Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team
Key Nazi personalities in
the Camp System
The Labor &
The Labor Camps
A guest publication researched & written by Wolf Murmelstein
THE MAIN ROLES OF THERESIENSTADT
In May 1944 SS Captain Wisliceny handed out to the Budapest Zionist Rescue Committee a letter signed by 12 Zionist leaders present in Theresienstadt with statements like “in Theresienstadt a Jewish Town had been established.”
Of some note is the fact that not one of the leading figures who signed that strange letter survived beyond October 1944. Indeed the first role of Theresienstadt was the derision of the Zionist idea.
The second role of Theresienstadt was the two-fold fooling of German public opinion:
Indeed there were Germans – even leading Nazis – who had their Jew to protect from Deportation to the East. There were Jews who because of their past positions could not simply disappear to the East and there were Jews holding highest distinctions earned as Officers in World War One.
Nor was possible to let the Jews holding foreign passports, to simply disappear. These protections, obviously, lasted only as long as the “protector” stood in power as will be seen in following chapters.
The little town Theresienstadt– surrounded by walls - in the Protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia but near to the than Reich border seemed to be the suitable solution for these purposes.
For the setting up the so called “Jewish Town the necessary manpower was available in the Jewish Communities in Bohemia – Moravia. The third role of Theresienstadt was to mislead public opinion and to fool the Jews in Bohemia Moravia. The Zionists hoped that Theresienstadt could be a training- ground for their future in Palestine. The Czech Nationalists hoped to recover of the State of Massaryk and Benes. The Communists hoped for a Socialist State like in Soviet Union. All of them hoped for their survival.
The fourth role of Theresienstadt was fund raising for the Eichmann Office and its “Emigration Fund”. In order to get the last money of the aged German Jews – ensuring to obtain this substantial wealth instead of the Reich Treasury – the Eichmann Office launched an action to let these aged Jews purchase their retirement flats at Terezin Spa (Theresienbad).
This is behind the tale of people had to pay for staying at Theresienstadt instead of leaving for the East. This fund raising action resulted in a vast amount of money being collected by the Eichmann Staff, in order for the SS to dispose of these amounts.
The fifth role of Theresienstadt was that of a safe place for an RSHA Archive and its SS clerks. The sixth role of Theresienstadt was in the last months of the war as a “package” in the deals with the Allied Commanders which both Himmler and the Protectorate Governor SS General K .H. Frank tried to perform through the Red Cross.
The Ghetto Theresienstadt played all these roles in the period from November 1941 to May 1945 as will become clearer in the following pages.
On the Nazi side the players were Adolf Eichmann, head of the Office for Jews and Evacuations in the Central Nazi Security Department (RSHA), his masters, his rivals, his aides.
On the Jewish side the main figures in the struggle for survival were the three Elders - J. Edelstein, P. Eppstein and B.Murmelstein – all of them formerly engaged in managing within their Communities the emigration towards the safety of many people while losing so any opportunity to escape themselves with their families. Edelstein and Eppstein were murdered, Murmelstein could lead about 18000 fellow prisoners to the liberation.
Bystanders and persons interested to divert attention from their own deeds during that darkness after the Second World War blamed the three Elders launching absurd and slanderous accusations. So called historians still nowadays follow this way omitting to consider the historical background and the findings of the Czech People Court of Litomerice.
Theresienstadt/Terezin was mainly a place of sorrow, but there was also a cultural life; lectures and music and also a Jewish religious life.
HISTORY OF THERESIENSTADT
In autumn 1941 the Prague Jewish Community had to convert its Emigration Department in the new Ghetto Department and Jacob Edelstein – a Zionist official – had been designated as the first Elder of the Ghetto. Community clerks had to visit Theresienstadt and report about the housing possibilities.
On 24 November 1941 the first group of 340 jewish workers reached Theresienstadt, a second group of 1000 men followed soon afterwards.
In December 1941 the deportations wave from Bohemia-Moravia started and at the end of the year
more than 7000 persons were already crowded in the first two barracks.
In January 1942 two crucial events occurred:
At any rate, there were no further executions in the Ghetto from then now such action were performed in the nearby Little Fortress, a horrible Gestapo Prison.
So on one side there continued a series of incoming transports from Bohemia-Moravia, Germany and Austria, Netherlands, Denmark, Slovakia and, in the last two weeks of the war from the Concentration Camps.
On the other side there were the outgoing transports, the real destination was never known, harsher conditions could be supposed. The Commandant usually spoke about another Ghetto in the East or a Camp with more working opportunities, etc.
The first hellish dilemma arose: who should take decisions on the people to be transported East or who was to remain in Theresienstadt, on Czech soil.
