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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."

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FOCUS: Israel-Palestine War

After Abbas: Here Are The Three Frontrunners To Be The Next Palestinian Leader

Israel and the West have often asked: Where is the Palestinian Mandela? The divided regimes between Gaza and the West Bank continues to make it difficult to imagine the future Palestinian leader. Still, these three names are worth considering.

Photo of Mahmoud Abbas speaking into microphone

Abbas is 88, and has been the leading Palestinian political figure since 2005

Thaer Ganaim/APA Images via ZUMA
Elias Kassem

Updated Dec. 5, 2023 at 12:05 a.m.

Israel has set two goals for its Gaza war: destroying Hamas and releasing hostages.

But it has no answer to, nor is even asking the question: What comes next?

The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected the return of the current Palestinian Authority to govern post-war Gaza. That stance seems opposed to the U.S. Administration’s call to revitalize the Palestinian Authority (PA) to assume power in the coastal enclave.

For the latest news & views from every corner of the world, Worldcrunch Today is the only truly international newsletter. Sign up here.

But neither Israel nor the U.S. put a detailed plan for a governing body in post-war Gaza, let alone offering a vision for a bonafide Palestinian state that would also encompass the West Bank.

The Palestinian Authority, which administers much of the occupied West Bank, was created in1994 as part of the Oslo Accords peace agreement. It’s now led by President Mahmoud Abbas, who succeeded Yasser Arafat in 2005. Over the past few years, the question of who would succeed Abbas, now 88 years old, has largely dominated internal Palestinian politics.

But that question has gained new urgency — and was fundamentally altered — with the war in Gaza.

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