May 2010 will mark the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II and thus also of the abolishment of the Terezín Ghetto. This article aims to sum up the events that took place in Terezín in the final months of the war, in 1945.
The end of 1944 and the first months of 1945 were marked by several events. On 23 December 1944 a transport arrived from the work camp in Sereď, Slovakia; it brought 416 Slovak Jews. These were then followed by 1,000 more. Slovak prisoners formed a new group among the inmates of Terezín. They did not make a very profound impact on the ghetto, however, the information they brought with them was crucial. The Slovaks knew what happened in the East, they knew about the “solution to the Jewish question”, the firing squads and gas chambers, they knew that “Birkenau bei Neu Berun” was in fact the Auschwitz II extermination camp. The Terezín inmates found it hard to believe all this. They did not want to believe. The reality was simply too harsh. They tried pointing out that the deported sent letters to them from Birkenau, what they however did not know was the fact that the dates on the letters were forged and the letters were sent out by the SS after their writers were already dead.
Meanwhile, the ghetto was carefully preparing for the arrival of 7 transports that would bring in the Jews of the Protectorate who had been theretofore protected from deportation by living in “mixed marriages”. Children from such marriages were sent to the ghetto as well. Unlike previous transports, these were sent to Terezín as a work camp. There were no inspections at the time of departure. The prisoners were thus free to take along anything they wanted. They brought money, valuables, cigarettes. All of this was nevertheless confiscated on their arrival in Terezín. For this purpose, a room was built in the Hraničářské Barracks to receive the transports – it included partition railings and inspection tables, with various signs instructing the incomers to hand over their property. More prisoners from “mixed marriages” and of “mixed origin” arrived in Terezín from the Third Reich.
In February 1945 military officers arrived with the order for 1,200 prisoners to be sent to Switzerland. The inmates of Terezín did not believe the news, regarding it as another Nazi lie. The criteria for selection were provided and people were summoned for the transport. 3,940 prisoners were selected. These were to decide immediately whether they wish to be included in the transport or not. Approximately 1,900 prisoners applied, the rest did not trust the officers. They found it suspicious that the Danish – the most protected prisoner group – could not apply for the transport. Ultimately, 1,200 names were selected. These prisoners were asked to take only one piece of hand baggage and a suitcase with them. If they did not possess one, they received their luggage from the warehouse. An actual passenger express train arrived instead of the usual cargo wagons. SS members even assisted the prisoners in boarding. On their way, while still in the Third Reich, the prisoners were commanded to remove the stars from their clothes. At the Switzerland borders, they received water, shaving utensils and cosmetics to make themselves presentable. Late night on 6 February, the train entered Switzerland and the prisoners were free. Back in Terezín, the prisoners did not believe the first telegram that confirmed successful arrival of the transport. They only believed after letters arrived complete with Swiss stamps and the foreign radio station they secretly listened to reported news of the transport. There were however no further transport of this sort.
Another event, shrouded in mystery and followed closely by the prisoners of Terezín, was the construction of a “gas chamber”. At the beginning of February 1945, SS commandant Karl Rahm and other SS members thoroughly inspected the fortifications, in particular the ravelin XVIII. Subsequently, prisoners – construction specialists – were brought in and started bricking in old loopholes, making a new entrance and holes in the ceiling for ventilation. There were iron grills produced in prison workshops for the ventilation holes and hermetically sealed door with external lock. The prisoners found this suspicious and there were rumours of a gas chamber being built. At the beginning of March, the construction site was inspected by Adolf Eichmann during his visit to the ghetto. Shortly afterwards, commandant Rahm asked for keys from the cyanide storage facility. The prisoners were aware of the impending danger. They asked the commandant for a small amount of cyanide for fumigation. They used the opportunity to secretly change the lock and keys from the storage facility. This way, prisoners held their own key. In case of danger, they intended to blow the whole cyanide storage up.
At the same time, another mysterious building was constructed, this time in the moat near the ravelin XV. The moat, surrounded by fortifications on three of its sides, was closed off by another wall, 5-6 meters tall. The top side of the wall was lined with glass shards.
Both buildings were most probably intended for physical extermination of the Terezín prisoners. The ravelin XVIII could take in as much as 4,000 people – the number of prisoners of the Small Fortress Gestapo police prison – and the commandant H. Jöckel had also shown interest in the construction. The walled in space in the ravelin XV was to become a trap for the ghetto prisoners. It could take in approximately 40,000 people. Prisoners drawn into the trap could then be shot or drowned. Rahm had an “explanation” for the second building – it was supposedly to serve as a duck farm.
The Jewish elder B. Murmelstein, under pressure from fellow prisoners, informed commandant Rahm of the nervous atmosphere in the camp caused by the two constructions. Rahm denied the rumours, citing the respective purpose of the constructions as a food storage facility and a duck farm with pond.
While the German occupied area in Europe evidently shrunk and the military situation forced the Nazis to withdraw, Terezín remained largely untouched by the global events. A new scheme to mislead an international committee was being prepared. (Further events of the spring 1945 will be described in Newsletter 2/2010.)