History of Ghetto Theresienstadt

Gate leads outside the walled town of Theresienstadt

Americans normally think of a "ghetto" as a section of a large city that is a rundown, dilapidated, rat-infested slum inhabited by one ethnic group that has been forced to live there because of discrimination or institutionalized racism. In former times in Europe, "ghetto" was the term for a walled section of a city where the Jews were forced, according to the laws of the city, to live separately from the Christians. Because of over-crowding and isolation, these ghettos usually turned into slums. So when the Germans turned the town of Theresienstadt into a Jewish ghetto in November 1941, this was not by any means a Nazi innovation. Even before the word ghetto came into use, and long before the Nazis came upon the scene, the Jews were eventually segregated into a ghetto in almost every city where they settled. Usually they were already living in a separate part of the city, known as the Jewish quarter. These segregated quarters became ghettos only after walls were erected, a curfew for the Jews was established, and the Jews were forced to wear distinctive clothing to instantly identify themselves to non-Jews.

The word "ghetto" derives from the name of an area of the city of Venice where the city's foundries were located. In the Venetian dialect, a foundry was known as a "geto" which meant a workshop or a factory. The word "geto" was derived from the verb "gettare" which means "to cast" as in to cast iron in a foundry.

After the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1497, many of them settled in Venice. In 1516, a city decree forced the Jews of Venice to live on a small island with only two access points which were sealed off at sunset. This island had previously been the area of the "gheto nuovo" or new workshops.

However, even before the word ghetto came into use, the Jews, particularly in Poland, were confined to walled sections of the city where they lived. In 1492 the Jews of Krakow in Poland were put into a walled-off section after they were accused of setting fires in the city. There were no walled Jewish ghettos in the Old Reich, as Germany proper was called, during Hitler's regime. Hitler sent the German Jews to the Lodz ghetto, located in what had formerly been Poland or to Theresienstadt, located in what was formerly the country of Czechoslovakia.

After the Nazis invaded Poland and then occupied the country, they initially put the Polish Jews into ghettos, using the excuse that had been used for centuries, that the Jews were responsible for spreading disease. Later, these ghettos became a convenient way to concentrate the Jews in one location for eventual transport to the concentration camps for extermination in Hitler's "Final Solution to the Jewish Question."

On October 10, 1941, the Germans initially decided to make Theresienstadt into a ghetto for selected Jews in the German Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, and in the Greater German Reich, which included Austria and part of western Poland. The Jews who were to be sent to Theresienstadt included those over 60 years old, World War I veterans, prominent people such as artists or musicians, very important persons, the blind, the deaf, and the inmates of the Jewish mental hospitals and the Jewish orphanages.

The first Jews, who were brought to Theresienstadt on November 24, 1941, were 342 men who were housed in the Sudeten barracks on the west side of the old garrison, from where one can see the Sudeten mountain range near the border between Germany and the Czech Republic. This first transport, called the Aufbaukommando, was brought there to prepare the 10 barracks buildings for the rest of the Jews who would soon follow. On December 4, 1941 another transport of 1,000 Jews who were to form the Jewish "self-government" of the ghetto was sent to Theresienstadt. These two early transports became known as AK1 and AK2.

A short time after the construction crews had prepared the barracks, 7,000 Jews from Prague and Brno in what is now the Czech Republic arrived in the ghetto; men and women were put into separate barracks and they were not allowed to mix with the townspeople. On Feb. 16, 1942, the 3,500 townspeople were given notice that they had to evacuate the town by June 30th. At that time, the whole town was converted into a prison camp for the Jews.

Even before the transports departed to Theresienstadt, the Jewish Council of the Elders (Ältestenrat) was appointed in Prague to do the ghetto administration. The Nazis gave oral orders to the Council each day and the Jewish "self-government" informed the prisoners of the order of the day.

There were three Jewish Elders (Judenältester) who served in turn as the head of the ghetto "self-government." The first was Jakob Edelstein, who served as the ghetto Elder from December 4, 1941 to November 27, 1943. He was arrested for falsifying camps records and was sent to the Small Fortress across the river from the ghetto. From there he was transferred to Auschwitz where he was first put on trial in a Nazi court and was then executed at the infamous "black wall" on June 20, 1944 after being forced to watch as his wife and son were being shot.

The second Jewish leader of Theresienstadt was Dr. Paul Eppstein who was taken to the Small Fortress on September 7, 1944 and immediately shot without the benefit of a trial because he too disobeyed the orders of the Nazis. The last Jewish leader of the ghetto was Dr. Benjamin Murmelstein, who served from Sept. 7, 1944 until the end of the war. The ghetto guards were 150 Czech policemen; there was also an unarmed Jewish ghetto guard unit which helped to maintain order in the ghetto. On the wall near the entry door to the Museum in the Magdeburg building, there is a plaque which lauds the Jewish leaders in the ghetto for their resistance against the Nazis, even though it meant death for two of the Elders.

