From Ghetto in Theresienstadt to Auschwitz II-Birkenau

The history of the deportation of Jews from the ghetto in Theresienstadt to the German Nazi concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz II-Birkenau

On September 27, 1941, the head of the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA) SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich took authority over the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. A few days after the nomination he convened in Prague a conference during which he announced that within two months he had the intention to “purify” the entire area remaining under his jurisdiction of the Jews. One of the first decisions taken by him considered the creation of so called “transit ghetto for the Jews” from which they would be gradually evacuated to the east. The town of Theresienstadt (German Theresienstadt) located ca. 60 kilometres northwest of Prague was chosen. Relatively important number of large 18th-century Austrian military barracks were located there, together with nearby railway line, which could be used for handling the transports of Jews to and from the ghetto.

During the Wannsee conference, which was held on January 20, 1942, “technical” aspects of realization of the program of the “final solution to the Jewish question” were discussed and it was ordered for Europe “to be searched through from the west to the east” in order to capture all the Jews, in particular in the territory of the Reich including the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. At the time, Theresienstadt was named Altersghetto (ghetto for the old). The town was intended for the supposedly “privileged” stay of the Jews from Germany and Austria—the elderly, in particular WW1 veterans and the persons commonly known thanks to their social and cultural activity. German Nazis thought that in this way, they would reassure international public opinion concerned about the program of evacuation of the Jews “to the east”.

In June 1942, the Germans finished the action of expulsing the inhabitants of Theresienstadt and from that moment, the town became a huge camp-ghetto. Throughout the entire period of its functioning, the ghetto in Theresienstadt served three basic functions, which were complementary and interconnected: collective camp for the Jews deported “to the east”, the place of extermination by starvation and harsh living conditions, but it was also used for propaganda purposes.

Initially, the Jews from Bohemia and Moravia as well as Germany and Austria were directed to Theresienstadt—they were in particular prominent and renowned persons. However, as early as since April 1943, Jews from the Netherlands were deported here, since October from Denmark, in late 1944 from Slovakia, and since the beginning of the year 1945 from Hungary. Ca. 140 thousand people were in total brought to the ghetto.

It is worth mentioning that during the “evacuation” actions to Theresienstadt carried out by the Third Reich a very cynical trick was applied. Before deportation the Jews were obliged to sign the forms in which they had to state that they “change” their place of residence. They were assured that as compensation for the abandoned property they would receive appropriate accommodation in the “ghetto for the old”. Through such activity, the Germans were able to conduct “legal” real estate exchange. However, upon their arrival the accommodation would turn out to be a bunk bed and two square metres of barrack surface where Austrian soldiers had resided years ago.

The number of persons incarcerated in the Theresienstadt ghetto was constantly increasing. In September 1942 it reached over 53 thousand. Conditions in which they were supposed to live were tragic. As a result of huge overpopulation, electricity and water supply quickly turned out to be insufficient, the outbreaks of various diseases were occurring and hunger together with the lack of proper healthcare resulted in high mortality rate. In total, over 33 thousand people perished in the ghetto, which means that nearly one in four prisoners died. What is particularly excruciating is the fact that ca. 15 thousand children were also incarcerated in the ghetto. Prisoners made attempts to prepare for them slightly better living conditions. Nurseries were hastily created which, however, did not save them from death.

From ca. 140 thousand prisoners incarcerated in Theresienstadt, nearly 87 thousand were deported to the east. Even if the whole truth about the fate of the deportees was not known in Terezín, the notion of “transport” became a synonym of horror, suffering and death.

Deportation machine was launched in January 1942. By mid-October, over 42 thousand Jews from Theresienstadt were deported to the occupied territories of Poland and former USRR. Transports were directed among other places to Riga, Izbica, Lublin, Bełżec, Sobibór, Treblinka, Maly Trostenets and Baranovichi near Minsk, as well as other places. In the following months the transports were directed to Auschwitz. Since February 1943, deportations were unexpectedly suspended for seven months. This decision may have been connected with the situation of Germany at the time, which after the defeat at Stalingrad was perceived as increasingly insecure.

When at the beginning of the year 1943 the International Committee of the Red Cross applied for sending a delegation from Berlin in order to conduct the inspection in the Theresienstadt ghetto, the Nazis agreed to it and launched the action of “town revitalization”. The word “ghetto” was replaced by “Jewish settlement area” (Jüdisches Siedlungsgebiet), the streets were given new names, the bank of “Jewish self-government” was established (“der jüdischen Selbstverwaltung” bank) and ghetto currency, so called Ghettokrone, entered circulation. German authorities agreed also for the packages from abroad to be sent to Theresienstadt, not to mention the cultural life. On June 28, 1943, a guided tour for delegates from the German Red Cross was organized by Sipo-SD officers, with Adolf Eichmann among them.

Soon, one of the biggest deportation operations to Auschwitz was conducted. SS groups managing Theresienstadt demanded the renewal of deportations, on the grounds of overpopulation of the ghetto and the risk of the outbreak of typhus, which could spread beyond the borders of the Protectorate. What was also important in connection with the decision was the fact that the uprising broke out in the Warsaw ghetto and the Nazis wanted to avoid a similar situation in Theresienstadt. Through deportations to the east it was easy to undermine the resistance potential. In the period between September 1943 and October 1944, 18 transports with 37,232 prisoners were in total sent to Auschwitz, including the transport of about a thousand children, who reached Theresienstadt in August 1943 from Białystok. At the time, a rumour spread through the ghetto that they were supposed to be exchanged for the Germans and probably sent to Palestine. After two months they were all transported to Auschwitz together with their guardians and murdered.

Upon their arrival in Auschwitz, the majority of transports shared the same fate as the Jews brought from different countries of the occupied Europe, i.e. immediate death in the gas chambers. However, as far as seven transports directed to Auschwitz in September and December 1943 as well as May 1944 including in total 17,420 persons are concerned, the Nazis gave up the procedure of the so called special treatment (Sonderbehandlung). Due to the reasons which remain unclear, but may be connected with a visit of the representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Theresienstadt, these people were not sent to the gas chambers, but together with their families directed to Birkenau, to the BIIb sector called family camp for the Jews from Theresienstadt—Familienlager Theresienstadt. They were allowed to live, but not for long—for about six months. 

In June 1944 the representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross performed a second inspection in Theresienstadt. It was caused by the case of deportation of a few hundred Danish Jews to this ghetto in October 1943. Danish government together with the representatives of Danish Red Cross began to insist on visiting the town to which their citizens had been deported. Adolf Eichmann again made every effort possible to “revitalize” the town—the lawns were cleaned up and the municipal park, until then inaccessible for prisoners, received a new look. Carousels were installed, together with a playground and some sports facilities. Along the road which the inspectors were supposed to follow the facades of houses were renovated, the streets paved and in the houses, three-level bunks were replaced by regular beds. A number of tricks were applied in order to hide the reality of Theresienstadt. As it was already the case, this strategy of keeping up appearances together with the attitude of the delegates who were not inquiring at all did not result in any reaction condemning the activity of the Nazis. On the contrary: the inspectors confirmed that Theresienstadt constituted final destination for the Jews and the existing accommodation conditions were relatively good.

Deportation of the Jews from Pilsen to the ghetto in Terezin, Yad Vashem Photo Archive, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Deportation of the Jews from Pilsen to the ghetto in Theresienstadt. Source: Yad Vashem

Excerpts from memoirs of Hana Nováková (née Sainerová), deported to Auschwitz in December 1943 at the age of 9.

… All our family was deported to Auschwitz—apart from Daddy—in December 1942.  … We were three children—twins—my brother and me—and our older sister.

