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“Hitler’s ‘Model Ghetto’: An Examination of Life in Theresienstadt and Nazi Germany’s Attempts to Cover up the Reality”

Book Essay on: George Berkley, Hitler’s Gift : The Story of Theresienstadt
( Boston: Branden Books, 1993), 308pages.
UCSB: D805.C9 B44 1993

by Kelli Cosio
March 23, 2010

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
The Holocaust in European History
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2010

About the Author
& Abstract
Book available at Amazon.com

About Kelli Cosio

I am a junior history major at University of California, Santa Barbara. I have always been interested in World War II and the events that occurred during it. One event that sparked my interest even more was working for a woman whose father had been a photographer during the war. I spent hours cataloging pictures that were taken during the period of the Holocaust and have ever since been intrigued. Since then I have been interested in knowing all aspects of those involved in the Holocaust including the victims, perpetrators and bystanders. I chose the topic of Theresienstadt specifically because I was interested in both Nazi propaganda and Nazi transit camps, both of which are represented in Theresienstadt.

Abstract (back to top)

Theresienstadt was Hitler’s “Model Ghetto” that he used in an attempt to fool the Red Cross as well as the international community from knowing the reality of the deaths that were occurring amongst Jews due to Nazi Germany’s "Final Solution." Theresienstadt was used as a propaganda tool while behind the scenes continuing to be a transit camp where Jews were sent off to extermination camps such as Auschwitz and Treblinka. George E. Berkley’s extensive work on the history of Theresienstadt, and Norbert Troller and Jana Friesova’s personal accounts of living in Theresienstadt, expose the reality of what the ghetto really was and what it was like to be imprisoned there.

Essay (back to top)

Theresienstadt, also known as Terezin, was a “model ghetto” created by Nazi Germany in order to fool organizations such as the Red Cross and the rest of the world into believing that they were protecting the Jews while the war was going on.The Nazis used Theresienstadt as a prop to hide what they were really doing to Jews in other concentration and extermination camps that they had set up in various locations around Eastern Europe. In reality Theresienstadt was not a “model ghetto.” People there were suffering and starving to death while waiting to be deported to other camps such as Auschwitz. Rather, Theresienstadt was a transit camp that was unique in the sense that it shared similar aspects of both concentration camps and ghettos. However, despite similarities held in common with concentration camps and ghettos Theresienstadt’s main purpose, other than a propaganda tool, was that of a transit camp in which tens of thousands would be shipped to eastern extermination camps. One of the differences between Theresienstadt and other Nazi concentration camps was that those in Theresienstadt often had to become actors and pretend that they were privileged to live in such a wonderful “ghetto."

Theresienstadt was located in Czechoslovakia and had been used as a military base for the Czech armies and then the German armies (Berkley 24). The location was built to house around 6,000 soldiers but would soon be used as a deportation/holding station that would house around 88,000 (at some times more) (Berkley 24). Theresienstadt would also be used as a propaganda tool for the Nazis when the local and international community questioned what was really happening to the Jews while in Nazi hands. Since the base was not made to hold the number of people the Nazis needed it to they constructed new bunks, etc. that would allow more people to be squeezed in. This congestion would later become a major problem and lead to horrible conditions for those who were being held at Theresienstadt. However, these images of overcrowding and harsh conditions were not the picturesque scenes that were presented to those who first arrived at Theresienstadt.

Those who first arrived at Theresienstadt were given the idea of a “paradise ghetto” where “…a Dutch deportee reported, ‘It is a friendly town with broad streets, lovely gardens and single-story houses,’ another mentioned how “those who wished could take a nap in the afternoon” (Berkley 12). Many elite and prestigious Jews would become “residents” of Theresienstadt, considering themselves to be very lucky to be going there. In fact, “although most of these deportees would have preferred to stay in their own homes, many felt privileged to be going to Theresienstadt instead of some place else” (Berkley 12). It was at this that point many Jews had known or had a good idea that the fate of their family members was dismal at other eastern camps. Theresienstadt may have given some Jews hope that they might be able to survive the war and this would be that “safe haven” until the Allies came to their rescue. However, for many Jews in Theresienstadt this would not be the case and it would soon be realized as hundreds of thousands would be sent out to various concentration camps or pure extermination camps where their fate would be unknown.

Theresienstadt had been sold to many as a “paradise,” however many Jews who became prisoners of Theresienstadt were shocked at the reality once they arrived. Upon arrival when Jews got off the trains, they were forced to walk two miles to Theresienstadt. (Berkley 42). Those who could not walk the two miles to Theresienstadt such as:

The elderly and infirm were loaded onto trucks but were jammed together so tightly that even disabled veterans on crutches had to stand. Once a young SS driver took a curve too sharply, catapulting all 27 of his elderly passengers into a ditch. At least ten were killed outright… (Berkley 43)
Instances like this became an awful foreshadowing of what was about to meet all who would enter the gates of Theresienstadt. After the two mile walk or truck ride people saw the brutal reality of Theresienstadt. This reality hit many people hard, “As Elsie Dornitzer put it, “upon our arrival in Theresienstadt, my husband and I suffered the typical admission shock which paralyzed one’s whole being. My husband was never able to recover…” (Berkley 41).

When people arrived at Theresienstadt they would first be searched. At this point arrivals were stripped of anything worth money but they were allowed to keep wedding rings (Berkley 43). Arrivals would then fill out forms that would categorize them. These forms were “… detailed forms covering their education, skills, work experience, etc., and after being examined by a doctor, were placed in one of four categories: heavy work, ordinary work, light work and exempt work” (Berkley 30). Inmate categorization become a very important to their survival because generally speaking the more able bodied they were the more they could help and those running the camp wanted to keep the more skilled, hard working people in Theresienstadt.

Theresienstadt was made up of mainly Czech Jews (about 80,000) under German protectorate (Holocaust Encyclopedia). Tens of thousands of German and Austrian Jews who would also be held there (Berkley 27). Along with the Czech, German and Austrian Jews there were also many Jews from other neighboring countries who were under German protectorates, but Czech, German and Austrian Jews made up the majority in Theresienstadt. Among the Czech, German and Austrian Jews many different types of people were represented. There were privileged Jews who had come there hoping to be part of a “paradise ghetto” instead of an eastern camp where their death was almost certain. Among these privileged were artists, writers, singers, etc. However, being of privileged status did not guarantee a positive fate for anyone. Not all people were privileged; the majority were average Jews hoping to survive the horrible Nazi wrath. There were men, women and children, women outnumbered men in the camp (Berkley 27). All Jews would later be placed into categories by sex, age, status, work ethic, health, etc. which could be deciding factors for who would be deported from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz to be murdered.

Theresienstadt was run by a Council of Elders. The Council of Elders were often responsible for making deportation lists, hearing appeals to those lists and various other tasks around the “ghetto.” The Council of Elders were mostly Jews and were also subject to being deported to other camps such as Auschwitz. Those in charge of punishments within the “ghetto” were the ghetto watch who reported to the SS and the SS themselves were also in charge of punishments. The SS and ghetto watch were also in charge of helping to protect the “model” image of the camp. This meant that no one without authorization would enter or see the camp. It was very important that no one saw the camp because conditions were so bad because of overcrowding, sanitation issues and deaths occurring at rapid rates.

Like Nazi ghettos the conditions at Theresienstadt were severe. Mainly these poor conditions stemmed from the same problem: overcrowding. There were many facilities available but the camp was not built to hold the massive numbers of people being held at Theresienstadt. Plumbing for one was a major issue and became the main cause of poor sanitation. “The town’s plumbing facilities were primitive to begin with, for flush toilets and running water had only been installed a few years earlier. Under the pressure of the new population, they quickly became swamped” (Berkley 46). The facilities were not equipped to handle the amount of traffic that they were getting. The high amount of traffic also made it difficult to keep the facilities clean. Another plumbing issue was the lack of water mains available, meaning that shower time and how often residents could wash their clothes had to be restricted (Berkley 47).

A resident could reckon on getting a shower at the central bath house only once every two months and on using the central laundry once every three or four months. Furthermore, anyone having his/her bedding laundered could scarcely get anything else washed, since strict limits governed how much could be sent. (Berkley 47)

This lack of sanitation became a breeding ground for bugs and parasites. The Nazis attempted to get rid of the parasites by spraying “Zyklon-B, the same gas used in the Auschwitz gas chambers” in living quarters (Berkley 47). This method did not work because the lack of sanitation continued and even got worse at points when populations were high. Parasites were especially a problem because of the close living spaces all inmates of Theresienstadt were subject to. Inside living quarters were triple-tiered bunks within this two people would sleep on each level (Berkley 46). People would also be sleeping on the floor because there were no more beds for anyone unless one became available because of a deportation or death.

Living quarters were not only subject to parasites and bugs but they were also subject to diseases such as typhus from lice. More sanitation issues arose from deaths occurring as well as from people urinating and defecating in living quarters. Urination and defecation occurred mainly when people were too weak from starvation or illness to get up. Overcrowding also made it nearly impossible at night for people to reach the bathroom. Deaths were also occurring in living quarters because of illness and starvation. At the same time people were freezing to death because coal was in shortage (Berkley 47). Often times people would wake up with their neighbor dead next to them and they would remain there until the crews came to obtain the body. The crews that were to take the bodies away were residents of Theresienstadt.

