The Lost Film The Nazis Made To Fool The World

The Great ‘Zionist Experiment’ Was Another Nazi Lie

A satirical illustration by the Czech-Jewish artist, Bedřich Fritta, depicting the true reality behind the filming at Terezín, circa 1942–1944. Image Credit: Public Domain.

The Terezín Ghetto located in former Czechoslovakia was established by the Nazis on 24 November 1941. The camp served a vital function during the so-called Final Solution until its liberation on 9 May 1945 by the Red Army.

The Nazis went to extraordinary lengths to convince the Allies that this eighteenth-century fortress and garrison town was nothing more than a vibrant and self-sustaining Jewish community, or Musterghetto (model ghetto). Reality painted a different picture.

The Jews of Terezín lived under constant oppression in abhorrent and overcrowded conditions. Although commonly referred to as a ghetto, Terezín operated more as a ‘transit camp’ where Jews were interned before their murder elsewhere. Over 46,000 inmates were deported eastward from Terezín to extermination camps including Auschwitz II-Birkenau between 1942 and 1944.

How did the Nazis conceal Terezín’s true purpose from the outside world?

‘ The Führer Gives A City To The Jews ’

Photo depicting the first portion of filming at Terezín, circa 1942. Image Credit: Public Domain.

The Central Office for Jewish Emigration in Prague ordered the production of the feature documentary, Theresienstadt (1944) to be made at Terezín under the strict supervision of SS official, Hans Günther. The Nazis hoped this film would discourage the circulation of ‘foreign atrocity propaganda’ concerning their persecution of European Jews. This would mark one of their most ambitious and daring productions.

Filming commenced in 1942 and wrapped in 1944. Production sourced the majority of its cast and crew from the camp’s inmates. Many of them had previously worked at the Barrandov Film Studios in Prague or for the newsreel companies, Aktualita (Czech) and Favoritfilm (German).

The renowned German-Jewish actor/director, Kurt Gerron, was especially deported to Terezín in February 1944 to direct. As soon as filming concluded, he was swiftly executed alongside his wife, Olga, at Auschwitz II-Birkenau on 28 October 1944.

The Auschwitz II-Birkenau Concentration Camp located in Poland, circa 2015. Image Credit: Mirek Gosney.

The film comprised a selection of carefully staged scenes depicting the ‘everyday’ life of ‘typical’ Jews residing within the camp. Memorable segments included the Sparta versus Jugendfürsorge football match hosted in the camp barracks, attended by 2,000 inmates. Another showed Jewish women and children tending to the camp gardens.

Pavel Weiner, a Czech-Jewish youth interned at Terezín between April 1944 and May 1945, recounted the filming process in a diary entry, dated 16 August 1944:

‘ Today they are making a film, for which SS officer Haindl selects people who look like ‘‘typical’’ Jews. It is a masquerade directed by Gerron, a former film director. ’

Rudolf Haindl was the SS deputy charged with overseeing the production. The Nazis screened the complete film up to three times. Post-War authorities only managed to recover 23 minutes of footage.

The rest is presumed lost or destroyed. Surviving fragments of the original film featured in the Czech documentary, The Gift of the Town (1965). Yet, this film only formed one part of the Nazis’ larger scheme to deceive the Allies.

The ‘Beautification’ Of The Terezín Camp

A satirical illustration by the Czech-Jewish artist, Bedřich Fritta, depicting the true reality behind the ‘beautification’ of Terezín, circa 1943–1944. Image Credit: Public Domain.

Troubling reports concerning the annihilation of European Jews soon led international onlookers to suspect that camps such as Terezín held a more sinister purpose than the Nazis had originally confessed to. These concerns prompted three Red Cross delegations to visit Terezín.

In response, the Nazis began ‘beautifying’ Terezín in March 1943 on the command of Reichsführer, Heinrich Himmler. This process involved a tremendous amount of preparation and labour. Inmates were forced to work cleaning streets, erecting playgrounds, a music pavilion, a recreation hall, and confining the weak and elderly to attic spaces.

Once complete, Nazi Party officials and the Ältestenrat, camp elders subservient to the Gestapo, escorted each delegation on a predetermined route through the camp so they could witness this harmonious new Judenstaat (Jewish state). The illusion proved a success. Every delegation concurred that Terezín resembled an authentic Jewish resettlement area and that no deportations were being conducted east.

Washing facilities constructed at the ‘Small Fortress’ for the Red Cross inspections, circa 2018. Inmates were never permitted to use this room. Image Credit: Mirek Gosney.

How Much Did The Allies Know About Terezín?

Children playing inside Terezín during the I.C.R.C visit, circa 23 June 1944. Many of these children perished at Auschwitz II-Birkenau in late 1944. Image Credit: Maurice Rossel / Wikimedia Commons / Fair Use.

Ironically, of the three delegations to visit Terezín, only the German Red Cross expressed any legitimate concern for the inmates following its visit on 27/28 June 1943. While the majority of its representatives were complicit with the SS, one delegate named Walther Hartmann leaked his official report to the Western offices of the World Jewish Congress.