… I perceived all the events from the perspective of a nine-year-old child—they were obvious to me, I thought that was how they were supposed to be. …

My brother was put in Kinderheim, my sister too—I was the only one to stay with our Mommy for longer—until June or July. Next to the church at the market square in Terezín there was a huge yellow house intended only for girls—it was full.

The room where I stayed was quite big—I think about 5 x 4 m, there may have been about twenty girls aged three to fifteen. We were sleeping on three-level bunks—I remember a multitude of bed bugs. Our carers slept together with us in the room—they were also chosen from the prisoners, they treated us well, but were strict.

… when I came to Terezín, I knew what every first-grade pupil was supposed to know. I treated learning in Terezín as something I did not have to attend regularly, something that nobody forced me to do. Lessons lasted 2‒3 hours a day—mainly arithmetic and reading.

Right next to the Heim there was a garden with a huge apple tree. One day it happened that I took a brick and climbed the tree. I did not know that apples were for the guardians, as we were allowed to move freely in the park. I was heavily reprimanded for what I had done and the carer told me to pack my belongings and go back to Mommy. I had to beg her very very much to be allowed to stay in Heim—and my Mommy begged for me too.

As children we were allowed to move freely in the ghetto—I was a very inquisitive girl so I was wandering everywhere I could, I used to walk to the playing field, where the boys were playing football. I did not have any toys there, but I did not miss them at all. I was a very lively child, walking here and there most of the time.

… everything was tasty for me in Terezín—goulash, potatoes, everything they would give us. From time to time we received some yeast cake covered with potato legumin—I liked that too. I know that there was a separate kitchen for children, but the food prepared there did not differ much from the food for adults.

I cannot recall how we washed ourselves in Heim but I know that I used to go to the swimming pool often. Swimming pool tickets were being distributed, but I did not always manage to get them. The pool was located behind Heim. Special days were designated for bathing—for men and women separately. 

I remember that we were conducting some rehearsals before a play which we did not manage to perform as the majority of children were sent to a concentration camp. I think that in the play I was supposed to be a leopard or a panther.

Earlier (when I did not live in Heim) rehearsals for “Beatles” were organized. It was performed in Dresden military barracks and I saw this play many times—I used to go there with or without the ticket. Fredy Hirsch was distributing the tickets, I usually managed to beg him to give me one, but if not, I would creep up without the ticket. It happened again when they were performing “Brundibar”. I sometimes used to climb under the stage and in this way I knew almost entire “Brundibar” by heart.

… I was often ill in Terezín. I had a tendency to catch meningitis. In Heim there was a doctor’s room and an isolation ward where I spent some time. There was a doctor there. 

Source: A-BSMA (Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Archives), Memoirs Fonds, vol. 238, pp. 191-194. 

Excerpts from memoirs of Markéta Tanzerová, deported to Auschwitz in September 1944 from Theresienstadt, she did not have a number tattooed, after a short confinement she was transferred to Flossenbürg.

… Inhabitants of the ghetto were told to walk at the market square. A hearse was traveling around Terezín, transporting corpses to the crematorium. When the delegates arrived, the vehicle was decorated and a young girl dressed in white was in it, distributing bread throughout the town. The girls who used to work in the garden got identical green clothes, beautiful ones, they were given rakes and baskets and were told to head towards the water gate (near the pond), singing. The delegates arrived in Terezín around noon, when everything was ready. The girls, for example, since the early morning, had to cover their route, i.e. reach the water gate, a countless number of times.

On that day, the Germans gave them food five times.

A Dane was the head of the International Red Cross and he of course wanted to see his confined compatriots, but supposedly, they went on an excursion to Prague. In fact, they were transported somewhere beyond Litoměřice.

In the birdhouse the children were performing “Brundibar”.

On the day when the delegates arrived, “The Bartered Bride” or “Dalibor” were staged in the birdhouse for the adult audience.

The equipment for the coffee shop at the market square was brought from Prague, a vast library was organized in the birdhouse, I remember that there was even a hand-carved bookcase (probably from a castle). …

In 1943, children from Białystok were brought to Terezín. About 50 nurses together with several doctors were assigned to them. Many candidates applied, as according to a rumour that spread, the children were supposed to be exchanged for German prisoners. Later, they all perished in the gas chambers in Auschwitz.

On September 29, 1944 a transport was leaving to Auschwitz. … There were many children in our transport. After our transport there were several huge transports consisting predominantly of young people. Only the old or the ill remained in Terezín, together with important functionaries, such as doctors, nurses, etc. …

Source: A-BSMA, Memoirs Fonds, vol. 237, p. 58.

Familienlager Theresienstadt in Auschwitz-Birkenau

The Germans were aware of the fact that the representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross could demand a proof that the Jews deported from Theresienstadt were alive, safe and sound also in Auschwitz. For this purpose, so called Theresienstadt family camp was created in Auschwitz II-Birkenau, in the BIIb sector. Thirty-two horse-stable wooden barracks were installed within its premises, with 300 prisoners housed in each of them, and six sanitary barracks (washrooms and latrines). During ten months of the existence of the “family camp”, over 17 thousand prisoners were directed there. Only 1,200 of them were lucky enough to survive Auschwitz and other camps to which they were later transported.

Upon the arrival of the first prisoners, construction works were still in progress, many barracks were not yet installed, and bunks were missing in some of them. There was not enough water, and it was not suitable for drinking.

The name “family camp” did not mean that families were allowed to live together. Men and boys were housed in even-number barracks, while women together with children in odd-numbered ones. The detainees were however allowed to keep their luggage and wear civilian clothes and their heads were not shaved. As it was the case with other Auschwitz prisoners, they had camp numbers tattooed and camp order was introduced, but in a more relaxed form. For example, they did not undergo periodical selections after which the weak and the ill were directed to the gas chambers.

A cynical element of the Nazi game consisted in the fact that the prisoners were from time to time given a possibility to write letters and receive packages, which was impossible for the Jews held in other parts of the camp. Camp censorship of course took care of their “appropriate” content, as the information included in them was supposed to constitute another confirmation of liveable fate of the Jews deported to the east.

Children’s block was organized in one of the barracks, which constituted kind of a school or club. The children were taught songs, poems, manual work and the lessons were provided. Older boys were even allowed to publish their magazine. A simple stage was also constructed in the barracks, intended for children’s performances, and puppets for a puppet theatre were prepared for the youngest. The food for the children housed here was of slightly better quality—soup was prepared for them, from time to time they received additional servings of marmalade and margarine. But every day they had to witness tragic reality, and the block created for them could only for a while distract them from the evil of the camp.

Familienlager prisoners were forced to perform different works, connected in particular with finishing the construction of the camp, but not only: a weaving mill was located in one of the barracks, where women sewed gun belts from textile waste; a Kommando (work detail) deepening drainage ditches was set up and numerous prisoners worked also outside the “family camp”. Many hours of backbreaking work, a variety of chicanes and permanent hunger were the reason for a very high mortality rate.

It is worth mentioning that on April 5, 1944 Siegfried Lederer, Familienlager prisoner, escaped from the camp. Disguised in the SS uniform, he managed to do it thanks to the assistance of Viktor Pestek, an SS man who had among the prisoners the opinion of a decent man. Lederer left Birkenau assisted by Pestek and managed to reach Prague, and then Terezín, where he informed the Council of Elders about the fate of the Jews in Auschwitz. He lived to see the end of the war. Viktor Pestek, in turn, experienced a tragic fate, as he was captured by the SS and shot after a cruel investigation.

