Theresienstadt, the "Model" ghetto


During the war, small bits of information about the extreme and horrific episodes
perpetrated under the Third Reich reached an unbelieving world.

The Nazis needed to answer the world's growing concern and yet
they wanted to continue implementing their "solution" to the Jewish Question.

The Nazis decided to use Theresienstadt to solve the growing outside pressure.

Through deceit and subterfuge, the Nazis transformed Theresienstadt into a "model ghetto."

The Beginnings


By 1941, conditions for Czech Jews were growing worse. The Nazis were in the process of creating a plan of how to treat and how to deal with Czechs and Czech-Jews. The Czech-Jewish community had already felt pangs of loss and disunion since several transports had already been sent East. Jakob Edelstein, a prominent member of the Czech-Jewish community, believed that it would be better for his community for them to be concentrated locally rather than sent to the East.

At the same time, the Nazis were facing two dilemmas. The first dilemma was what to do with the prominent Jews that were being carefully watched and looked after by Aryans. Since most Jews were sent on transports under the pretension of "work," the second dilemma was how could the Nazis peacefully transport the elderly Jewish generation.

Though Edelstein had hoped that the ghetto would be located in a section of Prague, the Nazis chose the garrison town of Terezin.

Terezin is located approximately ninety miles north of Prague and just south of Litomerice. The town was originally built in 1780 by Emperor Joseph II of Austria and named after his mother, Empress Maria Theresa. Terezin consisted of the Big Fortress and the Small Fortress. The Big Fortress was surrounded by ramparts and contained barracks. After 1882, Terezin was no longer used as a fortress. For the next several decades, the garrison town of Terezin remained virtually the same, almost entirely separated from the rest of the countryside. The Small Fortress was used as a prison for dangerous criminals.

Terezin changed dramatically when the Nazis renamed it Theresienstadt and sent the first Jewish transports there in November 1941.

Initial Conditions


The Nazis sent approximately 1300 Jewish men on two transports to Theresienstadt on November 24 and December 4, 1941. These workers made up the Aufbaukommando (construction detail), later known in the camp as AK1 and AK2. These men were sent to transform the garrison town. The largest and most serious problem they faced was metamorphosing a town which in 1940 held approximately 7,000 residents into a concentration camp which needed to hold about 35,000 to 60,000. Besides the lack of housing, bathrooms were scarce, water was severely limited and contaminated, and the town lacked sufficient electricity.

To solve these problems, to enact German orders, as well as coordinate the day to day affairs of the ghetto, the Nazis appointed Jakob Edelstein as the Judenälteste (Elder of the Jews) and a Judenrat (Jewish Council) was established.

As the Jews worked to transform Theresienstadt, the population of Theresienstadt watched on. Though a few residents attempted to give the Jews assistance in small ways, their mere presence increased the restrictions on Jews' mobility. There would soon come a day when the Theresienstadt residents would be evacuated and the Jews would be isolated and completely dependent on the Germans.

Ghetto Theresienstadt has long been remembered for its culture, its famous prisoners, and its visit by Red Cross officials. What many don't know is that within this serene facade lay a real concentration camp. With nearly sixty thousand Jews inhabiting an area originally designed for only seven thousand - extremely close quarters, disease, and lack of food were serious concerns. But in many ways, life - and death - within Theresienstadt became focused on the frequent transports to Auschwitz.



When arriving at Theresienstadt there was a great mixture of how much people knew about their new home. Some, like Norbert Troller, had enough information in advance to know to hide items and valuables.1 Others, especially the elderly, were duped by the Nazis to believe that they were going to a resort or spa. Many elderly actually paid large sums of money for a nice location within their new home. When they arrived, they were housed in the same small spaces, if not smaller, as everyone else.

To get to Theresienstadt, thousands of Jews, from orthodox to assimilated, were deported from their old homes. At first, many of the deportees were Czech, but later many German, Austrian, and Dutch Jews arrived. These Jews were crammed in cattle cars with little or no water, food, or sanitation. The trains unloaded at Bohusovice, the nearest train station to Theresienstadt, approximately 2 km away. The deportees were then forced to disembark and march the rest of the way to Theresienstadt - carrying all of their luggage.