The Ghetto - where Jews by faith had to stay with those who were Jewish only for racists, Zionists had to stay with Czech or German or Austrian Nationalists and Communists, Jews coming from Bohemia-Moravia, Germany, Austria, etc., young people and aged persons had to stay together – can be considered as a “Forced Community” where so that hellish dilemma, as others, became matter of internal disputes, carefully watched by Eichmann and his staff.
In April 1942 the Czech civilians started to leave the town; for their very poor houses they got very favourable payments from the Eichmann Office in Prague which “handled” the properties Jews had been forced to hand over.
By the end of May almost the entire town – Military barracks and poor houses – belonged to the Ghetto but at beginning of June the first transport from Germany – mainly aged people - arrived.
The elderly German Jews had been forced to sign, paying with their last money, “Contracts for House Purchase” in Terezin Spa, presented as a good place for retired persons. At their arrival, the elderly German Jews – who were wearing their best clothes- could realize they had been tricked. In Vienna and Prague such tricks were not necessary to obtain the Jewish property.
The elderly Jews coming from Germany and Vienna stood helpless in overcrowded unhealthy rooms and could hardly count on a younger relative. Furthermore, they spook the language of the hated Germans and took the places young Czechs had dreamed of for themselves and their own relatives. In that forced community the elderly German Jews became the “underdogs”, subject to various abuses, especially regarding the distribution of food.
The second hellish dilemma in this forced community - where food was the most valued commodity was - Who should eat more and who should eat less. Clearly people performing heavy works and children had to be preferred. Corruption, often backed by SS men, was difficult to fight without hurting friends. Edelstein was too bound to his old party-friendships and so failed to supervise his staff.
On the other side Eichmann certainly did not care about the well-being of elderly Jews. However the presence of too many young Jews in this Ghetto near the Reich border could be a source of trouble for possible contacts with the so called Czech Resistance hence the need for strong repression.
Eichmann, who, since 1935 had been in charge to the surveillance of the Zionist organisations, realized that the replacement of Edelstein and the members of his closest staff with persons coming from Germany or Austria required time in order to avoid the unrest resulting of sudden removals and for the need to have certain Jewish officials still on duty in Berlin and Vienna. By September 1942 in Theresienstadt there were already some figures – elderly gentlemen - from Germany and Austria eligible for inclusion in the Council of Elders in order to start opposition to Edelstein and his staff.
Furthermore, an order was issued to put the former WWI officer Karl Loewenstein to head the new Ghetto Security Department which included wardens, fire-brigade, criminal investigation group and, very importantly, a provision control group which started to handle the abuses against the elderly people in matter of food distribution. But that was only the beginning of Eichmann’s cautious action.
On 30 January 1943 Edelstein had been downgraded to First Deputy under the new Elder Paul Eppstein, a former Professor of Sociology who in 1933 did not leave for USA but started to work for the new Organisation of Jews in Germany in the emigration sector.
The Second Deputy Elder was Benjamin Murmelstein, who in 1939 was the only community rabbi - of 18 that had been in 1938 - still in Vienna with his flock and busy in managing the emigration of many people.
During the following seven months – from February to August 1943 there were no transports from Theresienstadt; indeed Eichmann and his aides were busy with the deportation of the Salonica Jews.
However Eichmann continued to follow the evolution of things in the Show Ghetto taking action according to events happening in other places. In May 1943, just after the repression of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Ghetto Police had been strongly reduced.
On 3 July 1943 Commandant Seidl was replaced by Anton Burger (who for some months stood in Salonika) and sent to take command of the Jewish Sections at the Bergen Belsen Camp where Salonika Jews holding Spanish passports and other Exchange Jews had been placed.
In August 1943 three important events occurred:
At the begin of September 1943 two transports with Jews of Bohemia-Moravia origin left Theresienstadt for Birkenau - no one knew that this was another name of Auschwitz- presented as a Family Camp from where postcards arrived. It seemed to be another Ghetto like Theresienstadt or so.
In October 1943 an event important event occurred: the arrival of the group of 460 Jews of Denmark captured by the Nazis while the others had been brought to safety in Sweden by the
Danish Resistance. The Danish group was granted a “preferred” accommodation. The Government and the King of that occupied country had been assured about a visit “at the right moment”. That visit could be delayed but not denied, which helped protect the Danish Jews.
Meanwhile, in November 1943 the SS found it necessary to check the list of Jews present and put Edelstein on arrest as responsible for falsifying the number of inmates in Theresienstadt.
In December 1943 a further 5000 Jews of Bohemia-Moravia origin – among them Edelstein – had to leave for the Birkenau Family Camp. In the same month the Berlin Delegate of International Red Cross – M. Roessel - “visited” those Family Camps and reported favourably.