The method at the beginning of Theresienstadt’s existence of getting rid of the deceased was to bury them individually. When the number of deaths began to increase to unmanageable amounts the bodies were dumped into mass graves. This became a big problem “…when the high water level started pushing the bodies up to the surface.” (Berkley 51). In order to solve the problem Nazis looked to concentration camp methods of body disposal, crematoriums. As a solution a crematorium was built in September 1942 (Berkley 51). Norbert Troller describes in his memoir how the cremation boxes began to pile higher and higher row after row and how, at “the end of the war the SS had destroyed everything that could bear witness to their misdeeds. Hundreds of thousands of boxes filled with ashes of cremated Jews…were poured into the Eger River.” (Troller 29). Crematoriums were often seen in concentration and extermination camps, not in “ghettos.” However, it became Theresienstadt’s main method of disposing bodies as they began to pile up.

For those who survived the harsh Theresienstadt conditions there fate was unknown every time deportation lists were being compiled. Being placed on the deportation list was worse than remaining in Theresienstadt. A key difference between Theresienstadt and other camps such as Auschwitz and Treblinka was that Theresienstadt did not have gas chambers. Typically gas chambers were only seen at concentration and extermination camps, not in transit camps. The SS at Theresienstadt also did not want to openly be seen as purposely participating in killing people because it might tarnish their “model ghetto” image. However for those who “needed” punishment there was a separate camp area known as the Little Fortress. The Little Fortress was a separate area about a mile away from Theresienstadt where those who were to be punished would go (Troller 143). The goal at the Little Fortress was to make prisoners live in even harsher conditions or work themselves harder until they died or killed themselves. However, the SS did intentionally push them and would often kill people in ways that they felt could be seen as a “working” accident. These punishments of death occurring at the Little Fortress were just as bad as those occurring at other concentration camps that Czech, German and Austrian Jews were being deported to. One example of a severe punishment they used,

After responding at roll call with Stinkjude or Saujude (Jewish Pig) when their names were read, the Jewish prisoners might be forced to push wheelbarrows filled with rocks up a slope and then push them down again. Those unable to push fully loaded wheelbarrows were beaten senseless and dumped into ice-cold water until they died. (Berkley 63).

Inmates feared The Little Fortress as they feared deportation because both ultimately meant certain death. Deportation at Theresienstadt occurred whenever the Council of Elders received the notice that there needed to be a deportation. One of Theresienstadt’s main purposes was to be a transit camp in which Jews were shipped off elsewhere. Those on deportation lists were often chosen by health (people who were sick and could possibly spread infections), age, outspoken inmates (who may expose the real purpose of Theresienstadt’s existence) and criminals. “…the Council had to work within the prescribed guidelines. They were required to include “criminals” and to exclude those in certain categories such as Prominenten, war veterans, mischlings, etc” (Berkley 67). “The unbearable burden of transport selections imposed on the Council of Elders by the SS, of sending their own brothers to certain death in the East, became too much for most of them…” (Troller 48). Those who were on deportation lists were then shipped off to various concentration and extermination camps. These camps included: Auschwitz, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Warsaw and so on. The deportations happened on and off in clusters. However, when the International Red Cross was attempting to visit mass deportations occurred rapidly and often. These mass deportations occurred in order to take care of the overcrowding issues Theresienstadt had.

When the Red Cross first visited Theresienstadt the Nazis were not worried about their findings. Theresienstadt did have many facilities that modeled the life of a real town. Theresienstadt had banks, stores, schools, concert places, a library, coffee shops, etc. all of which could be used by any of the residents if they had crowns to pay for their use. So when two German Red Cross officials came to visit the Nazis were shocked to hear their reports. The German Red Cross Officials reported that they witnessed, “…congestion, malnourishment, and generally wretched conditions…They had not been able to determine whether any residents had been deported from Theresienstadt to the East.” (Berkley 165). However, their visit prompted them to urge the International Red Cross to visit that facility further especially as rumors were spreading about the Nazis exterminating Jews. Upon hearing the reports the Nazis immediately jumped into action launching “…a Stadtverschoenerung or city beautification” and held off from allowing any other visitors until the beautification process was complete (Berkley 166).

Many changes were made to Theresienstadt during the Stadtverschoenerung. One change was all signs or any links to deportation such as deportation numbers were removed or changed. Signs that said “transports” were removed and deportation numbers were now identification numbers (Berkley 168). Another major change was the amount of food and speed at which food was arriving. The Nazis began to expedite food shipments and were allowing most of it to be used. All of the buildings were given facelifts by painting them or cleaning them up. One of the biggest remaining problems that added to the poor conditions and bad image was the overcrowding. There were way too many people in a really small amount of space and as previously mentioned this became an underlying factor in many of the poor conditions of Theresienstadt because the facilities were not built for such a large population. This problem was solved by mass deportations, an order for 7,500 to be deported immediately, and later on 11,000 more would be ordered to be deported (Berkley 169).

Along with the physical changes to the camp residents of Theresienstadt were trained on exactly what to say if asked questions and exactly what to do on the day the International Red Cross would come to visit. They were given props such as nice clothing and shoes. They were given showers to make sure all appeared clean. Children were given toys to play with such as dolls and wooden cars. Plays were being performed as well as music for those visiting. Those who were sick in the hospital were removed for the visit and healthy people were put in the beds instead. All of these props were used in order to maintain the “model ghetto” image.

When the International Red Cross arrived they visited the areas that the SS took them through. Of all the buildings visited only the first floors were seen by the Red Cross because that was usually the only floor that had been given a facelift during the Stadtverschoenerung. When the Red Cross reported on what they saw there were a little skeptical, however they reported good things,

Doctor Henningsen expressed “complete astonishment over the Jewish accomplishments” thanks to which “the situation has improved, especially in the past year.” While the high population density posed some peril in terms of sanitation, “there can be no doubt that the Jewish administration is confronting the sanitation danger as effectively as possible under the circumstances. (Berkley 177)

Some were critical of those who visited and questioned why Red Cross officials had not demanded to see every aspect of Theresienstadt. Some wondered why the Red Cross officials did not demand to see other floors or venture outside of the Nazi-given tour.

After the Red Cross visits the Nazis decided to keep on moving with their propaganda show in order to maintain their desired “model ghetto” image. The Nazis decided to make a film of Theresienstadt showing what a “great” place it was. Many of the same people who acted when the International Red Cross visited were in the video. The Nazi propaganda film is entitled The Fuhrer gives the Jews a City. While viewing the video with a critical modern day eye one would say that everyone in the video looked healthy, well groomed and happy. This was the direct message that the Nazis wanted viewers to feel even though this was not the truth. The video shows children playing on playgrounds with toys. It also shows people having fun going to soccer games and orchestras. The living quarters in the video are spacious and have some sort of privacy to them. Just outside are fresh gardens that everyone works on willingly and joyfully. Not having known the truth one might think that this was the “model ghetto” and that it was ok for the Jews to be there because they were living happy and care free. However once reality comes into play many know that Theresienstadt was really a place of death and unhappiness.

The Nazis’ hard work on propaganda and keeping a clean “model ghetto” image began to come to an end in 1944 when the main leaders of the Jewish Council of Elders were deported and killed. Over the past year or so various news reports of Theresienstadt deportees being sent to Auschwitz and being gassed became a huge problem to cover up for the Nazis. The reality of knowing that Theresienstadt was a transit camp could no longer be ignored and it needed to be liberated as all the other camps were being. Soviet troops ultimately liberated the camp on May 9, 1945 “By the end of August 1945, most of the former prisoners had left the camp, to be replaced by ethnic Germans arrested by the Czech and Soviet authorities. (Holocaust Encyclopedia).

Theresienstadt should have been called a transit camp and not a “model ghetto.” Theresienstadt served its purpose as a transit camp by having Tens of thousands of people transported to their deaths in Treblinka and Auschwitz while many who remained in the camp either died or were murdered by the SS. Living conditions were unbearable and worse than conditions in which many animals live, yet the Nazis continued to call Theresienstadt a “model ghetto.” The International Red Cross could have been the stopping force needed to save lives and should have been stricter on assessing conditions. This could have been achieved by evaluating the property more thoroughly and by rating the property based on standard living conditions oppose to what the International Red Cross thought were livable wartime conditions. It seemed as though for many it was easier to turn the other eye instead of coming to terms with the reality of what the Nazis were doing to millions of innocent lives.


Annotated Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/23/10)

Book Reviews

  • Meaghan, Review of Berkley’s, Hitler’s Gift…

    Meaghan, a user on goodreads.com, states that Berkley’s book about Theresienstadt is detailed and informative. Meaghan also claims that the book is written in a way that the general public who is inexperienced in the subject of the holocaust can read and understand the history of Theresienstadt. The review is useful in emphasizing that George Berkley’s book can be read and enjoyed by the general public but can also still be used in research at top academic levels.

