The data in this article is based on the Terezín Memorial Exhibition “Through a Slip of Paper a Person’s Destiny is Decided[...]“, which was created on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the last wave of transports from the Terezín ghetto to Auschwitz-Birkenau in autumn 1944.
The Terezín ghetto in summer 1944
The events of spring and summer 1944 (the advance of Soviet troops and the invasion of the Western Allies in France) supported the Nazi plans for the extermination of the Terezin prisoners. The occupants were aware of the fact that Jews interned in the ghetto could set at defiance in extreme situations. This fear resulted in preparations for the removal of the “Czech element in Terezin.” June visit of the delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Terezin was extremely useful to cover the Nazi plans, especially the inspection report drawn up by Dr. Maurice Rossel. It said that Terezin was a “final camp” and no transports to the East were sent from there. Also the August Slovak National Uprising pushed Nazis to “solve” the security situation in Theresienstadt since Slovak insurgents had freed many Jewish labour camps winning the former prisoners on their side. The actual implementation of the Nazi plans in Terezin was eventually postponed to the end of September for a propaganda “documentary” was still being shot in the ghetto during August and September.
Transports in September and October 1944
The news of upcoming transports affected the whole ghetto in September 1944. It was generally believed that the transports were really going to work. This SS assertion of labour deployment was supported by set age limits as well as a notification to the Council of Elders stating that men recruited for work should enjoy the same privileges as other working groups before (protection of the closest relatives against transports, etc.). During one month, 18,402 prisoners were transported from the Terezín ghetto to the death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. Less than 10% of them survived to see the liberation.
Ghetto inmates were assigned to transports on the basis of given criteria. Nevertheless, there were also other ways to get on the transport list:
´Freiwilig´ – at least 1,270 people volunteered for a transport in autumn 1944. These volunteers were leaving with hopes to meet their loved ones. However, the chances of reunion in the death camp were slim.
Inclusion in a transport by order of the SS -’Weisung’ orders were coming to the Council of Elders in the ghetto from more places – from the SS headquarters in Terezín, from the Prague Central Office for Jewish Emigration, etc. Prisoners with a “W” sign were found unsuitable for further stay in the ghetto and should be sent to the East. In the context of transports they were placed in the first or last cars with other prisoners. “W-prominent figures” were put into personal cars reserved for members of the Protective Police accompanying each transport. Those placed there were escorted to physical extermination immediately on the arrival. Weisung was given also to people who had avoided boarding previous transports. In this way about 338 Weisung inmates were deported with the autumn transports.
Exemption from transport – ´Ausgereiht´– it could be granted to a person needed in the ghetto, e.g. with respect to his professional skills. For this case there were protective documents – filing cabinets with names of such important people. They were cathegorized by colours in so-called “blue reserves“ (contingent of strictly necessary forces) and “white reserves“ (contingent of very important labour forces). Gradually, with the need of placing more people on transports, these protective documents slowly ceased to be valid though.
Chances for official exemption from transport were very slim. Among the possibilities to avoid the deportation was not boarding a transport train. Prisoners already had experience from before and knew that avoiding transports was followed by collective draconian punishments. Yet, it did not discourage prisoners placed on transports in autumn 1944 from trying to avoid them. These efforts were allegedly supported by inscriptions in wagons which shuttled back from Auschwitz to Terezín for new prisoners: “Wir kommen gleich nach Auschwitz an.” (“We’ll soon arrive in Auschwitz.”) As a rule, however, prisoners who had not come to the transport were captured and sent to the East with the following train. According to the records, 32 prisoners managed to escape the threat of autumn transports and save their lives.
Autumn transports on diary pages – written by Pavel Weiner
The image of the ghetto in autumn 1944 is reflected in many diaries of Terezin inmates. Let us take a closer look at these weeks using the notes in a diary of a thirteen-year-old Pavel Weiner (1931-2010). Pavel was deported to the ghetto in May 1942 along with his parents and elder brother Hanus (in the diary called Handa). He stayed at boys’ heim L 417 in quarters No. 7.
(The diary notes are shortened with left passages related to the topic; quotations are modified only for better comprehensibility of shortened records. The original diary is written in Czech in hand and consists of 7 parts. It is stored in the archives of USHMM in Washington and its copy can also be found in the archives of the Terezín Memorial.)
