An Essay by Dr. Wolf Murmelstein
October 14, 2004
THERESIENSTADT - A SPECIAL CASE IN SHOAH
Indeed, Theresienstadt had been the sole
Ghetto where the International Red Cross Commission had had the
possibility to free about 18,000 Ghetto inmates and, furthermore,
also some thousand concentration camp prisoners who had reached
the town in the last days of the war.
In 1941, the Nazi rulers made the decision
of the deportation of all the Jews to the East. It appeared clear,
however, that every German would claim for "his Jew"
a special treatment, which in many cases was impossible to deny.
Besides, it became necessary to consider connections with leading
figures abroad, regarding foreign citizenships. It was also impossible
to justify the tale of aged persons and children going to work
in Poland. So, Heydrich and Eichmann had to look for "an
accommodation" for aged people, World War I officers holding
Iron Cross decorations, and people with connections, who could
not simply disappear without any further notice.
Theresienstadt met a lot of requirements:
a town in Bohemia but only three miles from the Sudeten border;
the walls made control easier and the barracks could become crowded
billets; executions could be performed in the nearby Little Fortress
prison. Among the Jews of Bohemia-Moravia, the labour force needed
was available, and the Jewish leaders were supposed to solve
the problems involved with the project; already in 1939, in his
Nisko speech, Eichmann had explained clearly: "otherwise
it shall mean to die."
The Jewish leaders and their staff -
in Theresienstadt as in the Ghettoes in the "East"
- had so to deal with matters like housing, utilities, food distribution,
health services, social services for aged people and children,
keeping order, etc. in an overcrowded town
The three Elders - Jakob Edelstein (from
November 1941 until January 30, 1943), Paul Eppstein (from January
30 until September 27, 1944) and Benjamin Murmelstein (from September
27, 1944 until May 5, 1945) - were tragic figures (like other
Jewish leaders of that time of darkness), having been called
to face hellish problems. All three of them had had opportunities
to go to safety, but they had stood with their communities and
had arranged the emigration of many people.
A Jewish leader, in that time of darkness,
normally could not meet real decision makers, but only low-ranking
SS officers who themselves had only a small portion of power
and were spied upon.
Orders, given in a rude way, had to be
carried out within a short time. Requests for easier terms had
to be submitted in a suitable way, stating reasons an SS Officer
seemed likely to accept. And in the event reasons stated had
not been accepted, the "Judenrat" was pressed by the
SS and blamed by fellow inmates. The resulting psychological
stress, just as the lack of information about things going on
outside, ought to be properly considered by historians.
With the first transports at the end
of 1941 and the first months of 1942, Jews from Bohemia-Moravia
reached Theresienstadt hoping so to remain there as their Home.
Later transports from Germany, Vienna, Denmark, Netherlands and
Slovakia arrived. Unfortunately, from January 1942, transports
for only vaguely mentioned destinations left the Ghetto; neither
the real destination nor the tragic fate was known until the
last days of April 1945. Really alarming rumours had been reported
in December 1944 at the arrival of the first transport of Slovakian
The main problem of the history of Theresienstadt
arose with the incoming and outgoing transports, and became white-hot
in May/June 1942 at the arrival of the transports from Germany
and Vienna: "Who should stay and who should leave?"
For Edelstein, the points of the supposed
solution had been:
From Bohemia-Moravia, came mainly people
able to perform the necessary work, while from Vienna and Germany
came mainly care-needing aged people.
The Jews from Bohemia-Moravia had the
right, as well as the duty, to stay in their native country.
The youth, mainly from Bohemia-Moravia,
was essential for Jewish national survival.
Such an attitude, concerning the transports,
had its repercussions also in the matter of housing and food
distribution, harming aged people, who were mainly from Germany
and Vienna, and this led to corruption. In such a mess, Edelstein
lost control over the action of staff members.
Eichmann, on his side, watched with increasing
attention how Edelstein was trying to let the aged leave for
the East and the youth - able to work but also to fight - to
stay. In the event of an uprising, the walls surrounding Theresienstadt
would make resistance easier and longer; such a risk had to be
prevented in time by starting a three step action.
The first step was to put the Ghetto
security services under the command of a former German officer
of Protestant religion, Karl Loewenstein. The second step was
to place, in the Ghetto Council, members from Germany and Vienna
and to make a ruling that the Deputy Elder had to be of German
tongue. The third step was the replacing of Edelstein. At the
end of January 1943, Eppstein (from Germany) became the Elder,
with Edelstein and Murmelstein (from Vienna) deputies.
Eppstein, a professor of sociology, thought
his first task, for the Ghetto's sake, was to get Eichmann to
trust him. But in the land of judges and hangmen ("der Richter
und der Henker"), it was impossible to talk like in the
land of poets and thinkers ("der Dichter und der Denker"),
and so he trusted to the promises of SS Captain Moehs. The fact
that, during his first months in office, no transport left Theresienstadt
and that a production line had been placed there, seemed a confirmation
of this policy. But no one at Theresienstadt knew that during
those months, the Eichmann staff was busy deporting the Salonica
The uprisings in the Warsaw Ghetto and
Treblinka led to two transport waves, in September and December
1943, where only Jews from Bohemia-Moravia had to be enlisted.
Special SS orders referred in September 1943 to a Czech Legion
Colonel, a Sport trainer, a rabbi known for his Czech sermons
and a close aide of Edelstein. In December 1943, Edelstein, as
a strange figure who had submitted a project of an Information
Service, had to leave Theresienstadt.
