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Theresienstadt: The "Model" Ghetto


Ghetto Theresienstadt has long been remembered for its culture, its famous prisoners, and its visit by Red Cross officials. What many don't know is that within this serene facade lay a real concentration camp. With nearly sixty thousand Jews inhabiting an area originally designed for only seven thousand -- extremely close quarters, disease, and lack of food were serious concerns. But in many ways, life, and death, within Theresienstadt became focused on the frequent transports to Auschwitz.

The Beginnings

By 1941, conditions for Czech Jews were growing worse. The Nazis were in the process of creating a plan of how to treat and how to deal with Czechs and Czech-Jews. The Czech-Jewish community had already felt pangs of loss and disunion since several transports had already been sent East. Jakob Edelstein, a prominent member of the Czech-Jewish community, believed that it would be better for his community to be concentrated locally rather than sent to the East.

At the same time, the Nazis were facing two dilemmas. The first dilemma was what to do with the prominent Jews that were being carefully watched and looked after by Aryans. Since most Jews were sent on transports under the pretension of "work," the second dilemma was how could the Nazis peacefully transport the elderly Jewish generation.

Though Edelstein had hoped that the ghetto would be located in a section of Prague, the Nazis chose the garrison town of Terezin.

Terezin is located approximately ninety miles north of Prague and just south of Litomerice. The town was originally built in 1780 by Emperor Joseph II of Austria and named after his mother, Empress Maria Theresa. Terezin consisted of the Big Fortress and the Small Fortress. The Big Fortress was surrounded by ramparts and contained barracks. However, Terezin had not been used as a fortress since 1882; Terezin had become a garrison town that remained virtually the same, almost entirely separated from the rest of the countryside. The Small Fortress was used as a prison for dangerous criminals.

Terezin changed dramatically when the Nazis renamed it Theresienstadt and sent the first Jewish transports there in November 1941.

Initial Conditions

The Nazis sent approximately 1300 Jewish men on two transports to Theresienstadt on November 24 and December 4, 1941. These workers made up the Aufbaukommando (construction detail), later known in the camp as AK1 and AK2. These men were sent to transform the garrison town into a camp for Jews. The largest and most serious problem these work groups faced was metamorphosing a town that in 1940 held approximately 7,000 residents into a concentration camp which needed to hold about 35,000 to 60,000 people. Besides the lack of housing, bathrooms were scarce, water was severely limited and contaminated, and the town lacked sufficient electricity.

To solve these problems, to enact German orders, and coordinate the day to day affairs of the ghetto, the Nazis appointed Jakob Edelstein as the Judenälteste (Elder of the Jews) and established a Judenrat (Jewish Council).

As the Jewish work groups transformed Theresienstadt, the population of Theresienstadt watched on. Though a few residents attempted to give the Jews assistance in small ways, the mere presence of Czech citizens in the town increased the restrictions on Jews' mobility. There would soon come a day when the Theresienstadt residents would be evacuated and the Jews would be isolated and completely dependent on the Germans.

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