In its existence more than 155 thousand jews passed through while 35.440 perished in the ghetto and 88.000 were deported by train mainly to Treblinka and Auschwitz extermination camps in Poland.
Emperor Joseph II of Austria founded Terezin at the end of the 18th century (between the years of 1780 and 1790) as a robust fortress system to protect Bohemia from the northwest.
The system's core is a Main Fortress containing a town, the Small Fortress ahead of it, and a fortified tract. The entire fortified tract occupies 67 ha, not including an artificial 158 ha floodable basin. The eastern part of the city was built on the swamp land using oak piles and grids filled in with stone.
On June 10, 1940, the Gestapo took control of Terezin and set up the prison in the Small Fortress. By November 24, 1941, the Main Fortress was turned into a ghetto. To outsiders, it was presented by the Nazis as a model Jewish settlement, but in reality it was a concentration camp and transit camp for Czech Jews. Although some survivors claim the population reached 75,000, official records place the highest figure on September 18, 1942, at 58,491 in Kasernes (barracks) designed to accommodate 7,000 combat troops.
The camp was established under the order of the SS-Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA) in 1941. The administration of the main camp was under the authority of the SS-Wirtschafts-Verwaltungshauptamt (WVHA), which oversaw the SS officers and soldiers who were responsible for camp administration. The security within the camp was provided by guard battalions of the SS-TV and police battalion troops of the Ordnungspolizei. An internal police force, run by the Jewish inmates themselves, was known as the Ordnungsdienst and answered directly to the SS. The camp also made use of local Czech Gendarmerie guards who collaborated with the Germans in the enslavement, deportation and murder of Jews.
During the camp's existence, three officers served as Camp Commandant: Siegfried Seidl, Anton Burger, and Karl Rahm.
Like in other European ghettos, a Jewish Council governed the ghetto. In Theresienstadt this was known as the "Cultural Council" and eventually known by the residents as the "Jewish self-government of Theresienstadt". Three Elders controlled the ghetto:
Jakob Edelstein - polish and former head of the Prague Jewish community; deported and killed in Auschwitz;
Paul Eppstein - german and speaker of the Reichsvereinigung der Juden in Germany, killed after he informed the people being deported of what was awaiting them in the "East";
Benjamin Murmelstein - Vienna Rabbi;
Theresienstadt served an important propaganda function for the Germans. The publicly stated purpose for the deportation of the Jews from Germany was their "resettlement to the east", where they would be compelled to perform forced labor. Since it seemed implausible that elderly Jews could be used for forced labor, the Nazis used the Theresienstadt ghetto to hide the nature of the deportations. In Nazi propaganda, Theresienstadt was cynically described as a "spa town" where elderly German Jews could "retire" in safety. The deportations to Theresienstadt were, however, part of the Nazi strategy of deception. The ghetto was in reality a collection center for deportations to ghettos and killing centers in Nazi-occupied eastern Europe.
Despite the terrible living conditions and the constant threat of deportation, Theresienstadt had a highly developed cultural life. Outstanding Jewish artists, mainly from Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Germany, created drawings and paintings, some of them clandestine depictions of the ghetto's harsh reality. Writers, professors, musicians, and actors gave lectures, concerts, and theater performances. The ghetto maintained a lending library of 60,000 volumes.
Fifteen thousand children passed through Theresienstadt. Although forbidden to do so, they attended school. They painted pictures, wrote poetry, and otherwise tried to maintain a vestige of normalcy. Approximately 90 percent of these children perished in death camps.
Succumbing to pressure following the deportation of Danish Jews to Theresienstadt, the Germans permitted the Danish Red Cross and International Red Cross to visit in June 23, 1944 also in order to dispel rumors about the extermination camps. It was all an elaborate hoax. The Germans intensified deportations from the ghetto shortly before the visit, and the ghetto itself was "beautified". Gardens were planted, houses painted, and barracks renovated. The Nazis staged social and cultural events for the visiting dignitaries.
The red cross commission included E. Juel-Henningsen, the head physician at the Danish Ministry of Health, and Franz Hvass, the top civil servant at the Danish Foreign Ministry. Dr. Paul Eppstein was instructed by the SS to appear in the role of the mayor of Theresienstadt.
Once the visit was over, the Germans resumed deportations from Theresienstadt, which did not end until October 1944.
In addition to using Theresienstadt as a model for the Red Cross, the Nazis also made a propaganda film there. Production of the film began on February 26, 1944. Directed by Jewish prisoner Kurt Gerron (a director, cabaret performer, and actor who appeared with Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel), it was meant to show how well the Jews lived under the "benevolent" protection of the Third Reich.
After the shooting of the film, most of the cast and even the filmmaker himself were eventually deported to Auschwitz. Gerron was murdered by gas chamber on October 18, 1944. The film was not released at the time, but was edited into pieces and only segments of it have remained.
Often called The Führer Gives a Village to the Jews, the correct name of the film is: Theresienstadt. Ein Dokumentarfilm aus dem jüdischen Siedlungsgebiet (Terezin: A Documentary Film of the Jewish Resettlement).
On May 1, 1945, control of the camp was transferred from the Germans to the Red Cross. SS Commandant Rahm and the rest of the SS fled on May 5 and 6. On May 8, 1945, Terezín was liberated by Soviet troops.
After the victory of the Allies in 1945, Theresienstadt was used by Czech partisans and former inmates to hold German SS personnel and civilians in retaliation for their atrocities.
Heinrich Jöckel, SS-Hauptsturmführer, Commandant, in 1946 hanged; Wilhelm Schmidt, November 12, 1946 hanged; Rudolf Burian, overseer, 1946 hanged; Anton Malloth (1912–2002), overseer; Albert Neubauer, overseer, 1946 hanged; Stefan Rojko, overseer, 1963 sentenced by the District Court of Graz to life imprisonment for killing and abuse resulting in death of political prisoners and Jews; Kurt Wachholz, overseer, East Berlin court in 1968 sentenced him to death; Julius Viel, in the so-called "Ravensburg war crimes trial" in 2001 sentenced to 12 years in prison.
In July 1945 the camp shifted under the control of the Czechoslovak Ministry of Interior. The new commander appointed was Otakar Kálal. From 1946 on, the inmates were gradually transferred to Germany and Terezín more and more turned into a hub for the forced migration of Germans from the Czech lands into Germany.
A small exhibition currently commemorates the history of Terezín as internment camp for Germans.