The summer of 1944 in Terezín was marked by the visit from the International Red Cross delegation and the film shooting that followed. Both of these brought hope of liberation to the prisoners of the ghetto. People appeared to be happier and whey they discussed the war, they saw the Allies as their saviours. However, the Jewish elder, Dr. Paul Eppstein did not share the euphoric mood. In his address on the occasion of the Jewish New Year on 16 September he asked people not to get too excited. He likened Terezín to a ship that is within sight of the harbour, can hear the cries from the shore, yet it cannot go any faster. He thought it was wise to wait, to be cautious.
Today we know that the prominent personalities of the ghetto learned about the plans of the SS commanders to send 5 to 7 thousand able men away as soon as the film shooting is over. Soon, this plan was to become reality. In September, high-ranking German officers arrived at the ghetto – Eichmann’s aide Möhs and leader of the Prague Zentralstelle, Günther. The reason? Along with the Camp Commandant Rahm, they were to suppress any sign of resistance or uprising before the ghetto is eliminated. As a preventive measure, 60 members of German protection police were send to Terezín and the local special police force was sent reinforcements. The preparation of transports began.
On 22 September 1944, prisoner W. Mahler writes in his diary about a committee from the Reichsprotektor’s Office, which was to make a partial decision on elimination or preservation of the ghetto.
In an entry dated 23 September we learn that the Jewish elder P. Eppstein performed a roll call of Terezín men in the Hamburg barracks where he told them that German authorities ordered two transport to leave, with 2,500 men each. He asked them to stay calm and prudent.
The first autumn transports
The SS gave out a false information on the purpose of the transport being a work group to be sent to Dresden where it would build and operate a work camp. With respect to this, men were carefully selected, especially for the first transport. The working ability of each individual was judged (they had to be between 16 and 55 years of age), as well as the overall profession breakdown – as was supposedly required by the work camp construction project. The appointed leaders of the work group were Ing. O. Zucker and the economist K. Schliesser. They were told officially that the camp would be located in Riese. They were to take along only the absolutely necessary belongings and food for one day. They were told they would stay in touch with their families in Terezín. This Transport, Ek, with 2,500 men left Terezín on 28 September and, on the next day, arrived at Auschwitz – Birkenau. There was a selection process performed right on the arrival and 1,000 men were taken directly to gas chambers. These included Ing. Zucker and all the selected leading personnel for the purported work camp. On 29 September the El transport followed, with 1,500 men, also to Birkenau. Another selection was made. Those capable of work were taken to various places such as Kaufering, Golešov, Gleiwitz and others.
Even before the first “work transports” left Terezín, on 27 September the Jewish elder Dr. Eppstein was arrested (supposedly for attempted escape), dragged to the Small Fortress prison and shot. He was then secretly cremated in the Terezín crematory. He was nevertheless listed as being on one of the October transports.
The third transport, which left Terezín on 1 October, had 1,000 men which could be joined by 500 wives or other family members. The Nazis promised them they would rejoin their men once the journey would be over. This did not happen. Among the women who volunteered for the transports were Mrs Zucker and Mrs Eppstein, both of whom were murdered on their arrival in Birkenau. The other women did not rejoin their husbands, either. By that time, they were either dead, or had been selected to work elsewhere in the Reich.
What did the composition of transports look like?
In the summer of 1944 there were some 30,000 prisoners in the ghetto, when the autumn wave ended (28 October), there were only 11,000 left, mostly the elderly and women. The 18,400 people deported amounted to practically the whole workforce, all artists, doctors, teachers and young people of the heims, as well as most member of the Jewish Council. All those who built the ghetto, gave it its face and used their craft to entertain their fellow prisoners were gone. The transports made no exceptions for those using protection schemes of the preceding ghetto era. Earlier, a 30-member transport committee was set up who could protect extremely valuable (for the community) persons, the ill or other people (such as those of mixed descent) from being deported. This time, the SS intervened and the old procedures were no longer allowed. Names were provided by the Commandant Rahm and his office, as well as by Eichmann’s Berlin office, namely Möhs. They had their lists and they simply dictated these to the Jewish elder B. Murmelstein. In his post-war testimony, Murmelstein claimed that the SS could never act with such degree of certainty, had they no informants in place. For example, R. Mandler was on the list, a man who the head of the economic council and therefore knew the ghetto apparatus and also knew many people from the time when he had worked in Prague. The commandants of Terezín often turned to him for information. However, as the inconvenient witnesses they were, even these “Mandlers” were included in the last transport.
In hindsight, an overview of the 11 autumn transports from Terezín to Birkenau clearly shows the meaning and purpose they had for the Nazis: The first three transports were to prevent any possible assistance from Terezín inmates to Czech uprising which the Nazis believed would surely break out. At the same time, they were to provide labour force to the German war economy. The next 8 transports, with 13,000 men, women and children were to carry out the “final solution” by providing more victims to Auschwitz and get rid of anyone who might prove dangerous at that or any later time.
A small portion of these people were selected for work in Freiberg, Monowitz, Fürstengrube, Frýdlant and elsewhere. There was at least some chance of survival for those. The “elimination” adjective that we invariably join to these transports now can be perfectly documented by the final statistic: of the 18,400 prisoners deported from Terezín from 28 September – 28 October 1944, only 1,570 survived.
The ghetto was utterly paralysed. Out of those who remained, 4,000 were the elderly of 65 years or more, 4,000 women and 2,000 men and children. Despite all this, the ghetto lingered on and its life went on according to the new Nazi plan.