1939, Theresienstadt, A gift from Hitler. A place of hope and happiness for Jews and Jewesses alike. Theresienstadt was somewhere they could wait the war out without fear until the shadow of Nazism passed. It was a place filled with the most prosperous artists and musicians, daily shows and operas, lectures and seminars, gardens and coffee shops. A place with grace and character. An entire town that was given to the Jews as a gift from the Fuehrer. A paradise for Jews. That is at least, what the Nazis wanted people to believe.
Forty miles north west of Prague, Czechoslovakia, surrounded by the central Bohemian Mountains Hitler pinpointed the small town of Theresienstadt to be his paradise ghetto, his gift. Located in a scenic community, Theresienstadt had broad streets and a large square surrounded by two large parks and two smaller ones. Here within an area five blocks wide and seven blocks long, over 140, 000 Jews would spend the last months of their lives, and only a few handfuls would survive.
The first Jewish prisoners entered Theresienstadt on November 24, 1941. In the beginning, when the Fuehrer first presented the city to the Jews, many came willingly to the ghetto because life as a Jew was becoming intolerable and dangerous elsewhere with the rise and spread of anti-Semitism. The Jews wanting to enter Theresienstadt merely had to sign a contract turning over all remaining assets and property to the S. S, and in return the S. S pledged to take care of them as long as they inhabited Theresienstadt.
Theresienstadt was un-like any other ghetto in the fact that Hitler planed to use the ghetto as a model ghetto. It was a model that was supposed to represent all the ghettos set up across Europe. Theresienstadt was a place the Nazis and Hitler showed to comfort and reassure the world as to the overall treatment of the Jews. It was a ploy to try to cover up the real horrors and massacres of the Jews that were breaking out across Europe. Theresienstadt was a ghetto designed to divert all attention away from the dying and suffering, Hitler wanted to hide the truth from the world and create a hoax. With thousands of Jews being transported and murdered, among them were people who would be recognized and missed in communities. These were people that were famous; musicians, writers, painters, actors, and well-known scholars. All of these sudden disappearances of these famous people would raise questions among the countries in which they disappeared. Hitlers solution was Theresienstadt.
Also among the Jews sent to Theresienstadt, were war veterans or any Jew whom had worn a German uniform. Hitler felt he needed to appease the German army and respect even a Jew who had honorably served Germany.
Theresienstadt became a ghetto where most of the well-known Jews of Europe would reside happily for the remainder of the war. Theresiensadt, now a beautiful town filled with the most prosperous Jews of Europe became the set for a well-planned propaganda film that the Nazis used to deny the final solution. The ghetto had become a scene for a sick play for the worlds viewing.
Rules and regulations in Theresienstadt were much more relaxed than in other ghettos. Music, and art were encouraged and even forced upon the Jews so that Hitler could show the world what went on behind the gates of Theresienstadt. In 1944, Hitler set about a beautification project to up grade the city for a propaganda film. Playgrounds were built, store fronts painted, a new caf was added, along with the filling of storefront windows for the sole purpose of the film. The Jews were forced to perform operas and piano concerts. Actual scenes were set up outside playgrounds and in houses to show how, humanely the Jews were being treated. Afterward Hitler invited the Red Cross to view the town. What the Red Cross didnt know was that merely two weeks before, over five thousand Jews were deported to the concentration camps in the East so that the city would appear less crowded.
Hitler succeeded in two things with Theresiensadt; one he fooled the world with his well-planned hoax and propagation film, making people believe the Jews were treated humanely. The other success was, that he kept Theresienstadt as close to a ghetto in the sense that still fit the purpose and definition; to kill off as many Jews as quickly and efficiently as possible. At one point there were 88, 000 people living in an area no bigger then seven-football fields long and five football fields wide; all of them were to fit in 219 houses, 14 military barracks and administration buildings. Any new arrivals at that point were jammed into cellars lacking plumbing and with no heat, or windows, and sometimes no floors, which meant the people would sleep in the dirt. They were crammed into any space available including attics, which also had lack of heat and plumbing and were stifling in the summer for lack of ventilation. The people would freeze to death in the winter and die of heat exhaustion in the summer. Rooms that had once housed four to six people now housed close to 60. To make room for such an amount of people, they would construct bunks that stacked on top of one another all the way to the ceiling. A person could not roll over in bed without disturbing the residents on either side; such disturbances led to beatings. The total living area through out all of Theresienstadt had shrunken to about 18 square feet per person. If a person werent dying of a disease or hunger, they were certainly driven mad for lack of privacy. One would never have a second alone anywhere in all of Theresienstadt. Numerous people would overhear any conversation a person had. Solitude was un-imaginable.
