In my article “Un emperador en el gueto de Terezin” (RAÍCES, number 77, year XXII, 2008-2009, pages 14-19.), and at the ALL ABOUT JEWISH THEATRE website, in Spanish, as well as in English, under the title “An Emperor in Ghetto Terezin”, I mainly mentioned the cultural and artistic activities developed by the Jewish prisoners in that ghetto. It is true that I also briefly described their innumerable tribulations, sufferings, humiliations, tortures and murders, and that I offered some statistics and historical data, but today this seems to me as not being sufficient. Even in a synthesis, and leaving out much of all there is to tell, it has now become a must, in order to provide information to our readers on lesser known aspects, to offer a more detailed description of this ghetto, which was in reality a concentration camp, its functions, its management, and the publication of the names of the protagonists of this diabolical farce, conceived and staged by the highest ranking Nazi officials.
Towards the end of the 1939 summer, Hitler, together with Heinrich Himmler (1900-1945) and Alfred Rosenberg (1893-1946), the most prominent Nazi “intellectual”, developed, to the effect of a temporary territorial solution of the Jewish question, the idea of a Jewish reservation zone (Judenreservat) near the city of Lublin, which had already been considered since 1930 by the Nazi plan makers. In 1939, when Germany occupied Poland, the area around Lublin became a part of the so called Generalgouvernement, under the command of Hans Frank (1900-1946) the Warsaw butcher , who on November 25 that year suggested the sending of one million Jews to that marshland, “where they will soon be decimated by starvation and diseases”. Based on this idea, Adolf Eichmann (1906-1962), at the time head of the Central Office of Jewish Emigration for the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, established a transit camp, a kind of ghetto, in the vicinity of Nisko, located within the mentioned district of Lublin. Because of organizational reasons the shipments of Jews to that region were soon halted. Instead of this the Nazis would erect the Belzec, Majdanek and Sobibor extermination camps not far from there.
After the defeat of France on August 15, 1940, the Nazi leaders again suggested a temporary territorial solution of the Jewish question in Madagascar, which at the time was a French colony, but this idea was soon abandoned. Between 1939 and 1940 the Nazis began with the confinement of Jews from central and eastern Europe in hundreds of dreadful suffocating ghettos.
On June 10, 1940, the Gestapo took possession of the Kleine Festung (Small Fortress) of Terezin, where they established a prison for tortures and executions under the command of Heinrich Jöckel (1898-1946). On October 10, 1941, Reinhard Heydrich (1904-1942), surely one of the most sinister and cynical characters in the Nazi hierarchy, the one who presided the Wannsee Conference in 1942, where the final solution of the Jewish question by means of genocide was decided, chose the Terezin (Theresienstadt) fortress as his preferred site for the “settlement” of Austrian, German and Czech Jews older than 65 years of age, among them wounded or highly decorated veterans of the First World War, or those enjoying sufficient national and international celebrity, in order to show them in case of eventual enquiries put forward by other countries. One week later the creation of the ghetto was decided, whose function was clearly defined at a secret meeting of which the protocol remains, as a “prisoner camp and transit station to the eastern extermination camps”. Already on October 16, 21 and 31, as well as on November 3 the first transports of nearly one thousand Jews each were sent from Prague to Lodz, and on November 26 another transport was sent to Minsk.
Heydrich assigns the task of establishing and organizing the Terezin ghetto to the IV B 4 office of the Gestapo, under the command of Eichmann, and to his deputy Rolf Günther (1913-1945). On October 30 Eichmann names Dr. Siegfried Seidl (1911-1947) as the first commander of the new ghetto. Already on the following day Seidl presents himself before Hans Günther (1910-1945) the head of the “Central Office for Jewish Emigration in Prague”, and on that same day he travels to Terezin, to coordinate with the Wehrmacht officials there the ejection and evacuation of the local population from their living quarters. After that he orders the Jewish Community of Prague to put together a “construction commando” of 342 youngsters, who are deported to Terezin on November 24, 1941 and will be held responsible for the ghetto’s physical organization. At this time some people at the Jewish Community still believe that the quick establishment of the Terezin ghetto will prevent other transports to the east.
Seidl and Karl Bergl, his feared and brutal lieutenant, always carrying a club, arrive at the beginning of December. On December 4 Eichmann designates Jacob Edelstein (1903-1944), the Zionist leader from Prague, as the dean of the “Jewish Council of Elders”, who will be held responsible for the fictitious “autonomous administration” in Theresienstadt, as well as engineer Otto Zucker (1892-1944) as the former’s deputy. Both of them are deported there on that same day, together with another “construction commando” of one thousand persons.
On January 19, 1942, one day before the Wannsee Conference, Eichmann inspects the ghetto together with Seidl and Bergl, considers it perfectly adequate, and is praised for this visit on the SS report of that day.