In March 1944, just at the Jewish Festival of Purim, the group which left Theresienstadt in September 1943 died in the Gas Chamber. The second group which had left Theresienstadt in December could stay until May when many were murdered in Gas Chamber– Edelstein with his family was shot – while others were sent to other Camps.
At the end of December order came to start an Embellishment Action, which seemed a mockery but few realized that it was an opportunity to improve a bit the living conditions in Theresienstadt. Such an action required a new Commandant.
On 8 February Burger was sent to Athens to enforce deportation of the remaining Greek Jews and replaced in Theresienstadt by Karl Rahm, a former mechanic and amateur painter, the only member of the Eichmann staff capable of the supervision of the embellishment. For the Ghetto it was important to note that Rahm, coming from a working class background, was not such a fanatical Nazi than his two, “more educated”, predecessors Seidl and Burger. The difference is expressed by the joke “Uncle Rahm”, which has no other meaning.
In May 1944, in order to help on the overcrowding in the Ghetto, two transports left for Auschwitz. The hellish dilemma was: In order to set up an asylum for elderly persons the artisans were needed but how to show a foreign visitor an asylum with only few aged persons?
On 23 June 1944 at last the Danish Delegation visited Theresienstadt; there were also Swedish Red Cross officials and the Berlin Delegate of International Red Cross, Roessel, who had in December 1943 favourably reported about the “Birkenau Family Camp”. The Government of Denmark – country under Nazi occupation – expressed thanks for this visit.
After that visit Rahm spoke about an order to continue the embellishment as further visits of foreign delegations were foreseen; this seemed to be a good news. Furthermore, living conditions improved a bit.
But there were also the first clouds on horizon. A group of painters who had been caught to draw the reality of Theresienstadt were sent with their families to the nearby Little Fortress prison. In July there was an inquiry whether parachutists were hidden in the Ghetto; this seemed a nonsense as no one could know about the Group of Jewish Parachutists sent by the Jewish Agency (Sochnut) to Hungary and Slovakia where they were, obviously, captured and sentenced to death as spies
Some slight improvements of living conditions were withdrawn; a list of former officers had to be presented, pictures of all leading figures had to be painted, etc..
The film that was commissioned was one of the clouds on horizon and only a personal action of Hans Guenther, Head of the Prague “Office for the Jewish Problem in Bohemia-Moravia”. Needless to say, most of the shots were just staged. The film was titled : “The Fuehrer presents the Jews with a town”, a clear postwar nonsense: for it was unthinkable for a fanatical Nazi that the Fuehrer would present the Jews with a town.
As the film cameras rolled the clouds became darker and darker. At the middle of September the SS spoke about the need to make use of the Jewish working capabilities available at Theresienstadt for the Reich efforts. So a transport of 5000 men of working age for a destination in Germany was ordered; some protected categories, like WW1 officers holding distinctions, could be enlisted. So, the very large majority of men of working age had to leave.
For a better understanding the following events occurred outside the Ghetto should be considered:
On 27 September 1944, at Yom Kippur while the men enlisted for transports were waiting for the train, Eppstein was arrested, taken to the Little Fortress and murdered. The burden of Ghetto leadership had to be taken on by Murmelstein, rabbi and scholar.
On 2 October 1944 in the morning, Murmelstein was told first that no further transports would leave but two hours later an order for new transports came,. Murmelstein lost control of his nerve and started explaining that further transports were impossible. Commandant Rahm shouted: “No bargain here, get the hell out and wait!” After half an hour a decision was made: the “lists” would be drawn up by the SS.
Four hellish weeks followed. Lists of persons condemned for transports were issued. For each exemption request strong reasons had to be given, many had been refused according to strange criteria that we can only guess at today. At any rate, about 500 exemptions - without any substitution had been obtained.
At beginning of November 1944 the Ghetto was in a mess. Few men of working age; more women and many elderly people needing care. But there were about 300 “prominent persons” who still had to be available to be exhibited, furthermore , a Ghetto seen by foreign visitors was difficult to wind up.
So a strong cleaning campaign had to be started – and performed mainly by women – in view of a new “visit”. Cutting privileges and fighting corruption made it possible to grant more food, for the working people and for the care of the needy.
At middle of December 1944 order for a new embellishment action came and the necessary material (in the last months of WW2, when almost nothing was available in Germany) was granted.
But at the end of that month a transport of Slovakian Jews, and the first alarming notices about Auschwitz/Birkenau, reached Theresienstadt.
In February 1945 a group of 1200 persons could leave Therezienstadt for Switzerland as the former Swiss President J.M.Musy – requested for help by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of USA – had made good use of his contacts with Himmler on behalf of the last surviving Jews.
