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…

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