In 1941 the Nazis established a ghetto in Theresienstadt (Terezin), a garrison town in Northwestern Czechoslovakia, where they interned the Jews of Bohemia and Moravia, elderly Jews and persons of “special merit” in the Reich, and several thousand Jews from the Netherlands and Denmark. Although in practice the ghetto, run by the SS, served as a transit camp for Jews en route to extermination camps, it was also presented as a “model Jewish settlement” for propaganda purposes.
Internal life in Theresienstadt was administered by the Ältestenrat (Judenrat), headed by Jacob Edelstein. Despite severe congestion, food shortages and compulsory labor, the extensive educational and cultural activities in the ghetto reflected the prisoners’ will to live and their need for distraction from their plight.
When reports about the death camps began to emerge at the end of 1943, the Nazis decided to present Theresienstadt to an investigative commission of the International Red Cross. In preparation for the commission’s visit more deportations to Auschwitz were carried out in order to reduce the overcrowding in the ghetto. Fake stores, a coffee house, bank, school, kindergartens and the like were opened and flower gardens were planted throughout the ghetto. The commission arrived in the ghetto on June 23, 1944. Their meetings with prisoners were meticulously planned beforehand. After the visit the Nazis produced a propaganda film about the new life of the Jews under the auspices of the Third Reich. After finishing filming, most of the actors in the film, including almost all of the independent leadership and most of the children in the ghetto, were sent to the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The appalling overcrowding, sanitary conditions and malnourishment led to the spread of diseases amongst the population of the ghetto. In 1942, 15,891 people died in Theresienstadt, half of the ghetto’s population. More than 155,000 Jews passed through Theresienstadt until it was liberated on May 8, 1945; 35,440 perished in the ghetto and 88,000 were deported to be murdered.
A 20 Krone banknote issued in the Theresienstadt ghetto