The Council of Elders
Here we need to stop for a moment, in order to explain what the prerogatives and limitations of the Jewish Council of Elders were and how it functioned. In appearance this was a kind of autonomous government, which had to take care of all technical, medical and social aspects of the ghetto, such as the distribution of food, the prisoners’ living quarters, water, pipe lines, electricity, hygiene, public health, prevention and handling of epidemics, treatment against lice, flees and rodents, public order, etc. Under the direct orders of the dean were the Ghettowache (the Ghetto’s civil guard), the investigations sector and “the bank of the autonomous Jewish government”. The Council also had to deal with and was responsible for a whole series of administrative tasks, among them the publication of orders, the writing of daily reports, population census, information on the members of the transports arrived in Terezin, and the recording of lists of people deported to the eastern death camps. In the eyes of the ghetto population, this Council, and its dean, who had to designate the members of the Council personally, even more so, had the image of all powerful persons. But in reality all the orders and decisions came from the Lager commander and his superiors in Prague, Vienna and Berlin. (In German the word Lager does not only mean camp, but also a storage place for merchandise and garbage, as well as warehouse). Seidl, the Lagerkommandant, and the commanders who came after him, transmitted their orders only verbally, and the deans of the Council of Elders had to obey and put them in writing. With this procedure both the commanders and the SS never exposed themselves in any way, they distanced themselves from any responsibility, and in appearance they maintained the impression of a Jewish autonomy. The SS dictatorship was at the same time unlimited and concealed. They never showed or conveyed to anybody an official document or written orders, hiding always, like oracles, behind the Jewish authorities. In this manner the SS also spared much work. The commanders avoided a direct contact with the prisoners, for whom the deans were their persons of reference, sometimes for better, and mostly for worse. Every affliction and tragedy appeared to originate at the office of the Council of Elders and its dean, and he, in spite of his good will and efforts for the wellbeing and physical security of the inmates, became the target of ferocious criticism, affronts, curses, accusations and slander. At the same time the SS took good care of daily confronting the dean with his own impotence and dismay, thus undermining his physical and mental resistance, while maintaining in public his fictitious image of power.
The first arrivals
Already in January 1942 thousands of Jews began to arrive in Terezin, mainly from Bohemia, Moravia and Germany, and very soon on the 9th and 15th of that month started the systematic deportations to the east. The Germans never worried about overpopulation or the prisoners’ suffocating conditions. At the beginning there were no beds, not even three storey berths. People were sleeping on the cold cement floor or on humid straw bags. During the first days there was no food, and the prisoners had to feed from what some of them had brought with them. Later on they had to stand in rows and receive their meager rations in aluminum bowls. Cooking was impossible. One had to eat standing up. To write letters was strongly forbidden. Smoking was also not allowed. All prisoners had to undergo haircuts. They were not allowed to walk on the side walks. Every person wearing a uniform had to be saluted. At dusk it was forbidden to go out on the street. Prisoners were forced to dispose of all their belongings, their money, jewels, tobacco, conserves, writing paper and medicines if they had brought any with them.
For the infringement of any of these orders there was always the threat of the death penalty. For the smallest transgressions one was exposed to be beaten up or to other physical abuses in the middle of the street. On January 10, 1942, Seidl ordered the public execution of 16 prisoners on gallows placed within the large fortress, because they had disobeyed some of his commands. As a consequence of this measure, the prisoners began to become aware of their real situation, and many lost the hope of survival until the end of the war. Crowded and cramped, with barely the space to lie down and hold on to their belongings, without any privacy, amidst a constant infernal noise, lacking water and deprived of sanitary installations, the first intestinal infections and acute epidemics broke out, transmitted by flees, lice, bed bugs and rats. Starvation and the lack of vitamins soon produced hundreds of daily deaths, caused by typhoid and scarlet fever, and other diseases.
In June 1942 the living quarters were so overcrowded, that the new contingents of prisoners had to be placed in underground casemates, corridors and attics. At that time those persons arriving at Terezin from the Reich, mostly elderly people in a relatively good financial position had been cheated by the Nazi propaganda. They had been promised that in “Bad Theresienstadt”, in beautiful Bohemia, they would find homes for the elderly, with medical assistance, good food, nice accommodation and tranquility. Believing that they were safe of deportations, these Jews had left behind all their goods, and with their money they had reserved rooms with a view on the lake, a lake that did not exist in this “ghetto for elderly people”. Many had brought with them lace dresses, tail suits, top hats, or parasols, but none of them had thought of bringing cutlery, warm dresses, bed covers and food. They ended their lives, dirty, hungry and freezing in glacial attics and wet cellars. Within only a few days they had contracted pneumonia, enteritis and other infectious diseases, and they all died on cold concrete floors.
Several months later began the arrival of the so called “prominents”, meaning outstanding personalities known for their public activities, rabbis, well known community leaders, medical doctors, famous artists, scientists and distinguished professors, as well as highly decorated Jewish soldiers who had fought in the German army during the First World War. From the very beginning these people enjoyed better lodging, food rations and treatment, because the Nazi propaganda machine had planned to use them in order to improve before the world both the image of Theresienstadt and their own. Some distinguished representatives of this group became members of the Council of Elders, but this did not prevent many among them of also being deported as soon as they were of no further use to their oppressors.