Plaque on wall of Museum in honor of Jewish leaders who resisted the Nazis

By the time that the Nazis started deporting the Jews from Germany, there were less than 200,000 of them left in the country; all the others had already emigrated to escape the Nazi persecution. Forty percent of the remaining Jews in Germany were over 60 years old, as the children and young people had been the first to leave. After Austria became part of the Greater German Reich in March 1938, the Jews were forced to emigrate to any country that would take them, and only 15,000 old people were allowed to remain. All of these elderly Austrian Jews were deported to Theresienstadt where their mortality rate was the highest of all.

The first name that the Nazis gave to the garrison town, which had been renamed Terezin by the Czechs, was Theresienbad, which means Spa Theresien, implying that it was a spa town where people could take mineral baths. Then the name was changed to Reichsaltersheim, or State Old People's Home. Some of the unsuspecting elderly Jews in Germany actually paid for an apartment in the ghetto and signed contracts for housing, food and medical treatment which was to be provided. They were very disappointed when they got to Theresienstadt and learned that it was nothing like the spa town or old folks home that they were expecting and that they were not going to have luxury accommodations, even though they had paid. Since they were too old to work, their rations were less than the amount given to the workers, and their mortality rate was extremely high.

Theresienstadt is frequently referred to as the "Paradise Ghetto," although this was never a name used by the Nazis. For most of its existence, the Theresienstadt ghetto was called the Jewish Self Administration or Jüdische Selbstverwaltung.

Besides the ordinary people who were sent to the Nazi concentration camps, there were also many well known and prominent Jews, who were incarcerated along with the others. In every camp where these prominent people were confined, they were given privileged treatment and Theresienstadt was no exception.

Important people, such as Rabbi Dr. Leo Baeck of Berlin, whom the Nazis called "the Pope of the Jews," were given private apartments in Theresienstadt. The rest of the Jews were housed in large barrack rooms where they were crowded together into three rows of triple decker wooden bunk beds. As the ghetto filled up, the newcomers were forced to live in attic space without heat, running water or toilets.

Each transport to the camp contained around 1,000 Jews. Upon arrival, the Jews went through a checkpoint, which was called die Schleuse, which means the lock as in a lock on a canal. Here they were searched for items that were forbidden in the camp. After that, the men and women were assigned to separate barracks. The barracks were named after towns in Germany, for example, the Dresden and Magdeburg barracks for the women, the Hanover barracks for men and Hamburg barracks for women. The Magdeburg barracks also housed the offices of the Jewish "self-government."

Gate into Dresden barracks for women which has an inner courtyard

The first transport to be sent to the east from Theresienstadt consisted of 2,000 Jews who were sent to Riga on January 9, 1942 from the Bohusovice station. According to Holocaust historian Martin Gilbert, all 2,000 were taken to the nearby Rumbuli forest where they were shot. The most horrible aspect of this is that the Jewish "self-government" in the camp was initially in charge of selecting the people for the transports, although they did not know what their fate would be at that time. Unwittingly, they sent the young able-bodied Jews to their deaths, thinking that they were sending workers to labor camps in the east.

A total of 44,693 Jews from Theresienstadt were sent to Auschwitz, where all but a few of them perished. On September 8, 1943, a transport of 5,006 Czech Jews was sent to Auschwitz where they were put into a "family camp" which was liquidated six months later. There were 22,503 Jews from Theresienstadt who were transported to unknown destinations in the east.

In keeping with the stated policy at the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942, Hitler's plan was to evacuate all the Jews to the east. Eight thousand were sent from Theresienstadt to Treblinka and 1,000 to Sobibor, two death camps that were right on the border between German occupied Poland and the Soviet Union. Another 1,000 were transported from the Theresienstadt ghetto to a concentration camp near the village of Maly Trostenets, just outside of Minsk in what is now Belarus, better known to Americans as White Russia. Two thousand Jews from the ghetto were sent to Zamosc, 3,000 to Izbica and 3,000 to Lublin, all of which were cities near the eastern border of occupied Poland.

Although the Theresienstadt ghetto was originally supposed to be a home for elderly Jews, the Nazis began including some of the older inmates in the transports to the east after the camp population on September 18, 1942 had reached 58,497, its highest number of prisoners. With such horrendous overcrowding, the death toll was around 4,000 just for the month of September in 1942 and most of the dead were elderly people. Between September 19, 1942 and October 22, 1942, there were 11 transports carrying ghetto inmates from Theresienstadt to other camps farther east in order to relieve the overcrowding.