Once the deportees reached Theresienstadt, they went to the checking point (called "floodgate" or "Schleuse" in camp slang). The deportees then had their personal information written down and placed in an index. Then, they were searched. Most especially, the Nazis or Czech gendarmes were looking for jewelry, money, cigarettes, as well as other items not allowed in the camp such as hot plates and cosmetics.2 During this initial process, the deportees were assigned to their "housing."



One of the many problems with pouring thousands of human beings into a small space has to do with housing. Where were 60,000 people going to sleep in a town meant to hold 7,000? This was a problem that the Ghetto administration was constantly trying to find solutions for. Triple-tiered bunk beds were made and every available floor space was used. In August 1942 (camp population not yet at its highest point), the allotted space per person was two square yards - this included per person usage/need for lavatory, kitchen, and storage space.3

The living/sleeping areas were covered with vermin. These pests included, but certainly were not limited to, rats, fleas, flies, and lice. Norbert Troller wrote about his experiences "Coming back from such surveys [of the housing], our calves were bitten and full of fleas that we could only remove with kerosene."4

The housing was separated by sex. Women and children under twelve were separated from the men and the boys over age twelve.

Food was also a problem. In the beginning there weren't even enough cauldrons to cook food for all of the inhabitants.5 In May 1942, rationing with differential treatment to different segments of society was established. Ghetto inhabitants who worked at hard labor received the most food while the elderly received the least. The food scarcity affected the elderly the most. Lack of nourishment, lack of medicines, and general susceptibility to illness made their fatality rate extremely high.



Initially, those who had died were wrapped in a sheet and buried. But the lack of food, lack of medicines, and lack of space soon took its toll on Theresienstadt's population and corpses began to outgrow the possible locations for graves.

In September 1942, a crematorium was built. There were no gas chambers built with this crematorium, it was built to dispose of the growing number of corpses. The crematorium could dispose of 190 corpses per day.6 Once the ashes were searched for melted gold (from teeth), the ashes were placed in a cardboard box and stored. Near the end of the war, the Nazis tried to cover their tracks by disposing of the ashes. They disposed of the ashes by dumping 8,000 cardboard boxes into a pit and dumping 17,000 boxes into the Ohre River.7

Though the mortality rate in the camp was high, the largest fear lay in the transports.

Transports to the East


Within the original transports into Theresienstadt, many had hoped that living in Theresienstadt would preclude them from being sent East and that their stay would last the duration of the war.

On January 5, 1942 (less than two months since the arrival of the first transports in), their hopes were shattered - Daily Order No. 20 announced the first transport out of Theresienstadt.

Transports left Theresienstadt frequently and each one was made up of one thousand to five thousand Theresienstadt prisoners. The Nazis decided how many people were to be on each transport but they decided to place the burden of who was to go, on the Jews themselves. The Council of Elders became responsible for fulfilling the Nazis' quotas.

Life or death became reliant on exclusion from the transports East - or "protection." Automatically, all members of the AK1 and AK2 were exempted from transports and five members of their closest family. Other major ways to become protected were those working in jobs that helped the German war effort, important workers in the Ghetto administration, or being on someone else's list.

Finding ways to keep yourself and your family on a protection list, thus off the transports, became a major endeavor of each Ghetto inhabitant.

Though some inhabitants were able to find protection, nearly one-half to two-thirds of the population were not protected.8 For every transport, the bulk of the Ghetto population feared that their name would be chosen.

The Embellishment


On October 5, 1943, the first Danish Jews were transported into Theresienstadt. Soon after their arrival, the Danish Red Cross and the Swedish Red Cross began inquiring about their whereabouts and their condition. The Nazis decided to let them visit one location that would prove to the Danes and to the world that Jews were living under humane conditions. But how could they change an overcrowded, pest infected, ill-nourished, and high mortality-rate camp into a spectacle for the world?

In December 1943, the Nazis told the Council of Elders of Theresienstadt about the Embellishment. The commander of Theresienstadt, SS Colonel Karl Rahm, took control of planning. An exact route was planned for the visitors to take. All buildings and grounds along this route were to be enhanced by green turf, flowers, and benches. A playground, sports fields, and even a monument were added. Prominent and Dutch Jews had their billets enlarged, as well as had furniture, drapes, and flower boxes added.