With people living so tightly, epidemics broke out left and right. In the first year, alone enteritis claimed over 4000 lives. Other common epidemics such as conjunctivitis, hepatitis, and typhus were also spread by the conditions in the ghetto. One of the main spreaders of disease and epidemics was lice because of the close living conditions. Even though the S. S kept the delousing station running non stop, the second a person returned to their bunks the lice would be back within a day or two. Besides the lice, there were thousands of bugs infesting Theresienstadt. One woman remembers killing 120 bugs on her wall in one night, just to find another 50 the next day. Physicians removing plaster casts often found swarms of bugs living underneath infesting the persons arm.
Keeping clean in Theresienstadt was close to impossible. A resident would be considered lucky if they could shower once every two months. The water was restricted to be on only three times a day for one hour. During this time thousands of people would have to do their laundry and bath. Laundry was done once every three months at most, and the clothes would be dirty within a day of washing. One toilet in Theresienstadt would serve anywhere from a hundred people to 500. With that kind of traffic toilets were never kept clean and always backed up and overflowing.
During 1943, alone 30% of the population were ill due to conditions, which did not include the starving. The other 70% were busy taking care of the sick, starving or working. During July the death rate was 32 people a day and by August it rose to 75 people a day, then even higher still in September to 131 people a day dying in Theresienstadt. It was more then 25, 000 thousand deaths a year, which is 25 times the death rate in any normal central European city. Most of those were due to starvation, lack of medicine, disease, and torture.
Like most ghettos, there was an obsession with food in Theresienstadt. Meals consisted of old bread, some potatos turnips, watery soup, and possibly meat; which was more than likely horseflesh. If a person were lucky, they would receive a small amount of margarine or sugar. Once a week rations would be handed out fluctuating in consistency; some week people received 4 ounces of turnips and others potatos, sometimes horsemeat, sometimes nothing but bread. Usually 8 ounces of skim milk were rationed once a week along with the solids, but almost all of the people in Theresienstadt saw much less food than what was recorded. Shortages of kitchens made it so that people would have to stand for hours waiting in line for their small ration of food.
Waiting for food meant standing outside no matter what the weather consisted of. Some people would get frostbite from waiting for food, and others become sicker and developing pneumonia while standing in the rain. There was such a low amount of food that people would smuggle in possessions like watches or clothes to trade for food. People would give away their most prize possessions for a loaf of bread and some watery soup. Others even went to the extent of wiping their bowls, after they licked them clean, with their sleeves so that they could suck out the last remaining nutrients. There would be long conversations about food, talking about what they had before and the feasts shared, while rubbing their tummies. Some called this obsession about reminiscing about food while rubbing their tummies magenonamie which meant stomach masturbation.
One visitor to Theresienstadt said, the stench of the place almost made her faint. The smell of the potato cellars mixed with the latrines and the delousing station, while seeing dead bodies lying around and being dragged down stairs like random pieces of trash were to much for her to handle. Then on the other hand a woman whom had previously stayed in Auschwitz had said It was a city for prisoners and you could walk freely wearing a star. It was heaven. Despite the conditions of Theresienstadt many people felt privileged to be in the model ghetto. It was infinitely better than the east.
The people of Theresienstadt were not normal Jews, they were privileged Jews. Theresienstadt was the ghetto where the most respected Jews of Europe were sent; famous artists and musicians, scholars and Rabbis, as well as war veterans and any Jew married to an Aryan. There were precise regulations to who came into the ghetto; a Jew could not be ordinary. The regulations for a war veteran had to have held a high honor in World War One; veterans needed an Iron Cross, second class, or have suffered 50% disability from wounds. Three Thousand of less then 200, 000 remaining men of World War One, in the middle of 1942 met those requirements. Either people of mixed marriages were also placed in the ghetto, those that had an Aryan spouse living, a marriage dissolved by death, or a divorced woman with mixed children.
Many influential people moved through Theresienstadt during its time. Such musicians like the conductor of Royal Danish Symphony, the former concertmaster of Hollands concert GE Bouw orchestra, and many individual violinists, pianists, and vocalists. Leo Baeck, one of the most respected rabbis passed through Theresienstadt, as well as the former Prime Minister of the German state Saxony, vice governor of Indonesia, the surgeon general of the Dutch army and a Jewish baron from Bavaria. One man by the name of Ernst Eichengruen, was a well-known scientist who worked for Bayer, and was the one to discover the marketable form of aspirin. Ernst married to an Aryan, forgot, when filling out a patent application, to put the name Israel for his middle name. Since this was now the law for all Jews in his area at that time he was packed up and sent to Theresienstadt although he had brought fame and fortune to the Bayer Company. These people are only a few examples of the many well-known and famous people to pass through Theresienstadt.
With Theresienstadt filled with so many brilliant and talented people, it was a place destined to be interesting. The art and music that came from Theresiensadt is still being performed, and looked at. The poetry is still being read. Art was an essential part of the lives of the residents in Theresiensadt, whether it is music, poetry, or visual art. To each musician, artist or poet it was a small fraction of time where they could escape into a world of their own. For that fraction of time, they controlled their square of paper, or their instrument. The artistic freedom in Theresiensadt was their spirit, and it bloomed and grew through the years of its existence. It was the only way, some said, that they could have survived with a soul.
