Famous Red Cross Visit to Theresienstadt

Bodenbach barracks built in 1792 in Theresienstadt

Among the Nazi concentration camps, Buchenwald is famous for its human lamp shades; Auschwitz is noted for its gas chambers and Bergen-Belsen will be forever remembered as the place where British bulldozers shoved the emaciated corpses of the deliberately starved inmates into mass graves. Theresienstadt's claim to fame is the Verschönerung, the beautification program in which the Nazis cleaned up the ghetto in preparation for a visit on June 23, 1944 by two Swiss delegates of the International Red Cross and two representatives of the government of Denmark.

The Nazis began their beautification program in late 1943 in preparation for the inspection, demanded by the Danish King Christian X, which was more than six months away. Especially because the Theresienstadt ghetto was the home of many prominent and well known Jews, the Nazis wanted to fool the world into thinking that the Jews were being well treated.

The famous Red Cross visit to Theresienstadt came about because the government of Denmark was anxious to know about the conditions of the ghetto since 466 Danish Jews had been sent there, beginning on October 5, 1943. Because of pressure brought to bear on the Germans by the Danish government, the Danish Jews received preferential treatment in the ghetto. They were sent back to Denmark on April 15, 1945, under the supervision of the Red Cross, three weeks before the ghetto was liberated by Soviet troops on May 8, 1945. Thus they escaped the typhus epidemic which devastated Theresienstadt in the last weeks of the war.

During World War II, information about the mistreatment and gassing of the Jews was known throughout Europe and the United States. Anne Frank in her attic and elementary school children in America had heard about the gassing of the Jews as early as June 1942. News of the gassing and other horrors in the concentration camps was broadcast on the radio by the British throughout the war.

The inmates of the Theresienstadt ghetto learned that the gassing stories were really true when a transport of 1,200 orphan children arrived from the Bialystok ghetto; upon being sent to a large shower room immediately after their arrival, the children became hysterical because they had heard the stories about the gassing of the Jews and assumed they were being put into a gas chamber disguised as a shower room.

On December 18, 1942, twelve allied governments, including the Czech government in exile in England, denounced the Germans for their treatment of the Jews. Possibly due to these complaints, Heinrich Himmler, the head of the Nazi concentration camp system, issued an order on February 2, 1943 to stop the transports from Theresienstadt to the death camp at Auschwitz. At that time the total number of prisoners housed at Theresienstadt was 44,672. The transports to Auschwitz stopped for seven months.

Half the buildings in Theresienstadt needed more beautification in 2000

The visit to Theresienstadt by the Red Cross was by no means the only visit to a Nazi camp, but it is the one that is the most written about because the Nazis used the occasion to disseminate propaganda by presenting the ghetto in a most favorable light. But even before the famous visit, the Germans had been honoring the 1929 Geneva Convention which required them to allow the Red Cross to provide packages to the concentration camps.

The Red Cross was aware of the camps from the beginning of the war and they began sending packages to the inmates of the major Nazi concentration camps, starting in August 1942; by February 1943 the Red Cross was sending packages to all the Nazi concentration camps. From the Autumn of 1943 to May 1945, the Red Cross distributed 1,112,000 packages containing 4,500 tons of food to the Nazi concentration camps, including the Theresienstadt ghetto and the Auschwitz death camp. In addition, the Nazis allowed packages to be sent to the concentration camp prisoners from friends and relatives outside the camps.

In recent years, the International Red Cross has been severely criticized for giving the Nazis good reports after their inspections; they even praised the Nazis for their diligence in delivering the Red Cross packages despite the hardships of the war.

According to the Red Cross statistics, 99% of the American Prisoners of War in the German POW camps returned home after the war, due largely to the packages containing food and typhus vaccine which were delivered from America by the Red Cross right up to the end of the war.

The Soviet Union did not allow the Red Cross in any of their camps during the war because they had not signed the 1929 Geneva convention and they were not required to open their gulags (concentration camps) or Prisoner of War camps for inspection.

After the war, General Dwight Eisenhower signed a one-sentence order on August 4, 1945 which read "Effective immediately all members of the German forces held in US custody in the American zone of occupation in GERMANY will be considered as disarmed enemy forces and not as having the status of prisoners of war." The DEF status meant that the German soldiers who had surrendered would not be entitled to protection under the Geneva convention: no Red Cross inspections were allowed in the US prison camps after the war and Red Cross parcels for the defeated Germans were banned by the US War Department.

Even before the December 18, 1942 complaint by 12 allied governments, the Nazis had already turned the Theresienstadt ghetto into a propaganda tool to fool the rest of the world about their plans to exterminate all the Jews in Europe.

On Sept. 13, 1942, the Nazis had opened shops in Theresienstadt where the Jews could buy second-hand clothing and other goods. Eventually 8 such shops were opened.

On Dec. 8, 1942, the Nazis had opened a cafe, facing the main square in Theresienstadt, where the Jewish inmates could meet to socialize and listen to music.

The photograph below shows Neuegasse, the street where the Cafe and ghetto shops were located. On the left is the building where there was a store in which the prisoners could buy used clothing with camp money and the building on the right is where the Cafe was located. These buildings face the town square.

Antique Store is now located where the ghetto Cafe used to be

On May 12, 1943, a bank was opened in Theresienstadt and camp money was printed to pay the Jews for their labor in the ghetto factories. This money could be used at the ghetto cafe or to buy items at the ghetto shops. In order to give the impression to the outside world that Theresienstadt was a regular town and not a concentration camp, the Nazis decided in July 1943 to change the numbers and letters on the streets and buildings to names, so that any friends or relatives sending mail to the camp post office would not suspect anything. The camp name "Ghetto Theresienstadt" was changed to "Jewish Settlement Theresienstadt."

In the Spring of 1944, the Nazis began extensive improvements to the ghetto in preparation for the Red Cross visit. In their mission to impress the IRC delegates, they outdid themselves, and after the beautification project was completed, they were so proud of their handiwork that they made a movie of Theresienstadt entitled "Der Führer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt" or "The Leader gives the Jews a town as a gift."

Before the Red Cross visit, the town square in Theresienstadt had been fenced off and a large circus tent was erected there in May 1943. Inside the tent, over 1,000 ghetto Jews did factory work in the Kistenproduktion, which was the making of boxes. After the Red Cross requested an inspection, factory production was stopped by the end of 1943, and in the Spring of 1944 the fence and the tent were removed and grass and flowers were planted in the square. A music pavilion was built on the south side of the square, just across from the camp cafe. The cafe and the camp shops were improved for the inspection.

A playground was built for the children in the Stadt park, across from the present Ghetto Museum building. The most beautiful park in the town, Brunnen Park, was made public and the Jews were now allowed to use all four of the parks in the ghetto.

Stadt Park where the Nazis built a playground for the ghetto children

Brunnen Park in Theresienstadt

On the outskirts of the town, the Sokol building, formerly used to house Jews who were suffering from encephalitis, was changed into a social club for cultural events with a library for the use of the Jews and a Synagogue. A Columbarium to hold the ashes of the Jews who died in the camp was built near the crematorium and tombstones were placed on the graves in the cemetery. The beautiful 18th century barracks buildings were refurbished and improved inside and out.

With Theresienstadt now beautified, the next step was to relieve the overcrowding in the ghetto so that the IRC would not realize the actual inhuman living conditions there. In September 1943, December 1943 and May 1944, just before the scheduled visit, there was a total of seven transports on which 17,517 Jews were sent to the death camp at Auschwitz.

The Czech Jews from these transports were placed in a "family camp" at the Auschwitz II camp known as Birkenau. The men, women and children were allowed to stay together in contrast to the other prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau who had to live in separate fenced-off sections where the men and women were segregated from each other. The Czech Jews were allowed to wear civilian clothes instead of the blue and gray striped prison uniforms that the other inmates had to wear. Most importantly, they were allowed to send letters back to Theresienstadt to tell the others about how well they were being treated in the camp. Six months after it was opened, the "family camp" was closed and only 1,168 of the Theresienstadt prisoners survived. The rest are presumed to have perished in the gas chamber.

The Red Cross inspection of the camp lasted for six hours but the cultural events went on for a week. During the week of the inspection, there were numerous performances of the children's opera called Brundibar in the new cultural hall in the Sokol building.

