History of Theresienstadt ghetto
Austrian Emperor Josef II founded the garrison town of Theresienstadt (today: Terezín) on September 22, 1784, naming it after his mother, Empress Maria Theresa. The garrison town was located approximately one mile southeast of the Bohemian city of Leitmeritz (today: Litomerice). It served as a minor military base first for the Habsburg Monarchy until 1918 and then for the First Czechoslovak Republic until 1938.
Ghetto of Theresienstadt
The Theresienstadt Ghetto was established by the SS during World War II in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia (or German occupied Czechoslovakia). Theresienstadt basically served two purposes: a transitcamp to the extermination camps, and a retirement settlement for elderly and prominent Jews to mislead the Jewish community about the Final Solution and the horrors that were soon to follow from the 'Endlösung der Judenfrage'. The conditions in the ghetto were deliberately set up to hasten the death of its prisoners and the ghetto also served a propaganda role. The Nazi propaganda machine cynically described Theresienstadt as a "spa town" where elderly German Jews could "retire" in safety. Unlike other ghettos, the exploitation of forced labor was not economically significant.
The first prisoners came to Theresienstadt in November 1941 with a transport of Czech Jews. The first German and Austrian Jews arrived in June 1942. Dutch and Danish Jews followed at the beginning in 1943. In the last months of the war, prisoners of a wide variety of nationalities were sent to Theresienstadt. About 33.000 people died in Theresienstadt, mostly from malnutrition and disease. More than 88.000 people were held there for months or years before being deported to extermination camps and other killing sites.
Daily life administration
Daily life in Theresienstadt was run by the Ältestenrat (Judenrat), with chairman Jacob Edelstein. The Jewish Council's (Judenrat) role in choosing those to be deported has attracted significant controversy. Including 4.000 of the deportees who survived, the total number of survivors was around 23.000. In the postwar period, a few of the SS perpetrators and Czech guards were put on trial but the ghetto was generally forgotten by the Soviet authorities.
Rich cultural life in Theresienstadt
Theresienstadt was known for a relatively rich cultural life, including concerts, lectures and clandestine education for children. Because it was run by a Jewish self administration as well as large number of "prominent" imprisoned Jews the cultural life was able to flourish. This legacy has attracted the attention of scholars and awoken new interest in the ghetto.
Among those active in the cultural life of the ghetto were: Karel Poláček and Norbert Frýd, Karel Berman, David Grünfeld, Ada Hechtová, Karel Ančerl, Rudolf Franěk, Karel Reiner, Viktor Ullmann, Gideon Klein, Pavel Haas, Hans Krása and F.E. Klein. František Zelenka, Gustav Schorsch, Vlasta Schönová, Karel Švenk, Zdeněk Jelínek, Ota Růžička, Kurt Gerron, Hanuš Hofer, Leo Strauss, Bedřich Fritta, Otto Ungar, Leo Haas, Ferdinand Bloch, Karel Fleischmann, Petr Kien, Adolf Aussenberg, Charlota Burešová, Rudolf Saudek, Jo Spier and Arnold Zadikow.
Gestapo prison near the Theresienstadt ghetto
In June 1940 German authorities opened a police prison in the 'Small Fortress' opposite the ghetto on the banks of Ohre river in Terezín. Czech and Moravian patriots, members of the resistance groups and other organisations (the so called enemies of the Reich) were sent there by Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei or the Secret State Police).
While around 90% of the inmates were Czechs and Slovaks, there were also people from the Soviet Union, Poles, Yugoslavs, Frenchmen, Italians, English prisoners of war and other nationalities. In five years, some 32.000 men and women passed through the gates of the Small Fortress.
Living conditions of the prisoners deteriorated each year and the inmates were forced into slave labour. Some maintained the prison, worked the surrounding fields or built various structures. The majority of prisoners, however, worked outside the fortress for various company and firms like in the underground factory at Litomerice. Right up to the final days of the war they contributed to the war effort of the Third Reich.
The Small Fortress had the character of a transit prison, from which inmates were either brought before a 'legal court' or transferred to concentration camps. But the truth was much gruesome. As a result of hunger, maltreatment, insufficient medical care and poor hygienic conditions over 2.600 prisoners died here, while thousands more lost their lives after being deported from Terezín. From 1943 onwards, executions were also carried out in the Small Fortress under the guise of the so-called 'Sonderbehandlung'. In all over 250 prisoners were shot without any form of legal basis or conviction. The last execution that took place on May 2 1945, 51 prisoners and 1 informer lost their lives.
The last days of the ghetto
In 1945, hoping to use the surviving prisoners at Theresienstadt as a bargaining chip for opening negotiations with the western powers, SS chief Heinrich Himmler and other SS leaders agreed to the release of 1.200 Theresienstadt prisoners in exchange for 5.000.000 Swiss francs put up by Jewish organizations and was deposited in a bank account in Switzerland. The 1.200 Jews reached Switzerland on February 5, 1945. On the night of April 14 to 15, 1945, the SS allowed the Swedish Red Cross personnel to release the surviving 423 Danish Jews out of Theresienstadt on "white buses" bound for Denmark.
Between April 20 and May 2, 1945, Theresienstadt was flooded with 13.500 to 15.000 concentration camp prisoners from other concentration camps, mostly from Gross Rosen and Buchenwald and their subcamps. Most of the prisoners were Jewish. Over 9.000 of them were of Polish or Hungarian nationality before World War 2. In May 1945, the total number of prisoners in the camp exceeded 30.000, of which nearly 17.000 had been there before April 20, 1945.
The Terezín Ghetto Museum is visited by over 250.000 people each year.
Text partailly derived from ushmm.org and pamatnik-terezin.cz
Liberation of Theresienstadt
After visiting the camp on April 6 and April 21, 1945, the International Red Cross took over the administration on May 2, 1945. Commandant SS Sturmbannführer Karl Rahm and the rest of the SS had fled on May 5 and 6. The remains of the German military and SS units continued to fight Soviet forces near the camp-ghetto, which became part of the battlefront on May 8. Soviet troops entered the camp on May 9 and assumed responsibility for its prisoners the next day. By the end of August 1945, most of the former prisoners were gone and were replaced by ethnic Germans arrested by the Czech and Soviet authorities.
After the war, Czech authorities prosecuted members of the SS staff, including commandants Seidl and Rahm. Once found guilty and sentenced to death they were executed in Litomerice. Commandant SS Obersturmführer Anton Burger escaped to West Germany, even though he had a death sentence on his head, he settled in Essen, where he lived under a false name until his death in December 1991. Of the Czech Gendarmerie commanders, Theodor Janecek died in prison awaiting trial in 1946, while a Czech court in Litomerice found Miroslaus Hasenkopf guilty of treason and sentenced him to 15 years imprisonment. Hasenkopf died in prison in 1951.
Text partially derived from from ushmm.org