The Nazi s reason for allowing art was entirely for showing the world what Theresiensadt was made of. The Nazis supplied the residents with the materials needed as long as there were products that came out it. The artwork was a document of truth for the world that the people were being treated fairly and humanely. The S. S took advantage of some things such as the childrens opera. They realized that the children were having fun and were happy during the time spent with the group, so they filmed them as a major event in their propaganda film. All of the children involved with the childrens opera were later sent to the gas chambers in the East.
The Nazis allowed many other things besides art, such as a limited amount of religion. Rabbis held services and even performed Jewish rites, like bar mitzvahs. The Red Cross even donated matzah for Passover. Although not allowed, many torahs, prayer shawls, prayer books, and religious objects found their way into the ghettos, mostly from new arrivals. Other religions were also practiced. One eighth of the population in Theresiensadt were considered non-Jews and claimed themselves Konfesionslos (without religion). The rest of the people included 1, 130 Catholics and over 830 Protestants. One Jewish resident proclaimed The Terizin Ghetto is the only ghetto in the world where Catholic and Protestant services are held.
Although Theresiensadt was exceptional in the way that music and art, and to an extent, religion, was allowed, it was still a ghetto and there were still rules. Every able-bodied person, and even the partially disabled, between the ages of 16 and 60 were required to work unconditionally. Those who were between the ages of 14 to 16 and from 60 plus were required to do work that fit their age. Only 30% of the population were in working condition. By June of 1943, it rose to 58% of the amount of Jews in the work force in Theresienstadt. The hours one worked depended on the trade he or she was in. Maintenance, workshops, and construction worked well over 50 hours a week while office jobs were doing only a few hours less.
By the end of 1942, Theresiensadt had many shops in which the residents were employed; lock smiths, sewing, machine repair, carpentry, glass making, hose painting, shoe making, leather craft, and many more businesses. Some of the things the workshops turned out were, leather boots, uniforms, inkwells, fountain pens, lampshades, salt shakers, and even toys for German children. Almost all the goods made in Theresiensadt were for the German people; the people who made the goods rarely even saw them in their own stores. Some residents worked outside the gates of Theresienstadt, in fields or tending the animals at the farm, the S. S used for their own profit. Many people signed up for special detail, where the workers would leave Theresienstadt for months at a time and work at various places. In 1943 at least 400 people left for special detail to work in the coal mines, and then in April another 1000 departed to do forestry. Many jobs the S. S required were war related. One early month in 1942, the S. S stretched an awning over the town square and assigned 1000 men and woman to make kits especially designed for German tanks. An on going joke for the workers was Terezin has the only circus in the world where the people work and the animals (S. S) watch.
In September of 1942, the rules loosened a bit more. The S. S began allowing residents to send cards outside of Theresiensadt, containing no more then 30 words each month. Soon after that, the S. S began allowing residents to receive packages containing food and clothes from friends and relatives. By the spring of 1943 over 3, 000 packages were being received a month. At the same time, The S. S was allowing the Red Cross, and other organizations to send food. This both boosted the health and psyche for the residents of Theresienstadt because it reassured them that the world didnt forget about them.
Many of the residents in Theresienstadt, despite the conditions, felt safe from being deported. Then in 1944 the S. S made a change. They decided to deport 1000 Jews that January to the east. People who had thought it was safe had now lost all sense of security. The S. S continued for the next 13 months to send over 50, 000 people of Theresienstadt to the east. The only people who hadnt need to worry were the residents in valid Aryan marriage with or with out children, and war veterans. The Nazis then began to use deportation as a punishment. If a person somehow got two rations of food, off they would go to the cattle cars. There was a new fear then going around Theresiensadt, people would be afraid to wake up in the morning for fear of being deported that evening.
As the months passed and it drew closer to 1945 the arrivals and deportations continued, the war was finally ending. In May of 1945, Theresienstadt was liberated by the Russian army. Of the 140, 000 people that entered Theresiensadt through 1941 and 1945, Ninety thousand were sent to death in the east, 33, 000 died in the ghetto, and 16, 832 people survived. Most of those that had survived were those who had entered Theresienstadt close to the liberation. Of the 10, 000 children that moved through Theresienstadt only 93 of them survived.
Theresiensadt was Hitlers perfect scheme. It was a beautiful small town hidden in the mountains with wide streets and parks the children could play in. The S. S succeeded in making the world believe Theresienstadt was a sanctuary for Jews. When in reality the arty town filled with wonderful and talented people was still part of Hitlers plan of the Final Solution. Hitlers gift was a gift to himself in a sense that he was trying to cover up his horrific actions. Theresienstadt was better than most ghettos, having more freedom to express feelings, and more availability to food, but it was still a part of the Holocaust. Hitler succeeded in two things in the years of Theresienstadt; the murder of thousands of Jews and the appearance and acceptance of Theresiensadt as, a model ghetto.