But some days after that departure for Switzerland Murmelstein had to tell the Commandant Rahm about the great concern for a strange work (without written designs, only oral instructions) for two buildings. Rahm replied that a warehouse safe against bombs had to be constructed but suddenly went to Prague, returned after 3 days with the order - which only SS General and State Minister Karl Hermann Frank had the power to issue – to stop the building of the Gas Chamber.
At March 5 1945 Eichmann inspected Theresienstadt and as a result twenty days later the Geneva German Consul informed the International Red Cross Committee that a visit at Theresienstadt was possible.
The visit of the Red Cross Delegation occurred on 6 April 1945 and as such was crucial for survival, Murmelstein at great personal risk, launched a cry for help: “the fate of Theresienstadt is of great concern for me”.
That cry for help had been duly understood and the Red Cross Delegates obtained, the same day, from State Minister SS General Karl Hermann Frank assurances for the Theresienstadt Ghetto.
On 21 April 1945 the Red Cross Delegate M. Paul Dunant informed Murmelstein and the Board of Elders for the protection of the Ghetto, but it was important to “keep calm and order”:
The same day the first transports – by train and by foot - from other Camps reached Theresienstadt, so the truth about Auschwitz and the Gas Chambers, became known, further transports followed.
During those days Eichmann ordered to gather about 300 prominents for a transport. The destination was told to be Switzerland but actually was the “Alpen Fortress”. Commandant Rahm accepted the remark of Murmelstein “all these professors and generals are too old, there is the risk to have a group of dead men at destination” and obeyed to the order of State Minister Frank and not to those of Eichmann, and the transport did not take place.
On 2 May 1945 Red Cross Delegate Paul Dunant put his office in Theresienstadt and at May 3rd and 4th had meetings with Murmelstein and the Board of Elders about the forthcoming handing over of power.
On 5 May 1945 Murmelstein handed his resignation to Commandant Rahm who left the same day, in the afternoon, obeying an order of State Minister Frank, to vacate Theresienstadt still wearing full SS -uniform and bearing weapons.
M. Paul Dunant had the responsibility of Theresienstadt for three days – North Bohemia remained under Nazi occupation until 11 May – but the Soviet Army reached the Ghetto and liberated it on 8 May 1945.
On 6 May 1945 Leo Baeck addressed a letter to Murmelstein expressing, on behalf of the Boards of Elders, thanks and appreciation for the work performed in extraordinary conditions and the action in favour of elderly people and children.
The Czech Government during June 1945 ordered the arrest of Murmelstein and some other associates charged of cooperation with the Nazis.
The Communists instigated, and often forced people to submit denunciations against Murmelstein. Persons who had been prevented from doing “business”, like sugar for cigarettes or so, were eager to launch absurd accusations.
On 3 December 1946 the Investigating Magistrate of People Court of Litomerice found all these charges to be baseless; Murmelstein had been able to prove his innocence and the State Attorney did not even submit request for trial.
Commandant Rahm had been captured, questioned and put on trial in April 1947; Murmelstein was heard as “reliable witness having been fully rehabilitated”. Rahm was found guilty of war crimes and was executed.
At time of the Eichmann Trial (1960/1961) whilst a few inmates were questioned Prosecutor Hausner never explained the reasons for not having called Murmelstein to the witness stand. So Eichmann was not questioned in more depth about Theresienstadt and therefore many questions will never be answered.
The Czech propaganda – not only the Communist one – presents Theresienstadt/Terezin as an event of the Nazi occupation of Bohemia-Moravia while it was, as already explained in introduction, part
of the Shoah.
1. The above page is the result of discussions the writer had had with Benjamin Murmelstein for exactly 40 – fourty – years duly considering historical data and knowledge about the Nazis and their attitude.
2. There is little proper literature about Theresienstadt/Terezin:
To learn more:
THERESIENSTADT. J.C.B. MOHR (PAUL SIEBECK) Tuebingen -.Germany.
2nd Edition 1960
There is also an English edition and a revised German edition of 2005.
DIE VERHEIMLICHTE WAHRHEIT, .J.C.B. MOHR (PAUL SIBECK)
Tuebingen, Germany; 1958
A collection of documents.
GHETTO THERESIENSTADT, in English; London 1953.
E.MAKAROVA, S.MAKAROV, V.KUPERMAN.
UNIVERSITY OVER THE ABYSS – VERBA PUBLISHERS LTD
2nd Edition, Jerusalem 2004.
TEREZIN, IL GHETTO MODELLO DI EICHMANN.
CAPPELLI EDITORE; Bologna, 1961 – In Italian; a German editino in work.
Copyright Wolf Murmelstein H.E.A.R.T 2007
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