The Bialystok children
In August 1943 arrived in Terezin a contingent of 1.300 children, six to fifteen years of age, coming from the Bialystok ghetto, which had been evacuated and burnt down by the Nazis after the fierce and bloody revolt of prisoners in Treblinka. The parents had been sent to extermination camps. The children were put into cattle trains. They arrived in Terezin emaciated and in rags, looking like little ghosts. Holding hands they were led, amidst pouring rain, to a delousing station, where they refused to enter, screaming Gas, Gas! Obviously they knew what was happening in the concentration camps. The SS declared a rigorous curfew and forbade the ghetto inmates any contact with these children. There were rumors that the SS were planning to send them to Switzerland, in order to exchange them for German war prisoners. Once the children were bathed, cleanly dressed and taken care of by doctors and female nurses, they were lodged in wooden casemates. The health of many improved. Those who had become gravely ill were sent to the small fortress and murdered. In the morning of October 5 the casemates remained empty. By orders from Himmler, the remaining 1.196 children, together with 53 doctors and nurses, were sent to Auschwitz and murdered there two days later.
For the record
Tens of thousands died or were murdered in Terezin. A similar number was deported to Auschwitz and other concentration camps, and sent to gas chambers. These transports continued during most of the time of the Theresienstadt ghetto existence, until October 28, 1944, and they aroused constant uncertainties, anxieties, fears, panics and heartbreaking parting scenes.
In spite of all that, and under the conditions I have just described, together with all that which for reasons of space remains temporarily unwritten in this article, many Jewish prisoners displayed in Terezin a memorable cultural and artistic activity. To this I referred largely in my “An emperor in the Terezin ghetto”. By reading only that article, a not very informed reader, or worse, an antisemitic Holocaust denier, could come to the conclusion and argue that in Theresienstadt everything had been like heaven on earth, feast and marry making. Instead things were very different, and it is about time to make this clear for the knowledge of future generations, and to mention all the institutions and characters participating in this immense farce by their real names.
The first one, Siegfried Seidl, became affiliated to the national socialist party in 1930. In 1932 his blood purity was questioned, but after the clarification of that stumbling block, he rapidly rose in the SS ranks. At the same time he obtained a philosophy doctoral degree at the Vienna University. He was the Terezin commander from its very beginning, until July 3, 1943, when for his “achievements” Eichmann sent him to Bergen Belsen, where he was “promoted” to head of the Gestapo. In Theresienstad he stood out for his brutality, for his murders, his corruption, his ferocity, and the imposition of severe corporal punishments. He was a passionate philatelist and he loved music, in which he was profoundly knowledgeable. During his regime 121.083 persons were deported to Terezin. 24.864 died there, 16 were executed without a trial, 21 succeeded in escaping from the ghetto, and 43.875 persons were deported to the east. From these only 248 survived. After the war ended, Seidl tried to escape, but was caught and executed in Vienna on February 4, 1947.
Next to Seidl stood out for his cruelty and sadism, as a murderer and arsonist, Rudolf Haindl (1922-1948), who was in the ghetto until it was abolished. He escaped in 1945, but was arrested in Salzburg, and transferred to the Litomerice tribunal in Czechoslovakia in 1948, where he was executed that same year.
Seidl’s successor, as from July 3, 1943 until February 8, 1944 was Anton Burger (1911-1991), who in February 1943 sent 46.000 Jews from Saloniki to their sure death in Auschwitz. Very soon he became a figure feared for his cruelty and arbitrariness. He specially hated the Czech Jews. He killed people with his own bare hands and he himself put together the deportation lists, in which he included the dean and other members of the Council of Elders. By his orders, from early morning on November 11, 1943 until very late hours that night, 40.000 persons were forced to stand in formation, hungry and freezing, in order to be counted under an uninterrupted pouring rain, in the wet grass of the so called Bohusovice basin. At midnight, when they were told to return to the ghetto, chaos erupted, and some 300 persons, mainly older people and children were trampled to death. In Litomerice Burger was sentenced to death in absentia. Captured by the Americans and recognized as the commander of ghetto Terezin, he succeeded in escaping twice, first in 1947 and again in 1951, and under a false name lived peacefully in Austria and Germany until a very old age.
On February 8, 1944, Karl Rahm (1907-1947), became commander of Theresienstadt, and remained in his post until May 5, 1945, when he fled from the ghetto with all the other SS, and Terezin was transferred to the Red Cross. He had been a member of the Gestapo, acting under the command of Eichmann at the Central Office of Jewish Emigration in Vienna, and later in its equivalent in Prague, as a deputy of Hans Günther (1910-1945), alias “the smiling executioner”. Rahm’s first mission consisted in supervising the “embellishment works” of the ghetto, initiated by Burger. I will refer to these works with more detail, as well as to the visit of the Red Cross, and to the production of a famous film. Rahm, a good organizer, capable of showing a kind face, was more intelligent and more of a hypocrite than his predecessors, and for that reason more dangerous. Extremely irritable and cynical, he would frequently beat the prisoners and supervise torture sessions. In October 1944, under his command, the largest contingent of Jews was sent to Auschwitz: 18.400 prisoners in barely one month. Captured in Austria, he was handed over to the Litomerice court, and executed there on April 1947.
