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December 14, 2010

The children of the Theresienstadt ghetto

Filed under: Holocaust — Tags: , , — furtherglory @ 9:18 am

As every student of the Holocaust knows, there were 1.5 million children who were killed by the Nazis.  As Heinrich Himmler famously said, in his second speech at Poznan on Oct. 6, 1943: “I did not consider myself justified to exterminate the men – that is, to kill them or have them killed – and allow the avengers of our sons and grandsons in the form of their children to grow up.”  Actually, he said this in German: “Ich hielt mich nämlich nicht für berechtigt, die Männer auszurotten- sprich also, umzubringen oder umbringen zu lassen – und die Rächer in Gestalt der Kinder für unsere Söhne und Enkel groß werden zu lassen.”

So we know what Himmler was planning all along.  In spite of this, Jewish children were sent to the Theresienstadt ghetto and treated very well for a year or two before they were shipped off to the Auschwitz II camp, known as Birkenau.  The Czech prisoners from Theresienstadt were allowed to live for another six months at Birkenau, in a special “family camp,” where families were allowed to live together; they were allowed to wear their own clothes and they were treated as privileged prisoners before being sent to the gas chamber.

The old walled fort which became the Theresienstadt ghetto

Theresienstadt was called a “concentration camp” by the Nazis, but it is usually referred to today as a “ghetto.”  It was formerly an old military fort that was like a small town.  Today, it is an actual town, called Terezin, where people live.

Theresienstadt was the designated site for the deportation of Jewish children from the orphanages in the Greater German Reich. Children were also sent to the ghetto with their parents or other relatives. Approximately 10,000 children passed through the Theresienstadt ghetto.

The drawings and paintings, produced by these children in their art classes at Theresienstadt, are known the world over. Some of their artwork hangs at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. Many other Holocaust museums display their work also. The Jewish Museum in Prague has a collection of 4,000 pieces of children’s art from Theresienstadt.

Barracks for young Jewish girls at Theresienstadt

Building L410, shown in the photo above, is located on Hauptstrasse, the main street of Theresienstadt. This was the barracks for Jewish orphan girls from 8 to 16 years old. The older girls, aged 14 to 16, had to work during the day, but they took  art classes at night. The building also had a basement where concert practice took place. Mrs. Friedl Dicker-Brandejsova gave art lessons to the young girls.

The children were encouraged to express their feelings in their artwork. Some of the drawings that have been preserved show practice sheets where the children were obviously being taught the various elements of drawing. The children depicted their surroundings in the ghetto in their drawings and watercolors, but they also painted what they remembered from their world before they were deported to Theresienstadt.

Remarkably, the drawings of the children were not censored by the Nazis, who allowed the children the freedom to express themselves on paper. It is even more remarkable that the Nazis carefully preserved the artwork, after the children were deported to the Birkenau death camp.

Approximately 8,000 children, both boys and girls, were deported to other camps from Theresienstadt.  Their paintings, which now hang all over the world, are a unique memorial to the innocent children of the Holocaust.

First view of the Theresienstadt ghetto from a tour bus

The first view of Theresienstadt, as seen from the tour buses that come from Prague, is shown in the photo above.  The park in the foreground is the Stadtpark and the building in the background is the Ghetto Museum, which is located at the northwest end of Hauptstrasse. The Museum was dedicated on October 17, 1991, the 50ieth anniversary of Nazi’s decision to deport the Jews from the Greater German Reich to the Theresienstadt ghetto.

Before the Nazis decided in October 1941 to turn the old military garrison town of Theresienstadt into a concentration camp, the museum building was being used for a school. During the period when Theresienstadt was a camp for Jews, the museum building was originally known as L417; it was used to house boys between 10 and 15 years old.

