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March 20, 2010

Theresienstadt survivor tells British school children about Red Cross visit

Theresienstadt is a former military fort in what is now the Czech Republic; during World War II, the Nazis turned it into a concentration camp for the prominent Jews, including many artists and musicians. Theresienstadt is now known as Terezin.

Theresienstadt is famous for die Verschönerung, the beautification program in which the Nazis cleaned up the ghetto in preparation for a visit on June 23, 1944 by two Swiss delegates of the International Red Cross and two representatives of the government of Denmark.

The Red Cross inspection of Theresienstadt had been demanded by the Danish King, Christian X, because the government of Denmark was anxious to know about the conditions of the ghetto since 466 Danish Jews had been sent there, beginning on October 5, 1943. Because of pressure brought to bear on the Germans by the Danish government, the Danish Jews received preferential treatment in the ghetto. They were sent back to Denmark on April 15, 1945, under the supervision of the Red Cross, three weeks before the ghetto was liberated by Soviet troops on May 8, 1945. Thus they escaped the typhus epidemic which devastated Theresienstadt in the last weeks of the war.

Gate into Theresienstadt ghetto, October 2000

A recent article in a British newspaper told about a talk given by Holocaust survivor Joanna Millen to 9th grade students at Mirfield Free Grammar School in England. Millen was born in Berlin in 1942 and in 1943, she and her mother were sent to Theresienstadt.  When her mother died of tuberculosis in 1944, Millen was a two-year-old orphan; she was taken care of by the women in the camp.

Regarding Joanna Millen’s talk to the school children, Chris Jones, a history teacher at the school, told the newspaper reporter:  “The thing that shocked the pupils the most was when Joanna told them about when the Red Cross came to visit the camp she was in, to check it was OK and humane. Of course, it wasn’t, but it was all covered up by the Nazis.”

Building L410 for orphan girls at Theresienstadt

Building for orphan babies at Theresienstadt

The Nazis began sending all Jews, under their control,  to concentration camps in February 1942.  On December 18, 1942, twelve allied countries made a formal complaint about the way the Nazis were treating the Jews. But even before this complaint was made, the Nazis had already turned the Theresienstadt ghetto into a propaganda tool to fool the rest of the world about their plans to exterminate all the Jews in Europe.

On Sept. 13, 1942, the Nazis had opened shops in Theresienstadt where the Jews could buy second-hand clothing and other goods. Eventually 8 such shops were opened. On Dec. 8, 1942, the Nazis had opened a cafe, facing the main square in Theresienstadt, where the Jewish inmates could meet to socialize and listen to music. On May 12, 1943, a bank was opened in Theresienstadt and camp money was printed to pay the Jews for their labor in the ghetto factories. This money could be used at the ghetto cafe or to buy items at the ghetto shops. In order to give the impression to the outside world that Theresienstadt was a regular town and not a concentration camp, the Nazis decided in July 1943 to change the numbers and letters on the streets and buildings to names, so that any friends or relatives sending mail to the camp post office would not suspect anything. The camp name “Ghetto Theresienstadt” was changed to “Jewish Settlement Theresienstadt.”

Antique Store is located where ghetto Cafe used to be

The photograph above shows Neuegasse, the street where the Cafe and ghetto shops in Theresienstadt were located. On the left is the building where there was a store in which the prisoners could buy used clothing with camp money and the building on the right is where the Cafe was located. These buildings face the town square.

During World War II, the Nazis  took advantage of Red Cross inspections to cover up their atrocities. The Nazis allowed the Red Cross to visit all their camps, even Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Red Cross inspectors failed to notice the gas chambers.  Even before the famous Red Cross visit to Theresienstadt on June 23, 1944, the Germans had been honoring the 1929 Geneva Convention which required them to allow the Red Cross to provide packages to the concentration camps.

The Red Cross was aware of the Nazi concentration camps from the very beginning of World War II,  and they began sending packages to the inmates of the major camps, starting in August 1942; by February 1943 the Red Cross was sending packages to all the Nazi concentration camps.

From the Autumn of 1943 to May 1945, the Red Cross distributed 1,112,000 packages containing 4,500 tons of food to the Nazi concentration camps, including the Theresienstadt ghetto and the Auschwitz death camp. In addition, the Nazis allowed packages to be sent to the concentration camp prisoners from friends and relatives outside the camps.

In recent years, the International Red Cross has been severely criticized for giving the Nazis good reports after their inspections; they even praised the Nazis for their diligence in delivering the Red Cross packages despite the hardships of the war.

