Survival & Song in Terezín

Gerta Solan grew up surrounded by love and music in her hometown of Prague, until June of 1942 when, at twelve years old Gerta, was deported to the Theresienstadt ghetto.

Below is an essay on Gerta’s harrowing experience and the Nazi’s “model Jewish settlement”, Theresienstadt.

Unlike in German-occupied Poland, where Jews were forced into ghettos from October 1939, Jews in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, as in Germany itself, were not confined to sealed residential districts until late 1941. Living among non-Jews, they experienced what the historian Marion Kaplan has called “social death,” isolated from society at large and forced into a permanent state of humiliation. Yet even as German authorities and local sympathizers sought to degrade Jews, individuals like Gerta’s mother managed to defy them in different ways. At times, Grete Gelbkopf refused to abide by the strict curfew imposed on Jews. Relying on the prevalence of stereotypes about Jews’ physical appearance, she, a confident, elegant woman, managed to pass as a non-Jew. However, acts of everyday defiance mounted by individuals and by Jewish groups were no match for the German authorities. Beginning in October 1941, thousands of Jews from the Protectorate’s largest cities were sent to ghettos and labour camps in Poland and the Baltic states. By December 1941, the Germans began deporting Jews to the fortress town Theresienstadt / Terezín, sixty-five kilometres northwest of Prague, which was from then on to serve as a ghetto for the Protectorate’s Jewish population.

Czech Jews are deported from Bauschovitz to Theresienstadt ghetto. Czechoslovakia, between 1941 and 1943.

Until the German occupation, Terezín had served as a military garrison with a population of about 7,000 civilians and military personnel. Built to house troops, the town largely consisted of barracks that the Germans re-named after various German cities and regions such as Hamburg, Magdeburg, Hannover and Dresden. The three-storey buildings, covering an entire block, housed thousands of people. Over the course of 1942, more than 60,000 men, women and children of all ages from towns and cities across Bohemia and Moravia were forced into the ghetto. They were joined by thousands of Jewish deportees from Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and Denmark. The ghetto population suffered tremendously from the overcrowded, inadequate living quarters, horrendous hygienic conditions, and starvation. These catastrophic living conditions would eventually result in the death of more than 33,000 people, about a quarter of the 140,000 Jews who were deported to Terezín between December 1941 and April 1945.

Gerta and her Granpda Fritz in Prauge, circa 1933

Gerta and her parents were deported to Terezín on June 20, 1942. Both her maternal and paternal grandparents were also deported to the ghetto. It was particularly difficult for the elderly in the ghetto. Many had arrived from Germany and Austria without younger family members to provide support. But even for families like Gerta’s, the younger generations found it difficult to help their aging relatives. Gerta could do little more than witness the suffering of her starving grandfather, much like her mother was helpless in the face of a guard’s violence against her own father.

In Terezín, as in other ghettos, the German authorities designated a Jewish administration, a Council of Elders, to implement German orders and oversee housing, labour and food distribution. Most painfully, the Council was formally charged with organizing thousands of people to be deported to “the East.” These transports began in January 1942, only weeks after the ghetto had been established. The transports were a source of perpetual fear as people desperately used any connection they had to someone in the ghetto administration, a group that was “protected” from deportations, to prevent themselves and their loved ones from being sent away.

The Jewish Council could merely mitigate, not alleviate, the circumstances for Jews in the ghetto. As part of their efforts to better the situation for the thousands of children in Terezín, the leadership designated certain buildings as children’s homes. Here, teachers, artists, athletic coaches and teenage youth leaders worked to create an environment where children could learn and play, an effort to shield the ghetto’s youngest from the devastation surrounding them. In seeking to create a healthy atmosphere, the ghetto leaders assigned youngsters like Gerta work in the vegetable gardens, which allowed them not only fresh air, but also access to extra food. As Gerta describes, at times, she and the other children were determined to block out the horrible conditions in the ghetto and will some sense of normalcy. She writes, “We were hungry for a normal life we did not have, but in our little dreams, we tried to forget reality.”

Women prisoners lie on thin mattresses on the floor of a barracks in the women’s camp in the Theresienstadt ghetto. Czechoslovakia, between 1941 and 1945.

Most ghettos in German-occupied territory were destroyed and their populations murdered over the course of 1942 and early 1943. Only a few that were considered particularly valuable to the German war effort, such as the ghetto in Lodz/Litzmannstadt, were preserved. Terezín’s continued existence was not attributed to any particularly important manufacturing industry, but rather to its utility in the Germans’ ongoing campaign to deceive their victims and outside observers about the fate of the tens of thousands of Jews “resettled in the East.” Always attentive to public opinion at home, the German authorities depicted Terezín as a “retirement settlement” for elderly German and Austrian Jews. The deception was extreme: Terezín was never intended to be the final destination for these elderly Jews nor for the thousands of Jews from the Bohemian Lands who were sent there.

