A Brief History of the Ghetto of Terezín

The events which unfolded in the ghetto of Terezín between 1941 and 1945 form part of the darkest chapter in the history of modern Europe in which Germans murdered millions of innocent people for seemingly no reason other than that they were Jewish. This fact is not easy - but essential - to confront. The irrationality surrounding the persecution and systematic physical destruction of European Jewry presents a major challenge to historical understanding.

Faced with the gruesome evidence, one feels helplessly inadequate in one's attempts to comprehend the enormity of the crime. Neither the suffering and trauma of the victims of the persecution, nor the cruelty, inhumanity and sheer barbarism of the perpetrators of the crimes, can be adequately conveyed in words. It is impossible, in the provision of what amounts to little more than a brief descriptive narrative summarising the main features of the history of the Terezín ghetto, to do justice to the theme. Nor does the overview provided here permit one to set the development of Terezín into the larger context of the historical events which surround the mass murder of European Jewry or to pursue the debate concerning the genesis and nature of the Holocaust between the supporters of the "intentionalist" and the "structuralist" (or "functionalist") interpretational schools.

The decision to use Terezín as a transit camp for - in the first instance - the Jewish population of Bohemia and Moravia was basically reached at two conferences held in Prague on 10 and 17 October 1941. Called to discuss "the solution of the Jewish problem" in the "Protectorate", the records of the first conference noted "the need to consider the possibility of ghettoization in the Protectorate", while the minutes of the second conference included the following lines: "In the meantime the Jews of Bohemia and Moravia are being gathered in a transit camp for evacuation. For this purpose, the representative of the Reichswehr assigned to the Reich Protector has cleared Theresienstadt (Terezín) completely of all units of the German Army ... Theresienstadt can comfortably absorb 50-60,000 Jews. From there they will be transported to the East."

The choice of Terezín appears to have been determined by the SS and the head of the "Central Office for Jewish Emigration for Bohemia and Moravia" (re-named the "Central Office for the Settlement of the Jewish Problem in Bohemia and Moravia" in 1942), SS-Sturmbannführer Hans Günther. The latter's order to representatives of the Jewish Religious Congregation of Prague to submit the names of small towns situated in the "Protectorate" which might be suitable for transformation into a "Jewish ghetto" was little more than a sham. The suggestions of the leaders of the Jewish Religious Congregation were ignored: Terezín was not on the list submitted by them to Günther. The choice of Terezín by the Germans is understandable, given its suitability for their purposes. Lying some 60 kilometres to the north of Prague it was known to the SS because the fortification complex known as the "Little Fortress" - not far from the main fortress of Terezín - was already being used by the Gestapo as a prison. Built in the late eighteenth century during Joseph II's reign as a garrison town, the ramparts of the fortress - which resembled a twelve-pointed star - enclosed a small town dominated by huge barracks which could be used for housing large numbers of people. The indigenous population which was small, numbering around 3,700 in 1940, was ejected from Terezín at the end of 1942, when the ghetto was expanded to cover the whole of the town. Terezin was little more than a huge prison, easily sealed off (access to the town was via six gates which punctuated the ramparts) and controlled by a small squad of SS assisted by a detachment of Czech police. The latter controlled the gates and was assigned various guard and escort duties by the SS.

To prepare Terezín for the arrival of the Jews of the "Protectorate" , two Aufbaukommandos (construction details), composed of young, able-bodied individuals, were transported to the town from Prague in late November l941. Before these could do much to make the allotted barracks fit for habitation, three further transports - totalling 3,000 people - arrived from Prague and Brno. By the end of the year some 7,365 Jews from the "Protectorate" (some 2,000 from Brno, the rest from Prague) had been transported to Terezin. Given the total inadequacy of the water supply, sleeping accommodation and kitchen facilities of the Terezin camp (all of which were to be improved dramatically by the hard work and ingenuity of the inmates in the course of 1942), the situation in the camp was one of confusion and distress. Adding to the material deprivation faced by the inmates was the brutality of the régime imposed by the first SS camp commander Dr Siegfried Seidl (a native of Vienna). All sorts of petty restrictions were imposed at first - such as the separation of the sexes, the prohibition of smoking and of the mail service - and ruthlessly enforced (the ban on smoking was in force until 13 April 1945). In January and February 1942 a total of 16 Terezín inmates were hanged for transgressing such "prohibited" activities.