W.J.C Secretary-General, Gerhart Riegner paraphrased Hartmann’s report in a now-famous telegram:

‘ All Jews in countries occupied or controlled by Germany numbering 3.5 to 4 million should, after deportation and concentration in the East, be at one blow exterminated. ’

Despite symbolising some of the earliest and most conclusive evidence for the existence of Nazi atrocities, its startling revelations were overlooked by the Allies and contradicted in subsequent I.C.R.C reports.

The International Committee of the Red Cross spearheaded its own inspection on 23 June 1944, by which time Terezín’s ‘beautification’ process had been completed. It was represented by Frants Hvass and Juel Hennigsen (both Danish nationals), and Maurice Rossel (a Swiss national). Rossel later reported that:

‘ The Jewish elder in charge informed the delegate […] that 35,000 Jews resided in the town and that living conditions were bearable. ’

The camp elder, Paul Eppstein arrived in Terezín in January 1943. Rossel conveniently omitted from his report that Eppstein had secretly warned him about the inhumane treatment of the Jews imprisoned there. The Nazis murdered Eppstein at the ‘Small Fortress’ on 27 September 1944, three months after the I.C.R.C. visit.

The second and final I.C.R.C inspection occurred on 6 April 1945, led by Otto Lehner and Paul Dunant (both Swiss nationals), under the supervision of high-ranking Nazi, Adolf Eichmann. Lehner and Dunant were invited to view Theresienstadt and afterwards heralded Terezín as a successful ‘Zionist experiment’.

The notorious ‘Small Fortress’, part of the Terezín Camp complex, circa 2018. Image Credit: Mirek Gosney.

Why did the Allies refuse to acknowledge valuable intelligence confirming that Terezín’s status as a Jewish sanctuary was an elaborate myth?

The Real Reason Why The Nazis ‘Beautified’ Terezín

Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler posing with SS members in Munich, Germany, circa 1932. Image Credit: US National Archives and Records Administration / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0.

By 1944/1945, Germany’s defeat in the Second World War appeared imminent and Allied forces had become increasingly aware of the Nazi atrocities rampant throughout Europe. So, why did the Nazis continue investing so much time and resources to masking Terezín’s true purpose?

The answer to this question and why the Allies remained silent about Terezín traces back to one individual: Heinrich Himmler. At the height of his career, Himmler reigned as one of the most powerful men in the Third Reich. Yet, his eagerness to absolve himself from post-War retribution led him to conspire against Hitler.

A classified report addressed to US President, Franklin D. Roosevelt dated 20 March 1944 detailed a shocking exchange between Abram Hewitt, an undercover agent for the Office of Strategic Services (a forerunner of the CIA), and SS emissary, Felix Kersten.

Here, Kersten relayed Himmler’s outlandish proposal that he would overthrow Hitler and assume his role as Führer of Germany. In return, Himmler promised to help the Allies to defeat the Soviet Union. The following passage is from Hewitt’s report:

‘ The doctor (Kersten) urged me to come to Germany to discuss Himmler’s position with him, and to see whether a settlement might be possible. He indicated clearly that […] Himmler was prepared to overthrow Hitler. ’

Himmler continued his dissent by ‘beautifying’ Terezín and arranging the deportation of 423 Jews from here to Denmark in October 1943. A further 1,200 Jews followed to Switzerland on 5 February 1945. The final nail in the Nazi coffin occurred once Himmler authorised the closure of all gas chambers across Nazi-occupied territories on 29 October 1944.

Hitler made his hatred for Himmler known in his fiercely-worded final political testament, dated 29 April 1945:

‘ Before my death I expel […] Heinrich Himmler, from the party and all offices of State […] Himmler and Göering have done immeasurable harm to the country […] by secret negotiations with the enemy […] and by illegally attempting to seize power in the State. ’

Himmler’s suicide while awaiting trial in Allied custody on 23 May 1945 showed how his efforts to appease the advancing Allied forces were in vain.

Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, circa 1942. Image Credit: German Federal Archive / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0.

Could The Allies Have Done More To Help Terezín?

A memorial for the Holocaust victims at Terezín, circa 2016. Image Credit: Richard Mortel / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0.

Corruption did exist at certain levels within Allied and Neutral Governments. But for the most part, the Allies’ reluctance to publicly condemn Nazi atrocities came as an unfortunate consequence of their bold new strategy.

This entailed discreet negotiations with Nazi elites to achieve a less destructive resolution to the Holocaust. Hence, their exploitation of Himmler’s seniority in the Nazi Party and his willingness to betray Hitler.

This controversial policy did rescue Jewish lives. Yet, the question remains of whether more Jews could have been saved if the Allies had exposed the mistreatment of those trapped inside Terezín and other camps at the hands of the Nazis. This is impossible to know.

What is undeniable, however, is that while camps such as Auschwitz are remembered for their destructive capabilities, Terezín endures as a morbid reminder of just how dangerous propaganda can be.

In memory of Josef Lhoták, born 1913. Josef Lhoták was deported from the village of Stěžery to Terezín, where he perished in 1945. He lived on Stará parcela.

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Mirek Gosney

Mirek Gosney

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Writing about Film, History, Culture & Society | British-Czech | UK Based | Writer | Filmmaker | Film Teacher | BA Film and History, University of Southampton.