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A Gruesome Ghost Dance

Ivan Vojtech Fric/US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Jews in the camp-ghetto of Theresienstadt, Czechoslovakia, January 1944

Theresienstadt, the concentration camp about forty miles north of Prague, held a unique place in the Nazis’ campaign of extermination. While its main purpose was to gather Jews from Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Germany for deportation to the death camps in Poland, it was presented to the outside world as a self-governing Jewish settlement, to support the fiction that the removal of Jews from German society was being carried out in a humane fashion. The camp had an internal Jewish administration, which, under the absolute control of the SS, had an important part in carrying out both of these tasks. As the Czech writer and historian H.G. Adler says, this made Theresienstadt “into the most gruesome ghost dance in the history of Hitler’s persecution of the Jews.”

To begin with the numbers: between November 1941 and April 1945, approximately 141,000 people were sent to Theresienstadt. During this period about 33,500 died there, mostly of disease and malnutrition. Eighty-eight thousand were deported from Theresienstadt to the East, of whom 3,500 survived; the others were murdered in Auschwitz or other camps. A further 2,400 were released to neutral countries or escaped; and there were 17,500 survivors in the camp when the ss relinquished control to the Red Cross, shortly before Germany’s surrender. In the final weeks of the war thousands of inmates were transferred to Theresienstadt from other concentration camps, but of the total number who had been sent there originally, slightly fewer than one in six survived the war.

One of those survivors was Adler (1910–1988), a writer and scholar from Prague whose first language, like that of many Czech Jews, was German, and who after the war had a productive career as a poet and novelist in that language, though he lived in England. He and his family were deported to Theresienstadt in February 1942. His wife, Gertrud, a physician and chemist, served as a doctor and headed the medical laboratory in the camp, but he held only menial or clerical positions in the camp’s workforce. In October 1944, they were sent to Auschwitz in one of the last transports from Theresienstadt. Gertrud could have lived but would not leave her mother, and died with her in the gas chamber.1 Adler, selected for forced labor, survived Auschwitz and several other camps until the end of the war, after which he returned to Prague. He had lost eighteen close relatives in the Holocaust.

When Adler entered Theresienstadt he did not expect to survive, but resolved that if he did, he would write about it in detail. He left notes and materials behind when he was sent to Auschwitz and recovered them later. He accumulated more material after his release, before emigrating to England in anticipation of the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1947. The major study that emerged from this research, Theresienstadt 1941–1945, was originally published in German in 1955, with an expanded second edition appearing in 1960. It was reprinted in 2005 with an afterword by his son, Jeremy Adler, who was born after the war, and has now finally been translated into English. Running to more than eight hundred carefully annotated pages, including numerous original documents and records, it is a monumental work of information, analysis, and moral reflection, painful to read and historically indispensable.2

The book is divided into three sections—History, Sociology, and Psychology—of which the second, with twelve chapters on every aspect of the camp, from nutrition to culture, is by far the longest. Half of the book consists of primary sources—official documents, administrative communications, tables of statistics, organizational and legal protocols, and quotations from the testimony of others who had been in the camp—rather than Adler’s own words. The avalanche of data embeds the reader in the reality of a pathological situation and serves Adler’s intention to treat the subject as if he were a cultural anthropologist immersed in an alien community. But when it comes to his own observations and commentary, this is not value-free social science. What Adler writes is pervaded with moral judgment, and the attempt to draw a moral lesson from the human response to these unspeakable circumstances is a chief aim of his work.

In the autumn of 1941 deportations to Poland began from Germany, Austria, and the occupied “Protectorate” of Bohemia and Moravia (corresponding to the present-day Czech Republic minus the Sudetenland, which had been annexed by Germany under the Munich agreement of 1938). Though the extermination camps were being built and began operation in December 1941, the Nazis managed to keep them secret for some time. Nevertheless, the unknown fate of those deported to the East made “transport” the most terrifying word for every Jew.

To the official Jewish organization in Prague, the Jűdische Kultusgemeinde (JKG), the establishment of a nearby camp seemed like a safer alternative. Adler writes:

The men of the JKG told themselves that anything was better than deportation to Poland, and, like the “Reich Association” in Berlin [the Jewish organization there], they hoped at least to delay the deportations. The course of events would disappoint these hopes.

From the beginning, there were only two possibilities: (1) They might have decided in March 1939 [when the Nazis dismantled Czechoslovakia and marched into Prague], even at the cost of their lives, to dissolve all Jewish communities and institutions and destroy all records and documents. (2) They would have to follow policies aimed at delaying the worst and cleverly negotiating and easing the situation. This second path was followed to the bitter end, with ever more terrible entanglements, and it led to failure.

The first course was advocated by some Jewish officials, but the second won out. In spite of the complete failure of the second strategy to achieve what the JKG leaders hoped, Adler refrains from condemning them for this choice; his blame is focused elsewhere.