Another character we must not forget, who was not a commander of the ghetto, but intervened on more than one occasion in its destiny, was Ernst Möhs (1898-1945), principal assistant and one of Eichmann’s closest collaborators. It was he who decided the deportation policy from the ghetto. It seems that he was the one who decided Seidl’s replacement by Burger, because he thought that Seidl had an understanding with Edelstein.
The deans of the Council of Elders
The first one, as we know, was Jacob Edelstein (1903-1944), an ardent Zionist leader, born in Galitzia, coming from Prague, where he had been in charge of the attempts of Jewish emigration to the British Mandate of Palestine. He could have saved himself on several occasions from his tragic destiny, taking advantage of the missions to different European countries and Palestine, entrusted to him by the SS. Nevertheless he would again and again return to Prague, in order to help his fellow Jews. In 1939 he had been deported to Nisko (mentioned above). When this project failed, Edelstein was able to return to Prague, and in 1941 he was appointed to the post of dean of the Council of Elders, which in the beginning consisted of 12 representatives. His deputy was engineer Otto Zucker (1892-1944), a person of many qualities and responsibilities. Eppstein’s activities were perceived as controversial. Unfoundedly some people blamed him of having collaborated with the Germans, and some criticized his policies, but they never doubted his honesty and integrity. Others consider him a hero, who sacrificed himself for his people. A religious man, he made sure that even in Terezin the Shabbat and the religious holidays were respected. In his dealings with the SS he always showed courage, sometimes also skillfulness. Manipulated like a toy, and in the end broken by his oppressors, he always behaved in a manly and dignified manner. Among the prisoners he enjoyed a certain popularity.
On January 31, 1943, after having been accused by the commander of altering the lists of persons registered in the ghetto, Eichmann thanked Edelstein for his services and replaced him by Dr. Paul Eppstein (1901-1944), who had just arrived from Berlin, a former leader of the Reich’s Jewish community together with Rabbi Dr. Leo Baeck (1873-1956). Edelstein was appointed as Eppstein’s first deputy, and Rabbi Dr. Benjamin Murmelstein (1905-1989), the former deputy dean of the Council of Elders in Vienna, from where he had just arrived, as the second deputy. In reality they became a very strange triumvirate, because among themselves the dean and his deputies were suspicious of each other, and they intrigued and did not trust one another. Before Theresienstadt they had met in Nisko and other places, and in more than one sense they despised each other.
Eppstein, a man of vast culture and a distinguished sociologist, of German Jewish upbringing and temperament, decided to employ when dealing with the commanders tactics that were different from those of his predecessor, opting for obedience and the accurate fulfillment of all orders. He was ambitious and hard working, with a certain tendency to histrionic behaviour. Courage was not his predominant quality. In his eyes one saw fear and sadness. Eppstein did not lack sensitivity, but he never openly showed kindness or human warmth. In the ghetto his image was one of a weak man, of someone who was constantly trying to escape from a horrifying situation and from an ambiance of omnipresent corruption, never opposing his oppressors. Nevertheless he was considered a loyal spokesman of the Jews.
On December 18, 1943, Edelstein was deported to Auschwitz, where he, his wife Myriam, and his son Ariel were first placed in a family barrack. On June 20, 1944 he was forced to witness the executions of his wife and his son, and then he was shot . Several months later Eppstein would suffer a similar destiny. On June 23, 1944, when the delegates of the International Red Cross arrived in Theresienstadt, Eppstein was ordered to escort them on parts of their tour, and to present to them a report on the positive performance of the different sections in charge of the ghetto wellbeing. For the occasion he was given a tail suit and a top hat, and a luxury car was put at his disposal. What did not quite fit into the general picture was Eppstein’s swollen eye, the consequence of a blow he had suffered several days before by commander Rahm.
On September 16 of that year, the day of the Jewish New Year, Eppstein delivered a peculiar speech before some 1.200 inmates, which undoubtedly contributed to his dismissal and execution. At the time, with the advancement of the Red Army, the war front was approaching rapidly, and there were rumors in the ghetto about the imminent defeat of the Reich. Among the prisoners one felt a certain restlessness and premature optimism, that threatened to become a revolt. Conscious of this situation, and without denying it, Eppstein chose to calm his audience by means of the following parable:
“On the sea a ship navigates with millions of passengers on board. They are all exhausted and impatient, because their journey already lasts longer than expected. At last they begin to see the anxiously coveted land, and the ship is getting nearer. But instead of relaxing their nervousness increases when they see that the ship is advancing slower and slower. They go to the captain and ask him, at what time they will finally be able to enter a secure harbour. Talking and shouting they demand from him to accelerate, but the captain does not give in. He lets them talk, complain and curse, and not only remains silent, but also gives orders to slow down the ship even more. Why? Because only he knows that on the path to this harbour lurk dangerous mines, and that he has to be extremely careful to avoid a collision with one of them. It is preferable for his passengers to reach the port a little bit later but safely. We act like this captain. Trust us! Be patient! We will guide you all towards a new era! Our Father, our King, inscribe us in the book of good life!
