Theresienstadt 1941-1945: The Face of a Coerced Community

Cambridge University Press  2017


Theresienstadt 1941-1945: The Face of a Coerced Community was first published in 1955 in German, and is now finally translated in English. H.G. Adler, a poet and scholar, may be unfamiliar to the shoah reading public, but in Holocaust scholarship his work is essential reading alongside the writings of Primo Levy, Gerald Reitlinger, and Raul Hilberg, who was influenced by Adler.

In 1942, Adler was deported with his family to the Theresienstadt ghetto, and subsequently to Auschwitz, where eighteen members of his family, including his first wife, perished in the camp. By recording what he observed—which included prisoners housed in dirty barracks, cordoned off from the outside world and even from fellow inmates—Adler sought to write an objective history of the Theresienstadt ghetto. He noted significant social divisions: Czech Jews, for example, who were the first to be deported to the ghetto, resented Austrian and German Jews who arrived later. 

Ghetto life might have appeared fairly normal as exemplified by concerts, lectures, and sporting events, but the reality was that Jews lived under a death sentence. The enmity of the Jewish prisoners was directed toward the Jewish leadership, in the form of a Jewish Council, rather than the Nazis. This is because the Elders who made up the Council were part of the bureaucracy that the Nazis created, in order to give inmates a sense of predictability; however, they helped implement Nazi orders, including deportation, and thus fostered in the ghetto a terrifying sense of uncertainty. 

Meanwhile, Nazi officer Heinrich Himmler ordered the camp to be “beautified” for the purpose of convincing outside agencies, such as the International Red Cross, that Theresienstadt was a “model ghetto.”The absurdity of this situation was exemplified when the Nazis created a film promoting the “wonderful” existence of the Theresienstadt Jews — one scene depicted a ghetto children’s chorus singing from the opera Brundibar. The day after filming, most of the children were deported to Auschwitz. By 1945 most of the ghetto’s Jews would be deported.

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