Theresienstadt was a walled garrison town created under the Habsburg Empire. Its barracks made it easy to pack in large numbers of prisoners when it was emptied out and converted to a ghetto. The maximum population of the camp, in September 1942, was over 58,000. (It is now an ordinary civilian town called Terezín, with a population of about three thousand.) The overcrowding and the sanitary conditions were atrocious. Men and women were housed separately, except for members of the Jewish Council of Elders, the internal administration of the camp, who were allowed to live with their families.

The camp was controlled by a small number of SS—about twenty—and guarded by 120 Czech gendarmes. Most prisoners had almost no contact with the SS, and the SS rarely killed a prisoner inside the camp. Only the head of the Jewish Council of Elders and his deputy were allowed to speak to the camp commandant, to make daily reports and receive orders. (The Council of Elders came initially from the Prague JKG, but after transports arrived from Germany and Austria in June 1942, they were joined by Jewish officials from Berlin and Vienna.3) Orders from the SS were delivered orally, never in writing, but they were carried out by the Jewish administration through a blizzard of written instructions, forms, records, and memoranda so elaborate that the problem of insufficient supplies of paper was a frequent complaint.

Amid all this coercive machinery the rich culture of the Central European Jews continued to express itself. Musical instruments had been brought by some prisoners, and performances were possible; composers continued to compose, artists to draw, and writers to write. There were frequent lectures by specialists in many fields; Adler himself arranged a commemoration of Kafka to celebrate his sixtieth birthday. But an elaborate bureaucracy controlled the material and practical conditions of life in the camp, and it created the possibility of dreadful corruption, which in this setting was equivalent to murder.

The main obsession of prisoners, apart from not being on the next transport, was food. The diet was barely sufficient to sustain life, and there was persistent theft from the miserable common food supply by those who controlled its preparation and distribution, for themselves and their allies—with the result that others, especially the helpless old, were left to starve. A few members of the administration strove to prevent these abuses, with only occasional success. It is one of Adler’s many examples of the general failure of humanity and decency in a desperate situation:

Even if they held out physically, people fell almost irretrievably into a struggle of all against all, in which only people with a deeply anchored morality could keep from sacrificing their souls.

A different kind of moral failure appeared in the way the administration exercised its power to determine who would be deported to the East when transports were ordered by the SS:

The story of a transport or a series of transports within a short period went according to the following pattern. Eichmann gave orders to the SS “office” in Theresienstadt on the number of transports and persons, the date, general guidelines, and “special instructions.” The camp leader, sometimes together with other SS officers, gave more specific orders to the Jewish Elder, who was told what age groups, countries of origin, and other categories of people to choose or to protect…. The SS went no further in choosing the victims but left this entirely, or largely, to the Jews.

The choice was made by a “Transport Department,” which was part of the central administration. Until the final transports in the autumn of 1944, when two thirds of the inmates were shipped to Auschwitz in the course of a month, the members of the Council of Elders and their families were exempt from deportation, and others tried desperately to secure positions in the camp’s workforce or bureaucracy that made them indispensable.

Even without knowing about the gas chambers, everyone feared what awaited them in the East. Then, early in 1943, the leaders of the internal administration learned the truth through some escapees from Auschwitz, but kept it a secret—this was done even by Rabbi Leo Baeck, the honorary chairman of the Council of Elders, whom Adler singles out as a person of exceptional humanity and rectitude.

The decision to hide the truth strikes me as comprehensible but appalling—though none of us can know what we would have done in the circumstances. Adler, who must have learned about it after the war, seems unable to come to a judgment about the Elders’ decision; he reserves his condemnation for individuals who, knowing the truth, not only tried to spare their friends but used the transports to get rid of people who were giving them trouble. For example, after Vladimir Weiss, a member of the “Detective Department,” sent the Jewish Elder Paul Eppstein a detailed complaint of flagrant corruption in the allocation of food, he and his family disappeared on the next transport.

Adler also indicates that even someone like himself, who deliberately avoided any position of authority, nevertheless belonged to the “community of guilt” that the camp created. This feeling is obviously genuine, and it seems to refer to any form of participation in a structure whose ultimate aim was murder.

It is hard to guess what the Nazis would have said about the disappearance of the Jews from Europe if they had won the war. The policy of extermination was concealed from the time of its formulation at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, and Theresienstadt was described at the time by Adolf Eichmann as an element in the process that would allow them to “save face towards the outside world.” The deception included forcing some of those who arrived at Auschwitz to write reassuring postcards to relatives left behind, which were sent at intervals after their authors were gassed. Secrecy about the outcome was of course useful in making the deportations go smoothly; but there seems also to have been a sense that this project, unlike the campaign of military conquest or the preliminary policies of racist exclusion, depended on values that even the Nazis were unwilling to proclaim publicly.