Eppstein had shown the text of his speech to Leo Baeck, and he had advised him to be cautious. He had also presented it to Rahm, who had no objected to it at all. The theme of the drifting ship has also been dealt with by other persons in similar contexts, among them by the actor Karel Svenk (1907-1945) in one of his songs.
One day after Yom Kipur, Eppstein was shot in the small fortress, and his remains were taken to the crematorium. His wife was told that he would be deported to the east. They told her that her husband was still alive, and she was forced to bring him food every day. In October she was deported to Auschwitz, where she perished in a gas chamber. Eppstein’s elimination, already planned for some time, was decided by the Nazis in view of the fact that he had become an “uncomfortable” witness of the genocide. At that time the SS had already started to look for alibis in the event of an investigation, immediately after the end of the war, of their actions and behaviour. Earlier they had ordered Eppstein to speak on a German radio station, to accuse the Allied air force of destroying a city inhabited by Jews, and they planned to put the text of this accusation on tape. A British bombardment of the ghetto would have been an ideal solution for the Nazis, who had already foreseen the destruction of Terezin and the removal of any trace of it. Rahm had said: “afterwards they will declare that we, and not the British have destroyed the ghetto”. This time Eppstein refused. “I know perfectly well that a day will come on which I will no longer be able to say yes”, he had on one occasion confided to a friend.
After Eppstein’s elimination, his place was taken by Benjamin Murmelstein, born in Lemberg into an orthodox family, a rabbi, philosophy doctor, researcher, the author of books on theology and one historical book on Flavius Josephus. A character of vast culture, this very controversial last dean of the Council of Elders undoubtedly surpassed his predecessors clearly in intelligence, cunning and political ability. Of an unpleasant physical image and temperament, authoritarian, implacable, cold, feared and hated by many, also unjustly accused of excessive submission and collaboration with the SS, his actions prove again and again that his main concerns consisted above all in the wellbeing of the prisoners and in saving as many lives as possible.
With this aim he actively contributed to the creation of numerous jobs and occupations for the prisoners, in order to delay their deportations. Alas, with all his sagacity, and despite the fact that on October 2, 1944, Rahm had promised him that the transports would be suspended, not even he was able to prevent the multitudinous deportations which took place during that month. He was able, though, upon his arrival in Theresienstadt, to successfully fight a terrible typhus epidemic, and to prevent the SS, on the eve of their desertion of the ghetto, from constructing a gas chamber and exterminate of all those who still remained there. On May 5, 1945, Rahm transferred the ghetto to the Red Cross, and fled. Murmelstein resigned from his post on that same day. When the war ended he was arrested under the suspicion of having collaborated. He was tried by the Litomerice tribunal, declared innocent, and set free in 1947. There he became the main witness at the trial against Rahm, who was sentenced to death that same year.
Murmelstein never again wanted to fulfill the functions of a rabbi, and be at the mercy of the whims of a Jewish community leadership. He settled in Rome, where he succeeded in creating for himself a good financial position, continued with his research works, and devoted himself to the defense of his good name against the accusations of Hannah Arendt and Gerschom Scholem, as well as writing several books on Terezin, among them “Il ghetto-modello di Eichmann”, and agreeing to an extensive interview filmed by Claude Lanzmann, soon to be shown under the title “The last of the unjusts”, the text of which has already been published.
Engineer Otto Zucker (1892-1944) who did not become the dean, but occupied an important place at the Council of Elders, was a Zionist leader, a distinguished architect and builder of bridges, a man who had received high military decorations, a good violinist, and a frequent opponent of Edelstein. Intelligent and talented, of a vigorous nature, he became the defender of many prisoners, and a successful protector of musicians and plastic artists. On September 23, 1944 Rahm deceived Zucker, and had him deported to Auschwitz with the alleged mission of organizing a working camp there. As soon as the train left, he was hand cuffed, and upon arrival murdered and incinerated. Several days later his wife was deported. Having been deceived as well, she carried a large amount of luggage. Before her departure Rahm told the man in charge of the transport: “This is Mrs. Zucker. It is your responsibility that by tonight she mustl be in the arms of her husband.”And so she too was murdered.
The free time configuration and organization
In my previous article I already described most of the artistic and cultural activities performed by the Jewish prisoners in Terezin. Now is the time to report on their organization and operation. There are indications that several camaraderie evenings had already been organized in December 1941, with lectures, recitations and light music. Very soon the possession of musical instruments was forbidden, but the clandestine lectures went on. Nevertheless, because the artists could not obtain permits from their working areas, also because of the scarcity of adequate available spaces and the restrictions imposed by the SS, these activities were abandoned. In February 1942, tells us the Pilzen rabbi Dr. Erich Weiner (1911-1944), he was entrusted by Otto Zucker, with the official organization of the so called Freizeitgestaltung, meaning the configuration of free time activities. Until 1943 Weiner recorded in his diary the precise details of the events offered within this framework.