But even with the physical transformation of the Ghetto, Rahm thought that the Ghetto was too crowded. On May 12, 1944, Rahm ordered the deportation of 7,500 inhabitants. In this transport, the Nazis decided that all orphans and most of the sick should be included to help the facade that the Embellishment was creating.

The Nazis, so clever at creating facades, didn't miss a detail. They erected a sign over a building that read "Boys' School" as well as another sign that read "closed during holidays."9 Needless to say, no one ever attended the school.

On the day that the commission arrived, June 23, 1944, the Nazis were fully prepared. As the tour commenced, well-rehearsed actions took place that were created specially for the visit. Bakers baking bread, a load of fresh vegetables being delivered, and workers singing were all queued by messengers who ran ahead of the entourage.

After the visit, the Nazis were so impressed with their propaganda feat that they decided to make a film.

The End


Once the Embellishment was over, the residents of Theresienstadt knew there would be further deportations.11 On September 23, 1944, the Nazis ordered a transport of 5,000 able-bodied men.

The Nazis had decided to liquidate the Ghetto and initially chose able-bodied men to be on the first transport because they were the most likely to rebel. Soon after the 5,000 were deported, another order came for 1,000 more. The Nazis were able to manipulate some of the remaining Jews by offering some of those who had just sent family members an opportunity to join them by volunteering for the next transport.

After these, transports continued to leave Theresienstadt frequently. All exemptions and "protection" were abolished; the Nazis now chose who was to go on each transport. Deportations continued through October. After these transports, only 400 able-bodied men, plus women, children, and elderly were left within the Ghetto.12

What was going to happen to these remaining inhabitants? The Nazis couldn't come to an agreement. Some hoped that they could still cover the inhumane conditions that the Jews has suffered through and thus soften their punishment after the war. Other Nazis realized that there would be no clemency and wanted to dispose of all the incriminating evidence, including the remaining Jews. No real decision was made and in some ways, both were implemented.

In the course of trying to look good, the Nazis made a few deals with Switzerland. Even a transport of Theresienstadt inhabitants were sent there. In April 1945, transports and death marches reached Theresienstadt. Several of these prisoners had left Theresienstadt just months before.

These groups were being evacuated from concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Ravensbrück and other camps farther East. As the Red Army pushed the Nazis farther back, they evacuated the camps. Some of these prisoners arrived on transports while many others arrived on foot. They were in terrible ill-health and some carried typhus. Theresienstadt was unprepared for the large numbers that entered and were unable to properly quarantine those with contagious diseases; thus, a typhus epidemic broke out within Theresienstadt.

Besides typhus, these prisoners brought the truth about the transports East. No longer could Theresienstadt inhabitants hope that the East was not as terrible as the rumors suggested - instead, it was much worse.

On May 3, 1945, the Ghetto Theresienstadt was placed under the protection of the International Red Cross.

  1. Norbert Troller, Thersienstadt: Hitler's Gift to the Jews (Chapel Hill, 1991) 4-6.
  2. Zdenek Lederer, Ghetto Theresienstadt (New York, 1983) 37-38.
  3. Lederer, 45.
  4. Troller, 31.
  5. Lederer, 47.
  6. Lederer, 49.
  7. Lederer, 157-158.
  8. Lederer, 28.
  9. Lederer, 115.
10. Lederer, 118.
11. Lederer, 146.
12. Lederer, 167


A ghetto in Czechoslovakia, run by the SS.
Jews were transferred from there to extermination camps.
It was used to camouflage the extermination of European Jews,
by the Nazis who touted it as a "model Jewish settlement."
When Red Cross visited, dummy stores, cafes, schools and gardens were set up.



Arrival of Jews into the Theresienstadt Ghetto
Photograph from the Lydia Chagoll Collection


A transport of Dutch Jews arrives in Theresienstadt.
Close-up of a man wearing a yellow star walking down a ghetto street.
Behind him a man pulls a wagon of bread. (February 1944)
Photograph from the Ivan Vojtech Fric Collection


A view of the barracks and the crematorium in Theresienstadt concentration camp. (After May 1945)
Photograph from the Miriam Patipa Collection


Courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives