Newsletter 2/2015

Danish Jews in Terezín

Certificate of transport number for Bert Kanter, issued by the Jewish self-government in the Terezín ghetto. A 10754V

Certificate of transport number for Bert Kanter, issued by the Jewish self-government in the Terezín ghetto. A 10754V

First transport of Danish Jews with 83 people arrived in the Terezin ghetto on 5th October 1943. Within the next ten days their amount in the Terezín ghetto rose to more than 450, later reaching the final number of 466 persons.

The position of Jews in Denmark before World War II was characterized by a high degree of their integration in society. Relatively small local Jewish population was gradually growing thanks to immigration waves of European Jews, who were seeking refuge in Denmark from spreading Nazi ideology.

After the occupation by Nazi Germany in April 1940, Denmark retained its own government and military forces and maintained diplomatic relations with Germany. Despite considerable efforts, the occupiers did not succeed in enforcing anti-Jewish law in Denmark within the next three years, however, after the destabilization of the political situation and the abdication of the Danish government in the late 1943, Jews found themselves in jeopardy. Nevertheless, at that time the Reich plenipotentiary in Denmark Werner Best was playing a complicated double game. On one hand, he himself encouraged an assessment of the Jewish question in Denmark, on the other hand, he adopted steps towards the protection of the local Jewish population. With help of his colleague, a shipbuilder G. F. Duckwitz, he intentionally disclosed plans concerning an impending action against Jews. Subsequent arrests by the Nazis were so thwarted by a rescue operation supported by many residents of Denmark along with a number of social organizations and public institutions. Approximately 7,000 people of Jewish origin saved their lives through mass escapes to neutral Sweden, but less than 500 were arrested in the country and then deported to the ghetto in Terezín.

Summary of lectures – Chief Rabbi Dr. M. Friediger; Terezín Memorial, Heřman's Collection, PT 3984, © Zuzana Dvořáková

Summary of lectures – Chief Rabbi Dr. M. Friediger; Terezín Memorial, Heřman’s Collection, PT 3984, © Zuzana Dvořáková

Unlike Jews deported to Terezín from other countries, the clothing of Danish Jews was not marked with the Star of David at the time of their arrival in the ghetto. In many other respects as well, Danish Jews were largely spared of humiliating discriminatory measures usual in countries under Nazi domination. Their adaptation to the conditions of the Terezín ghetto was therefore much more demanding. Danes did not receive a yellow star with the word Jude and a transport number, assigned to all internees as prison identity, prior to their arrival in Terezin. After the war, Jytte Borstein, in 1943 an eight-year-old girl, described the receipt of her transport number in the following words: “… My mum told me that I had to remember my transport number. I should be able to say it immediately anybody asks about it. Then my mother explained in a sharp tone, so I understood the importance of the matter, that even woken up in the middle of the night I had to recall my number and say it. Otherwise, the Germans might shoot me.”

After overcoming the initial shock of the Terezin conditions, the majority of Danish Jews joined the company of other prisoners and were not conspicuously different. Danes performed various jobs, received poor Terezín diet, lived in mass barracks, etc., just like their fellow prisoners. Yet, in one crucial respect, the life of Danes differed – they were excluded from the major threat, the transports heading from Terezín to extermination camps in the East (with one exception only). This privilege remained to Danes throughout their entire stay in Terezín, as a result of Best’s negotiation with Eichmann in November 1943.

Due to exclusion from transports to the East, the small group of Danish Jews seemed somewhat prominent to other Terezin inmates. This impression grew in early 1944, after the Danes started receiving packages of food sent by the Danish Red Cross. Danish Jews thus gained not only scarce food, but also an opportunity to exchange the food for things indispensable in the ghetto, and so improve their living conditions. In this respect, the position of Danish Jews in the camp was commented after the war by Professor Emil Utitz, at the time of his Terezín internment Head of the Central Ghetto Library: “They were “the rich ones” and it must be gratefully acknowledged that they amicably shared with others and their cheerful and friendly nature, their proper mindset and unwavering calmness were of genuine benefaction”. In Terezín, Danes engaged in cultural and lecturing activities, e.g. the lectures of Rabbi Max Friediger became very popular.

The quarters of Danes also lay on the route visited by the inspecting delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross on 23rd June 1944. Before the arrival of the delegates, the dwellings of Danes were refurnished, cramped quarters made into rooms occupied by only one family, windows decorated with flowers, etc. This newly created illusion should illustrate a common standard of accommodation in the ghetto. Former Terezín prisoner Alex Eisenberg wrote in his post-war memoir: “… the Danes moved into renovated and newly furnished houses, where only small number of people shared each room. A few days before the visit of the delegation I was standing in the workshop where wooden legs for tables and chairs had been made thinking: The Commission must feel that the furniture is completely new, because it still smells of fresh pine wood”. Despite Eisenberg’s assumption, the delegation did not disclose the prepared deception.

Announcement for Ruben Moses re. his inclusion in a group of people to leave the ghetto on 13th April 1945. A 12408

Announcement for Ruben Moses re. his inclusion in a group of people to leave the ghetto on 13th April 1945. A 12408

After participation in this fraudulent “play-act” prepared in the ghetto for the visit of the ICRC delegation, part of the Danish community was also made to assist in shooting a propaganda film. Salle Fischermann, at the time of filming a fourteen-year-old Danish boy, accompanied the crew and helped with small work. Fischermann is cought in one of the surviving film sequences, where he is asked, while visiting a shoe workshop, to join the other workers and imitate their work: “… I sat down and did what the others did, it took about 3-4 minutes and then all of us were asked to leave. And as everyone is leaving, you may notice that I am the only one without an apron. I had to to turn my head away (during the shot, ed. JŠ), because I found it really funny.”

The participation of Danish Jews on the life of Terezín inmates was completed after a year and a half. On 13th April 1945 all Danes in Terezin received a written command to pack up their bags and come to the Jäger Barracks. The call also contained a note saying that Danes should soon be leaving Terezín. The situation in the Jäger Barracks was described after the war by Rachel Berkowitz, at that time a sixteen-year-old girl: “That night when we were waiting for white buses in the barracks, various rumours went around and all of us were terribly nervous and scared. One rumour worse than another.” Luckily, prisoners’ concerns about another deceptive trick of the Nazis proved wrong, and the entire group of Danish Jews left Terezín on 15th April. Their departure was a result of successful negotiations of a Swedish diplomat Count Folke Bernadotte, then Vice President of the Swedish Red Cross, who enforced, at the Reich’s government, the release of several thousand prisoners from Nazi concentration camps.

After leaving Terezin, freed Danish Jews went through destroyed Germany, and only passed through their Nordic country on the way to neutral Sweden. They could not return back home until after the German capitulation.

Memory fragments of former Danish prisoners come from:

documentary: “THERESIENSTADT – Danish Children in Nazi Captivity”

Memory fragment of Dr. Emil Utitz is taken out of:

UTITZ, Emil: The Psychology of Life in the Terezín Concentration Camp, Dělnické nakladatelství (Worker’s Publishing House) , Prague 1947, pg. 50

“Sophie’s Choice – The Czech Way“ in the Terezín Memorial

Poster for the exhibition Sophie's Choice – The Czech Way, author: Miroslav Veselý

Poster for the exhibition Sophie’s Choice – The Czech Way, author: Miroslav Veselý

In the first quarter of 2015, the Terezín Memorial hosted an exhibition of Judita Matyášová “Sophie’s Choice – The Czech Way”. The exhibition presents the fate of 80 Jewish children who in 1939 attended preparatory courses for life in Palestine, which brought them to Denmark and saved them from the for Jewish population increasingly burdensome situation in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. However, this “liberation” was redeemed by separation from their families; on their departure to Denmark, 14- to 16-year-old boys and girls saw their parents for the last time, because most of their parents and closest relatives were later deported to the Terezín ghetto and subsequently died in the East.