Each of those two (Czech) groups had
been placed in a "Family Camp" section of Auschwitz/Birkenau
and held there for about six months, in order to let them send
post cards, before being murdered. One of those Family Camps
had been visited, in December 1943, by a Red Cross Delegate ready
to report about Auschwitz in a reassuring way.
The arrival in October 1943 of a group
of Jews from Denmark gave Theresienstadt a new function: receiving
foreign visitors. The visit, requested as much by the Danish
as by the Swedish Red Cross, could be delayed but not denied.
For some months, works of embellishment had to be done to enhance
the appearance of the Ghetto, while the May 1944 transport wave
reduced the overcrowding. The visit of June 23, 1944 was certainly
important, but not resolutory as Denmark stood under German rule.
The new appearance of the Ghetto suggested to Eichmann &
Co. to make the famous film between August and September 1944,
which, however, had only been set up and shown months after most
of persons, who appeared in it, had already been deported.
The main events that occurred in Summer
1944 outside of Theresienstadt had their effects: the Allied
Landing in France, the July 20th plot (against Hitler) by German
officers and the Slovakian Revolt in August, where obviously,
Jews took part.
At the end of September 1944, the enlisting
of 5,000 men of working age (but also of fighting age!) for two
transports "to work" had been ordered. Just before
the departure of those transports, at Yom Kippur, Eppstein had
been arrested and suddenly murdered in the Little Fortress. Murmelstein,
as second deputy, had to take the burden.
Just after the departure of the transports
"to work," followed by a third one with a group of
wives, Murmelstein faced an order to enlist other people for
new transports. Feeling that "all is lost," he had
a nerve crisis, lost self control and started to explain how
impossible new transports were and earned a shouted warning:
"no bargaining here, get the hell out!" The SS, being
in a hurry, decided to do directly the selection work for enlisting
people in the new transports.
During the following four weeks, Murmelstein
had been successful in obtaining the exemption of about 500 (five
hundred) persons and, importantly, without any substitution;
many other requests had been turned down on criteria which can
be only conjectured, considering that: After July 20 (1944),
officers holding Iron Cross or other decoration had no protection
any more; the same applied to a group of former Abwehr agents
who had been sent to Theresienstadt and not abroad, or to persons
having had some relationship with Nazi officials.
Eichmann had no interest any more to
exhibit important Zionist Leaders.
Only the minimum number of men, who were
performing essential work, should be left.
At the end of October, Murmelstein found
himself with only a few men of working age, more women, many
aged and care-needing people and about three hundred VIPs which
the SS could still have interest to exhibit, but only if the
Ghetto could be shown again to foreign visitors. The hard cleaning
work had been performed mainly by women; for some months, the
working week had been 70 hours or more. In December 1944, the
SS gave the order for a new embellishment.
Indeed, in September 1944, the Union
of Orthodox Rabbis of USA and Canada had asked the Swiss politician
Jean Marie Musy to use his contacts with Himmler for help. Musy
obtained the release of 1200 Theresienstadt inmates to Switzerland
in February 1945 after a visit to the Ghetto. On April 6, 1945,
an International Red Cross Commission Delegation visited Theresienstadt;
the call for help launched by Murmelstein ("the fate of
Theresienstadt is a concern for me") had been understood.
The Red Cross Delegates obtained permission the same day to put
Theresienstadt under their protection. On May 3, 1945, Red Cross
Delegate Paul Dunant placed his office in Theresienstadt and
on May 5 1945, the last Commander, Rahm, - still wearing uniform
and holding weapons - left the Ghetto which had been thus freed
by the Red Cross.
On May 6, Leo Baeck, in a lettered addressed
to Murmelstein, expressed the thanks of the Council for the work
he had performed in very difficult conditions.
The Red Army reached Theresienstadt only
in the evening of May 7, 1945.
In Theresienstadt, there was, almost
from the beginning until the last days of April 1945, a vivid
cultural life with high-level lectures - a university over the
abyss - music, etc.; certainly within the limits of real possibilities.
It must be said that believers of Jewish Faith, from the beginning
to the end, gathered for praying or, at least, for attending
sermons; at Passover - in 1943, 1944 and 1945 - leadership cared
enough to make matzot available.
Banknotes and postage stamps were only
pieces of paper, printed for propaganda reasons, and never had
any real function.
Behind the version - often repeated -
that people had to pay for going to Theresienstadt, where rich
persons could survive, was only because of the fact that Eichmann,
in order to collect money for his "Central Authority for
Jewish Emigration," and avoiding the State Treasury to get
the last of the Jewish money, ordered the sale of Hotel places
in "Theresienbad" (Terezin Spa). This had been one
of his many swindles.
MEANINGFULL MAJOR LITERATURE SOURCES:
ZDENEK LEDERER: GHETTO THERESIENSTDT,
in English, London 1953.
H.G. ADLER: THERESIENSTADT; 2nd edition,
in German, Tuebingen 1960.
H.G. ADLER: DIE VERHEIMLICHTE WAHRHEIT,
in German, Tuebingen 1958.
BENJAMIN MURMELSTEIN: TEREZIN, IL GHETTO
MODELLO DI EICHMANN, in
Italian, Bologna 1961; a German Version in progress.
E. MAKAROVA, S.MAKAROV, V.KUPERMAN: UNIVERSITY
OVER THE ABYSS, 2nd ed. in English, Jerusalem 2004.