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Theresienstadt: Paradise Camp


23 June, 1944.  Maurice Rossel – a Swiss representative of the International Red Cross – paid a visit to a special camp run by the SS in the former fortress of Theresienstadt located in the north-west of the Czech Republic. The camp was home to thousands of Jewish inmates of all ages and backgrounds who had been sent there from across Europe.

The Theresienstadt camp was described as an Utopian experiment by the Germans to produce a self-sustaining community of like-minded citizens who would live and work together for the common good. Craftsmen of all types exercised their talents in specially constructed work-shops; fruit and vegetables were grown in abundance in large garden areas close to the moat; there was a post-office, bank, library, hospital and countless opportunities for the residents of the camp to participate in sporting and cultural activities. In short, Theresienstadt was portrayed as being a veritable ‘paradise camp’.

Rossel’s visit was to last 8 hours and he was certainly captivated by what he witnessed. A lively jazz band blared out American-type tunes in a crowded coffee house – this in itself showed how the inmates enjoyed unusually remarkable freedom since jazz music was generally banned by the Nazis for being decadent and subversive. Next, a large orchestra entertained Rossel with a rendition of Verdi’s Requiem – played from a music pavilion in the town’s central park where flowers and shrubs grew in abundance. Rossel was able to take as many photos as he wished and he was so impressed by his visit that he wrote a glowing report about the conditions in the camp.

It was all a grotesque lie.

Normal conditions in the camp were far from ideal. Initially designed to hold 7,000 people, there were times that it housed more than 50,000 inmates. It was really a transit camp where during the course of the war more than 150,000 prisoners were held before being transferred to death camps in Poland.

So, in the months prior to the official visit, great care was taken to improve the appearance of the camp – the word the SS used was ‘beautification’. All the buildings were freshly-painted and the streets were repaired. There was a feverish period of construction of cafés, shops and businesses – many of these were actually just false frontages like in a Hollywood film-set – there was a new children’s play area, a swimming pool and even a synagogue which was made out of a converted gymnasium. The SS even created fake bank pass-books and a false currency for the camp. The prisoners were given more food and the ‘make-over’ included the immediate removal of 7,500 of the inmates to Auschwitz, so that the camp would appear less crowded.

The children were also instructed to call the SS camp commander Uncle Rahm and urged to complain that they were sick of being given so many sardines to eat. Sardines were an obvious luxury in most of Europe at that time.

Rossel was completely duped and the sad fact is that the subsequent report he produced was so favourable that the local SS took the decision to make a film about the camp with the intention that the resultant propaganda film would be distributed worldwide and, in particular, to international humanitarian institutions and neutral countries - to assure their allies that the negative reports from the western powers about their camps were all exaggerated and untrue.

To add credibility to the film it was to be directed by Kurt Gerron, a famous Jewish actor who was a prisoner in the camp. The prisoners had little choice other than to participate in the making of the film. They prolonged filming as long as possible in the hope that the Allied advance across Europe would soon lead to their freedom.

It is pertinent to ask how Maurice Rossel could have been so deceived by what he saw in the camp. Of course, the tour by his SS guides was far from the spontaneous but rather a well-rehearsed and choreographed tour where every incident was carefully planned. Red Cross packages distributed to children were taken off them again once Rossel had passed. Waitresses in coffee shops were rushed from one venue to another.

Rossel was interviewed in depth about his visit long after the war and it might have been expected that Rossel’s main justification for his glowing report would have been that if he had produced a poor report then he knew that the camp would be closed immediately and that it would have meant certain death for the inmates. Nevertheless, Rossel did not say that.

It is apparent that he had already made up his mind about the camp long before his visit.

First, he realised that the SS would not have allowed him to visit the camp unless they were satisfied that it would pass inspection – so he was expecting that it really would be a ‘nice’ camp.

Second, when he did arrive, he was astonished to find that most of the Jews there were elderly – they were well-to-do Jews and, in many cases, prominent Jews – such as lawyers, doctors or writers, and what he truly believed was that all of these people had simply paid to be sent to this special camp – to this ‘Paradise Camp’– where they could live in relative ease throughout the remainder of the war. He obviously thought the Nazis had been prepared to go along with this ruse so that they could have at least one ‘model’ camp they could show off to the world. His interview gives the clear impression that he really looked down on these privileged Jews because they were so well–dressed and well-fed and because he knew that conditions in many other camps were far worse. He appears to have resented the fact that this group of Jews had been able to use their money to secure such a favourable existence and this seems to have blinded him as to what was actually happening there.

His third justification is that he felt that if there really was a problem with the camp then the inmates would have at least tried to sneak a message into his pocket or made faces or actions behind the backs of his guides, and they did none of that.

Rossel was accompanied on his visit by two representatives from the Danish delegation. They were less easily persuaded by what they had been shown and eventually managed to obtain the release of 450 of their Jewish citizens from Theresienstadt before they could be moved further east.

However, to be fair to Rossel, a subsequent inspection of Theresienstadt by other colleagues did also gave the camp a clean bill of health. Finally, in February, 1945, the Red Cross did manage to negotiate the safe release of a further 1,200 Jews to Switzerland before the camp was finally over-run by the Russians on 8 May, 1945.

So, did the film that was produced by the SS achieve the propaganda purpose for which it was designed? The answer is ‘no’. It was yet another example of how, when it came to film production, the Nazi regime was simply not as efficient as might have been expected.

Work started on the film immediately after the Red Cross visit in June 1944, and although basic filming had been completed by September 1944, the final version of the film, with added music and voice-over, was not completed until March 1945. Consequently, given the success of the Allied landings in June 1944 and the Red Army’s rapid movement westwards the purpose for which the film had originally been designed was largely overtaken by events.  It was going to be increasingly difficult for the Nazis to arrange for copies of the film to reach nations favourably disposed towards Germany, and the film’s credibility was soon to be called into question as the Allies came across other camps, including Auschwitz in January 1945 – all of which revealed the true horrors of the gas chambers which they contained.

The ninety-minute film was only ever screened to a few Nazi officials in Prague and also to humanitarian institutions on subsequent visits to Theresienstadt in April 1945.

And what happened to Gerron? Did his attempt to delay the completion of the film save his life?

Sadly, no.

On 28 October 1944, Gerron was transported to Auschwitz on the final train sent from Theresienstadt. He was to be killed immediately upon his arrival. The following day Himmler would order the closure of the gas chambers for ever.

The whole episode illustrates the desperate attempts made by the Nazi regime to distort the truth for propaganda purposes – in this case – an incredible waste in terms of time and resources to produce a film which would never be screened to the wider world.

By Ian Garden. Ian’s book The Third Reich’s Celluloid War, provides more information about Theresienstadt and the many feature films and documentaries produced during the period of the Third Reich. His sequel, Battling with the Truth examines which side was more truthful in its media presentation of key events from the Second World War.

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