Theresienstadt served as camouflage in more than one way. It was described as a retirement colony for deportees from German territory too old to be sent for labor in the East. It received a certain number of “notables”—prominent Jews known to the outside world, whose fate might arouse interest beyond their friends and relatives. On two occasions, in 1944 and before it was liberated in 1945, the camp (described as a “Jewish Settlement Area”) underwent a program of “beautification” in order to be shown to a few foreigners, including representatives of the Red Cross. And it was the subject of a propaganda film.

The first beautification of Theresienstadt, during which 7,500 of the camp’s inmates were sent on to Auschwitz to reduce the population density, included not only polishing the streets and the outsides of buildings, planting 1,200 rosebushes, building a “children’s pavilion” with a sandbox, wading pool, and carousel, and doubling the food ration. It also involved staging concerts, cabaret and theatrical performances, a soccer match, and even a trial for theft before a Jewish court. Everything that would be seen was carefully planned and rehearsed.

The first international visitors, in June 1944, were two representatives of the Danish government and a Swiss representative of the International Red Cross. (There were four hundred Danish Jews in the camp who had not managed to escape the Nazis when the Danes, warned of an imminent roundup, accomplished their remarkable feat of evacuating more than seven thousand Jews from Denmark to neutral Sweden.) The Jewish Elder Eppstein was presented as mayor of the town, dressed in a morning coat and derby, though he had a black eye from a blow delivered by the camp commandant a few days earlier. His carefully scripted speech to the visitors under the eyes of the SS, and their guided tour of the camp, left them with no way of gathering independent evidence.

One would think that all this might have induced wholesale skepticism on the part of the visitors. In fact, the Danes produced cautious reports that received almost no attention. The report of the Red Cross representative, on the other hand, took everything he had seen and heard at face value but was suppressed by his superiors in Geneva as evidently much too favorable. So in a sense the masquerade had worked, but it yielded no propaganda. That September, a film was made depicting life in the camp under the same idyllic aspect. (It was produced by three prisoners with show business backgrounds, including the well-known actor and filmmaker Kurt Gerron, who was deported to Auschwitz and gassed after the film’s completion.)

Intended for foreign consumption, the film was never distributed, though excerpts were included in a German newsreel, contrasting the easy life of these Jews (most of them dead by then) with the hardships being endured by German soldiers. It is doubtful that Theresienstadt had much of a sanitizing effect on Germany’s image in the outside world. By the time of the second Red Cross visit, in April 1945, Eppstein had been shot by the SS, the war was almost over, and the visitors were not fooled, in spite of a renewed beautification effort.

As the inevitability of Germany’s defeat became clear, the Nazi leadership split over what should be done with the Jews who still survived in Theresienstadt and other camps. Heinrich Himmler, of all people, presented himself as a moderate, and hoped to use some Jews as a bargaining chip in negotiations; in February 1945 1,200 Jews from Theresienstadt were transferred to Switzerland with Himmler’s authorization. Others, following Hitler, pursued extermination to the end. Eichmann was one of these: he wanted all the remaining Jews in Theresienstadt to be killed before the Russians arrived, but his plans were not carried out.

Adler’s book is not autobiographical, but it is highly personal. What obsesses him is the moral and psychological interpretation of human conduct in extreme circumstances. He believes there is something of universal value to be learned from what he has observed. In a letter to a friend written just after his return to Prague in 1945 and quoted in the afterword, he makes the following extraordinary statement: “I have experienced some terrible things, but since I experienced them, it is not something I regret, and I would not do without them.” This is Nietzsche’s “love of fate” with a vengeance.

Given what Adler went through, it is not surprising that his view of human beings and human institutions is profoundly pessimistic—though he may have been predisposed in this direction. He writes in his conclusion:

Paradigmatically, and in rare concentration, the developments, experiences, and crimes at the camp in Theresienstadt contained the sum of all suffering and evil that could and actually do otherwise, with a wider dispersion and less visibly, operate in other communities. The unique aspect of the camp we have considered is that everything skewed, dangerous, foolish, and mean that proliferates in humans and human institutions, often in secret and ornamented with aesthetic conventions, emerged in Theresienstadt so uncannily and in such unmerciful nakedness that no one…was spared insight into the prevailing situation.