Although the exact number of people transported to Terezín between 24 November 1941 and 15 April 1945 (when the "official" transports ceased) will never be known - given that the SS destroyed virtually all the documentation relating to the camp in 1945 - there is general consensus among the historians who have written accounts of the Terezin ghetto that the figure of those deported stands around the 141,000 mark. Added to this were another 13,500 or so prisoners and concentration camp inmates (a small percentage of these were non-Jews) who were sent to Terezín by the SS between 21 April and 6 May 1945. Thus approximately 154,500 people were - for shorter or longer periods - imprisoned in Terezín between 1941 and 1945. The statistics relating to these victims of German racism suggest that just over half of the Terezín inmates came from Czechoslovakia (75,700), of which approximately 73,600 came from the "Protectorate" of Bohemia and Moravia. Out of the 46, 170 Jews registered with the Jewish Religious Congregation in Prague on 1 October 1939 (which accounted for 51.2 percent of the Jewish population in Bohemia), some 40,000 were transported to Terezín.

If up to the end of May 1942 all the inmates of Terezín were Czechoslovakian Jews, Jews transported from Germany and Austria (the latter deported predominantly from Vienna) came in large numbers from 2 June 1942 (just short of 48,000 were sent to Terezin in 1942 alone). From 1943 to 1945 Jews from the "Protectorate" and the "Greater German Reich" came in roughly equal numbers (though at a vastly reduced scale, given that most had already been transported from their pre-war place of residence by the end of 1942). Accounts from survivors of the Terezín ghetto suggest that the influx of German Jews created tension with the resident Czech Jews: the hatred of the latter for all things German rebounding on their fellow sufferers. Jews transported from other parts of Europe also formed a small percentage of those transported to, and imprisoned in, Terezín (around 7,500). Of these some 4,800 came from Holland, just over 1,200 from Poland, 1,000 or so from Hungary, and the rest from Denmark.

Jakub Edelstein, the first chairman of the Council of Jewish Elders (which was notionally responsible for the administration of the Terezin ghetto), hoped at the time of the formation of the Terezin ghetto that it could be transformed into a self-governing Jewish community which - by following the dictates of the SS camp commander (to whom Edelstein and his successors reported daily) and by providing a workforce to be exploited by the Germans - would allow the survival of the Jews from Bohemia and Moravia until the defeat of the Nazi regime. The hope to keep the community intact was very quickly shattered in that as early as 9 January 1942 the first transport of 1,000 inmates - bound for the Baltic region - left the ghetto, followed by another a few days later. The history of Terezín until October 1944 is punctuated by the deportations "to the East" at irregular intervals of around 87,000 people in sixty-three transports. Although at first no one knew the fate awaiting those demanded by the SS for transportation (the Jewish leaders of Terezín were usually forced to be involved in the composition of the transports), there was a general assumption that the conditions awaiting those despatched by the SS would be even worse than those prevailing in Terezin. The first reports of the mass murder of Jews who had been sent to Auschwitz (which appear to have reached the Jewish leaders in Terezin in February 1943) seem not to have been believed. Those who could imagine the "realisation of the unthinkable" in German-controlled Poland kept their knowledge to themselves. The continuous comings and goings of transports, which was unabated until February 1943, disrupted the Terezín ghetto in the first year of its existence by creating constant anxiety among the inmates. Added to the fear of deportation were constant problems such as hunger, lack of hygiene, and the general material deprivation allied to the often severe overcrowding and the arbitrary brutality of the SS. The fact that the SS demanded that each transport to the East had to include young able-bodied males depleted those left to work in the ghetto (there was especially a growing shortage of artisan skills by late 1942). It also pushed the percentage those inmates over 65 years of age, placing a greater strain on those able to work in the various communal services and camp workshops (by May 1942 some 27 per cent of the ghetto's population was aged 65 and over, as against the figure of roughly 6 per cent in January).

