Theresienstadt : an overview

Theresienstadt (Czech, Terezin), ghetto established in Czechoslovakia.
It was run by the SS and commanded, in turn, by :
Siegfried Seidl (November 1941 - July 1943),
Anton Burger (July 1943 - February 1944), and
Karl Rahm (February 1944 - May 1945).

Czech gendarmes served as the ghetto guards,
and with their help the Jews were able to maintain contact with the outside world.

Adapted from the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust



The Nazi Plan for Theresienstadt

The Nazi plan was :
  1. to concentrate in Theresienstadt most of the Jews of the Protectorate as well as certain categories of Jews from Germany and western European countries : prominent persons, persons of special merit, and old people ;
  2. to transfer the Jews gradually from Theresienstadt to extermination camps ; and
  3. to camouflage the extermination of European Jews by presenting Theresienstadt as a "model Jewish settlement."

The leaders of Czechoslovak Jewry supported the plan hoping it would mean that the Jews would not be deported.

The First Months


The first Jews, came to Theresienstadt at the end of November 1941. Conditions were similar to those in concentration camps, and it did not take long to dispel the hope that Theresienstadt would save Jews from deportation; the first such deportation, of 2,000 Jews to Riga, took place in January 1942. Deportation cast a pall of terror over the inmates. Yet, living conditions actually improved as time went on.

In September 1942 the ghetto population reached its peak, 53,004 people, and Jews continued arriving until the end of the war. Deportations to the east - to ghettos in Poland and the Baltic states and, as of October 1942, to the Treblinka and Auschwitz extermination camps - were continued. The final phase began in the fall of 1944, continuing until the gas chambers in the east ceased to function; only 11,068 people remained in the ghetto.

Life in the Ghetto

The internal affairs of the ghetto were run by an Altestenrat (Council of Elders), under Jacob Edelstein, who was succeeded, in turn, by the sociologist Paul Eppstein and Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein of Vienna. The Jewish leadership had to compile lists of those to be deported. It was also responsible for allocating work, distributing food, providing housing, and overseeing sanitation and health services, the care of the old and the young, cultural activities, and the maintenance of public order. Its achievements helped ease the prisoners' lot. Although schooling was prohibited, regular classes were held, clandestinely. Thanks to the large number of artists, writers, and scholars in the ghetto, there was an intensive program of cultural activities. Religious observance had to contend with difficult conditions, but it was not officially banned.


The International Red Cross Visit


At the end of 1943, when word spread in the outside world of what was happening in the Nazi camps, the Germans decided to allow an International Red Cross investigation committee to visit Theresienstadt. In preparation, more prisoners were deported to Auschwitz, so as to reduce congestion.

Dummy stores, a cafe, a bank, kindergartens, a school, and flower gardens were put up. The committee's visit took place on July 23, 1944; the meetings of the committee members with the prisoners had all been prepared in advance, down to the last detail. In the wake of the "inspection" the Nazis made a propaganda film showing how the Jews were leading a new life under the protection of the Fuhrer. When filming was completed, most the "cast, " were deported to Auschwitz.


As a result of the intolerable conditions in the ghetto epidemics broke out, taking a fearful toll. By the end of 1943 the ghetto health department had managed to set up a hospitals, and a beginning was made in regular medical checkups and inoculations against contagious diseases; the mortality rate began to drop.

The Last Six Months

In the last six months of the ghetto's existence, more Jews were added to its population; from Slovakia, Hungary, the Protectorate, Germany, and Austria. Before the war came to an end, the International Red Cross succeeded in transferring some of them to neutral countries. At the end of April the ghetto experienced its final shock, when the Germans brought in thousands of prisoners who had been evacuated from concentration camps. As a result there was a new outbreak of epidemics in Theresienstadt. On May 3, five days before the ghetto was liberated by the Red Army, the Nazis handed Theresienstadt over to a Red Cross representative. The last Jew left Theresienstadt on August 17, 1945.


According to a number of sources, between November 24, 1941, and April 20, 1945, 140,000 Jews were taken to Theresienstadt. Of these, 33,000 died there, 88,000 were deported to extermination camps, and 19,000 survived either in Theresienstadt or among the two groups that had been transferred to Switzerland and Sweden; and 3,000 of those deported survived. By national origin, the people who had been taken to Theresienstadt came from Czechoslovakia (75,500), Germany (42,000), Austria (15,000), the Netherlands (5,000), Poland (1,000), Hungary (1,150), and Denmark (500).

Postwar Trials

After the war, two of the commandants of Theresienstadt, Siegfried Seidl and Karl Rahm, were sentenced to death by a Czechoslovak court and were hanged; Anton Burger escaped and was sentenced to death in absentia.

Courtesy of :
"Encyclopedia of the Holocaust"
©1990 Macmillan Publishing Company