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Terezin Ghetto

Terezin (in Czech, the Germans called it Theresienstadt) is a fortified city in the North West of Czechoslovakia. From November 1941 elderly Jews from Bohemia and Moravia, together with prominent Jews with special privileges from Czechoslovakia, Germany and some western European countries, were sent to Terezin. From there they were to be deported to the death camps.

During the first few months the conditions in the ghetto were similar to those in most of the Nazi concentration camps. In January 1942 the deportations to the death camps began with 2,000 Jews sent to Riga. Now the threat of deportation constantly hung over the ghetto. Later there were some improvements in the living conditions and, with the removal of the non-Jewish population by July 1942, Terezin became almost a free society within its confines. Then thousands of deportees began to arrive from Germany and Austria, mostly elderly and, in many cases, decorated for valour in World War I.

In September 1942 the population of the ghetto reached its peak - 53,000 inhabitants in an area of 115,000 square meters. From October there were continual deportations to the death camps of Treblinka and Auschwitz. In 1944, when these deportations ended, there were only some 11,000 Jews remaining in the ghetto.

The crowded conditions, poor sanitation and appalling nutrition caused severe outbreaks of disease and epidemics. The mortality rate was extremely high, although, as time went by, the ghetto health council managed to set up hospitals and to begin inoculations and testing for early diagnosis of diseases. This led to a drop in the death rate.

On 3 May 1945, three days before the ghetto was liberated by the Red Army, the Nazis handed over control of the ghetto to the Red Cross. The last Jews left Terezin on 17 August 1945.

Life within the ghetto was run by the council of elders, the Altestenrat, elected from among the Jewish leadership. The ghetto inmates included many scholars, artists and writers, who organized intensive cultural activities - orchestras, opera, theatre, light entertainment and satire. There were lectures and study groups and a library of some 60,000 volumes. Considerable attention was given to Judaism and Jewish studies.

The Nazis exploited this cultural activity for their own purposes. A number of well-known artists were put to work in the graphics and technical drawing department of the camp, including Leo Haas, Otto Ungar, Ferdinand Bloch and Bedrich Fritta.

This work enabled those employed there to see other parts of the ghetto. They used this opportunity to make sketches of ghetto life. This had to be done under cover, in an attic or amidst a thick throng of people, so that the SS would not discover them. The drawings depict many topics - the search for food, people waiting to be deported, inhabitants being moved from one building to another, streets and buildings, as well as portraits of inmates, the old, the sick, the dying and the dead. Haas, Fritta and Ungar used to meet frequently at night to work on their drawings, which resulted in a large collection of drawings and paintings depicting many aspects of life in Terezin.

At the end of 1943, when rumors were beginning to spread about the death camps, the Germans decided to open Theresienstadt to the investigative committee of the International Red Cross. Beforehand there were further deportations to Auschwitz, so that the overcrowding was reduced. Fake stores, cafes, kindergartens, schools, and a bank were set up and flower beds sprung up all over the town. In order to ensure that the truth would not be revealed, the Nazis began to hunt through the artists' work and materials in the technical department. They had hidden their drawings in various places in the ghetto. Fritta's pictures were buried underground in a metal box; Ungar concealed his drawings in a niche that he had hollowed out of the wall, while Haas hid his works in the attic. The Nazis also searched the premises of the art dealer Leo Strauss, who, because of his "Aryan" family and close connections with the Czech police in the ghetto, managed to smuggle pictures documenting life in Terezin beyond the borders of the Reich - probably to Switzerland. He hoped that they might rouse public opinion, or, at least, document the events, even if the artists themselves did not survive.

A few days before the Red Cross visit the artists were warned by a colleague in the technical department who was a member of the Altestenrat, that they would be taken for interrogation the next day. Ungar, Fritta, Haas and Bloch were summoned to the Nazi headquarters, where they were interrogated by Adolf Eichmann. The Nazis wanted to find out who had produced the smuggled drawings and who their outside contacts were. The artists were then taken to an underground cell, where they found Strauss, who had been arrested a few days earlier. They kept their silence and, after severe interrogation, were transferred to the Gestapo prison in the "Small Fortress" (Kleine Festung). Their families were also brought there.

On 23 July 1944 the Red Cross committee made their inspection. Afterwards the Nazis made a propaganda film on the new life of the Jews under the Third Reich. Once the film was made, most of the participants, included many of the Jewish leaders and the children, were sent to the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

The artists of Terezin - including Malva Schalek, Amalie Seckbach, Charlotte Buresova, Leo Haas and Karel Fleischmann - left extensive documentation of life in the ghetto. Their works reveal the rich artistic life of the ghetto, but they also document the endless queues for food, the crowding and the deportations. They testify to the contradictory facets of the "model camp" of Terezin.

(Dr Pnina Rosenberg)