October 2, 2008
Propaganda film disguised horrors of Terezin
The film is grainy and in black-and-white. It jumps about, slowing down at odd moments and growing dim occasionally. But it's the people that hold your attention.
They walk about, wearing fashionable clothes, nodding a stiff hello when they spot a friend. They watch a soccer match, sit briefly outside a small cafe, listen to a concert.
It's all a sham, of course, part of a bogus documentary produced by the Nazis during World War II at Theresienstadt, the concentration camp an hour north of Prague in what was then Czechoslovakia. And it's one of the reasons you should visit.
The Holocaust continues to sound a melancholy note in the major cities of the region. Warsaw, Krakow, Budapest and Prague are remarkable, warm and charming, filled with cobblestone streets and intimate cafes, grand boulevards and monuments, fine art and fine food.
But in each of these cities is a reminder of the Jews who were murdered during World War II, initially forced into ghettos, eventually transported to death camps across the region.
In Prague, it's Josefov, the Jewish quarter, where the Holocaust waits. It's remembered in one of the six synagogues there, the Pinkas shul. Its walls are inscribed with the names of the 77,297 victims of the Nazis from Bohemia and Moravia. Tourists shuffle through the structure in silence, many taken with the artistic merits of the memorial, most horrified by the sheer numbers that fill the space.
But it's in the nearby city of Terezin that one of the most unique, if bizarre stories of the period can be found. And it's all captured in the grainy film produced by the Nazis.
The city -- created in the 18th century and named for Maria Theresa of Austria -- was taken over by the Gestapo in 1940, renamed Theresienstadt, and quickly turned into a ghetto. Jews from Czechoslovakia, Germany, Austria and Holland were transported to the site and its population soared. The city that had been home for 7,000 residents before the war would at one point hold 60,000 inmates.
Men and women were separated, housed in barracks packed with bunks that were three-tiers high. There was little food, and even less medicine. Sanitation was poor. Rats, lice, flies and fleas were part of daily life. So, too, death.
Nearly 150,000 Jews spent time at Theresienstadt. Only 17,247 survived the war. The large number of dead became such a problem that a crematorium was built in 1942 to deal with the corpses. Yet, the Nazis portrayed the ghetto as a model Jewish settlement.
The charade was tested -- and refined -- in the summer of 1944 when a commission of Red Cross officials were allowed to visit the camp to make sure that inmates at Theresienstadt were living under humane conditions. The ruse became necessary after Jews from Denmark were sent to the camp the previous winter and Red Cross officials in Denmark and Sweden began making inquiries about their whereabouts and health.
Over the next several months, the camp was gussied-up in certain key areas. Some living space was enlarged and painted. Drapes were hung and furniture added. Grass and flowers were planted. A playground and sports field were built. And a month before the orchestrated visit, 7,500 inmates -- mostly orphans and the sick -- were sent to Auschwitz and their deaths so Theresienstadt would appear less crowded.
An elaborate script was created that would have groups of inmates strolling along a central street, window-shopping; others would be taking part in a soccer match, while yet others would be chatting and singing as they headed off to work.
On June 23, 1944, the Nazis had everything in place as the commission was escorted through the camp. The inmates played their parts to perfection, knowing they had little choice but to cooperate. Camp officials were so happy with the result, they decided to put it all down on film and use the movie for propaganda purposes.
What remains today is a series of black-and-white vignettes -- inmates at a concert; inmates sitting outside a cafe; inmates cheering a soccer match. The actors smile occasionally for the camera, hiding the hideous truth of the Holocaust from view. But look closely enough and you can see the future in their faces.
And it's bleak.
Only a few months after the commission reported that inmates at Theresienstadt were being treated fairly, transports to Auschwitz picked up speed. Over the last weeks of September and early October, the camp was nearly emptied. Only 400 inmates remained at the beginning of 1945.
By the time the International Red Cross took charge of the camp the following May, the damage had already been done. More than 30,000 inmates had died in the camp of disease, starvation and abuse. Nearly three times that number had been shipped off to the Nazi killing factories in the east.