Although in the beginning the Nazi bosses had opposed the cultivation of artistic and cultural activities, they not only quickly changed their minds when they discovered that these would contribute to the creation of a positive image of their “model ghetto”, but also approved, supported and promoted them, with the establishment of a supervising office. In time, with the auspices of the Council of Elders, and directed by Zucker, Dr. Leo Baeck and Dr. Emil Utitz (1883-1956) they were joined for the organization of theatrical shows, concerts and lectures, by more than 276 persons, among them the lawyer Dr. Moritz Henschel (1879-1947), composer Hans Krasa (1899-1944), architect, set designer and graphic artist Frantisek Zelenka (1904-1944), musician Gideon Klein (1919-1944), banker, author and collector of paintings Dr. Wilhelm Mautner (1889-1944) and many other outstanding personalities in different fields.
Their tasks consisted not only in the organization of events, which had to be authorized by the commander, but also in the revision of texts which had to be presented to them by the authors and directors of theatrical shows, a kind of filtering device or self censorship established to prevent the outburst of rage and reprisals by the SS. This explains the numerous cuts suffered by the original version of the libretto by Peter Kien (1919-1944) for “The Emperor of Atlantis”, an opera whose text and performance were finally forbidden by Zucker. The same happened with the play by Karel Svenk (1907-1945) “The last cyclist”.
The embellishment works
In view of the repeated requests by the International Commission of the Red Cross, for a permit to visit the ghetto and under the pressure of the German Foreign Ministry and the German Red Cross, the SS orders towards the end of 1943 the “embellishment works of the city”. Not competent enough for this task, Rolf Günther fires Burger and replaces him with Karl Rahm, who immediately takes part in this farce with tenacity, energy and his own ideas. As the Jewish coordinator for the revamping tasks in the ghetto they appoint Benjamin Murmelstein, and he immediately begins to work, enlisting as many people as possible. Many of them obey his orders under protest, but it soon becomes obvious that the astute and cold blooded organizer has created for thousands of persons the image of indispensable workers, with the aim of delaying their deportation. Many of them owe him their lives. The embellishment of the ghetto continues for more than six months.
The first measure consists in cleaning and repairing the streets and buildings. Then, the city’s central square, until then forbidden for the Jews, becomes a beautiful park with 1.200 rosebuds and a gorgeous lawn. Opposite the “coffeehouse” a musical pavilion is erected, surrounded by comfortable benches. Then they build a playground for children, with seesaws decorated with pictures of nice little animals. Behind the pavilion they organize an amusement park with a merry go round, sand boxes and swimming pools. In the gymnastics hall of the ancient school they establish a baby care ward, with new furniture, slides and other games. At the street corners appear big flower pots and new wood carved road signs indicating the way to the bank, the post office, the library, the fire brigade, the public baths, etc. The ancient sports building, Sokolovna, becomes a community centre, a theatre and a synagogue.
After that they take care of the internal courtyards, polluted and abandoned during the recurrent epidemics. One of the barracks is transformed into a delightful dining hall. The offices are revamped and begin the renovations of some living quarters, now equipped with comfortable beds, tables, chairs, book shelves and paintings stolen in the houses of the Jews from Prague. Suddenly appear blankets, cushions and lamps.
Special attention is given to the hospital equipment, and they don’t forget to install ceremonial halls at the recently created cemetery. But before all that, Rahm orders that 22.000 urns, with the ashes of persons deceased in Terezin be thrown into the Ohre river.
The list of improvements and renovations is extensive. Now, make believe decorations are installed, simulating coffeehouses, theatres and all kind of shops.
For all these works there is enough money, and Murmelstein makes use of his imagination to give the Terezin ghetto such a pleasant look, that the Nazis will not be in a position to erase the ghetto from the map, after having shown it to others. The only problem is that the ghetto is overcrowded, and that with so many people everywhere it becomes difficult to appreciate the city itself. So Rahm resorts to the most simple solution, the massive deportation to Auschwitz of thousands of prisoners, mainly the elderly or undernourished and fragile ones, because on the streets he only wants to see well fed, happy, and well dressed persons.
Now everything is prepared for the arrival of official visitors, beginning with a delegation from the International Red Cross. I will leave the description of this visit for the end of this article, and hurry to point out that the SS officials consider it so successful, that they decide to crown it with the production of a film.
The idea of making a film about the “special ghetto” Terezin comes up for the first time in May 1942, apparently for the personal use of Himmler. Irena Dodlova, born in 1900, who has survived Theresienstadt, and in 1990 died in Argentina, is entrusted with the direction of this film. The script, written by the painter and poet Peter Kien (1919-1944), consists of very realistic scenes from the perspective of a Jewish family, since their deportation to the ghetto, and their experiences there. This film has fallen into oblivion, and apparently been lost.
In the beginning of 1944, during the ghetto embellishment works, the SS again considers the making of a “documentary” film, this time without any realism, because the Nazis know very well the audience to which it is intended, and that it will be used to show certain international organizations, how well the Jews are being treated in Terezin.
On February 25, 1944, coming from the Nazi transit camp at Westerbork, Holland, the famous and experienced actor and director Kurt Gerron (1897-1944) arrives in Theresienstadt. He is known for his participation at the first performance of Brecht’s “Threepenny Opera”, and his performance in “The Blue Angel” film together with Marlene Dietrich. Immediately he is recognized by Haindl, who hits him so hard that Gerron falls on the floor. Once there, Haindl continues with a series of violent kicks.