Barracks for young boys at Theresienstadt is now a Museum

When I visited the Museum, I purchased a book entitled “Ghetto Museum Terezin” written by PhDr. Vojtech, CSc, Ludmila Chladkova, and PhDr. Erik Polak, CSc. According to this book, the boys’ barracks in L417, which is now the Ghetto Museum, had its own self-administration, which was the so-called SKID. The boys’ barracks was under the supervision of Professor Valtr Eisinge, who was transported in September 1944 to Auschwitz, where he died.

The boys’ barracks had an emblem and an anthem.  The boys were allowed to publish their own newsletter, called Vedem, for almost two years.  This publication was like a children’s magazine, which contained fiction and poetry, written by the boys, as well as news from the ghetto.

The former boys’ barracks, now the Ghetto Museum, has a courtyard which was formerly the playground for the boys; it is now a Memorial to the Children of Theresienstadt. The photograph below shows a statue by Italian artist Emilio Greco and a Star of David which have been placed there. On the walls in the background are memorial plaques; the statue of a naked woman is shown in close-up in the second photograph below in the courtyard of the former boys’ barracks.

Courtyard of the Ghetto Museum which was formerly the boys’ barracks

Close-up of statue in courtyard of Ghetto Museum

If any of the young boys, who lived in the building which is now the Ghetto Museum, are still alive, they will love the current artwork in the courtyard where they used to play.  The Nazis would never have allowed such artwork in a Memorial to Children.

Former barrack for infants at Theresienstadt

At the corner of Rathausgasse and Langestrasse I photographed the building, shown above, that is currently the post office in Terezin, but in the former ghetto, it was a home for infants. It also housed a pre-school and a kindergarten.

Some books say there were 207 babies born in the Theresienstadt ghetto, but others say it was 275. All adults up to age 60, and young people over the age of 14, had to work in Theresienstadt, so the infants and small children were taken care of, by some of the prisoners, in the building shown in the photo above, and returned to their mothers in the evening.

The building for the babies also had space for theater performances in the evening. In addition, there was a bakery and the kitchen which supplied the food for the Jews who lived there. To the right of the post office is the current town hall, which is barely visible in the photo above.

Across Langestrasse, to the west of the current Post Office shown in the photograph above, is a block of buildings which were used as homes for Jewish children in the former ghetto. Some of the buildings in this block were also used for theater and cultural performances and building L216 in this block was the children’s library.

One of the barracks buildings for young children at Theresienstadt

Another building on Langestrasse, which faces the market square on the west side of the square, is today the Culture House of Terezin, shown in the photograph below. During the ghetto days, there was a theater here where live performances were given. It was also where the ghetto guard was housed. This was a unit of young male inmates, organized by the Nazis to keep order in the ghetto. Most of them were eventually sent on the transports to the death camps, and they were replaced by 100 Jewish men over forty who made up the new ghetto guard.  (Did you catch that?  The young men were sent to death camps to be killed, while the older men were allowed to live.)

Building where the Jewish ghetto guards lived at Theresienstadt

The building next to the Ghettowache on Langestrasse, across from the market square, is the Sapper barracks where older Jewish prisoners were housed. The building is shown in the photograph below. There was also an auxiliary hospital here for patients with heart disease and tuberculosis. There were plenty of inmates to staff this hospital, as one out of 7 of the adult males in the ghetto was a doctor. Cultural programs and lectures were given here as well and there was a synagogue in the attic. Today this building is the Social Care Home of Terezin.

A Synagogue was in the attic of this building

After seeing these photos, the reader might be confused.  Why were the Jewish children treated so well before they were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau to be killed?  This was all part of the diabolical plan of the Nazis.  The purpose was to fool the public, so that their real plan of genocide would not be suspected.

In case you think I’m writing facetiously, which I have been known to do in the past, here is a quote from another blog post that says essentially the same thing.

During World War II, prisoners of the Theresienstadt ghetto — used as a transit camp for Auschwitz — were given space and time dedicated to pursuing the arts.  For the German government, it was a way to hide their atrocities from the rest of the world.  For the prisoners, it was an outlet to deal with the extraordinary, horrible events that had enveloped the world.

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