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May 20, 2012

The son of Dr. Benjamin Murmelstein defends his father’s reputation in a new essay

Filed under: Holocaust — Tags: , , , — furtherglory @ 2:20 pm

Several days ago, I received a new essay, written by Dr. Wolf Murmelstein, which I have put up on my website here. Dr. Wolf Murmelstein is defending his father against the slander of Vienna Jewish Community Secretary General Raimund Fastenbauer [who] thought it right to speak of Benjamin Murmelstein as a “Collaborateur” called “Murmelschwein.”

Gate into the walled town of Theresienstadt which became a concentration camp during World War II

To make a long story short, Dr. Benjamin Murmelstein was the last Jewish Elder of the Theresienstadt concentration camp.  He was arrested in June 1945 and accused of collaborating with the Nazis, but after a pre-trial investigation, the charge was dropped. In December 1946, after eighteen months of investigation, the prosecutor had not found enough evidence for the case and Murmelstein was released.

In 1947, Murmelstein was a witness in the trial of Karl Rahm, the last Commandant of Theresienstadt, who was convicted of Crimes against Humanity and executed.

This quote from Dr. Wolf Murmelstein’s essay is the most interesting part, as far as I am concerned:

H.G. Adler, in his very important history of Theresienstadt acknowledged that, in November and December 1944, there were many amazing improvements of conditions but failed to mention how those were due to the strong action of Benjamin Murmelstein.

It had been established in the People’s Court that Benjamin Murmelstein had the first alarming information about things going on when the first group of Slovakian Jews reached Theresienstadt at end of December 1944. So he could fully evaluate the danger connected to a strange building project as the work had to be done only following oral instructions without any written schemes and drawings.


Benjamin Murmelstein – after having given instructions in the event that he might be arrested – faced the Commander, reporting that inmates were startled and a mass escape would be difficult to avoid. Commander Rahm replied that he was following instructions to set up bombproof stores for the provisions (a version he held even when on trial in People’s Court in 1947!) and the Jews had to work instead gathering on the main square. But: the following day he left for Prague, returning after three days with the order to stop that work.

Such an order could be given only by SS General K.H. Frank High SS and Police Commander and Reich Minister for the Bohemia-Moravia Protectorate. Indeed Frank considered the Ghetto a good trump card in order to reach a deal with Allied Commanders.

After an order from Himmler, the Auschwitz Gas Chambers had ceased the murder of Jews. Eichmann wanted to go on with the killing and, like some other Lager Commander, he thought to set up his own Gas Chamber. This fact, which proves Eichmann’s own wide power, never had been cleared.

It is very clear, in the quote above, that Dr. Wolf Murmelstein is writing about a Gas Chamber, that was being built in Theresienstadt in the last days of World War II, because Adolf Eichmann wanted to continue the killing of the Jews after the gassing had stopped in Auschwitz-Birkenau in November 1944.  The inmates were “startled” by this new development and Dr. Benjamin Murmelstein took it upon himself to save the inmates from a mass slaughter in case of an attempted mass escape.

I previously blogged about the Theresienstadt gas chamber here.  Now Dr. Wolf Murmelstein seems to be confirming that there was a gas chamber being built at Theresienstadt and that the inmates knew about it.

On October 10, 1941, the Germans initially decided to make Theresienstadt into a ghetto for selected Jews in the German Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, and in the Greater German Reich, which included Austria and part of western Poland. The Jews who were to be sent to Theresienstadt included those over 60 years old, World War I veterans, prominent people such as artists or musicians, very important persons, the blind, the deaf, and the inmates of the Jewish mental hospitals and the Jewish orphanages.

The first Jews, who were brought to Theresienstadt on November 24, 1941, were 342 men who were housed in the Sudeten barracks on the west side of the old garrison, from where one can see the Sudeten mountain range near the border between Germany and the Czech Republic. This first transport, called the Aufbaukommando, was brought there to prepare the 10 barracks buildings for the rest of the Jews who would soon follow. On December 4, 1941 another transport of 1,000 Jews, who were to form the Jewish “self-government” of the ghetto, was sent to Theresienstadt. These two early transports became known as AK1 and AK2.

Brunnen park in the Theresienstadt Ghetto with the Dresden barracks in the background

A short time after the construction crews had prepared the barracks, 7,000 Jews from Prague and Brno, in what is now the Czech Republic, arrived in the ghetto; men and women were put into separate barracks and they were not allowed to mix with the townspeople.

On Feb. 16, 1942, the 3,500 townspeople in Theresienstadt were given notice that they would have to evacuate the town by June 30th. On that date, the whole town was converted into a prison camp for the Jews.

Even before the transports departed to Theresienstadt, the Jewish Council of the Elders (Ältestenrat) was appointed in Prague to do the ghetto administration. The Nazis gave oral orders to the Council each day and the Jewish “self-government” informed the prisoners of the order of the day.