  • William J. Bosch, America Vol 167, Issue 6 (Sept. 12, 1992) pp 146-149

    Bosch states that Troller’s Theresienstadt… is an account that stands out from other accounts written by Holocaust survivors because of Troller’s “brutal realism” when it comes to describing how inmates of Theresienstadt were living in terms of relationships and sexual activity. Bosch claims that Troller’s pictures of Theresienstadt are an important aspect of the book that aid visualization of what Theresienstadt was like. Bosch’s critique of these images is that although they are vivid, “…the use of watercolor as a medium falsely softens and romanticizes the harsh realities. Even his graveyard scene evokes little horror.” This review is helpful in emphasizing the need to read Troller’s account of Theresienstadt as one that stands out from other accounts and gives vivid imagery of the ghetto.

  • Ralph Blumenau, Review of Friesova's, Fortress of...

    Ralph Blumenau gives a review of Fortress of My Youth stating that the book was, “A most memorable addition to the memoirs of Holocaust survivors.” Blumenau’s review makes clear that this memoir is one full of detail that leads to a good understanding of what was going on in Theresienstadt. This review emphasizes the depth of detail that Jana Renee Friesova managed to note in her diaries as it becomes an important female account of what it was like to be a prisoner of Theresienstadt.

Books and Articles

  • Jana Renee Friesova, Fortress of My Youth: Memoir of a Terezin Survivor (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001), 190 pages.

  • Norbert Troller, Theresienstadt: Hitler’s Gift to the Jews (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 182 pages.

  • Saul S. Friedman ed., The Terezin Diary of Gonda Redlich (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1992), 173 pages.

    This book was written by a boy whose main job at Theresienstadt was to help meet the quotas the SS gave to the Council of Elders for deportation to other camps. The book also touches on the subject of deceiving the Red Cross into thinking Theresienstadt was the “model ghetto”. This work is an important addition to researching Theresienstadt as it adds a primary source to the history of the attempt to cover up deportations to death camps. It is another source that backs up the truth of what really was occurring at Theresienstadt.

  • Ruth Bondy, “Elder of the Jews”: Jakob Edelstein of Theresienstadt (New York: Grove Press, 1989), 476 pages.

    This work is a biography of Jakob Edelstein, one of the leaders of the Council of Elders in Theresienstadt. However, Ruth Bondy uses the life of Jakob Edelstein as a way to tell the history of Theresienstadt. This book is a good source for historical information that is given through a primary perspective of someone who was part of the ghetto itself. The author Ruth Bondy was a survivor of the Holocaust whose family were residents of Theresienstadt.

Relevant Websites

  • Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies, “Theresienstadt” (Revised: Oct 22, 2009)

    This website is a very interesting website that offers a brief overview of Theresienstadt. The website offers a collection of documents that come from Theresienstadt. These documents include orders made by the council of elders, death lists, postcards, etc. However, the documents are not in English but The Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota offers a brief description of each document below the actual image. This is a good website for a general overview of Theresienstadt’s history and to scratch the surface of documents available for research.

  • Jewish Virtual Library, “Terezin (Theresienstadt) Concentration Camp” (revised: December 12, 2007)

    This particular page of the website very briefly touches on certain aspects of Theresienstadt. The creators, The Jewish Virtual Library, do offer in other links a more general overview of what Theresienstadt was and what happened to people while there, but the website is more useful as a source for images of Theresienstadt. It offers both modern and historical pictures that offer insight about what the ghetto looked like. It is a very useful source as a visual aid while researching Theresienstadt.

  • United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Holocaust Encyclopedia: Theresienstadt” (Revised: May 4, 2009)

    This website offers a fairly detailed overview of Theresienstadt. Within the website there are various sections that you are able to visit in regards to Theresienstadt. Each section gives a subheading of what that page is about. This is helpful if you are looking to know certain aspects of the camp. This webpage was put together by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and offers various links to other aspects of the holocaust. It also offers different links for teachers, students and university scholars that will help you in finding research material within their museum collections and in other outside sources.

  • Youtube, “Adolf Hitler Gives the Jews a City- Part 1” (June 28, 2009)

    This is a site that offers a video clip of Nazi propaganda used to show the Red Cross and the International community that the Jewish community was in no danger. This video clip is an example of the images that the Nazis were trying to show the International community, images of the Jews being happy, healthy and well taken care of. This 7:39 min. video clip is an important aspect to see while researching Theresienstadt as it gives an actual account of what the Nazis were trying to accomplish by portraying Theresienstadt as the “model ghetto”.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Kelli Cosio on 3/23/10; last updated: 3/23/10
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