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After fifty-five years, the mountain has given birth to a mouse

Theresienstädter Gedenkbuch
Die Opfer der Judentransporte aus Deutschland nach Theresienstadt, 1942-1945

Rezension von Charlotte Opfermann, College of the Mainland, Texas City/Houston

This publication was supported by a long list of government and private agencies (including the German Foreign Service), museums and other institutions. Its publication has been awaited impatiently and with much anguish in Germany and the lands of the former Grossdeutsche Reich, especially since the publication of the two volumes of the Gedenkbuch of T heresienstadt’s Czech victims from the Protektorat Boehmen und Maehren of the Reich (Terezinska Pametni Kniha, Zidovske obeti nacistickych deportaci z czech a Moravi 1941 - 1945, Prague 1559 pages) several years ago.

In preparation, the book's authors have relied i.a. on the two volumes of the Gedenkbuch, Opfer der Verfolgung unter der nationalsozialistischen Gewaltherrschaft in Deutschland, published 1986 by the Bundesarchiv Koblenz together with the International Search Service of the Red Cross in Arolsen. Future volumes are in preparation for Austrian, Dutch and prisoners from Denmrak.

The book is introduced by comments from Vaclav Havel , Writer and Dramatist; Leading Figure of the Velvet Revolution of 1989; Last President of Czechoslovakia; and First President of the Czech Republic.

Miroslav Karny, concentration camp survivor --including Theresienstadt-- and head of the Theresienstaedter Initiative in Prague has died recently. We are indebted to him and his late wife Margita Karna for a lifetime (each) of dedicated work on behalf of Holocaust history.

Karny and colleagues had to surmount many obstacles and their effort -while still not without flaws- is a much appreciated improvement over the available International Red Cross Suchdienst information from Arolsen. The Gedenkbuch book is a must-have for libraries and research centers.

In some thirty pages of introduction, text, graphs and examples, Karny attempts to characterize the internal conflicts between the prisoners, initially (1941) from the Czech lands, later from several other countries (Germany, Austria, Holland, Denmark) and procedes to analyze them -- all the while speaking from the perspective of a Czech inmate and a Czech historian of the events.

He speaks of the many different categories of prisoners, different age groups, differing national origins, whether a prisoner or his group were members of the labor details or not. He does not spell this out clearly, but these concerns determined the all important facts of camp life and death: assigned housing, the food allocation and the chances for survival.

He points out (p.37) that the description of Theresienstadt as the Altersghetto (old people’s ghetto) was, in reality, appropriate only for a very short period. To be exact, it applied only to the fall of 1942 time frame. This was also the camp’s bloodiest period. During the month of September 1942 alone, four thousand --some ten percent of the inmates at that time of over 50,000 (occupying only part of the available space in this village, designed to hold less than 7000 military recruits and support personnel) -- ‘died’.

The history of the garrison/fortress Theresienstadt covers about two hundred-and-twenty years. Austrian Emperor Joseph II fully expected to be invaded by Prussia and built this Vauban-type fortress with intricate underground canal and tunnel provisions with which to flood the entire countryside, should the enemy's army advance via a specific route, be observed in time and should the available water supply at the moment be adequate to the task. The feared invasion never happened. It would have been instructive if these details had been discussed.

In 1941, when Adolf Eichmann, together with Jacov Edelstein from the Prague Jewish community, selected this place as the detention center for the Jews of the area, Theresienstadt was a dirt poor little village. Its function as a Ghetto-concentration camp during the years of National Socialist rule brought this place of infamy to the attention of future historians. It was one of many of the way-stations along the tortuous routes of the National Socialist Final Solution to the Jewish Question.

The contents of this book are of enormous interest to researchers, survivors and to their family members (as well as to those of non-survivors), politicians, philosophers, writers, museums, and a host of others. Considering the enormity of the task and given the relative paucity of support which the gigantic effort has received --in this age of computer availability-- the work lacks some of the accuracy one might have hoped for. It leaves us searching in vein for details which should have been included when the work was conceptualized:

1) Given the frequency of identical last names (Kahn, Schiff, Cohen, Bernstein, Oppenheimer etc), it would have been helpful and permitted better search opportunities if women prisoners’ maiden name had been listed, whenever available. Alternative spellings (such as Clara, Claire, Klara and the like) are not explained or offered.

2) Likewise, it would have been helpful had the place of birth of the prisoners been listed -- for very much the same reason. This information was provided on most of the deportation lists at the time of departure from Germany.

3) A number of unconventional Symbols are used: Inasmuch as observant Jews do not write the sign of the cross (customarily used to indicate death), the authors of this Gedenkbuch have used a Star of David symbol to indicate date of birth and a downward pointing triangle to indicate date of death.

4) It would have been useful if the place of origin of a given prisoner had been indicated. Many inmates are listed under their point of ultimate departure (Frankfurt, Darmstadt, Berlin etc) when the actual place of pre-deportation residence was often a smaller town nearby, the prisoner having been part of a transport which was first sent to this larger city, in order to be combined there with local residents/deportees of this larger city into a transport of (traditionally) 1000 or more. Page 55 ff. explains the breakdown of these points of actual departure, but this system is bound to frustrate even knowledgeable seekers for reliable information.

5) There are a number of factual errors - examples: My mother Claire Guthmann nee Michel was transported to Theresienstadt with a transport of nineteen prisoners, deportation number XII/5 from Frankfurt on 6-17-43 and lived (in a manner of speaking) to the date of liberation. She is not listed at all. I have the original deportation list with names, maiden names, birthdates and birthplaces of all nineteen of these prisoners.

Likewise, page 67 shows that this same transport XII/5 of 6-17-43 of nineteen prisoners of which -supposedly- five were liberated and, presumably, repatriated at the end of the war. In reality, seventeen of the nineteen prisoners perished. Only one, my mother, was repatriated.

I had been a member of this same incoming transport but was too sick, quarantined in Prague and unable to join the group (consisting of a combination of survivors from fourteen different Frankfurt transports) which was repatriated via busses, courtesy of the postwar Frankfurt City administration.

Rabbi Dr. Leo Baeck from Berlin had made these repatriation arrangements with some help from the Red Cross and the OSS. I had to find my way back across war-torn, hostile and dangerous territory on my own. Rabbi Baeck's superhuman efforts on behalf of these repatriation efforts should have been recognized in a work such as this.

According to the Theresienstaedter Gedenkbuch, a total of 42,124 German Jews were transported to this camp, starting in 1942. Of these, 20,441 ‘died’ in Theresienstadt, 15,887 were re-deported to the extermination camps in the East. According to the Gedenkbuch, 5254 survived. This leaves 524 prisoners unaccounted for.

Some very few former inmates of Theresienstadt returned with the death marches of Spring 1945. This group should have been sought out, recorded or --at least-- mentioned.

Incredibly, it took fifty-six years to produce this (flawed) volume.
Institut Theresienstädter Initiative (Hg):
Theresienstädter Gedenkbuch. 
Die Opfer der Judentransporte aus Deutschland nach Theresienstadt, 1942-1945
Prag: Academia Verlag, 2000
Vertrieb in Deutschland: Metropol Verlag

haGalil onLine 31-01-2002

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