In the northwest section of the old garrison town, there is a building, called the Bauhof by the Nazis, that was used in the ghetto for craft workshops. It is the yellow building shown in the photograph below. To the right you can see part of the old fortifications; the road shown in the photograph goes through an opening in the fortifications here.

Bauhof where workshops were located near Litomerice gate

According to the Ghetto Museum, in 1945 a homicidal gas chamber was built in a corridor of the town's fortifications wall near the Litomerice gate, which is right by the Bauhof building, shown in the photograph above. (Click here to see a map of the ghetto. The Bauhof building is number 14 on the map.) According to Martin Gilbert, this gas chamber was never "activated."

The homicidal gas chamber is directly across from the Jäger (Hunter) barracks, an identical building on the opposite side of the town, which was used as a disinfection station where the prisoners and their clothing were deloused. The prisoners were disinfected by being completely submerged in a tub containing a chemical which would kill the lice on their bodies. At the same time, their clothing was disinfected by hot steam, and they would have to put their clothes back on while they were still wet and then return to their barracks. The oldest inmates of the ghetto were housed in the Jäger barracks so they wouldn't get chilled by walking through the cold in wet clothes. Behind the Jäger barracks is the Südberg or South Hill where a a soccer field was built for the inmates.

The ghetto inmates became aware of the Theresienstadt homicidal gas chamber and were planning to blow it up, but the war ended just in time to save the Theresienstadt Jews from being gassed right in the ghetto. In October 1944, the Jews at Birkenau (Auschwitz II) did manage to blow up one of the homicidal gas chambers and shortly thereafter, Heinrich Himmler is believed to have ordered the gassing operation to be stopped. The gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau were converted into air raid shelters, since the Allies had begun bombing the camp, after taking aerial photos which showed extensive munitions factories there.

The photograph below shows the fortifications on either side of the Litomerice gate on the northwest side of Theresienstadt. When Theresienstadt was a ghetto for the Jews, this road was closed off and there was no traffic through the garrison town.

The Litomerice gate is an opening between the fortifications walls

There were rumors circulating in all of the major Nazi concentration camps toward the end of the war that Hitler had given the order for all the inmates to be killed before the arrival of the Soviet or American soldiers. This was believed to be the purpose for building a gas chamber at Theresienstadt in 1945 at the tail end of the war. At Auschwitz, the inmates were given the choice to stay in the camp, or to follow the Germans on a death march to the camps in the west before the Soviet army arrived. Very few stayed behind, except those who were too old or too sick to walk, because the prisoners believed that they would be killed if they stayed.

After April 20, 1945, there were 13,454 of these wretched survivors from Auschwitz and other camps who poured into Theresienstadt. Some were housed in the Hamburg barracks, right by the railroad tracks. The others were put into temporary wooden barracks outside the ghetto, which were taken down soon after the war. Some of the newcomers had been evacuated from Buchenwald on April 5th just before the camp was liberated by American troops on April 11, 1945. Before the Americans arrived, Hitler himself had given the order to evacuate the Jews from Buchenwald in an effort to prevent them from exacting revenge on German citizens after they were freed. Some of them arrived at Theresienstadt in terrible condition after they had been traveling by train for two weeks without food. After the liberation of Buchenwald, some of the prisoners, who had not been evacuated, commandeered American army jeeps and weapons, then drove to the nearby town of Weimar where, in an orgy of revenge, they looted German homes and shot innocent civilians at random; this was the type of thing that the Nazis were trying to prevent by evacuating the concentration camps before they were liberated.

According to Holocaust survivor Ben Helfgott, who was one of the prisoners brought to Theresienstadt in the last days of the war, the inmates of the Theresienstadt ghetto went on a rampage as soon as they were released. They looted homes, beat to death an SS guard from the ghetto, and attacked the ethnic Germans who were now homeless refugees, fleeing to Germany, after being driven out of the Czech provinces of Bohemia and Moravia.

Some of the people who arrived from the evacuated camps were former inmates of Theresienstadt who were now returning. Others were Jews who had been in the eastern concentration camps for years. On May 3, 1945, the ghetto was turned over to the Red Cross by Commandant Karl Rahm.

According to Martin Gilbert in his book "Holocaust Journey," Rahm told the Red Cross that he had received orders from Berlin to kill all the inmates in the ghetto before the Russians arrived, but he had disobeyed the order. Because of this, Gilbert wrote, Rahm was allowed to leave the camp unmolested on the day before the Russians arrived on May 8, 1945. He was later captured and tried in a Special People's Court in nearby Litomerice; he was held in the Small Fortress until he was executed in 1947.

Death Statistics for the Theresienstadt Ghetto

The Red Cross Visit

Early History of Theresienstadt


This page was last updated on December 23, 2007