The one positive conclusion he drew from his dark experiences is that there is nonetheless a ground of morality that is in principle always available. Adler calls this personal quality “humaneness” (Menschlichkeit, also translatable as “humanity”)—an inner resource that enables individuals of sufficient strength to act morally in any circumstance, however horrible. That is the standard by which he judges the camp officials and their entanglement with the Nazis:

The Jewish leadership had an enormously difficult task. Not even the greatest integrity could have prevented the sum of its decisions, in an absolute sense, from being bad. No freedom but self-destruction would have remained to the leadership had it offered the kind of resistance that would have countered absolute evil with absolute good. But an infinite amount of good could have been done within the existing boundaries. The SS’s special plans to preserve this camp might have been better used to the advantage of thousands of people. Here, apart from its purely tragic responsibility, begins the leadership’s much more terrible guilt…. A much more determined battle was possible against dirt, corruption, theft, and the worst kind of protectionism…. Almost nothing that could have improved these circumstances was done.

Adler blames them not for serving as instruments of the Nazis, which was the result of a tragic choice to cooperate in the vain hope of slowing the deportations, but for the failure of humanity in the way most of them conducted themselves in office.

That is why, in spite of his own severity, Adler objected strongly when Hannah Arendt cited his book in support of her indictment of Jewish officials for collaboration. When Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem appeared in German translation, Adler published a scathing response, “What Does Hannah Arendt Know about Eichmann and the ‘Final Solution’?”4 In maintaining that Jewish officials could have impeded the exterminations by acting differently, Adler charges, Arendt completely failed to understand their trapped situation. He also captures her imperceptiveness about Eichmann. In his appearance at the trial, no traces of his demonic character remained, because it had come into effect only with the enormous power conferred on him by the Nazi regime:

[It is] the Eichmann who acted in the Third Reich…, not the scatter-brained defendant 15 or 16 years later, who demands the attention of posterity…. Alone, most of the evil have little power, they need their Hitler, with whose downfall and without an equally strong replacement they are rendered impotent and also lose their demonic character, burnt out, disintegrated, shadows of themselves and finally as survivors, pitiful and banal.

Adler is not of the view that the Holocaust was a unique and incomprehensible cataclysm in the history of humanity, as it is sometimes seen. He believes it resulted from general characteristics of both individuals and political institutions that are still in place:

Theresienstadt is still possible. It can be imposed on a massive scale, and, in the future, the Jews—who in mankind’s overall history of suffering so often have had to serve as harbingers and as those most especially at others’ mercy—might not be the only victims. Theresienstadt stands not as an experiment but as the writing on the wall, and it is more alluring than our disgust at the horror is yet willing to admit.

The history of ideologically driven massacres and persecutions in the intervening years would not have surprised him. Organized power repeatedly creates the opportunity for evil on a large scale, which heroic individual humaneness is too weak and rare to resist.

In his informative and illuminating afterword, Jeremy Adler says that his father’s political outlook was anarchistic. He seems to have believed that morality depends on the inner resources of individuals, and cannot be found in institutions. But no inner source of human decency can solve these problems by itself. Even if H.G. Adler is right that individual morality can operate under the most monstrous of coercive institutions, that does not mean that it is our only, or even our chief, moral resource. Other coercive institutions, such as due process of law, can themselves embody morality—and in a way that relieves the pressure on individual morality, whose fragility he so unsparingly observes.

Adler’s encounter with the outer limits of human wickedness and debasement led him to a fully justified fear of human nature, and his perception of the danger of collective power led him to a distrust of the state that even residence in the relatively benign society of postwar Britain did not dislodge. Yet liberal democratic institutions, with their guarantee of individual rights, are the best protection so far devised against both the struggle of all against all and the bottomless capacity for collectively empowered evil in human nature. If the fragile humaneness that is also part of our nature can bring people together in attachment to such institutions, that, rather than reliance on individual morality, is probably our best hope.

  1. 1

    The Nazis have left us a vast legacy of what is unbearable to imagine. Another example reported by Adler: in July 1944, six hundred women from Theresienstadt “went voluntarily to the gas chamber with their children, even though they could have been included in labor kommandos without the children.” 

  2. 2

    Adler also published a trilogy of novels based on his experiences, but they are modernist works written in a stream-of-consciousness style, totally different from the dense factuality of Theresienstadt. They have recently been translated into English by Peter Filkins: Panorama, The Journey, and The Wall, all published by Random House. 

  3. 3

    One of them, Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein of Vienna, was the subject of a film by Claude Lanzmann, The Last of the Unjust, reviewed by Mark Lilla in these pages, December 5, 2013. He was the last chief elder of Theresienstadt and survived the war. Adler’s attitude toward him is complex: he describes Murmelstein as “smart, clear, superior, cynical, sly, and far superior to his colleagues in intelligence, and especially in cunning.” But Adler is repelled by his icy, autocratic character and the absence of any sign of compassion. 

  4. 4

    “Was Weiß Hannah Arendt von Eichmann und der ‘Endlösung’?,” Allgemeine Wochenzeitung der Juden, November 20, 1964. Before this their relations had been cordial. He cited several of her writings, including The Origins of Totalitarianism, and she tried without success to interest American publishers in his book.