The liquidation of the family camp was carried out in two stages: in March and July 1944. During the night of March 8/9, under the pretext of relocation to the labour camp, 3,791 men, women and children were taken to gas chambers. After their death, their families residing in different countries received postcards with the date March 25‒27. In fact, they were prepared at the beginning of March, but the camp authorities ordered the prisoners to postdate them, explaining that they had to undergo the censorship procedure in Berlin. In the early July 1944, as a result of the performed selection, ca. two thousand women and one thousand men were relocated to other camps. The remaining seven thousand, including children, were killed in gas chambers. Familienlager Theresienstadt in Auschwitz II-Birkenau ceased to exist.

Despite the fact that the functioning of the family camp was definitely over, the “Terezín camouflage” was still in progress. In August and September 1944 the Nazis made in Terezín a propaganda film entitled Theresienstadt. Ein Dokumentarfilm aus dem jüdischen Siedlungsgebiet (Terezín. A documentary from Jewish settlement area), known also under the title, Der Führer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt (Führer donates a town to the Jews). Jewish actors, scrupulously directed scenes, contentment visible everywhere—it was all meant to quash rumours on the supposed extermination of Jews. The film was directed by Kurt Gerron, a famous Jewish actor who then perished in Auschwitz.

Eleven more transports were sent by the Nazis to Auschwitz for extermination. The last one reached the camp on October 28, 1944. The selection of Jews brought in the transport was the last one performed on the Birkenau ramp. In total, 24 transports consisting of over 46,000 Jews were directed from Terezín to Auschwitz during the war.

At the end of October 1944, the number of Jews incarcerated in the Terezín ghetto decreased to ca. 10 thousand but after a short period of time, as a result of new transports arriving, it reached 17 thousand. The history of the Terezín ghetto was over as late as on May 8, 1945, when the Red Army units entered the town.

Aerial photograph taken by the Allies in 1944 showing territory of KL Auschwitz I and KL Auschwitz II-Birkenau, 1944, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Aerial photograph taken in 1944 by the Allies. In the photo, the Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp is visible. Source: A-BSMA. 

Map illustrating the location of the BIIb sector, where the camp for the Terezin families was situated, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Muzeum, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Map illustrating the location of the BIIb sector, where the camp for the Theresienstadt families was situated. Source: A-BSMA. 

Excerpts from memoirs of Jana Adlerová, deported to Auschwitz in December 1943 in a transport from Theresienstadt.

… I was in Terezín with my daughter and we were all the time together in the women’s barracks. We immediately volunteered for work, and we worked in OD (Ordungsdienst—order service). After some time (it was in the winter), I became OD supervisor in the Dresden barracks. For some time it protected me and my daughter from being included in a transport. Later my daughter got a place at Löwenstein’s, who was the head of the ghetto guards. In 1943, ghetto guard was disbanded and the Germans caught Mr Löwenstein, and all ghetto guards were sent in a transport, including my daughter, and I volunteered to join her. It was in December 1943. …

I lived only in the barracks of the Sudety Mountains and of Dresden. …

At Mr Hoffenreich’s workshop beds were made for us, we had one double bed together with my daughter.

Our room was on the first or second floor, there were 11 of us in the room, all of us so called clerks and we all had beds. When there was a transport, we did not go to sleep, we were working all night. In addition, there was a roll call in the morning, about 7.00, barracks elder would tell us the news, whether the transport would come, apart from that some regular everyday things were discussed, for example that the yard was not clean enough, that there were papers somewhere, that beds have to be made at 8.00, etc. A meal was served at noon.

The food was bad: it was usually soup, then a lot of purple groats in barrels or potatoes and some sauce, yeast dumplings, potatoes in skins. Bread was always rationed in the morning, there was a piece per day, but I do not remember the exact amount. It was not enough. I did not have any possibility to get more food. …

We were not allowed to leave the area of the barracks, as the head I was the only person to receive a pass.

… In Terezín, those days when those young ones were hanged were the worst. It was horrible. In our barracks there was a mother of one of those murdered. Deathly silence fell but her scream made our hair stand on end. We obscured the windows and lit all the candles that we had. It repeated twice. Sadness fell in the town and we were all crying. I will never forget this prayer. Daily order was issued so that nobody could leave the area of the barracks, that those who had illegally sent letters to a mother or somebody in Prague were being sentenced. It was a horror how those wretches were crying and calling their mothers. And poor Edelstein must have been there. He was a big man. And the entire Ältesterrat in general.

We, the supervisors, participated in a weekly meeting and Edelstein was talking with us. And then there was one sadder day when people from the AK1 transport had to go to Lidice in order to dig graves. When they came back we were asking them what was happening, what they had been doing, why they were so exhausted, but they were just waving their hands and did not want to say anything, only later they part by part told us what they had seen. It was a horror, those days were sad.

And then there was one more horrible day. We were ordered to go to the meadow where we were then standing all day, without any reason or purpose, they were hasting all day like fools. We thought they were going to shoot us. In the evening the order arrived: “Go back!” I thought they would trample through us. And then there were those bad transports all the time, when we knew that they were taking our friends. …

We were transported to Auschwitz in freight cars, it was a transport of 1,000 people, we were allowed to take a backpack with us. Then, when we were leaving the train, the Kanada Kommando came and took all that we had: You don’t need it, you’ll go to gas anyway. We were directed to the “family camp”; the September transport was already there, which later, on March 8, was taken to the gas chamber without any exception. Me and my daughter, we tried by all means to remain clean. Even if it was winter, we every day washed all our bodies in a kind of trough with icy cold water, then we were standing only in those rags during the roll call and we were healthy.

… Here in Auschwitz I made the summary of my life, I did not have any idea that I could get out of there anywhere. We were working in Weberei (weaving mill), the work helped us survive it, we were sewing some belts, but it was the time when I would cry every night. I would hold my daughter, she was 16 years old, in my arms, and I felt such a pity that she was also supposed to go to gas, that we were all supposed to go to gas.

There was a selection after six months and we were chosen for work in Hamburg, both of us were chosen. …

Source: A-BSMA, Memoirs Fonds, vol. 237, pp. 216‒217.

Excerpts from memoirs of Otto Deutsch deported to Auschwitz on December 16, 1943 from the ghetto in Theresienstadt, assigned the prisoner number 170105.

When we reached military barracks in the Sudety Mountains, the chaos was impossible to describe. Nothing had been prepared for us. The halls were empty, we were just welcomed by wet concrete floors. Our AK2 had been assigned to the S4 hall, which was supposed to accommodate 400 people. As soon as we entered the hall, Martin noticed a big iron stove in the corner. He took a piece of chalk out of his pocket and on the floor, he drew a rectangle, which was supposed to be our “room”. Then, very calm among all this turmoil, he took a chess set out of his pocket and we started playing as if all this fuss around us didn’t exist. Then, late at night, mattresses were brought to the yard. Everybody was holding a packet with a mattress and it was impossible to find mine among thousands of them. Then I started thinking which work detail to join. Martin decided that we should join the carpenters, but I was honest enough to admit that I had never used a saw before. Martin calmed me down saying that it was not important and that I would learn everything. We found master carpenter Winkler ourselves (he had a big workshop in his house). When he looked at me holding a saw, he started tearing his hair out and said that 75 per cent of his workforce had my “great” qualifications.

… There were separate workshops for craftsmen of all types.

… We were making bunks for four persons, two in the lower part and two in the upper. We were very hungry. Martin had a new idea how to improve our situation. In secret, we started making toys—all kinds of wooden cars, and even rocking horses.

… Depending on the toy type, we were able to sell it for a quarter, a half or even the entire loaf of bread. We always had a lot of customers. In particular people from new transports, who at the beginning had a lot of food brought from home, so they could allow themselves to give their rations of bread away (500 grams, it was the daily ration).

… In the meantime our entire big family arrived and finally, my parents came in the transport from Ostrava. Late in the autumn of that year (1942), a transport of the old arrived from Sudetenland. It happened that I was on duty in the Jager barrack at the time when my grandparents came from Šumperk. My grandfather was 91 years old and my grandmother 92. They were accommodated in the attic in terrible conditions. Shortly after, all those old people got fleas and were taken to the delousing station. Clothes were taken off them and the majority got pneumonia and they were dying like flies. …

On December 18, 1943 we were taken to Birkenau. … Our last items of clothing were put on the floor of the stock-car in which we were supposed to be transported. There were from 50 to 60 persons per car. We managed to get the places near the window. … In order to relieve ourselves during the trip we had to use a bucket which needed to be emptied from time to time. It meant that the bucket was passed from hands to hands until it reached the window and the last person who got it of course had to empty it through the window.

… Finally the train arrived in Auschwitz late at night. … The convoy of trucks took us to the barracks arranged in lines, on one of them it was written “Sauna”. … We hadn’t drunk or eaten anything for a long time and those who managed to keep their precious items and money were now exchanging them for something to eat and some bread. A mug of tea was worth a hand watch. The chaos was impossible to describe.

… Then we entered the “Sauna”. We were supposed to go inside a big hall, where we had to take all our clothes off. They were put into sacks and placed in the repository (Effektenkammer) with our prisoner name. We were approaching other prisoners in alphabetical order and they were tattooing a number on our left forearm. My number was 170105. Naked, we had to run through a long corridor, passing the windows which were wide open. It was in December and we got frozen to the marrow. We found ourselves in the “hairdresser’s” room where we had all our hair shaved. Not only heads, but also armpits and pubic hair. I remember that about 50 people had their pubic hair shaved with one razor, and without any water. I remember how the people were bleeding. When we were all shaved, we had to run to the shower. After all that trouble and horror it was the only quite pleasant part of the entire procedure. Getting dressed was the next stage of the game. We entered the room with “clothing and underwear”. There were piles of clothes of different types and one Polish prisoner was standing behind each pile with a stick. Running, we were supposed to grab trousers, coat, shirt, shoes. If somebody stopped and wanted to choose something from a different pile, a “policeman” would start beating him with the stick. We did it all so fast that after a short while we were completely dressed, the items matched and we were ready to take part in a dress up party. I got some green breeches with a red stripe on one side, short-sleeved coat, felt hat without brim and instead of shoes, I had rubber wellies. The last stage of the “initiation” consisted in signing the declaration that we had arrived in the camp voluntarily for our own protection. …

We were housed in the family camp of the BIIb sector, where we joined earlier September transports from Theresienstadt. As soon as we reached the place, our women lined up and we all had a lot of difficulties finding each other. We were taken to the barracks, each of them with the capacity of 400 prisoners. There were in total 32 barracks in the BIIb sector. The first person that we met was my brother Maxl who informed me about the death of our father. My mother gave me his cap that he used to wear all the time in the camp, that was what I inherited from him.

… I forgot to mention that women and men were separated to different blocks. Every day in the morning and in the evening there were roll calls organized by the SS men. They were held outside the barracks and sometimes they would last for hours, as numbers were never correct. Then the entire camp was directed by the guards to work, which consisted in carrying stones for the construction of the road in our own sector.

Source: A-BSMA, Memoirs Fonds, vol. 238, p. 61‒70.

Lista transportowa więźniów deportowanych z Theresienstadt do Auschwitz Lista transportowa więźniów deportowanych z Theresienstadt do Auschwitz, 1943, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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The first page of the transport list of prisoners deported from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz on September 6, 1943. Source: A-BSMA.

The view of wooden barracks of the BII sector in Birkenau. The photograph was taken from the “Liberation Chronicles” realized after the liberation of the camp. In the background, family camp for the Jews from Theresienstadt is visible, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Muzeum Archive, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
Zdjęcie wnętrza drewnianego baraku mieszkalnego, 1945, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
Transport list of prisoners deported from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz on September 6th 1943, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Muzeum Archive, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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The view of wooden barracks of the
BII sector in Birkenau. The photograph was taken from the “Liberation Chronicle”
made after the liberation of the camp. In the background, family camp for the
Jews from Theresienstadt is visible. Source: A-BSMA. The photograph presents the
interior of a typical wooden residential barrack of the BII sector in Birkenau.
Source: A-BSMA. Transport list of prisoners
deported from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz on September 6, 1943. Source: A-BSMA.

Valeska Moskiewicz's suitcase, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Suitcase belonging to Valeska Moskiewicz. Her name and surname appear on the transport list from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz dated May 16, 1944. Source: A-BSM Collections. 

Transport list from Theresienstadt to KL Auschwitz dated May 16th 1944. The name Valeska Moskiewicz is marked on it, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Muzeum Archive, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Transport list from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz dated May 16, 1944. The name Valeska Moskiewicz is marked on it. Source: A-BSMA.

Czółenko damskie z czarnej skóry, ozdobione dekoracyjnym szyciem na przyszwie oraz broszką, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
Ink inscription inside the shoe: Neumann Adele, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Muzeum Collection Department, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
Transport list from Theresienstadt to KL Auschwitz dated September 6th 1943 with the name and surname Adele Neumann marked on it, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Muzeum Archive, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Black leather women’s pump with
decorative upper and a brooch. Source: A-BSM Collections. Ink inscription inside the shoe:
Neumann Adele. Source: A-BSM Collections. Transport list from Theresienstadt
to Auschwitz dated September 6, 1943 with the name and surname Adele Neumann
marked on it. Source: A-BSMA.

Brooch, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Muzeum Archive, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Brooch. Source: A-BSM Collections.

Broszka. Inscription at the back: Made in Czechoslovakia, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Muzeum Collections Department, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Inscription at the back: Made in Czechoslovakia. Source: A-BSM Collections.

Shoe brush, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Muzeum Collections Department, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Shoe brush. Source: A-BSM Collections.

Pudełko po pudrze, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Children’s powder box. Source: A-BSM Collections.

Oprawka papierowa z papierosów, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Paper cigarette package with the inscription: “Zora” 10 Zigaretten Cigaret. Source: A-BSM Collections.

Naszywka ubraniowa. Fot. Zbiory PMA-B, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Clothes badge. Source: A-BSM Collections.

The photograph of former prisoner Alfred Milek deported to KL Auschwitz from the ghetto in Theresienstadt, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Muzeum Archive, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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The photograph of former prisoner Alfred Milek. Source: A-BSMA.

Excerpts from the account of Alfred Milek, deported to Auschwitz in September 1943 in the transport from the ghetto in Theresienstadt, assigned the prisoner number 146712.

… The unloading took place in Auschwitz on the ramp, where the SS men ordered us to leave the entire luggage claiming that everything would be delivered to us. I tried to refuse and I didn’t want to leave the backpack and the packages. They were taken away from me by force. Then there was the order for doctors to step out. There were about 30 of us. It turned out that as doctors, we were supposed to transport the corpses of those who died during the transport.

I would like to mention that there were about 60 to 80 persons in each car. The trip lasted 3 days and 5,000 people were transported. It is necessary to explain that entire families were transported. When we completed our task we were accommodated in wooden barracks of the Familienlager sector (BIIb sector of the Birkenau camp). There were long chimney flues in the barracks, running along them, and there were also horse troughs near the walls. It turned out that our barracks were manufactured as horse stables for Wehrmacht. The first thing we were supposed to do was transporting and assembling multi-level bunks (for 8 persons) in the barracks. The bunks were very heavy, we were 10, 12 people to carry them, taking a rest from time to time. Having completed these activities, we were assigned to different barracks. I was housed in barracks number 32. …

I would like to mention that in the BIIb sector, wooden barracks were located along the street, on its both sides, but women were accommodated on one side and men on the opposite. …

Coming back to the first day on the BIIb sector I would like to point out that one of the first procedures everybody had to undergo was a bath in the “Sauna” located within the sector. We were entering the “Sauna” naked. Clothes, jewels and other precious items had to be given “voluntarily” to the Germans as a deposit—we all had to sign documents presented to us. Before entering the “Sauna”, we had camp numbers tattooed. I received the number 146712. Before the bath, everybody had their entire body shaved. After the bath, i.e. after a few drops of water fell on us, underwear was distributed. I was given a shortish shirt and civilian clothing with stripes painted on it.  Then all of us gathered near barracks 32, where SS-Lagerarzt Dr Mengele, Dr König (a tall man) and SS-Lagerführer Buntrock were standing. Mengele ordered the doctors to step out. When the order was fulfilled, everybody was asked about their medical specialization. I was at the end and I reported that I was a “Hygienik”—then Mengele said that he would make me responsible for the hygiene of the sector: cleaning lavatories, streets etc. Latrines were located behind barracks number 32. These were two barracks with washrooms next to them. I received the order to care for and keep clean the men’s latrines but I did not possess any equipment or products which would make it possible to fulfil the order. And the prisoners, using latrines all the time, were constantly contaminating them due to the fact that nobody would sit on cold concrete curbs. I was constantly occupied, but it was impossible to keep the facility clean. A prisoner suffering from mental disorders was assigned to help me. We were using water mixed with chlorine for cleaning. Lagerälterster Arno Bohm gave me a rice brush as my basic and unique working tool. It was used for cleaning the facility in which there were 426 holes in three rows. After two days of work the brush was completely worn out, only a piece of wood remained. So I asked Lagerältester to give me a new one. He chased me away, screaming “Hau ab!” I did not know what that expression meant, even though I knew German. Apparently, Bohm did not like the expression of surprise on my face because he slapped me and added: “You have to get one yourself”. From that moment I was very scared of him. He memorized my name and I had gooseflesh creeping on my body each time I heard him calling: “Milek zu mir”. I would run to him immediately and would always receive a few strokes. And Bohm used to beat others, too. It was not surprising at all. He ate a lot, stealing from prisoners, and was often drunk. He lived in barracks number 6 and there was no lavatory, so he had to satisfy his physiological needs in the common men’s latrine. I think that is why he was so scrupulous in ordering to keep the facility in perfect condition. Yet, one day, lights went out in the camp. I do not remember why—when Bohm was running hastily to the lavatory to relieve himself. Apparently, he was not the only person to do it and due to the lack of electricity, I was not able to adapt the facility to the requirements of those in authority. It can be easily imagined how he beat and insulted me when, covered with excrements, he could finally vent his anger on me.

Infirmary, commonly known as the Revier, was organized in barracks 32.

… Hygienic conditions of the BIIb sector were very primitive. For 32 residential barracks, there were only two latrine barracks (one for men and the other for women) and two washroom barracks. It is easy to imagine what the camp looked like in the morning, in particular when Blocksperre was announced (prohibition to leave the barracks at night). If there were no lavatories in the barracks, everybody was forced to run to the latrine at the end of the sector. The way was longer depending on the barracks where a prisoner slept. Every morning Bohm performed meticulous inspection of the camp—and I was again exposed to beating and insults. It was impossible to convince him and the proof of my “neglectful” work was visible in the space between barracks. It was Sisyphean work.

Dina Gittliebova, a young and beautiful girl, a painter, finally took pity over me. She lived in barracks number 6 and was probably the object of affection of Bohm himself. Her mother, in turn, held the position of a block elder in barracks number 30. I would like to explain that barracks number 30 was transformed into the infirmary for women (internal), while infectious ward was set up in its second half, with both men and women placed there. Thanks to her intervention, I was assigned to the post of a doctor in the abovementioned infectious ward.

In the infectious ward, there were patients suffering from different diseases: typhoid fever, erysipelas, etc. Taking care of the ill, I slept in the section separated for them. Initially, I had two nurses to help, then one. I don’t remember their names. Medicines were stored in barracks 32, but there were not enough of them. It is worth emphasizing that medicaments which, as doctors, we had with us during the transport, were confiscated on the very first day upon our arrival, during the bath in the “Sauna”. Dr Ludwik Sand, a chemist who now lives in Prague, was responsible for the supervision of medicaments stored in barracks 32. Dr Joseph Hoffmann was also employed there to help him, he perished in the gas chamber in 1944 during the liquidation of the family camp.


… A “school” for children from the BIIb sector was set up in barracks 31. Fredy Hirsch used to take care of them, … putting his heart into the organization of many different activities possible to be organized in those conditions. Several other persons were helping him. I know that amateur performances and collective games were organized in block number 31. Hirsch, probably a philologist, was a relatively young man in his thirties. He was energetic and creative. SS men were also invited to performances organized in barracks number 31, so it was possible to get some additional food for the children, some milk soup or other products.

Prisoners accommodated in the BIIb sector were employed in different work groups, for example as constructors of the internal road between the barracks. Before our arrival, nobody had lived in the BIIb sector: it was possible to deduce as there were no beds in the barracks, no road. Apart from the work mentioned above, other people performed maintenance works or transported stones. I do not think there was a canteen in the BIIb sector. Once a month we could send letters to our families. One postcard which I sent to my son was preserved.

… Only one prisoner, named Lederer, escaped from the BIIb sector. SS man Pestek, probably of Romanian origin, helped him organize the escape. I was informed about Lederer’s escape, I even helped him in something, storing some items—unfortunately, I don’t remember more details. It probably happened in April 1944. After his escape, all men had their hair cut as a form of punishment. Before Lederer’s escape we all had long hair. I don’t remember if the order to have the hair cut applied exclusively to men, or to women too. I would like to emphasize that we had the “right” to choose. We could either have a broad band of hair cut in the middle of the head or have the entire head shaved. Due to the fact that the first option looked hideous, everybody opted for the second. The shaving process lasted very long time, I think about 12 hours. We were forced to stand on the roll-call square all the time. …

… At the end of February 1944, we were ordered by SS authorities to write postcards to our relatives or families. One thing surprised us. It was the end of February (20th or a little later) and they told us to write a later date—March 25, 1944. When we asked them why we were doing it they told us that formalities connected with shipment lasted very long. They were also telling us that we would be transported to another town. They mentioned Heidebreck where we were supposed to go towork.

March 7, 1944 came. At noon I was busy performing the inspection, when they started to rush me. I objected saying that doctor’s obligation and duties were the most important. We were directed to the quarantine sector (BIIa).

Among all the turmoil many of us feared the worst. I talked about it with Dr Hoffman sleeping next to me and together we decided to defend ourselves—in case our lives were threatened.

In the BIIa sector we were accommodated in barracks and received food for two days. Senior camp prisoners were telling us that as we received bread and some additional food—we were safe. Undoubtedly, this fact calmed our troubled minds. On the same day in the evening my camp number was called. When I went out to the camp street, I was battered by Lagerführer Buntrock and ordered to join the group of 21 persons (several other doctors of the infirmary auxiliary staff). It was in the evening. We spent the night in the quarantine sector, but the next day at noon we were transported again to the BIIb sector where those who arrived with transports from December 1943 remained.

On March 8, 1944 in the evening Blocksperre was announced in the entire camp. It was prohibited to leave the barracks, but we could hear the whirr of the cars passing and the people screaming. In the morning we learnt about the entire tragedy.

In the summer of 1944 two transports were formed in the BIIb sector, and people below the age of 40 were designated to join them. I reported that I was below 40 myself, so they included me on the transport list. One transport left to Sachsenhausen and the second, on July 7, 1944, headed for the Blechhammer camp. …

Source: A-BSMA, Testimonies Fonds, vol. 80, pp. 222‒231.

Excerpts from memoirs of John Freund, deported to Auschwitz on December 15, 1943 from the ghetto in Theresienstadt, assigned the prisoner number 168329.

… The train consisted of stock-cars. There were no windows, only some narrow apertures in the walls which let some air inside. In our car, there was enough space for everybody only to sit down or lay on the floor. We were provided with food for one day and some blankets. The train was moving slowly, we were standing for hours. Nobody knew where we were going and how long it would take. The old, children, men and women.

Our family was together, so it was a little bit more convenient for us. We left Theresienstadt early in the morning, when it was still dark. When the night was approaching, some people started to get sick or to panic. Quarrels could be heard as the tension was growing. My father had his black doctor’s bag and at night, he gave injections to some ill people.

We reached the destination late at night. The doors of stock-cars were opened from the outside. They were sealed before leaving Terezín.

SS guards in uniforms were giving orders: “Leave the train quickly and stand in rows, five people per each, along the track!” We noticed some men wearing uniforms with white and black stripes—just like pyjamas. They were prisoners. They told us that we were in Auschwitz. Soon we were squeezed in huge trucks, the doors were locked and the engines turned on. Limited view of the outside that I had was weird: long rows of electric lamps and totally flat landscape; tall barbed wire fencing arranged in perfectly straight lines; observation posts with soldiers, search lights. It looked like a different planet.

Then the trucks stopped. In the darkness I saw that there were only men—women must have been transported in other vehicles. We were quickly pushed towards the entrance to a long barracks and when we found ourselves inside, again we had to stand in rows, five people per each. We were ordered to deposit all our belongings on one pile and get undressed. It was when I last saw a beautiful watch and pen that my parents gave me for bar mitzvah.

Standing naked for a long time, we started shivering. One of the German guards opened the door wide to let some fresh air inside. Then the weirdest thing took place. Two men, over twenty I think, ran through the door. Their skin was yellow and they were so thin that we could see their bones. They looked almost like savages. I had never seen any human behaving in this way. They probably hadn’t had anything to eat for many days.

Then we were guided to another hall in which there were showers. Lukewarm water was coming from them maybe for about a minute or so, and then we were directed to another long hall, where we found piles of torn shirts, underwear, socks, shoes and black and white prisoner’s striped uniforms. We did not have enough time to choose our sizes, so when we got dressed, we must have looked totally shapeless. The next step consisted in tattooing. We stood in a row with our left sleeves rolled up until a man came with a sharp movable object with which he was tattooing six digits on the skin of the left forearm. Finally, we had our entire bodies shaved.

It must have been early in the morning, it was still dark, when we were again pushed to the trucks, this time only for a short-distance trip, along tall barbed wire fencing to the well-guarded camp gate—to the camp where we were supposed to spend the next six months.

To my great surprise, in the camp we found our mother and all other women who arrived with us to Terezín, as well as a group of people who had been brought to Terezín three months earlier. At the time, there were probably 4,000 people in the camp. It consisted of two rows of long wooden barracks, about 30 in total. There was a road between the two rows. It was difficult to walk because our shoes were falling off and there was deep mud everywhere. Some people were nearly drowning in the mud and we had to pull them out.

In the barracks there was a long stove which looked like a chimney, it covered the entire length of the barracks—about 3 feet high and 3 feet wide. There were three-level bunks on both sides of the stove, each for six persons—two at each level.

There were separate barracks for men and women. The camp was surrounded by other camps from each side, separated with live barbed wire fencing. Everybody who touched the wire got electrocuted—immediately.

During most of the day we had to stand outside in groups of five, and the SS men were counting us all the time. They had cruel faces and anybody who moved during the counting procedure or made any gesture was slapped or kicked. It would take place several times a day.

At noon a large barrel with hot soup was brought and every prisoner received a serving to the only thing that he owned—a pot with a handle known as “eschus”. A slice of bread accompanied the soup. That was all until the evening, when a barrel of weak tea was brought and served to the same pot. In the morning there was tea again, but only tea. On Sundays the soup was thicker and some yellow tasteless margarine was added to the bread.

Living in dirt and having only a little water to wash ourselves resulted in another problem—fleas. All doctors in the camp—and my father had contact with a lot of them—became responsible for checking the clothes and killing fleas. On a rainy day all doctors were called and accused of not performing their duties properly. They were punished—they had to run in the rain, falling in the mud.

My struggle with fleas was a horror. I had a blue sweater which I received when the winter came but I used to wear it all the time. After a few weeks my entire body started itching. I took the sweater off, inspected it carefully and to my surprise, I saw hundreds of tiny animals creeping and laying eggs. I was unable to make the decision to throw the sweater away so I shook it out, washed it and killed the majority of little beasts with my fingernails.

Another condition from which I suffered were swollen and aching gums. My whole mouth ached and I could hardly open it. It was caused by the lack of vitamins. I was emaciated. In spring, the conditions got slightly better for a short time.

Every day we had some time to walk freely on the road in the camp. I met a few friends who had been transported from Terezín before me. They had a longer experience of living in the camp and introduced us into its realities. From them we learnt that Czech Gypsies were incarcerated in the camp next to us—a lot of them were children. On the opposite side there was a camp exclusively for men, and behind it only for women. Our camp was the only one where families from Terezín remained together. Why had we received this special privilege?

What interested us the most and what we would ask more experienced prisoners about was: what are those two factories, perfectly visible from the camp, at the distance of two kilometres or so? Each building had a repository and a very tall, wide chimney. Heavy smoke was often coming from the chimney. Were they bakeries, or maybe brick factories? The answer shocked us and made us shiver.

We were told that these were the gas chambers where people from the ghettos were murdered and burnt in the furnaces. Somehow, we did not want to believe it. However, when the next transport from Terezín arrived a few months later and was housed in our family camp, it was our turn to tell our shocked friends the true story of huge chimneys. It was a dramatic truth, and they couldn’t believe in it either. …

Thanks to several enterprising and idealistic great young leaders, the authorities allowed to make a part of one of the barracks accessible to children under fifteen years of age, where they could play, read and spend their time in more decent conditions. Several madrichim (young leaders) organized small groups. We were playing word games, exercising and singing a little, and even playing football outside.

At night and during the day we saw American aircraft flying very high towards the front. We knew that the Germans were defeated in Moscow and they began to retreat. We were informed about it before the unloading of each new transport of prisoners.

From that moment, our only thought was: Would we survive long enough to see the next day? Our mother, even though she did not feel well, would hearten us and sometimes she could share a part of her food ration with the rest of us. …

Source: A-BSMA, Testimonies Fonds, vol. 234, pp. 186‒192.

Johann Freund, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Muzeum Archive, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Photograph of former prisoner John Freund, deported to Auschwitz from the ghetto in Theresienstadt. Source: A-BSMA. 

Excerpts from the account of Vera Foltynova, deported to Auschwitz in April 1943 from Theresienstadt, assigned the prisoner number 42808:

… In September 1943 a female prisoner ran to me (to barracks 24 of the BIa sector) saying that my parents were in the “Sauna”. I do not have to explain how moved I felt after hearing this news. My first thought was that I wanted to see and hug them. I ran towards “Sauna”. I found the courage to approach a German female prisoner, serving as Lagerältester. Her name was Leo—I don’t remember her surname. She was spreading terror in the camp. But apparently, she understood me as she ordered to let me pass so that I could exchange a few words with my parents who pointed at the BIIb sector located on the opposite side of the road, where they were supposed to be accommodated. Since then, in my free time I used to run towards the camp fencing and search for my parents. From time to time we would notice each other—until one day, when an irritated SS guard wanted to shoot us. It was the moment when we started being more cautious. When I managed to get some bread, I used to send it to my parents via a Czech prisoner—Erich Kulka, who would even share his own bread. It lasted quite a long time. In the meantime I was directed to work in the Bauleitung Kommando, so I slept in barracks number 4 (BIb sector), in which girls employed in the camp packing department were also accommodated. Naturally, they were informed about my parents, so one day they took me with them. I would like to explain that some people accommodated in the Familienlager of the BIIb sector were receiving food packages from their relatives or friends; they were transported from FKL by cart and distributed in BIIb. I was there several times and I saw my parents. My father was at the end of his tether. During our next meeting he even did not recognize me, and when he finally did—he burst into tears. SS man Buntrock, who was present when this happened, beat my father and it was the cause of his death. One of the SS men employed in Bauleitung (I forgot his name) would take me to the BIIb sector; he used to take pity over me as he knew that my mother was there. It was possible as in BIIb we were performing some measurements of the internal road.

And then came the evening when we saw each other at a distance, through the wires—the last time. My mother was crying saying that a transport is being organized, I was drawn off the wires by force. At night, during the liquidation of prisoners from the BIIb sector, we knew about the crime being committed as the cars were also passing next to our sector—heading towards the crematoria.

It lasted the whole night. Later I found out how they lied to the residents of the BIIb sector. They were told that they would be transported to the station where they would be loaded to cars heading towards the town of Heydenbreck, their supposed workplace. This is how my mother perished at the age of 58. I blamed myself for a very long time. When my mother was still the resident of the BIIb sector, she wrote in one of her secret messages addressed to me that she was ill and that she had the possibility to be moved to the infirmary where a Czech doctor who was employed there would take care of her. She was supposed to undergo a surgery. I replied, advising her not to report to the Revier voluntarily, as from my experience I knew what fate was awaiting ill prisoners there. But when the prisoners from the BIIb sector were being liquidated, only medical staff and patients were not sent to extermination. I do not know if my mother would have survived the surgery, but the fact remains the fact—I advised her no to go and the memory of this event has disturbed me ever since. …

Source: A-BSMA, Testimonies Fonds, vol. 78, pp. 190‒192.

Vera Foltynova, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Muzeum Archive, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Photograph of former prisoner Vera Foltynova. Source: A-BSMA.

A kite written by the representatives of camp resistance movement and sent outside the camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Muzeum Archive, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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A secret message written by the representatives of camp resistance movement and sent outside the camp. It includes the information about the creation in Auschwitz of a family camp for Jews from the Theresienstadt ghetto as well as about the action of writing letters from March 1944. Source: A-BSMA. 

A fragment of the dispatch written by inmates of the camp resistance movement in March 1944 that was sent out of the camp. It included information on the fate of Jews from the ghetto in Theresienstadt imprisoned in Auschwitz.

Letters from beyond

... In the Czech Republic, there is a special city, Theresienstadt, where Jews from the Czech Republic are concentrated. In Theresienstadt, they have their own local government, their own currency, etc., and are taken care of by the International Red Cross. The previous year, the Gestapo by proposing work for the inhabitants of Theresienstadt in the territory of the General Government on favourable conditions, managed to evacuate about 6,000 people from the city. We really cannot fathom why these people believed the false assurances of the Gestapo officers. In any case, however, they were transported to Auschwitz and placed in a special camp. Initially, they were treated in a suspiciously polite way. They were allowed to live in the camp with their families; they retained their own medical and sanitary staff. The Idyll lasted for a few months, almost to this day. Now, since new transports were to arrive to Theresienstadt from Berlin, orders were received to eliminate the first transport. Thus, the entire first transport—1,800 women and over 2,000 men were gassed to death. On March 15, approximately 4,000 people—most healthy men, women and children were crammed to the gas chambers, and after a few hours, transported to the crematoria. A specially selected team of SS men and Kapos treated those sentenced to death in an inhuman manner for several hours. About 60 people were clubbed with sticks and hit with rifle butts. The whole operation was carried out at night with far-reaching precautionary measures so that other Jews in the Theresienstadt camp would not sense anything. To mislead the rest of the Jews in Theresienstadt, and the International Red Cross, four days prior to gassing the unfortunate inmates were asked to write letters to their loved ones in the Czech Republic. They were all asked to date the letters 25 March 1944. The letters were stored by the Political Department, and sent after March 25. The Gestapo in this way wanted to prove that no one in Auschwitz is gassed, and at the same time tried to lure new victims from Theresienstadt. These letters will reach the recipients when all their authors will have been long dead. The enormity of the Nazi bestiality can only be compared to the extreme cowardice with which these brutes try to cover up the traces of their crimes...

Source: A-BSMA, Resistance Movement Materials, vol. 2, p. 68a.

Pierwsza strona karty pocztowej wysłanej z KL Auschwitz do Pragi Pierwsza strona karty pocztowej wysłanej z KL Auschwitz do Pragi, 1944, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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First page of postcard sent from Auschwitz to Prague. Return address was provided: Birkenau labour camp, Nowy Bieruń, Upper Silesia region. On the back of the postcard in the upper right hand corner the date May 25, 1944 is visible. Source: A-BSMA. 

Second page of postcard. On the back of the postcard in the upper right hand corner the date May 25th 1944 is visible, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Muzeum Archive, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Second page of postcard sent from Auschwitz to Prague. Source: A-BSMA. 

Dear Miki             25/III. 44

Thank you very much for the bread, pastries and sweets. I keep thinking of you. I hope that both you and your family are well. I am glad that the Pisen family hasn’t forgotten about us. Greetings to Uncle Zitek, Zdenek and Franta.

Greetings and kisses

Yours Eliska [?]

Excerpts from memoirs of Jana Adlerová, deported to Auschwitz in December 1943 in a transport from Theresienstadt.

After Lederer’s escape we were standing for 12 hours, I had to lean against my daughter. But we always enjoyed the sound of camp sirens as we knew that somebody had managed to escape. Auschwitz was as flat as a table, with wires, wires, wires and stones all around, and only one tree. And it was so beautiful when somebody managed to escape in spite of it all.

Source: A-BSMA, Testimonies Fonds, vol. 237, pp. 216‒217.

Telegram o ucieczce Siegfrieda Lederera, 1944, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Telegram informing about the escape of Siegfried Lederer, prisoner from the family camp for Jews from Theresienstadt in Birkenau. Source: A-BSMA. 

Translation of the telegram informing about the escape of Siegfried Lederer, prisoner from the family camp for Jews from Theresienstadt in Birkenau:

Secret State Police

State Police Post Hohensalza

Auschwitz concentration camp No. 3367, 6/4/44 1130 GRM

1. To the RSHA, Roem 4 C2, in Berlin

2. To the SS-WVH, Group D Offices, Oranienburg. -3

To all Eastern posts of the state, criminal and border police

Urgent, for immediate submission

Concerns: The Jewish political prisoner Sigfrid Israel Lederer, born 6.3.04 in Albersdorf - Jahau/Protectorate, recently domiciled and staying in Theresienstadt, Langestrasse 18.

Lederer, referred here by the RSHA on 19.12.43 fled from the camp (camp segment B) on the night of 5 through 6.4.44. A search action was immediately ordered and until now did not bring about any success. I ask you therefore, to commence further search actions and, upon apprehension of the escapee to send relevant information.


The RSHA, requests you to create a copy of Lederer in the investigation ledger. 

To SS-WVH – Reichsführer’s report already executed. Another report will follow. The guilty police constables have not been confirmed to date.

Excerpts from memoirs of Otto Deutsch deported to Auschwitz on December 16, 1943 from the ghetto in Theresienstadt, assigned the prisoner number 170105.