Little time after his traumatic arrival, Gerron stages the Terezin production of the opera “Carmen”, under the musical direction of Franz Eugen Klein. Several days later Rahm first summons him to organize a cabaret, a genre in which he has already proven his talent. The result is the famous “Karussell”, which certainly deserves a separate chapter.
Then Rahm “offers” him the making of a script and the direction of the mentioned film, but Gerron does not want to do it, accepting only after the repeated insistences of the Council of Elders, and convinced by Eppstein that there are offers one cannot easily refuse, as is proven by the horrible consequences of the refusal by set designer Frantisek Zelenka. This aspect has to be mentioned, because also in his case there has been no lack of slander, and unjust accusations of having been a collaborator.
After his script is altered on more than one occasion by the Nazi bosses, who watch him closely and humiliate him constantly, Gerron starts his work as a director on August 16, 1944, but he is replaced at a certain moment by Karel Peceny, the leader of a technical team from the Czech firm Aktualita, which specializes in documentary films. Gerron is never allowed to see the scenes he has filmed, or of being present at the private screenings of the film. Scared, tense, but at times in his old element, he carries out his work not only as a professional, but also aware that his demand of nearly 17.000 participants delays their deportation. This is true for the film making period, that ends on September 11, but not for long, since in October Rahm orders the massive deportation of 18.402 persons, at that time more than one third of the total ghetto inmates, including Gerron, murdered in Auschwitz on the 28 of that month.
Those who claim that the film was ordered by Goebbels, and those who declare that the title intended for this film was “The Führer gives a city to the Jews” are mistaken. The title suggested by Gerron is “The Jewish autonomous government in Theresienstadt”.
Only fragments from this film and from the previous one, were recovered in different countries. But the script and many documents related to the film making have been preserved.
The visit of the Red Cross
As soon as the embellishment works are ready, the anxiously expected visit of a delegation of the International Commission of the Red Cross takes place on June 23, 1944. In most of the literature describing their visit the names of the members of this delegation remain unknown, and most of the time it states that they were victims of a hoax. The picture one gets in those cases is one of low ranking naïve employees, of limited intelligence and not very alert, who had become an easy prey for the Nazi deceptions machinery.
Now let us see who the members of this delegation really were. Two of them were Danish, Dr. Frants Hvass, head of the political section at his country’s Foreign Ministry since 1940, and Dr. Egil Juel Henningsen, chief medical doctor and highest authority of the National Health Service at the Danish Interior Ministry and the Danish Red Cross. The other delegate was Dr. Maurice Rossel, a former officer in the Swiss Army, the representative of the International Commission of the Red Cross in Berlin. They were joined in their visit, representing the SS, by Dr. Rudolf Weinmann, head of the SIPO, the security police in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, Hans Günther, from Prague, his brother Rolf Günther, Gerhard Günel, his deputy, Ernst Möhs, criminal adviser Rudolf Renner, of the SIPO in Copenhagen, who spoke Danish, Karl Bergl and Karl Rahm, the ghetto commander. Except for the latter, who was in uniform, all the other were dressed as civilians. The German Foreign Ministry was represented by legation counselor Eberhard von Thadden, and the German Red Cross by Dr. Heidenkampf, who remained in a totally passive attitude. The only Jew authorized to join them on their tour of the camp, appointed to be their guide and to deliver before the delegates a lecture filled with lies about the general wellbeing and the work of the institutions of the Jewish autonomous government, was Dr. Paul Eppstein.
The tour, previously organized in its minimal details, lasts from 11 in the morning until 19 hours in the afternoon, and includes visits to the autonomous Jewish tribunal, to a hospital, a laundry shop, a bread factory where the personnel workes with white gloves, a beautiful child care centre, an elegant dining hall served by waitresses dressed in flawless aprons, a “casual” soccer game, and the performance of a children opera at the Community Centre. Lunch, from which Eppstein is excluded is served in the commander’s office, which now has a new sign reading “services office”. In the afternoon the delegations have a chance to see, besides the façades of elegant shops, coffeehouses, restaurants and theatres, all of which are only stage sets, the “bank”, the “post office” when they are handing out parcels, the “butcher shop”, the “fire brigade” and the beautiful parks. They are allowed to take all the pictures they want, and to ask questions only to the Danish prisoners, and not to the others, but this does not seem to bother them too much, because they are only interested in the prisoners of their country. Under no circumstances are they allowed to see the small fortress. After this visit the SS entertains the delegates in Prague, during several days, with excursions, dinners and concerts.
The members of the delegation submit to Geneva positive reports of what they have seen, and the “data” given to them by Eppstein. These reports, considered confidential, are not published at the time, because the Danish, as well as the Swiss, have promised the Nazis not to disclose anything of what they have seen.