A jazz band, called the Ghetto Swingers, played in the music pavilion in the square. This was a real concession by the Nazis since they had banned jazz or swing music in Germany. Hitler regarded swing as "degenerate" music because two of the leading musicians, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, were Jewish.

The Nazi concentration camps typically had an orchestra which played classical music as the prisoners marched to work or to the gas chambers. The Germans loved classical music and Germany was world famous for the cultural contributions of Beethoven, Bach and Brahms. One could say that the Nazis literally put down their violins in order to kill the Jews.

Music pavilion was built in the town square in front of the cafe

Unfortunately, most of the Theresienstadt Jews did not live to enjoy their new improved ghetto. In the fall of 1944, after the June Red Cross visit, the transports to Auschwitz began again. In Sept. 1944, there were approximately 30,000 prisoners living in Theresienstadt. Eleven transports, totaling 18,402 inmates of the ghetto, were sent to Auschwitz between September 28, 1944 and October 28, 1944, the date of the last transport to be sent to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Of the Jews sent to Auschwitz on these eleven transports, there were only 1,574 survivors. The rest died in the gas chamber, were worked to death or perished in the typhus epidemics which were rampant there. After these transports left, the number of Jews remaining in Theresienstadt was around 11,000, including 819 children under the age of 15.

On February 5, 1945, a transport of 1,200 Jews left Theresienstadt on passenger trains, bound for Switzerland, a neutral country in the war. Another transport of 623 Jews was sent to Sweden. By that time, the Germans realized that they were losing the war and they were trying to fool the Allies into thinking that they did not have a deliberate plan to kill all the Jews. It was around this time that the Allies were escalating their efforts to end the war by bombing German civilians in Nürnberg on January 2, 1945 and Dresden on February 13,1945. But unlike the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in order to force the Japanese to surrender, the Allied destruction of Germany's beautiful cities did not deter the Germans in their plan to annihilate European Jewry.

Three months after their inspection of Theresienstadt, the Red Cross visited the Auschwitz death camp in September 1944 but failed to notice that the purported shower rooms there were really gas chambers. In 1948, the Red Cross released a three volume report in which the findings on the Auschwitz visit were included: "Not only the washing places, but installations for baths, showers and laundry were inspected by the delegates. They had often to take action to have fixtures made less primitive, and to get them repaired or enlarged" (Vol.III, p. 594). Apparently the Red Cross representatives couldn't tell the difference between the fake shower heads in the gas chambers at Birkenau and real shower nozzles in a genuine shower room.

On March 5, 1945, Adolf Eichmann visited Theresienstadt to check out the camp before the next Red Cross visit which was scheduled for April 6, 1945. By then, there was complete chaos in Europe in the final days of the war; Theresienstadt had become shabby again because most of the inmates were elderly people or young children who were not able to work. Most of the able-bodied Jews had been sent on the transports to the death camp at Auschwitz, where there were also factories in which the Jews were being put to work for the German war effort. Eichmann ordered the town to be cleaned up again, and the ghetto passed the second Red Cross inspection with a good report.

Following the second inspection, on April 15, 1945, all the Danish Jews in the ghetto were transported back to Denmark with the help of the Red Cross. On May 3, 1945, the Nazis turned the whole Theresienstadt ghetto over to the Red Cross workers who now had the unpleasant task of trying to save the survivors from a raging typhus epidemic. Typhus is caused by body lice, and the Germans had tried unsuccessfully to control the lice in the death camps in Poland by using Zyklon B, the same chemical that they used to kill the Jews in the homicidal gas chambers.

Typhus had been brought into the Theresienstadt ghetto by 13,454 survivors of the eastern concentration camps who began arriving after April 20, 1945. Some of them had been sent to Auschwitz a few months earlier and were now returning. In the final days of the war, the Theresienstadt ghetto became a hell hole, where a typhus epidemic was totally raging out of control, just like the unfortunate Bergen-Belsen camp which the Nazis had voluntarily turned over to the British on April 15, 1945.

In the end, the whole world learned of the true story of the Theresienstadt ghetto and the genocide of the Jews, in spite of the Nazi beautification program, or maybe because of it.

Death Statistics of Theresienstadt Ghetto

History of Theresienstadt Ghetto

Early History of Theresienstadt