayed behind, except those who were too
old or too sick to walk, because the prisoners believed that
they would be killed if they stayed.
After April 20, 1945, there were 13,454 of
these wretched survivors from Auschwitz and other camps who poured
into Theresienstadt. Some were housed in the Hamburg barracks,
right by the railroad tracks. The others were put into temporary
wooden barracks outside the ghetto, which were taken down soon
after the war. Some of them were from Buchenwald which had just
been liberated by American troops on April 11, 1945. Before the
Americans arrived, Hitler himself had given the order to evacuate
the Jews from Buchenwald. Some of them arrived at Theresienstadt
after they had been traveling by train for two weeks without
food. After the liberation of Buchenwald, some of the prisoners,
who had not been evacuated, commandeered American army jeeps
and weapons, then drove to the nearby town of Weimar where, in
an orgy of revenge, they looted German homes and shot innocent
civilians at random; this was the type of thing that the Nazis
were trying to prevent by evacuating the concentration camps
before they were liberated.
According to Holocaust survivor Ben Helfgott,
who was one of the prisoners brought to Theresienstadt in the
last days of the war, the inmates of the ghetto went on a rampage
as soon as they were released. They looted homes, beat to death
an SS guard from the ghetto, and attacked the German refugees
who were now being driven out of Czechoslovakia.
Some of the people who arrived from the evacuated
camps were former inmates of Theresienstadt who were now returning.
Others were Jews who had been in the eastern concentration camps
for years. On May 3, 1945, the ghetto was turned over to the
Red Cross by Commandant Rahm. According to Martin Gilbert in
his book "Holocaust Journey," Rahm told the Red Cross
that he had received orders from Berlin to kill all the inmates
in the ghetto before the Russians arrived, but he had disobeyed
the order. Because of this, Gilbert wrote, he was allowed to
leave the camp unmolested on the day before the Russians arrived
on May 8, 1945. He was later captured and tried in a Special
People's Court in nearby Litomerice; he was held in the Small
Fortress until he was executed in 1947.