Theresienstadt Concentration Camp Documents, 1939–1945
The Theresienstadt Concentration Camp Documents collection at the Robert D. Farber University Archives and Special Collections department consists of 200 daily bulletins of the ‘Jewish Self-Administration’ of the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia from 1942 to 1944. These documents contain orders relating to a range of issues, from housing and personnel in the camp to lists of Jews to be kept at the camp or to be deported to work and death camps in Poland and elsewhere.
The collection was donated to Brandeis University in 1973 by Emma Goldscheider Fuchs, a Holocaust survivor who was held at the camp along with her first husband and two children. Fuchs’ husband, Alfred Goldscheider, managed to collect and hide the documents while working in a minor administrative post within the Jewish Self-Administration of the camp. Alfred and the couple’s son Hanus died in German custody, and when Emma and her daughter Nina were freed by Allied troops they returned to Czechoslovakia to attempt to reclaim their home and business. Finding their factory under the control of the new communist government, Emma and Nina departed for the United States with a single package in tow — the documents from Theresienstadt. It was not until after the war that Emma Goldscheider Fuchs knew the full extent of the crimes that had been perpetrated against Europe’s Jewish population. Although she did not realize their full import at the time, the documents that she managed to save are among the most complete collections of administrative documents from Theresienstadt in existence. Goldscheider-Fuchs’ decision to donate the collection to Brandeis was informed by her desire that the collection be available both to scholars for research purposes and to Jewish students, in the words of Professor Jacob Cohen, “so that they can abstract the spiritual values behind them.”
The German-run camp in the ghetto of Theresienstadt, Czechoslovakia served as a hybrid concentration camp and transit camp for European Jews from November 1941 to May 1945. While initially a transit camp for Czech Jews, it soon came to have a more specialized role as a holding camp for Jews from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia who were either elderly, disabled due to military service, or famous for their cultural and artistic work. From Theresienstadt, most inmates were sent to their deaths in Auschwitz and other death camps. Theresienstadt was unique in its role as a subject of Nazi propaganda. During the Second World War, the Nazi state sought to hide the full extent of its crimes against the Jewish population of Europe and other peoples it deemed inferior (Roma, homosexuals, habitual criminals, etc.). The fiction that the state sought to promote was that Jews were being sent to occupied Eastern Europe solely to take part in forced labor. In order to support that version of events, Theresienstadt was maintained as a camp for the elderly and others who could not be expected to perform hard labor. Incidents including an infamous visit by the International Red Cross to the camp in 1942 provided Nazi authorities with the opportunity to present a fantasy version of camp life by painting houses, landscaping and staging cultural events. Soon after, deportations to the east restarted. Theresienstadt thus helped the Nazi regime to obscure the mass murder being perpetrated in Eastern Europe. Likewise, material conditions in the camp, including rations and availability of essential goods, were deliberately kept at low levels to facilitate the death of inmates from starvation and disease.
Documents from this collection detail regulations to be followed by inmates and camp staff alike, as well as statistics and reports on the events in the camp. Tagesbefehl (Order of the Day) Number 185, distributed August 1, 1942, reveals several aspects of daily life at the camp and provides evidence of the deliberate manner in which material misery was forced on the inmates there. The document begins with an order “to all inmates of the ghetto” in the name of Theresienstadt’s Ältestenrat (Council of Jewish Elders). Noting recent cases of theft, the order outlines sanctions that can be taken against inmates in the event that they are caught stealing. It warns the “sharpest means” will be used to discourage theft, including “not only with deprivation of freedom and reduction of rations, but also with deprivation of belongings and goods, branding and other harsh measures.” Given the poverty of most of the ghetto’s residents, stealing was often a means for survival. Responding to theft in this way thus magnified the effects of existing material deprivation. As if the consequences of this sort of policy were not already clear, the order continues by stipulating that, “The movable goods of those convicted of theft, down to their clothing, underwear and shoes that they are wearing, the necessary bedclothes and necessary eating utensils, will be forfeited for the benefit of the community.”
