Theresienstadt was simultaneously a ghetto, transit camp, and concentration camp. It operated between November 24, 1941 and May 9, 1945, when it was entered by Soviet troops.

Reinhard Heydrich requested Theresienstadt as a Jewish settlement site on October 10, 1941 and proposed it be for German, Austrian, and Czech Jews over the age of 65, those with disabilities, decorated WWI veterans, or known people i.e. minor celebrities whose disappearance might attract attention. Establishment was the responsibility of Adolf Eichmann and Rolf Günther. SS First Lieutenant Siegfried Seidl was commandant from November 24, 1941 until July 3, 1943, when he was replaced by SS First Lieutenant Anton Burger until January 1944. Burger was then replaced by SS First Lieutenant Karl Rahm who acted as commandant until Theresienstadt was abandoned by the SS on May 5, 1945.

Nazi authorities deported between 73,000 and 74,000 Jewish people living in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia to Theresienstadt between November 24, 1941 and April 15, 1945. They were the only occupants until June 2, 1942 when Jewish people from Berlin arrived and the Nazis began deporting German, Sudeten, Austrian, Danish and Luxembourger Jewish people to Theresienstadt. Over 60,000 deported Protectorate Jewish people passed through Theresienstadt whilst being transported East. Nazi authorities also persuaded and compelled elderly German and Austrian Jewish people, into home purchase contracts, took 'deposits' for living expenses and convinced future 'residents' to sign their life insurance to the state. After the 1944 collapse of the Slovak uprising, Slovak Jewish people were also transferred to Theresienstadt, and over 1000 Hungarian Jewish people arrived on March 8, 1945.

Jacob Edelstein arrived in Theresienstadt on December 4, 1941, and was made chairman of the Jewish Council of Elders by the SS. In January 1943, Adolf Eichmann also appointed Paul Eppstein, and Benjamin Mermelstein to the Council. The Council of Elders implemented orders of the Nazi authorities and made selections for the deportations, it also managed forced labour, rationed food, and tried to organise services such as electricity, water, housing, the judiciary, education, and cultural events. However provisions were woefully inadequate and conditions in Theresienstadt were horrific. Welfare of children was encouraged and houses were assigned for children, the idea being to protect them from despair. The children were encouraged to draw and paint and some were able to receive some education, however few children survived.

Edelstein decided to try and create a productive society on the assumption that co-operation would make Theresienstadt useful for the war effort, therefore ensuring survival of its inmates. This idea was encouraged by the SS and believed by some even after deportations began.  

Nazi propaganda depicted deported Jewish people as a productive labour force in the East. Since use of elderly people as forced labourers seemed unlikely, the ghetto at Theresienstadt was used as a propaganda measure to conceal the reality of what was happening. Ghetto 'currency' played a part of this deception; on January 1, 1943 the Bank of Jewish Self Administration (Bank der Judischen Selbstverwaltung) was established to portray the image that Theresienstadt had a form of economy and provided access to facilities. The Theresienstadt Kronen went into circulation and the bank opened its doors on May 12, 1943 although it was not possible for people to withdraw money from accounts. On arrival deportees had to exchange all their money and assets into the ghetto 'currency', which had no monetary value.

The currency and image of normality it helped to portray played a part in convincing members of the Red Cross that prisoners at Theresienstadt were receiving acceptable treatment, despite the reality. Two delegates from the International Red Cross and one from the Danish Red Cross arrived on June 23, 1944. They had previously witnessed ghetto conditions in Poland and were expecting to encounter similar conditions, instead they found Theresienstadt in its 'prepared' state. Nazi authorities took serious measures to disguise conditions, to decrease overcrowding in preparation for the visit over 7,500 people were deported from the ghetto to Auschwitz between May 16-18, 1944. People had to 'beautify' the ghetto, stage a football game, and put on a performance of Brundibár in a hall built as part of 'preparation'. Despite clues such as the bruised face of Eppstein, who was instructed to play the part of 'mayor of Theresienstadt', the visitors left convinced Theresienstadt was an acceptable resettlement location. Following the visit deportations from Theresienstadt resumed and would not cease until October 1944.

The SS also produced a propaganda film portraying Theresienstadt as a place where elderly Jewish German people could retire, describing it as a 'spa town' and filming the kind treatment which 'residents' of Theresienstadt were supposedly receiving. After its completion most of the people seen in the film were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau where they were murdered. The film was never screened. In contrast to the propaganda image the Nazis used Theresienstadt to portray, in 1942 starvation, abuse, and disease was murdering so many people that a crematorium which could process almost 200 bodies per day was constructed.

Despite conditions an internal culture developed, the ghetto contained prominent Czech, German and Austrian Jewish artists who did many drawings and paintings. It also contained professors, actors and musicians who were able to put on theatre and concerts.

During its operation over 140,000 Jewish people were transported to Theresienstadt, approximately 33,000 were murdered either by abuse, or by conditions, in Theresienstadt itself. While approximately 90,000 people were deported East.

In 1942 the SS began deporting Jewish people from Theresienstadt to concentration camps, ghettos and Killing Centres including Auschwitz, Majdanek, and Treblinka. On September 8, 1943 a family camp was established in Auschwitz-Birkenau specifically for people deported from Theresienstadt. The Nazis deported more than 46,000 Jewish people from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz, of those approximately 18,000 were sent to the Theresienstadt family camp. Between July 10, and 12, 1944 the SS liquidated the Theresienstadt family camp in Birkenau and sent 7,000 people including the children to the gas chambers.   

Heinrich Himmler, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, and other SS leaders agreed to release 1,200 Theresienstadt prisoners for 5 million Swiss francs provided by Jewish organisations in 1945 as part of a plan to use them as leverage in bargaining with the West. Those released arrived in Switzerland on February 5, 1945. The SS later allowed the Swedish Red Cross to transport 423 surviving Danish Jewish people out of Theresienstadt on trucks to Denmark on April 14, 1945.

The International Red Cross visited Theresienstadt on April 6, and April 21, 1945, taking over administration on May 2. On May 5, and 6, 1945 the SS administration including Commandant Rahm fled and on May 8, Theresienstadt became part of the battlefield between Nazi and Soviet forces.

Most of the people held in Theresienstadt by the Nazis had left by late August 1945 and were replaced by prisoners of the Czech and Soviet authorities.

Following the end of the war former camp commandants Seidl, and Rahm were prosecuted by the Czech authorities and sentenced to death. Commandant Burger was also convicted and sentenced to death in his absence, however he lived in Essen under an assumed identity until he died in December 1991.


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