The Soviet Union did not allow the Red Cross in any of their gulags or camps during World War II  because they had not signed the 1929 Geneva convention and they were not required to open their gulags (concentration camps) or Prisoner of War camps for inspection.

After World War II ended, General Dwight Eisenhower signed a one-sentence order on August 4, 1945 which read “Effective immediately all members of the German forces held in US custody in the American zone of occupation in GERMANY will be considered as disarmed enemy forces and not as having the status of prisoners of war.” The DEF status meant that the German soldiers who had surrendered would not be entitled to protection under the Geneva convention: no Red Cross inspections were allowed in the US prison camps after the war and Red Cross parcels for the defeated Germans were banned by the US War Department. German civilians were forbidden to send packages to the German Disarmed Enemy Forces, and Red Cross packages, that were sent to the prisoners,  were returned by the Americans.

In sharp contrast to the policies of the Soviet Union and America, the Nazis took full advantage of the Red Cross for propaganda purposes during World War II.  In the Spring of 1944, the Nazis began extensive improvements to the Theresienstadt ghetto in preparation for the Red Cross visit. In their mission to impress the IRC delegates, the Nazis outdid themselves, and after the beautification project was completed, they were so proud of their handiwork that they made a movie of Theresienstadt entitled “Der Führer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt” or “The Leader (Hitler) gives the Jews a town as a gift.”

Before the Red Cross visit, the town square in Theresienstadt had been fenced off and a large circus tent was erected there in May 1943. Inside the tent, over 1,000 ghetto Jews did factory work in the Kistenproduktion, which was the making of boxes. After the Red Cross requested an inspection, factory production was stopped by the end of 1943, and in the Spring of 1944 the fence and the tent were removed and grass and flowers were planted in the square. A music pavilion was built on the south side of the square, just across from the camp cafe. The cafe and the camp shops were improved for the inspection.

A playground was built for the children in the Stadt park, across from the present Ghetto Museum building. The most beautiful park in the town, Brunnen Park, was made public and the Jews were now allowed to use all four of the parks in the ghetto.

On the outskirts of the town, the Sokol building, formerly used to house Jews who were suffering from encephalitis, was changed into a social club for cultural events with a library for the use of the Jews and a Synagogue. A Columbarium to hold the ashes of the Jews who died in the camp was built near the crematorium and tombstones were placed on the graves in the cemetery. The beautiful 18th century barracks buildings were refurbished and improved inside and out.

Bodenbach barracks aka Podmokly barracks

With Theresienstadt now beautified, the next step was to relieve the overcrowding in the ghetto so that the IRC would not realize the actual inhumane living conditions there. In September 1943, December 1943 and May 1944, just before the scheduled visit, there was a total of seven transports on which 17,517 Jews were sent to the death camp at Auschwitz.

The Red Cross inspection of the camp lasted for six hours but the cultural events went on for a week. During the week of the inspection, there were numerous performances of the children’s opera called Brundibar in the new cultural hall in the Sokol building.

A jazz band, called the Ghetto Swingers, played in the music pavilion in the square. This was a real concession by the Nazis since they had banned jazz or swing music in Germany. Hitler regarded swing as “degenerate” music because two of the leading musicians, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, were Jewish.

On March 5, 1945, Adolf Eichmann visited Theresienstadt to check out the camp before the next Red Cross visit which was scheduled for April 6, 1945. By then, there was complete chaos in Europe in the final days of the war; Theresienstadt had become shabby again because most of the inmates were elderly people or young children who were not able to work. Most of the able-bodied Jews had been sent on the transports to the death camp at Auschwitz, where there were also factories in which the Jews were being put to work for the German war effort. Eichmann ordered the town to be cleaned up again, and the ghetto passed the second Red Cross inspection with a good report.

Jewish synagogue was in this building at Theresienstadt

Even school kids know that it’s not nice to fool people; no wonder these 9th graders in England were shocked by the Nazis cleaning up Theresienstadt  to cover up what it was really like in the concentration camps.


  1. […] Most people know about the famous visit by the Red Cross to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in June 1944 where the Nazis fooled Red Cross representatives into thinking that the prisoners were being treated well.  You can read about it on my previous blog post here. […]

    Pingback by Nazis set up a Family Camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau to fool the Red Cross | Scrapbookpages Blog — February 25, 2013 @ 8:49 am

  2. wow,,,and i thought the Nazis were worse than Abu-Gharib….i was wrong….HoloHoax not holocaust

    Comment by psysword — April 11, 2011 @ 7:05 pm

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