Scrapbookpages Blog

May 13, 2010

Gas chamber at Theresienstadt…

A few years ago, I was shocked to hear newsman Sandor Vanocur say, in a very serious tone, on a TV program, that there was a gas chamber at Theresienstadt.  He didn’t give any details, just moved on to the next subject, after dropping that bombshell. Theresienstadt is an old fortified town in what is now the Czech Republic; the Czechs have renamed it Terezin. During World War II, Theresienstadt was turned into a Nazi concentration camp for elderly and prominent Jews, including musicians and artists.

I did some research and learned that it was really true: Theresienstadt did have a gas chamber, but according to Martin Gilbert, a British Holocaust historian, the gas chamber was never “activated.”

There were rumors circulating in all of the major Nazi concentration camps toward the end of the war that Hitler had given the order for all the inmates to be killed before the arrival of the Soviet or American soldiers. This was believed to be the purpose for building a gas chamber at Theresienstadt in 1945 at the tail end of the war.

In the northwest section of the old garrison town of Theresienstadt, there is a building, called the Bauhof by the Nazis, that was used for craft workshops. It is the yellow building shown in the photograph below. To the right you can see part of the old fortifications; the road shown in the photograph goes through an opening in the fortifications here.

Bauhof where workshops were located near Litomerice gate

According to the Ghetto Museum at Theresienstadt, a homicidal gas chamber was built in 1945 in a corridor of the town’s fortifications wall near the Litomerice gate, which is right by the Bauhof building, shown in the photograph above. (Click here to see a map of the ghetto. The Bauhof building is number 14 on the map.)

The Theresienstadt homicidal gas chamber is directly across from the Jäger (Hunter) barracks, an identical building on the opposite side of the town, which was used as a disinfection station where the prisoners and their clothing were deloused. The prisoners were disinfected by being completely submerged in a tub containing a chemical which would kill the lice on their bodies. At the same time, their clothing was disinfected by hot steam, and they would have to put their clothes back on while they were still wet and then return to their barracks. The oldest inmates of the ghetto were housed in the Jäger barracks so they wouldn’t get chilled by walking through the cold in wet clothes. Behind the Jäger barracks is the Südberg or South Hill where a soccer field was built for the inmates.

The ghetto inmates became aware of the Theresienstadt homicidal gas chamber and were planning to blow it up, but the war ended just in time to save the Theresienstadt Jews from being gassed right in the ghetto.

The photograph below shows the fortifications on either side of the Litomerice gate on the northwest side of Theresienstadt. When Theresienstadt was a ghetto for the Jews, this road was closed off and there was no traffic through the garrison town.

The Litomerice gate is an opening between the fortification walls

By my calculation, the Theresienstadt gas chamber was located in the part of the fortifications shown in the background of the photo above, since this is the fortification section that is the closest to the Bauhof workshops.  The gas chamber was not shown on the tour that I took at Theresienstadt in 2000 and there was no sign that marked it.

On May 3, 1945, Theresienstadt was turned over to the Red Cross by Commandant Karl Rahm. According to Martin Gilbert in his book Holocaust Journey, Commandant Karl Rahm told the Red Cross that he had received orders from Berlin to kill all the inmates in the ghetto before the Russians arrived, but he had disobeyed the order. Because of this, Gilbert wrote, Rahm was allowed to leave the camp unmolested on the day before the Russians arrived on May 8, 1945. He was later captured and tried in a Special People’s Court in nearby Litomerice; he was held in the Small Fortress until he was executed in 1947.

According to information in a Theresienstadt guidebook, the clothing was disinfected by steam in an old brewery, which is shown in the photo below.

Old brewery where clothing was disinfected with steam

Apparently, the Germans did not use Zyklon-B to disinfect the clothing at Theresienstadt.  Or did they finally decide to use Zyklon-B in the last days of the war when a typhus epidemic broke out in the camp?  Did they set up disinfection chambers in the old fortifications?  The German word for a disinfection chamber, where clothing is deloused with Zyklon-B, is Gaskammer, which means gas chamber.  Is this the gas chamber that the prisoners heard about?  I don’t know, but it’s possible.