A few marginal improvements to the austere system imposed on the ghetto by the SS came in the course of 1942. At the end of June when the indigenous population of the town was removed and housing vacated by them was allocated to the ghetto inmates, some of the petty restraints on mobility within the ghetto were allowed to lapse (moving from one barrack to another to make a visit had required an official "permit" before mid-1942), making it possible for family member or friends to meet more easily and frequently. In September another restriction was removed: a limited postal service was permitted (needless to say, the 30 words allowed per card were subjected to SS censorship). A major change in the life of the ghetto came in the summer of 1942 with the influx of tens of thousands of predominantly elderly Jews from Germany and Austria. At the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, at which the Germans reached the decision to exterminate European Jewry, Terezín was singled out as a possible centre to transport Jews above the age of 65, as well as Jews who had been seriously wounded fighting for Germany in the First World War and those holding high military decorations (it seems that well-known, prominent Jews - about whom enquiries might be made from abroad - were also sent to Terezin). The first transports of elderly Jews from Berlin, Munich, Cologne and Vienna reached Terezín in June 1942, creating major problems for the Council of Jewish Elders and their administration running the ghetto. Since the average age of the 4,000 German and Austrian Jews brought in the first transports was around the 71 mark (many of these unfortunates were in their eighties and even nineties, totally bewildered an unprepared for the horrors that awaited them at Terezín), and since only 4 per cent were capable of working, the influx of these aged Jews placed a great strain on the very limited resources of the ghetto. As more and more transports brought tens of thousands of German and Austrian Jews to Terezín in the course of 1942 (including younger age groups from late 1942), the problems of acute overcrowding and of serious food shortages intensified. Between July and September the population of Terezín increased from 20,000 to 60,000. The SS response to the situation was to deport around 18,000 old people to the East in September and October. If the conditions in Terezín were terrible for the younger, fitter inmate, for the elderly they were disastrous: the monthly death-rate in the ghetto climbed from 1,000 in July to 4,000 (with an average age of 76) by September 1942, with enteritis and pneumonia the most common causes of death. This period represents one of the most horrific phases in the ghetto's terrible history.

The influx of German and Austrian Jews in the course of 1942 altered the composition of the population of the ghetto as Czech Jews lost their numeric dominance. This fact in turn occasioned a change in the structure of the leadership of the Council of Jewish Elders in January 1943. In line with an SS order, Dr Paul Eppstein replaced Jakub Edelstein as chairman, the latter being "demoted" to the position of first deputy, while Dr. Benjamin Murmelstein (of the new leadership he was the only survivor of the Holocaust) became second deputy of the triumvirate which was now in charge of the ghetto's Jewish administration. The tensions between these leaders in part mirrored the occasional friction between the Jews from Germany and Austria on the one side, and the Jews from the "Protectorate" on the other. Jewish survivors of Terezín, and Jewish historians of Terezín, also point to a number of socio-political cleavages which fractured - and worked against the realisation of - the total unity of the ghetto population.

From 1943 onwards conditions in Terezín saw some marginal improvements. A major problem, an inadequate water supply, was solved in 1943, while additional toilet facilities, washrooms and showers were constructed by the inmates. The kitchen facilities were also improved and their capacity extended. In May 1943 a rudimentary money economy was introduced with the issue of the "Ghetto Crown". This "currency" had no real value, but could be used in initially eight - later fourteen "shops", which were basically stocked with things pilfered from the baggage of new arrivals at the camp! The "shops" added to the "facilities" open to the inmates, centred previously on a "coffee house" opened in December 1942, in which various music ensembles provided the odd moment when the inmates could temporarily escape from their nightmare existence.

It would seem that the German authorities organising the systematic murder of European Jewry hit on the idea (probably in early 1943) of transforming Terezín into a "model ghetto" which could be used in Nazi propaganda to counter the growing rumours of atrocities filtering through to the Allies and to demonstrate how benevolently the Jews were actually being treated by the Germans! The relaxation of some of the restraints which were noted earlier, and the limited measures of "normalisation" introduced in 1943, survived the change of camp commander at the beginning of July 1943, when Seidl was replaced by another Austrian, the even more ardent anti-Semite SS-Obersturmführer Anton Burger. The trend towards easing the brutal régime existing in the ghetto was given a further boost in October 1943, when the first transport of Jews from Denmark reached Terezín. The Danish Jews were undoubtedly given a measure of protection by the constant and forceful interest shown in their fate by Denmark's church and state authorities (as a consequence it would appear that Danish Jews were always exempt from "deportation to the East" - that is, from being murdered), and by the incessant demands by these authorities that representatives from the Danish Red Cross should be allowed to visit Terezín. The pressures on the German authorities in Berlin to allow a visit by Red Cross officials to Terezín became so intense in the spring of 1944 that permission was finally granted in April, the projected visit being scheduled for June. This hastened the "normalisation" measures undertaken by the SS to improve the conditions in the camp: all sorts of cosmetic improvements were made (for example, sleeping accommodation was improved, houses were painted, streets were cleaned, 1,200 roses were planted and lawns laid, and a children's playground was built). The "beautification" programme, under which these superficial "improvements" were made, was accelerated by a new camp commander, another Austrian who arrived to take charge of Terezín in February 1944, SS-Obersturmführer Karl Rahm. It was Rahm who shepherded an International Red Cross Committee (which was accompanied by a number of high-ranking SS officials) around Terezín in June 1944. The "transformation" of Terezín in late 1943 and the spring of 1944 into a "beautified, model ghetto" (it was no longer termed a "ghetto", but renamed "Jewish settlement region"!) has a surrealistic quality about it, laughable were it not for the tragedy and horror it attempted to gloss over.

