74 years since liberation, a visit to Theresienstadt finds an eerie ghost town
Unique in the Nazi empire, Theresienstadt was both a way-station to Auschwitz for Jews and a well-planned show camp to deceive diplomats about the Holocaust
TEREZIN, Czech Republic — Brandeis University senior Elan Kawesch had the oddest feeling while leading a group of college students around the former ghetto-concentration camp Theresienstadt, where 140,000 Jews were imprisoned during the Holocaust. “It felt like we were walking around some random Czech town, rather than a site of Nazi persecution,” said 23-year-old Kawesch.
Although most of the victims were murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau and other camps, some 33,000 Jews perished on-site from starvation, exhaustion, and epidemics.
Better known than these statistics, the SS used scenic Terezin — which they renamed Theresienstadt — to deceive International Red Cross officials during an “inspection” of the ghetto 75 years ago. The deception was so successful that similar propaganda tours were staged until the last month of the war.
Through my day job at Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston, this reporter joined Kawesch and the students in Prague for five days of what we call Holocaust memory service-learning. Whether in Berlin, Warsaw, or Amsterdam, students explore prewar Jewish life and examine what took place during the war. Back home, they volunteer with local survivors.
Kawesch’s interest in the Holocaust intensified two years ago, when he learned some of his relatives were murdered at the Nazi death camp Belzec. Since then, we have taken students to sites of Nazi persecution in four countries, including former death camps, transit camps, and ghettos.
After two days touring Prague’s miraculously intact Jewish quarter, our group traveled an hour northwest of the Czech capital to Terezin. Named for the Jew-loathing Empress Maria Theresa, Terezin’s main feature is the so-called “Small Fortress,” where the Gestapo installed its regional prison and torture facility.
A 15-minute walk from the Small Fortress is the former Theresienstadt ghetto-concentration camp, now the sleepy Bohemian town of Terezin. In total, Terezin takes up less than six square miles, or about one-quarter of the island of Manhattan. Unlike the Big Apple, however, Terezin’s streets are immaculately clean and quiet, and there’s hardly a car in sight.
“It made sense the SS would pick this photogenic setting to stage their deception tour for the International Red Cross inspectors,” said Kawesch. “This place looks harmless and could be mistaken for a village anywhere in the country.”
Before our tour of the crumbling Small Fortress, a Terezin Museum staffer gave our group an admission ticket with a small map of Terezin on the back. Apart from the crematorium-cemetery complex, only three sites in the former ghetto were marked. Unfortunately, the map did not include street names or addresses for these sites.
The average visitor wouldn’t be able to understand, based on a tour of the grounds, the atrocities committed there. “Much of the camp feels like the history is being ignored or understated,” said Kawesch.
In 2002, Europe’s historic floods immersed both the Small Fortress and town of Terezin in water, forcing extensive restoration work to be carried out. Today, the museum sells postcards with aerial views of the epic flood. In those eerie photos, the Small Fortress fortifications peep out from the water, as do the large Star of David and crucifix flanking the adjacent cemetery.
‘Autonomous Jewish administration’
The “embellishment” of Theresienstadt to serve as a “show camp” for international observers was not hastily implemented.
Toward the end of 1943, the SS started to prepare the façade of a “Jewish settlement,” as the ghetto was renamed. The military street signs were removed and replaced with civilian ones, and 1,200 rose bushes were ordered to beautify the grounds. A bank was created to issue currency, and cultural spaces were renovated for visitors.
To fulfill SS chief Heinrich Himmler’s vision of a town for elderly Jews and children, 7,500 young men and women were deported to Auschwitz one month before the long-delayed inspection.
On June 23, 1944, the eight-hour tour began with a visit to headquarters of the “autonomous Jewish administration.” Inspectors from the International Red Cross and Danish Red Cross were welcomed to Theresienstadt, where Jews even had freedom to worship.
After their official welcome, the three inspectors visited a steam laundry that helped keep the townspeople clean, as well as theaters and a pharmacy. There was a school and a hospital among the tree-lined streets, and the Jews seemed to be well fed. A lot of the “stores,” however, were literally fronts, and the SS inserted spies along the route to ensure Jews did not go whispering to the inspectors.
Among other tour oddities, the commission was permitted to speak only with the ghetto’s Danish Jews, for Denmark was the country whose leaders pressured the SS to allow an “inspection.” The inspectors were also not allowed to see buildings on their own, including the squalid attics and stables in which most people were barely surviving.
Despite the oxymoron of a meticulously staged “inspection” tour, it was undeniable that conditions at Theresienstadt did not match accounts coming out of Eastern Europe since 1941. The town was not disease-plagued with corpses lining the streets, and people were not in a panic about death camps. The cultural life was rich, with symphonies, dozens of monthly lectures, and a bandstand in the square.