“So many contrasts in life here. In the yard, a cabaret with singers and in the house the old and sick are dying.”

At one point, the ghetto also served as a destination for Jews of international prominence or highly decorated Jewish war veterans, whose disappearance might bring unwelcome attention. In the summer of 1943, when the majority of the victims of the Holocaust were already dead and when evidence of mass murder was rampant, the German authorities allowed the German and the International Red Cross to visit Terezín. These visits were meant to assure anyone concerned about the fate of the deported Jews that they had indeed been resettled in “self-governing Jewish towns.”

Forced laborers at work in a tailor’s workshop. Theresienstadt ghetto, Czechoslovakia, between 1941 and 1945.

In preparation for the Red Cross visits, particularly the one in June 1944, the ghetto went through a beautification campaign. It involved creating the appearance of a normal city with cafes, bakeries and cultural events, as well as the deportation of thousands of people to the killing centre at Auschwitz-Birkenau. This was done both to alleviate the overcrowding in the ghetto and to remove people whose bodies were visibly marked by the effects of living in Terezín. In the wake of the June 1944 visit, the German authorities forced one of the inmates, the well-known German Jewish actor and director Kurt Gerron (1897–1944), to create a propaganda film with the working title “Theresienstadt: A Documentary Film from the Jewish Settle- ment Area.” One of the aspects of the ghetto that featured prominently in the film was its cultural life, especially musical and theatre performances.

From the outset, German authorities had tolerated some educational and cultural activities in the ghetto. At first, it was seen as a way of pacifying the inmates during the first months of upheaval. Over time, concerts, lectures and theatre performances became incorporated into the propaganda image of Terezín as a normal town. By March 1943, the “Leisure Time Department” was tasked with organizing cultural life in the ghetto including orchestras. As Gerta remembers, her father was able to play the violin in one of the orchestras.

Preparation of food in the Theresienstadt ghetto. Theresienstadt, Czechoslovakia, between 1941 and 1945.

Today, the ghetto in Terezín is perhaps most well-known for its cultural life, something survivors and historians remember as acts of resistance against the denigration imposed by the Germans. Ghetto inmates, suffering from starvation, disease and terrible loss, wrote, produced and performed plays, concerts and operas, including the children’s opera Brundibár. Artists produced “legal” drawings and paintings while secretly documenting the terrible suffering in the ghetto. At the time, however, this cultural life was fraught with tension and some observed it with a degree of discomfort. Egon Redlich (1916–1944), who was head of the Youth Department and thus part of the ghetto elite, wrote in his diary in the summer of 1942: “So many contrasts in life here. In the yard, a cabaret with singers and in the house the old and sick are dying. Great contrasts. The young are full of desire to have a full life and the old are left without a place and without rest.” On the one hand, Redlich worried about art as a form of escape that would allow stronger inmates to ignore the plight of the ghetto’s weakest. On the other, he understood that a cultural life, whether as escape, entertainment or spiritual experience, was important for people to fend off complete despair. This was especially im- portant as the dreaded transports “to the East,” as well as hunger and disease, continued to tear families and communities of friends apart.

From the very beginning of the Terezín ghetto’s existence, trains had left with 1,000 people or more to destinations unknown to the deportees. Sometimes transports left several times a month; other times, there would be several months between transports. Beginning in January 1942, people were deported to other ghettos and camps in Poland and German-occupied Soviet territory. Between early January and late October 1942, more than 42,000 people were deported to ghettos, labour camps and killing centres in places such as Riga, Warsaw, Minsk, Maly Trostinec (near Minsk) and Treblinka. From late October 1942 onwards, all transports were directed to Auschwitz. In all, almost 45,000 people were sent from Terezín to Auschwitz.

In September 1943, after almost a seven-month break in deportations, about 5,000 men, women and children were deported to Auschwitz. Unlike other transports that arrived in the work camp and killing centre Auschwitz II (Birkenau), the deportees did not undergo a selection, nor were men and women separated. Instead, the prison- ers were allocated a separate area in Birkenau, which became known as the Czech or Terezín “family camp.” For months, the Terezín in- mates were kept together. Then, on March 8 and 9, 1944, the Terezín family camp was “liquidated,” its inhabitants murdered. From then on, when transports arrived from Terezín, the people aboard under- went a selection on the arrival platform and the majority were sent straight to their deaths in the nearby gas chambers.

On October 23, 1944, Gerta Solan and her mother were on the second-to-last transport that left Terezín. Gerta’s mother, having worked in the housing department for the ghetto administration, had been in one of the groups “protected” from deportation, but she could no longer protect her daughter. Of the 1,715 deportees on the October 23 train to Auschwitz, only 186 survived the war.

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