An Essay by Dr. Wolf Murmelstein

October 14, 2004


Indeed, Theresienstadt had been the sole Ghetto where the International Red Cross Commission had had the possibility to free about 18,000 Ghetto inmates and, furthermore, also some thousand concentration camp prisoners who had reached the town in the last days of the war.

In 1941, the Nazi rulers made the decision of the deportation of all the Jews to the East. It appeared clear, however, that every German would claim for "his Jew" a special treatment, which in many cases was impossible to deny. Besides, it became necessary to consider connections with leading figures abroad, regarding foreign citizenships. It was also impossible to justify the tale of aged persons and children going to work in Poland. So, Heydrich and Eichmann had to look for "an accommodation" for aged people, World War I officers holding Iron Cross decorations, and people with connections, who could not simply disappear without any further notice.

Theresienstadt met a lot of requirements: a town in Bohemia but only three miles from the Sudeten border; the walls made control easier and the barracks could become crowded billets; executions could be performed in the nearby Little Fortress prison. Among the Jews of Bohemia-Moravia, the labour force needed was available, and the Jewish leaders were supposed to solve the problems involved with the project; already in 1939, in his Nisko speech, Eichmann had explained clearly: "otherwise it shall mean to die."

The Jewish leaders and their staff - in Theresienstadt as in the Ghettoes in the "East" - had so to deal with matters like housing, utilities, food distribution, health services, social services for aged people and children, keeping order, etc. in an overcrowded town

The three Elders - Jakob Edelstein (from November 1941 until January 30, 1943), Paul Eppstein (from January 30 until September 27, 1944) and Benjamin Murmelstein (from September 27, 1944 until May 5, 1945) - were tragic figures (like other Jewish leaders of that time of darkness), having been called to face hellish problems. All three of them had had opportunities to go to safety, but they had stood with their communities and had arranged the emigration of many people.

A Jewish leader, in that time of darkness, normally could not meet real decision makers, but only low-ranking SS officers who themselves had only a small portion of power and were spied upon.

Orders, given in a rude way, had to be carried out within a short time. Requests for easier terms had to be submitted in a suitable way, stating reasons an SS Officer seemed likely to accept. And in the event reasons stated had not been accepted, the "Judenrat" was pressed by the SS and blamed by fellow inmates. The resulting psychological stress, just as the lack of information about things going on outside, ought to be properly considered by historians.

With the first transports at the end of 1941 and the first months of 1942, Jews from Bohemia-Moravia reached Theresienstadt hoping so to remain there as their Home. Later transports from Germany, Vienna, Denmark, Netherlands and Slovakia arrived. Unfortunately, from January 1942, transports for only vaguely mentioned destinations left the Ghetto; neither the real destination nor the tragic fate was known until the last days of April 1945. Really alarming rumours had been reported in December 1944 at the arrival of the first transport of Slovakian Jews.

The main problem of the history of Theresienstadt arose with the incoming and outgoing transports, and became white-hot in May/June 1942 at the arrival of the transports from Germany and Vienna: "Who should stay and who should leave?"

For Edelstein, the points of the supposed solution had been:

From Bohemia-Moravia, came mainly people able to perform the necessary work, while from Vienna and Germany came mainly care-needing aged people.

The Jews from Bohemia-Moravia had the right, as well as the duty, to stay in their native country.

The youth, mainly from Bohemia-Moravia, was essential for Jewish national survival.

Such an attitude, concerning the transports, had its repercussions also in the matter of housing and food distribution, harming aged people, who were mainly from Germany and Vienna, and this led to corruption. In such a mess, Edelstein lost control over the action of staff members.

Eichmann, on his side, watched with increasing attention how Edelstein was trying to let the aged leave for the East and the youth - able to work but also to fight - to stay. In the event of an uprising, the walls surrounding Theresienstadt would make resistance easier and longer; such a risk had to be prevented in time by starting a three step action.

The first step was to put the Ghetto security services under the command of a former German officer of Protestant religion, Karl Loewenstein. The second step was to place, in the Ghetto Council, members from Germany and Vienna and to make a ruling that the Deputy Elder had to be of German tongue. The third step was the replacing of Edelstein. At the end of January 1943, Eppstein (from Germany) became the Elder, with Edelstein and Murmelstein (from Vienna) deputies.

Eppstein, a professor of sociology, thought his first task, for the Ghetto's sake, was to get Eichmann to trust him. But in the land of judges and hangmen ("der Richter und der Henker"), it was impossible to talk like in the land of poets and thinkers ("der Dichter und der Denker"), and so he trusted to the promises of SS Captain Moehs. The fact that, during his first months in office, no transport left Theresienstadt and that a production line had been placed there, seemed a confirmation of this policy. But no one at Theresienstadt knew that during those months, the Eichmann staff was busy deporting the Salonica Jews.

The uprisings in the Warsaw Ghetto and Treblinka led to two transport waves, in September and December 1943, where only Jews from Bohemia-Moravia had to be enlisted. Special SS orders referred in September 1943 to a Czech Legion Colonel, a Sport trainer, a rabbi known for his Czech sermons and a close aide of Edelstein. In December 1943, Edelstein, as a strange figure who had submitted a project of an Information Service, had to leave Theresienstadt.

Each of those two (Czech) groups had been placed in a "Family Camp" section of Auschwitz/Birkenau and held there for about six months, in order to let them send post cards, before being murdered. One of those Family Camps had been visited, in December 1943, by a Red Cross Delegate ready to report about Auschwitz in a reassuring way.

The arrival in October 1943 of a group of Jews from Denmark gave Theresienstadt a new function: receiving foreign visitors. The visit, requested as much by the Danish as by the Swedish Red Cross, could be delayed but not denied. For some months, works of embellishment had to be done to enhance the appearance of the Ghetto, while the May 1944 transport wave reduced the overcrowding. The visit of June 23, 1944 was certainly important, but not resolutory as Denmark stood under German rule. The new appearance of the Ghetto suggested to Eichmann & Co. to make the famous film between August and September 1944, which, however, had only been set up and shown months after most of persons, who appeared in it, had already been deported.

The main events that occurred in Summer 1944 outside of Theresienstadt had their effects: the Allied Landing in France, the July 20th plot (against Hitler) by German officers and the Slovakian Revolt in August, where obviously, Jews took part.

At the end of September 1944, the enlisting of 5,000 men of working age (but also of fighting age!) for two transports "to work" had been ordered. Just before the departure of those transports, at Yom Kippur, Eppstein had been arrested and suddenly murdered in the Little Fortress. Murmelstein, as second deputy, had to take the burden.

Just after the departure of the transports "to work," followed by a third one with a group of wives, Murmelstein faced an order to enlist other people for new transports. Feeling that "all is lost," he had a nerve crisis, lost self control and started to explain how impossible new transports were and earned a shouted warning: "no bargaining here, get the hell out!" The SS, being in a hurry, decided to do directly the selection work for enlisting people in the new transports.

During the following four weeks, Murmelstein had been successful in obtaining the exemption of about 500 (five hundred) persons and, importantly, without any substitution; many other requests had been turned down on criteria which can be only conjectured, considering that: After July 20 (1944), officers holding Iron Cross or other decoration had no protection any more; the same applied to a group of former Abwehr agents who had been sent to Theresienstadt and not abroad, or to persons having had some relationship with Nazi officials.

Eichmann had no interest any more to exhibit important Zionist Leaders.

Only the minimum number of men, who were performing essential work, should be left.

At the end of October, Murmelstein found himself with only a few men of working age, more women, many aged and care-needing people and about three hundred VIPs which the SS could still have interest to exhibit, but only if the Ghetto could be shown again to foreign visitors. The hard cleaning work had been performed mainly by women; for some months, the working week had been 70 hours or more. In December 1944, the SS gave the order for a new embellishment.

Indeed, in September 1944, the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of USA and Canada had asked the Swiss politician Jean Marie Musy to use his contacts with Himmler for help. Musy obtained the release of 1200 Theresienstadt inmates to Switzerland in February 1945 after a visit to the Ghetto. On April 6, 1945, an International Red Cross Commission Delegation visited Theresienstadt; the call for help launched by Murmelstein ("the fate of Theresienstadt is a concern for me") had been understood. The Red Cross Delegates obtained permission the same day to put Theresienstadt under their protection. On May 3, 1945, Red Cross Delegate Paul Dunant placed his office in Theresienstadt and on May 5 1945, the last Commander, Rahm, - still wearing uniform and holding weapons - left the Ghetto which had been thus freed by the Red Cross.

On May 6, Leo Baeck, in a lettered addressed to Murmelstein, expressed the thanks of the Council for the work he had performed in very difficult conditions.

The Red Army reached Theresienstadt only in the evening of May 7, 1945.

In Theresienstadt, there was, almost from the beginning until the last days of April 1945, a vivid cultural life with high-level lectures - a university over the abyss - music, etc.; certainly within the limits of real possibilities. It must be said that believers of Jewish Faith, from the beginning to the end, gathered for praying or, at least, for attending sermons; at Passover - in 1943, 1944 and 1945 - leadership cared enough to make matzot available.

Banknotes and postage stamps were only pieces of paper, printed for propaganda reasons, and never had any real function.

Behind the version - often repeated - that people had to pay for going to Theresienstadt, where rich persons could survive, was only because of the fact that Eichmann, in order to collect money for his "Central Authority for Jewish Emigration," and avoiding the State Treasury to get the last of the Jewish money, ordered the sale of Hotel places in "Theresienbad" (Terezin Spa). This had been one of his many swindles.




H.G. ADLER: THERESIENSTADT; 2nd edition, in German, Tuebingen 1960.

H.G. ADLER: DIE VERHEIMLICHTE WAHRHEIT, in German, Tuebingen 1958.

Italian, Bologna 1961; a German Version in progress.


Ten Basic Facts About Theresienstadt

The Judenrat Question, Tragic Figures or Guilty Forever

Otherwise, It Would Mean to Die

The Jewish Community of Salonica during the Shoah