February 19, 2014

Portrait of a Wily Holocaust Survivor

Theresienstadt was called Hitler’s “gift to the Jews.” In an 18th-century military town some 40 miles north of Prague, this “model ghetto” was established to show the world that life in a concentration camp was practically halcyon. Grown-ups lingered over delicious meals between fulfilling workdays and evening concerts or lectures. Children devoured sweets. Soccer matches were played in the town square.
That was the brief, meticulously staged show — the “embellishment,” as it was called by a survivor — created in 1944 for inspectors from the International Red Cross and, more significant, for a propaganda film screened that year that had been ordered up by Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Holocaust.
Beyond the cameras’ viewfinders, four crematorium ovens worked furiously, reducing their inexhaustible supply of human fuel to ashes. Between Theresienstadt’s creation as an internment and transit camp in November 1941 and its liberation by Soviet troops in May 1945, 33,000 of its 140,000 prisoners died of starvation and disease. Some 90,000 more were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and other extermination camps. Ninety percent of the ghetto’s 15,000 children did not survive.

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