Although Tagesbefehl 185 consists of just one double-sided page, it is unusually informative. In addition to revealing measures taken against thieves, it also refers to the “Ostentransport” — the deportation of Jews in the ghetto to concentration and death camps in the east, especially in Poland and Ukraine. According to the document, one such transport was planned for August 4th. Most of those who were sent east from Theresienstadt went to their deaths, either by gas, bullets, overwork or starvation. Other orders contain lists of those to be deported and those to be retained at the camp, which according to Professor Jacob Cohen “now can be translated as ‘who will live and who will die.’” Between January and October 1942, approximately 42,005 people were deported from Theresienstadt to the east, mostly to their deaths. Between October 1942 and October 1944, an additional 46,750 Jews were deported from the camp to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
In addition to a brief reference to the movement of Jewish inmates out of Theresienstadt, the document notes the arrival of new inmates from Germany and Czechoslovakia. It mentions the arrival on July 30th of 50 people from Munich, 968 from Dortmund, 100 from Berlin and 1,000 from Prague, as well as the arrival of an additional 100 from Berlin on July 31st. The second half of the document relates births and deaths in the camp, clearly demonstrating the effects of the harsh conditions there. Along with one birth, it lists 47 recent deaths. Each deceased person is listed by name, birth year and the number of the transport with which they arrived at the camp. Several facts about those listed in this section are worthy of note. To begin with, many are listed with the middle name Sara or Israel, names that German Jews were forced to adopt beginning in 1939. This is one way to tell German Jews from Jews of other nationalities. Second, the birth years of those who died are all between 1850 and 1896. This means that in 1942, they would have been between 46 and 92 years old. This underlines the function of the camp as a place for older Jews who could not be expected to perform hard labor, although the fact that many of those who died were in their 50s or early 60s may also testify to the harshness of life in the camp.
Another particularly instructive document of life at the camp is the December 15, 1942 Rundschreiben (Newsletter) of the building management department of the camp’s internal administration. While primarily concerned with issues such as housing, building maintenance and fire prevention, it also contains valuable statistics including a head-count of inmates at the camp (47,878 people). It also lists planned leisure activities, including comedy shows, operettas and readings from the Bible and Jewish literature. The strangeness of these events occurring amid such suffering and in the context of an ongoing genocide, points to the unique nature of the camp at Theresienstadt and its complex propaganda function. It is evidence of the Nazi administration’s willingness to allow for the continuation of Jewish cultural life within the camp, a cultural life that the regime held up as evidence that the Jews were being treated humanely. It is also evidence of the resilience of the Jewish community in the camp and its desire to maintain a degree of normalcy, collective identity and hope in the very shadow of death. Also to the end of making Theresienstadt appear to be a normal civilian city, the S.S. allowed the Jewish Self-Administration to run a bank which printed unique paper money adorned with Stars of David and images of Moses holding the tablets containing the Ten Commandments. The administrative file for this collection contains examples of these bills, which were distributed to inmates beginning in 1943 in order to give the appearance of a normal economy within the camp.
Later documents from the collection reveal the continuing harshness of life in the camp as the war and the Holocaust dragged on. Tagesbefehl 397, dated January 7, 1944, reveals the difficult material conditions in the camp. It reminds readers of the strict punishments that awaited those who failed to turn off lights in accordance with the curfew. It also reminds them that street lights are only to be turned on and off by officials of the Ghetto Watch, likewise threatening strict punishments for anyone who tampers with the lighting. The September 14, 1944 Mitteilungen (Message) of the Council of Jewish Elders mentions general administrative questions such as curfews and work schedules, also notes the deportation of two “mixed Jews” (Mischlinge) to a concentration camp as punishment for an escape attempt.
These documents are likely to interest students of the history of the Holocaust, of the history and culture of German and Czech Jewry, and those who wish to better understand the lived experience of the Nazi genocide of European Jews. The documents are especially illuminating in that they reveal some of the contours of Jewish self-administration in the camp. Yet we should not be misled by the harshness of policies carried out in the name of the Council of Jewish Elders. Afterall, the Jewish administration could not be truly independent, and was in fact responsible to the S.S. Yet it could provide a front by which the Nazis could disguise their violent aims and even shift some of the blame for harsh conditions onto the Jews themselves. One should take care in interpreting these documents, given the will of the Nazi regime to make Theresienstadt appear normal for outside observers and thus to obscure the extent of state-sponsored mass murder occurring in Europe. Even so, they attest not only to the suffering of the camp inmates, but also to the unusual resilience of religious and cultural life there — the will of thousands of people to carry on their lives amid incredible hardships.
- Helen E. Sullivan, “Nazi Documents Presented to Goldfarb Library,” Brandeis University Gazette, vol. 11, no. 5, January 31, 1974.
- “Nazi Death Camp Papers Given to Brandeis Library,” Boston Globe, January 10, 1974.
- “Theresienstadt,” U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Holocaust Encyclopedia.
- “Tagesbefehl No. 185,” 8-1-1942, Box August 1942–February 1943, Theresienstadt concentration camp documents, 1939–1945, Robert. D. Farber University Archives and Special Collections Department, Brandeis University.
- “Nazi Death Camp Papers Given to Brandeis Library,” Boston Globe, January 10,1974.
- “Theresienstadt,” U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Holocaust Encyclopedia.
- Margalit Shlain, “The Bank of the Jewish Self-Administration.”
- “Mitteilungen der Juedischen Selbstverwaltung Theresienstadt,” 9-14-1944, Box: Original Copies 1944, Theresienstadt concentration camp documents, 1939–1945, Robert D. Farber University Archives and Special Collections Department, Brandeis University.