Part and parcel of the attempted "normalisation" was the tremendous expansion of the cultural life of the ghetto from 1943 onwards, based on the wide array of artistic and academic talent contained among the inmates of Terezín. A Cultural Department had evolved within the Jewish administrative structure towards the end of 1942, which administered the varied activities which unfolded from 1943 when the Germans officially permitted cultural activities - and indeed encouraged them - as part of the "normalisation" process. There were numerous lecture courses made available to the prisoners, which covered a variety of disciplines. Several orchestras and choirs were formed, which competed for audiences with theatre and cabaret groups. The activities of the artists and musicians were especially valuable in bringing some comfort to the older inmates, especially those confined to the old peoples' homes and the ghetto's hospitals. Few of the poets, writers, musicians and artists imprisoned in Terezín survived the Holocaust. Amongst the many who were subsequently murdered at Auschwitz and other death camps were the illustrator and cartoonist Bedrich Fritta, and painters such as Peter Kien and Felix Bloch (the latter was beaten to death by the SS). Also murdered at Auschwitz was the artist Friedl Dicker-Brandejsová, who was primarily responsible for teaching art to the children of the Terezín ghetto (some 4,000 of their paintings, sketches and collages have survived and are now in the State Jewish Museum in Prague).

Despite the "normalisation" and "beautification" activities of 1944 which prepared Terezin for the first Red Cross visit in the summer of 1944 (there was to be a similar "beautification" phase before a second International Red Cross delegation visited the ghetto in April 1945), and despite the fact that some of the Germans involved in the murderous activities of these years were beginning to have doubts about continued involvement in genocide as the Third Reich began to crumble around them in late 1944, the campaign of exterminating the Jews continued, including those imprisoned at Terezin. Three transports in mid-May 1944 saw the deportation of some 7,500 people to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Between 28 September and 28 October 1944, eleven transports took some 18,500 people to their death in Auschwitz: within the space of one month the number of prisoners in the ghetto was reduced from around 29,500 to 11,000. This was the last wave of deportations from Terezín to Auschwitz (which was liberated by the Red Army on 27 January 1945) .

Terezin continued, however, to receive new inmates as the German effort to "solve the Jewish problem" continued virtually right I up to the total collapse of the barbaric régime in May 1945. In the spring of 1945 around 5,500 Jews from so-called "mixed marriages" were sent to Terezín from the "Protectorate" and from Germany. Finally, from late April to early May 1945, some 13,500: people (including some non-Jews) were sent to Terezin from the concentration camps (and their satellite camps) of Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Flossenburg and Sachsenhausen. It was these unfortunates who brought typhoid to Tererin on the eve of its liberation (the Russians entered the ghetto on 11 May 1945). It took the combined efforts of the Jewish doctors in the camp, a task force of Czech doctors and nurses sent from Prague, and the decisive assistance provided by the Russian Army doctors to halt an epidemic which cost some 500 lives at the time of the liberation.

Although the immeasurable barbarity of the extermination camps of Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor, Majdanek and Chelmno dominate the history of the Holocaust, the terrible, inhumane treatment handed out to the victims of German persecution in concentration camps such as Terezín is part of the catastrophe which struck European Jewry during the Second World War. Almost one-quarter of the approximately 141,000 Jews sent to Terezín between 1941 and 1945 died in the camp, the victims of disease and starvation. The conditions in the camp were horrendous, despite continued efforts made by the inmates to improve their plight. Overcrowding, lack of adequate sanitation, poor housing, lice and other pests, allied to a poor, meagre diet led to constant epidemics, which often proved fatal for the older prisoners. For the majority of the Jews who were sent to Terezín, the ghetto was little more than a gateway through which they passed on their way to death. The figures make tragic reading: of the 15,000 children who passed through Terezin, only 100 survived; of the 88,000 deported from the camp (about half of whom went straight to Auschwitz), 84,500 were murdered; only 23,000 of the 141,000 sent to Terezín before April 1945 survived the war. Virtually the entire Jewish population of Bohemia and Moravia passed through Terezín: of the 80,000 deported from the "Protectorate", some 73,600 went to Terezín, the bulk of whom were transported "to the East" to be murdered in German-occupied Poland. Of the 92,000 Jews still resident in Bohemia and Moravia when the deportations started, 85 per cent perished in the Holocaust. Terezín will always be inextricably linked to the disaster that befell the once numerous flourishing Jewish communities of Czechoslovakia.

Dr. Detlef Mühlberger
Oxford 1988

< Return to images