The Story Behind Thereisenstadt

The Story Behind Thereisenstadt

Editor’s Note: A special concert, “Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin,” was performed at the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta in October. The multimedia piece focused on the Holocaust and one of the most infamous charades the Nazis managed to pull off during World War II. We flesh out the details below.

The film is grainy and in black and white. It jumps about, slowing down at odd moments and growing dim occasionally. But it’s the people that hold your attention.

Following World War II and the liberation of inmates at Terezin, this small synagogue was discovered. Even today its walls and ceiling remain covered with Jewish stars and Hebrew prayers. PHOTO / Herb Wollner

They walk about, wearing fashionable clothes, nodding a stiff “hello” when they spot a friend. They watch a soccer match, sit briefly outside a small café or listen to a concert.

It’s all a sham, of course – part of a bogus documentary produced by the Nazis during World War II at Theresienstadt, the concentration camp an hour north of Prague in what was then Czechoslovakia.

Today, the Holocaust continues to sound a melancholy note in the major cities of the region. Warsaw, Krakow, Budapest and Prague are remarkable, warm and charming, filled with cobblestone streets and intimate cafes, grand boulevards and monuments, fine art and fine food.

But in each of these cities is also a reminder of the Jews who were murdered during World War II after being forced into ghettos and eventually transported to death camps across the region.

It’s in Terezin, near Prague, that one of the most unique – if bizarre – stories of the period can be found. And it’s all captured in the grainy film produced by the Nazis.

The city – created in the 18th century and named for Maria Theresa of Austria – was taken over by the Gestapo in 1940, renamed Theresienstadt and quickly turned into a ghetto. Jews from Czechoslovakia, Germany, Austria and Holland were transported to the site, and its population soared; the city that had been home for 7,000 residents before the war would at one point hold 60,000 inmates.

Men and women were separated and then housed in barracks that were packed with bunks three tiers high. There was little food and even less medicine; sanitation was poor; and rats, lice, flies and fleas were part of daily life.

So, too, was death: Of the nearly 150,000 Jews that spent time at Theresienstadt, only 17,247 survived the war. The large number of dead became such a problem that a crematorium was built in 1942 to deal with the corpses.

The Nazis, meanwhile, portrayed the ghetto as a model Jewish settlement. The ruse became necessary after Jews from Denmark were sent to the camp in the winter of 1944 and a commission of Red Cross officials from Denmark and Sweden was allowed to visit during the following summer to make sure that inmates at Theresienstadt were living under humane conditions.

The camp was gussied up in certain key areas: Some living space was enlarged and painted; drapes were hung and furniture added; grass and flowers were planted; and a playground and sports fields were built. Finally, a month before the orchestrated visit, 7,500 inmates – mostly orphans and the sick – were sent to Auschwitz and their deaths so Theresienstadt would appear less crowded.

What’s more, an elaborate script was created that would have groups of inmates strolling along a central street, window-shopping; others would be taking part in a soccer match, while yet others would be chatting and singing as they headed off to work.

On June 23, 1944, the Nazis had everything in place as the commission was escorted through the camp. The inmates played their parts to perfection, knowing they had little choice but to cooperate; camp officials were so happy with the result, they decided to put it all down on film and use the movie for propaganda purposes.

What remains today is a series of black-and-white vignettes: inmates at a concert; inmates sitting outside a cafe; inmates cheering a soccer match. The actors smile occasionally for the camera, hiding the hideous truth of the Holocaust from view.

Look closely enough, though, and you can see the bleak future in their faces.

Only a few months after the commission reported that inmates at Theresienstadt were being treated fairly, transports to Auschwitz picked up speed. Over the last weeks of September and early October of ’44, the camp was nearly emptied; only 400 inmates remained at the beginning of 1945.

By the time the International Red Cross took charge of the camp the following May, the damage had already been done: More than 30,000 inmates had died in the camp of disease, starvation, and abuse, and nearly three times that number had been shipped off to the Nazi killing factories in the east.


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