Revisiting The Nazi Camp Where Hitler Duped The Red Cross With Roses

A recent book is shedding new light on Terezin, a Czech town and fortress that was converted by the Nazis into a Jewish concentration. More than 30,000 people died there. Three times that number were sent from Terezin to Poland-based Nazi camps like Ausc

A sign at the Terezin fortress reading
A sign at the Terezin fortress reading
Sven Felix Kellerhoff

TEREZIN -- Ideally, a prison should be surrounded by high walls and deep trenches, making it as difficult as possible for inmates to escape. Old fortresses are thus perfect candidates for conversion. In Europe, examples of such conversions abound, from England's Tower of London to notorious Hoheneck, a former East German women's prison in Saxony (Germany).

But perhaps the largest fortress to be used as a prison, or in any case the one where the most people were interned, is in what is today the Czech Republic: the 18th century military fortress and garrison town of Terezin, on the shores of the Eger River. Between 1942 and 1945, more than 140,000 people were locked up here by the Nazis, who called it Theresienstadt. Some 90,000 of these inmates were subsequently deported to Nazi death camps in Poland. A further 34,000 died from the dreadful conditions in the seriously overcrowded Baroque complex.

A stop-off point on the way to Auschwitz

On Feb. 16, 1942, the German occupation authorities called officially for the Czech community of Terezin to be dissolved. The reason was apparent from the title of the decree: Ordinance of the Reichprotektor in Bohemia and Moravia Concerning Measures to Quarter Jews in Closed Settlements. According to Hans G. Adler, a Jew from Prague who was interned in Theresienstadt from 1942 to 1944 and who later wrote about his experiences there, this decree was "the only document released that officially informed the general public about the Jewish camp in Theresienstadt."

Until recently, Adler's impressive chronicle was the only source available in German describing what took place in the Nazi complex – despite the fact that many German Jews passed through Theresienstadt on their way to Auschwitz or other death camps. Nearly 70 years later, however, a book called Theresienstadt. Eine Zeitreise (Theresienstadt, A Journey Through Time) is shedding new light on the infamous Czech town and fortress. Written by urban planner Uta Fischer and journalist Roland Wildberg, the richly illustrated book traces Theresienstadt's history over 232 years.

Theresienstadt was a great many other things besides a concentration camp and ghetto, even if today it is mostly associated with what went on there in the early 1940s. The Nazis were at the height of their power, and Reinhard Heydrich decided that the then-empty Austro-Hungarian complex would become a concentration camp. Not long afterwards he decided to turn the neighboring garrison town into a ghetto for German Jews on their way to the gas chambers.

Theresienstadt was the last of all the Nazi camps to be freed – on May 8, 1945, one day after the Wehrmacht surrendered in Reims.

Planting roses to hide the horror

As there are hardly any photographs showing Theresienstadt during the Nazi period, Fischer and Wildberg have used drawings by former inmates to depict conditions. These show how mostly older people were left to vegetate in drastically overcrowded buildings. Even if there was no "extermination through labor" policy operative here as in other Nazi camps, living conditions were nevertheless inhumane.

The SS also used Theresienstadt, a so-called "Jewish settlement," as a camouflage for the mass exterminations that were going on. In the fall of 1943, Berlin decided that within six months Theresienstadt would be opened up to inspection by members of an international commission. Until then, the Nazis had allowed occasional visits by German and international commissions to some of the main camps, though not to any of the camps that were part of the "final solution to the Jewish question." Then again, Theresienstadt was just a transit camp.

So the SS set the inmates to work on a "beautification" program. A new commander, Karl Rahm, had taken over from Anton Burger, whose brutality knew no bounds. Rose bushes were planted, and lawns put in. "Superfluous' inmates in the ghetto were sent off to their deaths. Everything was ready by June 23, 1944 when two Danes and a Swiss representing the International Committee of the Red Cross arrived in Theresienstadt. A tour route had been carefully planned that led the inspectors past just the renovated buildings. The SS, in addition, had predetermined which inmates could say what.

The staging worked. The three inspectors left Theresienstadt after a five and a half hour visit and wrote a positive report for the Red Cross, although they did mention noticing overcrowding and a look of hopelessness on the faces of many of the inmates.

Hitler's "city for the Jews'

The SS decided that after all that trouble, they weren't going to stop at one brief inspection: what had worked with the Red Cross inspectors, they figured, could be made to influence public opinion around the world. It may have been Kommandant Rahm himself who came up with the bizarre idea of using the place as a setting for a "documentary" – to create a reality that, in reality, didn't exist.

To direct the film, the Nazis forced renowned filmmaker Kurt Gerron into action. In August and September 1944, under heavy Gestapo surveillance, he filmed staged scenes of "normal" life in the "Jewish settlement." The movie was edited in Prague – without the director: when he finished filming the Nazis sent him to Birkenau, where he was killed in the gas chamber.

Instead of a "dream factory," as authors Uta Fischer and Roland Wildberg point out, Theresienstadt became a nightmare. The movie, of which only snippets remain and which was never shown publically in its entirety, became known by the title given to it with cynical irony by some inmates: "The Führer gives a city to the Jews."

Read the original article in German

Photo – Wikipedia

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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