Of the three Red Cross reports issued, those written by the commission’s two Danish inspectors were relatively sympathetic to the plight of the Jews. The account of Switzerland’s Maurice Rossel, however, went far to validate the Nazis’ lies and — according to historians — spelled the end for 6,500 Czech Jews at Auschwitz-Birkenau that fall.
‘Even locals could not provide directions’
As revealed on the small map of the former ghetto, there are two major clusters of sites to visit in Terezin. The first includes a “secret synagogue” and a recreated ghetto-era attic, and the second is the crematorium-Jewish cemetery complex at the back of town.
In addition to those sites, an art-based “Ghetto Museum” is prominent on the main square. There is information about the Holocaust in Czech lands and a film on the “show camp” aspect of Theresienstadt, as well as a gallery on the doomed “Czech family camp” at Auschwitz-Birkenau. However, there is not much information about the 33,000 Jews who perished there, including their forced labor.
The crematorium and Jewish cemetery were not hard to find, but locating other sites marked on the ticket map was daunting.
“The museum gave a poorly marked map of the town showing different sites, but it still took a long time to find some places,” said Kawesch. “Even locals who were shown the map and the names of places in Czech could not provide directions, and locations did not have signs leading visitors to them.”
A case in point was the so-called “secret synagogue,” rediscovered in 1989. Even after finding the prayer room at the back of a courtyard, one must know Biblical Hebrew to read the untranslated inscriptions painted on the walls by a ghetto inmate. The inscriptions relate to the prisoners’ situation, including the words, “But despite all this, we have not forgotten your name.”
Beyond language barriers, there is no text — or context — given about the existence of other synagogues in the ghetto, or the anomaly of a “secret synagogue” in the one ghetto where the Nazis permitted Jews to worship. The rare photos and children’s drawings we have of prayer services at Theresienstadt are not shown to visitors, whether on a placard, in a hand-out, or delivered virtually.
“There was not a lot of tourist infrastructure and what did exist could have been done in a way that made the experience more accessible,” summed up Kawesch. “Museums at other Holocaust sites have made apps or use virtual reality to help explain what took place. Theresienstadt is funded by the Czech government, which has invested much more into sites in Prague.”
‘Our report will change nobody’s opinion’
During WWII, with his glowing report on ghetto conditions, inspector Maurice Rossel of the International Red Cross helped validate the German fabrication of Theresienstadt.
“Our report will change nobody’s opinion,” wrote Rossel. “Everyone is free to condemn the Reich’s attitude toward the solution of the Jewish problem. However, if this report could contribute in some small measure to dispel the mystery surrounding the Theresienstadt ghetto we shall be satisfied,” he concluded.
By the time of Rossel’s report, 68,000 Jews had been deported to death camps from Theresienstadt. However, as Rossel told critics, it was not his job to “speculate” about what was being concealed from the inspectors.
Several weeks after his tour of Theresienstadt, Rossel held an unofficial on-site meeting with the commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Rudolf Hoss. Afterwards, Rossel reported there was no evidence of mass murder, although he admittedly saw little of the sprawling complex. Rossel had been the first Swiss citizen granted permission to visit Auschwitz by the SS.
On the same day as Rossel’s visit, September 29, more than 1,000 Theresienstadt Jews were gassed at Birkenau, a five-minute drive from Rossel’s meeting at Auschwitz. In recent years, Czech and Israeli historians have drawn “direct connections” between Rossel’s report on Theresienstadt that summer and the decision to “liquidate” 6,500 Czech Jews in the “family camp” at Birkenau.
Essentially, Himmler assumed inspectors would want to visit the Czech Jews at Birkenau, because it was not a secret that thousands of them had been sent there as a so-called “final destination” from Theresienstadt. What Himmler did not anticipate, however, was how thoroughly satisfied the inspectors would be after the staged tour in June. Once the SS chief saw that no demands were being made to visit the “family camp,” he ordered the murder of its inhabitants.
Even during the weeks leading up to Germany’s surrender, the SS continued to invite foreign dignitaries to Theresienstadt. In April of 1945, the International Red Cross made an additional two visits. By that point, the world was well aware of Auschwitz-Birkenau, since it was liberated by the Red Army back in January.
Himmler was present for one of the April tours and quoted as denying the systematic murder of Jews by Germany. That was enough for the diplomats and inspectors who came to marvel at the Reich’s “autonomous Jewish settlement” outside Prague. Then and now, Terezin’s charm masks a dark past.
Matt Lebovic lives in Boston, where he is associate director of campus services at Combined Jewish Philanthropies. Since 2012 he has written nearly 200 articles about the Holocaust for The Times of Israel.
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