70 years after these events, Judita Matyášová managed to uncover a forgotten war story and piece it together; she wrote a book about it and prepared an exhibition. Its panels depict the fate of young Jewish people, their life in Danish foster families, dramatic escape to Sweden in 1943 and the post-war life, which brought these young people to different corners of the world.

The Education Department of the Terezín Memorial used the information potential of the exhibition and created a workshop which, in February and March, offered to several school groups as a part of their educational seminars in the Memorial. Through worksheets and other specific tasks, young people learnt about the life of their peers from the time of 70 years ago. Lecturers helped to put the events into a broader context associated with the possibilities and difficulties of emigration of the Jewish population at the time of persecution. “Personal Cards” of several heroes of our story then raised the topics for discussion about issues being on the front burner at the time of the Nazi occupation just like today: Where is my ´home´? What does ´home´ mean to me? Who is ´a patriot´? How difficult is to decide for emigration? What are the pros and cons of such emigration? What status does an immigrant hold? To what extent should immigrants assimilate? … Part of the workshop was also a follow-up meeting of school groups directly with the exhibition author Judita Matyášová, who, in a most gripping way, talked about her way to track down the story and to search for “traces” of individual children.

Currently, the Education Department is working to develop a workshop which would be based precisely on the theme of the exhibition, and which would be regularly offered to school groups as part of their educational stays in Terezín starting autumn 2015.



New project Schoolchild in the War Years

We would like to draw your attention to the announcement of a new pupil and student project of the Terezín Memorial and its partners: the Terezín Initiative Institute and the National Pedagogical Museum and Library of J. A. Comenius in Prague, presented under the title Schoolchild in the War Years. The project is more-leveled, students and pupils can join a research competition and explore the history of schools in their area within 1938 – 1945, or if they wish to address the topic in an artistic way, they can register for the art competition of the Terezín Memorial under the same theme.

Young researchers will have the opportunity to present their work before an audience at a conference devoted to this issue and to share their knowledge and experiences. In case of IT skills, they can create a website to publish their findings. The different parts of the project will be continuously published,  watch the websites and Facebooks of the aforementioned organizations.



Seminar for British and Danish educators

British-Danish seminar, Magdeburg Barracks Attic

British-Danish seminar, Magdeburg Barracks Attic

After two and a half years, a seminar for educators from Denmark took place again, this time enriched by the presence of their British colleagues. The seminar was held from 13th to 16th February 2015, with active participation of representatives of the following organizing institutions: Yad Vashem (Israel), Holocaust Educational Trust (UK), Danish Institute for International Studies (Denmark) and Terezín Memorial.

Twenty-eight teachers, lecturers and other people active in education for three days immersed in the topic of the Terezin ghetto through lectures, tours, workshops, films etc. Among the natural highlights of the workshop were meetings with ghetto survivors, Dagmar Lieblová and Doris Grozdanovičová, as well as a performance of children’s opera Brundibar acted by the Disman Radio Children’s ensemble.

Seminar participants and present organizers very positively assessed the seminar and expressed desire and will to organize it next year again. Thus, hopefully we can look forward to another meeting soon!


“With a Clear Goal and Full Power“

Book “With a Clear Goal and Full Power”

Book “With a Clear Goal and Full Power”

This new publication of the Terezín Memorial introduces the reader to the time of German occupation of the Sudetenland in October 1938, later also the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. “With a Clear Goal and Full Power” did the repressive apparatus built by Heinrich Himmler appear in our country. It involved the Security Police (Sipo), the Security Service (SD), the Riot Police (Orpo) and the SS units. They all helped the Wehrmacht with occupation manoeuvres. Their goal was clear: to immediately dispose of real and potential political opposition, to lay the foundations for racial persecution, etc. The commanders of these bodies gained experience in the Czech lands, which they later used e.g. during the repression in Poland and the Soviet Union.


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Editorial board: Naďa Seifertová, Jiří Kleker
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