24th September 1944
“Mrs. Mautner wakes us up. Her first words are: Do you already know that the age limits were extended to 16 – 55 years? I get a direct hit. On my mind gets my dad and brother and their departure. It does not leave me in peace… I quickly run to my dad, who I luckily find sitting at his desk. In his talk he has already resigned to going. I must comfort my dad by saying that everybody is going. It is actually true. Whoever you meet, they will tell you they are on… I’m trying to comfort my dad, but without success. Different uncertain pieces of news are rumoured, like that šlojska (the registration place of incoming and outgoing transports, ed.) is going to be in the Hamburg barracks in the ghetto, five thousand of people shall be called up, the transport shall be divided into two with 2,5 thousand on each train… …The most protected shall be Forwarding, because women cannot do this work. On the way to barracks Dad tells me to treat Momwell and behave. I feel sad. .. Out of the whole Jugendfürsorge (Department of Youth Care, ed.) only 4 people are going to stay. All Betreuers are going, incl. Franta (František Maier, *1922, head of Pavel’s home, ed.) The entire programme (secret teaching in the ghetto, ed.) is ruined as Zwicker, Kohn and Eisinger are leaving too. I’m totally wrecked. All has come out of normality…“
25th September 1944
“Dad and Handa still think that their luggage is too heavy and keep repacking it. … They still do not realize what is happening. I can see only crying faces in the streets… Finally there is time to go to šlojska. Our bags are very heavy. I would not be able to carry any of them…. There is a cramped crowd of people in front of šlojska. We exchange a few kisses, not without tears, and soon Ours disappear in the gates…“
28th September 1944
“Although we can sleep longer I get up and run to šlojska. Police officers and Ghetto inmates are all around. In vain I look up to the window. Ours do not appear. In a crowd of people I can see my mother crying. … The ghetto looks sad without men. I cannot imagine that I could live for several months without Dad and Handa. I go for lunch. I keep looking at the chairs where Handa and Dad should be sitting. God knows when I’ll see them … ”
2nd October 1944
“… I go for lunch and spend the noon with my mum. Then something terrible. Voice: (coming into the barracks) Do you already know that tomorrow 1,500 women belonging to the men who left by previous transports are going? – as if struck by lightning. At first, I do not want to believe it. But it is almost certain that we will go …. I personally do not care at all … The only hope, in fact I do not know how to call it, is that my mum works in glimr (cleavage of mica, war production in Terezin, ed.). This one is said to be protected. But everyone says something different, so I’ll leave it to the fate. .. I talk to boys as an expert for matters of transport already. All the guys persuade me that I should not be going. So I go to my mum. My mum is all angry. She is really worried that we’ll have to leave ¾ of our entire property here. Now everything depends on what we can carry… I’ll carry a backpack, a bedroll and a food case… There is a rumour that we will also be allowed to have a hand baggage. We’ll see. Mom finds a backpack and wildly begins to pack us… I even have to dress like for a transport … ”
5th October 1944
“Today they again announce a transport. … In our room it is: Gansalka, Gustl, Brenner and Seiner….“
8th October 1944
“I feel someone wake me up. I can see it is still dark. I hear Mangl’s voice: See, we’re on. .. I’m truly sorry that Mangl is going. I’m unlucky that my best friend is leaving. The news about people who had gone before is terrible. They are said to be in Birkenau deprived of everything and suffering bomb attacks. I will rather not say it my mum. All the morning I then sit by my mum and read Little Lord, which is my best fun…. Still the same old song, transports… I’m in such a dreadful condition that I’m not capable of anything. In the evening we go for a walk with my mum thinking about the events of the past days. Then I go to šlojska to see Mangl…“
10th October 1944
“… Today another transport is announced. I’m already completely indifferent to that…“
13th October 1944
“Tomorrow’s transport is on the horizon. Such kind has not been here yet. It is true: All of the administration …they go to the registration and mostly everyone will go. … No news from my dad…“
14th October 1944
“The transport has not been announced yet, but everyone is sure to be in … Here come the first invitations: Bäumel and Eli are the first victims, immediately followed by: Götzlinger, Koko, Kopperl, Eckstein, Lappert. It’s horrible. Only 15 boys are left out of the whole house. ..Nothing but crying can be seen in the street… I myself feel like the last of the Mohicans, who is left after the storm. I do not know what they intend to do with us… ”
15th October 1944
“…I go to my mum. I sit and read. Then my mum comes to me, all tired and happy about my good look. I feel sorry for her that she toils so much. In the mornings she goes to the bakery, in the afternoons to glimr. When I think about not seeing my mum for all day, it makes me sad and homesick…. I’m walking along the empty streets with my head down. .. I recall Dad and Handa and feel like crying. I think of Mangl, my friend who I miss so much… now I can see only darkness and in the dark a single bright point and that is my mum, and still, somewhere in the distance, there is something more shining, that’s my dad and Handa and Mangl .”
18th October 1944
“Yesterday another transport was announced…. From us there was: Petera, März, Springer and Pedro, who has got out of it though. We are only 11 in the Heim. It gives the impression of emptiness…“
”The following days are terrible, maybe of the worst in my life. I feel so awfully alone, so alone that I would yell… I can see today’s transport again before me. I again inadvertently watch Beran going away. Now I’m thus alone, all alone. We were talking with Beran all days…”
21st and 22nd October 1944
“A transport is boarding and we do not know at all what will come next… We are only 8 in the house…“
27th October 1944
“… I wake up in the morning and see my mum in front of me. Her first words are that boys, 4 of them, are in the transport.“
28th October 1944
“So today is the famous 28th October that should be celebrated and instead it is such ugly and rainy weather, and only crying and sadness to be seen in Terezín. The transport is leaving. Again, a little spark of a big flame is leaving. Where? Nobody knows.“
Pavel with his mother survived in the Terezín ghetto. Father Ludvík died in Kaufering, branch camp of CC Dachau, in December 1944. Hanus, Pavel’s brother, a month later in January 1944.