|Theresienstadt which had been founded at the end of the 18th century as a garrison town by the Emperor Joseph II., in the Nazi period served as prison and ghetto. Situated northwest of Prague, the smaller fortress was used as a Gestapo prison, whereas the larger fortress was turned into a ghetto for 140,000 Jews, mainly from Bohemia and Moravia, but some of them also from the German Reich, from Austria, the Netherlands and from Denmark. The ghetto was under the jurisdiction of the »Zentralstelle für jüdische Auswanderung« (Central Office for Jewish Emigration) in Prague which in turn reported to the Reich Security Main Office(RSHA). Guarded by Czech gendarmes, the ghetto was run by the SS and commanded by Austrians Siegfried Seidl (November 1941 to July 1943), Anton Burger (July 1943 to February 1944) and Karl Rahm (February 1944 to May 1945).
People in the ghetto lived in constant fear of deportation to one of the extermination camps Treblinka, Auschwitz or Maly Trostinec. At the same time conditions of life and work continued to deteriorate. As in other camps there was also in Theresienstadt a Jewish Council of Elders, chosen by the SS, under the chairmen (in that order) Jakob Edelstein, Paul Eppstein, and Benjamin Murmelstein. They had to draw up lists for deportations, to distribute food, clothes, and work, and to keep up order in general.
Thanks to the great number of artists, writers and academics among the prisoners there was a very active cultural life in the ghetto, which the SS not only tolerated but even capitalised upon. When at the end of 1943 the first facts about the extermination camps became internationally known, the Nazi leadership decided to allow the International Commitee of the Red Cross (ICRC) a visit to Theresienstadt. In preparation of this event thousands of prisoners were deported to Auschwitz in order to reduce the overcrowding in the ghetto. The ICRC-delegation in July 1944 was shown the Potemkin facade of a normal town with pseudo-shops, cafés, kindergardens, a school and even a bank. But that visit changed nothing as far as the reality of the ghetto was concerned. Hunger, the lack of sanitary installations, and inadequate clothing led to thousands of deaths. Of the roughly 140,000 people deported to Theresienstadt, 33,000 died there, 88,000 were taken to extermination camps and murdered. Only 1900 were still alive when the ghetto was liberated on 7 May 1945.
For the most deportees Theresienstadt ghetto was – provided they did not die as a result of the appaling living conditions there – only an interim on their way to the extermination camps. The deportations from Theresienstadt took place in five stages:
Apart from these large-scale transports, smaller deportations took place, whose destinations we do not always know.
Of the more than 15,000 deportees from Vienna and from Bohemia and Moravia about 7500 were later transported to extermination camps and murdered. Over 6200 Viennese Jews died in Theresienstadt itself from the deprivations they had to suffer and the ensuing diseases.