There were three Jewish Elders (Judenältester) who served in turn as the head of the ghetto “self-government.” The first was Jakob Edelstein, who served as the ghetto Elder from December 4, 1941 to November 27, 1943. He was arrested for falsifying camps records and was sent to the Small Fortress across the river from the ghetto. From there he was transferred to Auschwitz where he was first put on trial in a Nazi court and was then executed at the infamous “black wall” on June 20, 1944 after being forced to watch as his wife and son were being shot.

The second Jewish leader of Theresienstadt was Dr. Paul Eppstein who was taken to the Small Fortress on September 7, 1944 and immediately shot without the benefit of a trial because he too had disobeyed the orders of the Nazis. The last Jewish leader of the ghetto was Dr. Benjamin Murmelstein, who served from Sept. 7, 1944 until the end of the war.

The ghetto guards were 150 Czech policemen; there was also an unarmed Jewish ghetto guard unit which helped to maintain order in the ghetto.

The Magdeburg barracks which housed the offices of the Jewish “self-government.”

On the wall near the entry door to the Museum in the Magdeburg building, there is a plaque which lauds the Jewish leaders in the ghetto for their resistance against the Nazis, even though it meant death for two of the Elders.

Dr. Wolf Murmelstein is critical of American Universities, that do not teach the history of Theresienstadt the right way, in his opinion.

This quote from his essay is about American Universities:

To have so avoided a mass slaughter of all the Ghetto inmates had been a merit, or a guilt as not politically correct?

Indeed, it seems that in many USA Universities, the prevailing opinion is that a revolution should have been attempted. So Benjamin Murmelstein, as the writer often had to recall, knew that even any suspicion of riots, in view of an uprising, would only have jeopardized the International Red Cross action to achieve the Ghetto survival. Benjamin Murmelstein, the writer agrees, remarked that having prevented school book authors from writing stupid “politically correct” tales and politicians, or so, from delivering, more or less hypocritical, speeches at various commemorations is considered nowadays as a heavy guilt.

Dr. Wolf Murmelstein’s essay is quite long, and difficult to follow, if you don’t know the history of Theresienstadt and the Holocaust, but this quote from the essay is important:

The long waited International Red Cross Committee visit arrived on April 6, 1945. Benjamin Murmelstein had to deliver a speech – previously controlled, maybe approved by Himmler – and guide the visitors along an established Ghetto tour. In the final salutation, Murmelstein put in (at great personal risk) twice the words: “the fate of Theresienstadt is of great concern for me.” This call for help had been suddenly noticed and the Red Cross Delegates suddenly obtained from Minister SS General K.H. Frank assurance that not one inmate would be removed from the Ghetto and the authorization to establish an office in Prague.

But Eichmann and some aides still wanted to slaughter the Ghetto. As Minister SS General K. H. Frank considered the Ghetto as a trump card in the attempt to deal with Allied Commanders – he had asked the Red Cross Delegates to forward a letter – he considered two possible tricks:

Threaten and pressure Benjamin Murmelstein by taking his 8-year-old son as a hostage. The writer had been summoned to the Command and had been questioned by three of the worst aides of Eichmann, but was then permitted to go “home.”

In war time, any revolt, especially when near the combat front, can be put down. For the Nazis such repressions were good opportunities for mass slaughters.

How could the Nazis provoke a revolt in Theresienstadt to be put down with mass slaughter? The tricky way, which was followed by the Eichmann staff, was in 3 steps:

On April 15, 1945 the “Danishes” left Theresienstadt on a convoy of 8 buses. The departure of that privileged group, protected from abroad, left Benjamin Murmelstein feeling a bit uneasy while the inmates were quite excited as the hope of the end of war – with German defeated – increased.

The inmates could watch a Jew (without a Yellow Star!) being taken on a tour around Theresienstadt by the SS, and allowed to meet, at the SS quarters, a person he knew, and to inform – bypassing the Elder – the inmates about the next overhanding of the Ghetto. Inform or excite?

At midnight, just after having answered the usual phone call of the SS on duty – “Yes Sir, all in order.” — Benjamin Murmelstein had been “alerted” by an associate: “Germans fled away; a joyous crowd is singing and dancing.” The SS wanting to know whether “all was in order” and a joyous crowd in street? Clearly someone wanted the inmates to be excited, but why?

Dr. Wolf Murmelstein credits his father, Dr. Benjamin Murmelstein, with saving the Theresienstadt ghetto from mass slaughter and ensuring that the ghetto was turned over to the International Red Cross in the last days of the war.

I previously blogged here about a train that was sent from Bergen-Belsen to Theresienstadt in the last days of the war.  Several survivors of the three trains sent from Bergen-Belsen, bound for Theresienstadt, believe that they were being sent to Theresienstadt to be killed, but it is clear from Dr. Wolf Murmelstein’s essay that the trains were being sent to Theresienstadt because the camp was being turned over to the International Red Cross.

You can read more about the Theresienstadt Ghetto on my website here.

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