In his report, Hvass alleges that this is not a transit camp, but a terminal station, which is a blatant lie. When he mentions the nationalities of the prisoners, he totally ignores the presence of the Czechs. He also states that the conditions there are much better than what he had expected. What exactly had he expected? He states that the prisoners receive 2.400 calories daily, when in reality their food contains barely half of that, and that everybody is vaccinated against infectious diseases, which is total rubbish. He declares, among other silly remarks, that the prisoners receive a salary for their work. Altogether, he concludes, the life of the prisoners and the look of the city are normal.
Henningsen is also satisfied. He does mention though the congestion and the fact that between 10 and 15 persons die daily in the ghetto, but that the autonomous government is well supplied with all kind of medicines, and that it successfully solves the problems of contaminations and epidemics. He too describes what he sees as normal conditions. In his postwar memoirs he admits that he and Hvass naturally were aware of the fact that the Germans had presented to them an idealistic picture. “We knew only too well that sooner or later the Germans would read our report. During our mission Hvass and I dealt with this theme in depth, and we agreed on the importance of acting with moderation, as is appropriate for representatives of the Danish government.” Still in 1979 Henningsen refuses to reply when he is asked if he considers that in Terezin the Danish representatives were deceived.
Now let us see. The director of the Danish Red Cross between 1939 and 1945, to whom the mentioned gentlemen had the obligation to answer, was Helmer Rosting (1893-1945), a member of the Danish Nazi party, a frequent visitor at the offices of the German police chief in Copenhagen, and of a war criminal, the SS Werner Best (1903-1989). But Rosting was not the only one. In Danemark there were more than 28.000 members of the Nazi party, and more than 6.000 Danish citizens enlisted in the SS, murdering in eastern Europe as many Jews as anybody else. To this day the Danish do not allow access to the list of its members. The career of Frants Hvass (1896-1982) does not end in Terezin. In 1948 he is appointed head of the Danish military mission to Berlin, with the degree of a major general, and from 1951 to 1966 he acts as an extraordinary and plenipotentiary ambassador in Bonn.
In the report of Maurice Rossel, the representative of the International Red Cross, we read the following paragraph: “Our surprise was extraordinary, when we saw in the ghetto a city of almost normal life. The most surprising thing - we said to the SS officials who joined us - is that we had encountered so many obstacles in order to obtain the authorization for a visit. This Jewish city is really amazing. The Terezin ghetto is a communist society, ruled by a Stalin of great values, called Eppstein… Our report will not change anybody’s opinion about the Reich’s position regarding the solution of the Jewish question…” etc. etc.
Rossel specially praises the childcare centres and the hospitals, and praises without even blushing the excellent functioning post office. He does not seem to realize that the façades of the houses and shops are stage sets built by the Nazis, and he agrees in many aspects with the reports of the Danish delegation. One fundamental difference is that he presents the data recited by Eppstein as the result of his own research. Thus his report becomes far more credible, optimistic and positive than those of his Danish colleagues. It culminates with the following words: “Whoever visits there, will find a perfectly normal provincial city.”
Questioned by many, Rossel affirms that he had been the victim of a hoax, and that if presently he had to write his report again, he would do so in the same manner. But he, as well as Hvass and Henningsen, all of them high ranking officials, were not as silly and naïve as they pretended to be and make believe the posterity. Like so many others who lie shamelessly and say that they were not aware and did not know what was happening in reality, these men too try to hide behind their presumable comfortable stupidity.
Several months later Rossel decides to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp by himself. He does not get further than the commander’s office, who receives him very politely and offers him a cup of coffee. Rossel does not smell the smoke nor does he see the crematoria. On his way he sees a group of human skeletons dressed in striped clothes and caps, led by an SS, but he does not conclude anything from this encounter when he tells this to Claude Lanzmann, who interviews him for his film “Someone alive is passing by”.
It has never been more true that nobody is blinder than a person that does not want to see. And there is no doubt that in the mind of many, then and even today, the imprisonment of the Jews in ghettos and their deportation to concentration camps, is perceived as a perfectly normal situation.
As I said before, Rossel’s report has never been published, because of his previous agreement and promise to the SS and the Gestapo. Not less interesting is the fact that the Red Cross has also abstained from doing so for many years later. In the beginning of 1945, with Eichmann’s approval, when the Reich was already crumbling, the International Red Cross visited Terezin again. On May 5, after Rahm’s escape, which meant the end of the ghetto, and in view of the resignation of Benjamin Murmelstein, the dean of the Council of Elders, the International Red Cross became the Theresienstadt administrator for the following three days, until the arrival of the Red Army, which dealt with the total liberation of the surviving prisoners.
For who knows what merits during the whole period of the Second World War, in 1944 the International Red Cross was granted the Peace Nobel Price, and received it a year later. It had already received another one at the end of the First World War.
It may be interesting for our readers to know that until this day, unlike the cross and the crescent, its classic emblems, the Red Cross does not recognize the star of David and that only on June 22, 2006, it accepted Israel’s Magen David Adom membership, not whole heartedly, nor as a gesture of good will, but only because the American Red Cross was exerting pressure and withholding the 42 million dollars it owed to this international organization.
The Holocaust Theatre Collection Online (HTC)
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