… I think that it must have been late March or April 1944 when we heard the rumour that block elder Lederer had escaped. It turned out that it was not a rumour, that what seemed unbelievable was in fact true. …

We were aware of the fact that our final date would come at last and that the fate awaiting us would be the same as the fate of the September transport. But June 20 came—and nothing happened. In the next days, Dr Mengele was organizing selections … during which he chose strong women. Terrifying tragedies were happening: there were women who wanted to live so much that they would accept being separated from their children, and there were those who would choose to die together with their children. Scenes which we witnessed were impossible to describe. …

Then it was time for selection. … We were supposed to stand half naked in groups of five. On the orders of an SS man, the first row had to step out a little and lower their pants. Those who had even the smallest scar on the body had to stand on one side. I think I do not have to emphasize that we never saw the “selected” ones again. Then we were taken near the “Sauna”, situated right next to the crematoria and gas chambers. It was an unpleasant feeling as we did not know what was going to happen next. It was true that we were told that we would be transported to the Blechhammer labour camp, but we did not trust it too much after our Heydebreck experience. But we were directed to a large bath and put on typical concentration camp clothes with white and blue stripes as well as underwear, caps and coats. Instead of shoes, we were given wooden clogs. For the first time in months we took a shower and felt relatively clean. A convoy of trucks with uncovered platforms was standing on the road behind the wires, waiting for us. We had to sit on our heels, one behind the other. …Blechhammer, at the distance of 90 km from Birkenau, was our destination. …

Source: A-BSMA, Testimonies Fonds, vol. 238, pp. 61‒70.

Excerpts from the account of Yehuda Backon deported to Auschwitz from the ghetto in Theresienstadt in December 1943, assigned the prisoner number 168194.

… After our arrival we were divided into two groups: women and men separately. We, the children, remained in the group with men and the elderly. I was together with my father. … Fredy Hirsch came after some time together with his several co-workers from the juvenile department, he registered the children under the age of 16 and concentrated us in this part of the block where the elderly were accommodated, which gave us some advantage. So for example we were not maltreated or abused when the soup was served. We were not subject to the harassment of prisoner functionaries too much either. My group, which stayed in the block, consisted at the time of 40 young people. I slept together with my four friends from Terezín. …

In December‒January 1943 Fredy Hirsch managed to accommodate all of us in the block for the young. …

I recall that at the time when we were still in the barracks together with the elderly, I would often see corpses lying outside the block. If a warder did not notice it, in the evenings some prisoners used to take valuable things from the corpses. The old died “naturally”, i.e. of starvation or exhaustion. In my block, 10‒20 persons died on average. I do not exactly remember how many prisoners were accommodated in the block, it was always full. On average it might have been about 500 people. We, the young, occupied one bed—7 persons per bunk. I remember that when it was cold, those of us who slept on the corner would change every two hours with those sleeping in the middle. We had one, maximum two blankets at our disposal. I remember that we would use some tricks in order to obtain food rations also for those prisoners who were in the state of agony or those who had already died. We would keep them lying for the next 1‒2 days or the rations of those who were in terminal stage were given to the “healthy”. …

I am not able to estimate how many people were incarcerated in Auschwitz during my stay there. I know quite a lot of details concerning Czech transports, as they were of particular interest for me. I know for example that when I was in Auschwitz, 400,000 Jews from Hungary were murdered in the gas chambers. As I later worked in the Rollwagen Kommando, I could watch the selections being performed myself. Earlier, at the time when I had been directed here, they transported the people from the ramp to Birkenau, then the tracks led directly to the crematoria. We could see the trains passing. I can still recall the first transport from Hungary very well—I was in the BIIb sector at the time. Blocksperre was announced and we managed to hide ourselves. We saw people leaving the train. The entire situation seemed weird. We see people wearing civilian clothes, but we still have striped uniforms on. Their language was really strange. They were well dressed, but a lot of them looked pale and exhausted. The elderly particularly suffered from the inconveniences of a long journey. Then from the men’s sector I saw the people being directed between sectors C and D to the “Sauna” or gas chambers. If they were walking straight, they were directed to crematoria I and II or to the “Sauna”. We were hidden in the corner and were observing everything, which was of course forbidden. Transports from Terezín were also coming, and the people were going to gas, too. Not many of them were directed to the camp. I wanted very much to see what the selection process looked like.

The behaviour of Auschwitz deportees differed. Transports from Terezín or from Hungary were completely unaware of where they were arriving. But there were transports which did not look like lambs led to the slaughter. …

I also worked on the ramp when the transports were coming. … I knew a lot of children from Terezín, they were my friends. I was aware of the fact that if a child stayed with the mother, they would go to gas. From time to time I managed to exchange a few words with the people … I also saw some friends with whom I had lived in Terezín in the same block for the young. Later, when I was already in the men’s sector, it was long afterwards, I often had the chance to watch the selections. …

… The events that I would like to describe now took place in March 1944. At the time I was employed as a stoker in the children’s block and my job was to prepare the soup. I was putting mouldy pieces of dough into the pot. I once found in the dough a few glass sleeves in which some money was hidden—German marks. In this way, people from the outside would attempt to smuggle some money for their relatives. This money allowed us to get some food. Near the stove at which I worked there was a separate room which Fredy Hirsch used as his office. I often had to be careful when SS man Pestek was going inside to talk with Fredy face to face. He was more humane than other SS men. All stokers had to be careful not to make any SS man come closer and raise the alarm. We were preparing the bread for the others, also for elderly prisoners, so I was able to send something to my parents on a regular basis. I sometimes used to bring them some soup, and they would argue with me then. My father would always repeat: “You have to eat, we are already lost anyway”. When I was bringing my father some sugar cubes there was also always a problem who should eat them.

… At the end of March 1944, typhus broke out not among us, the children, but in the camp in general. We were under quarantine at the time. We were immediately isolated from the others. I remember how scared we were. We knew that soon, the liquidation of our transport could take place and at first we thought that the typhus issue had just been a pretext for this action. Right after the end of the quarantine period, it was announced one day: the new transport (which meant us), move aside. Old transport (previous one, which had arrived in August) was taken to the A sector of the camp. People from the August transport, who were so far staying with us, were in much worse condition than we were as they had already been suffering before we were brought to the camp. On the last day, March 7, we started celebrating … the anniversary of our Kindersheim (children’s centre) in Terezín. It was its first anniversary. It was a very important day for us. Fredy Hirsch knew us from Terezín. We prepared coffee, baked a cake and started celebrating. I visited Fredy to invite him for the event. I remember that he was very nervous at the time and mentally absent. He apologized to me and said that he would not participate. Aunt Hanka, his secretary, was anxious, too. … It was the last evening. I particularly remember the atmosphere in the children’s block. We were talking quite frankly. Among us, there were children from both old as well as new transports. We knew that the older had already been gone. I talked for instance with my mate, who was a stoker in the children’s block too, who told me: “Oh, don’t worry, I will get the job as a stoker in heaven too, it is always warm there, and always lots of food.” So during these last hours, we served each other portions of grim humour.

The Auschwitz gong constituted a symbol. It also served as a clock, as it was forbidden to possess watches. Somebody once said: “In a few days, I will be ringing St. Peter’s gong”. In the face of death everybody wanted to joke around a little, the young as well.

They left us the next day. The Germans again played their diabolic scene: the ill, twins and doctors could stay (for the Red Cross). The purpose was clear—mislead the people from old Terezín  transports until the last moment. We were told that they would be transferred to another camp. There were many who believed it, convincing themselves that if the old, twins and doctors were staying, the others cannot be sent to death. It reinforced their optimism. As long as our transport was together with the August transport in the section for adults, the atmosphere of fear prevailed, which we, the children, had not been experiencing in our camp. The older were maltreated by prisoner functionaries. When this transport was already gone, the atmosphere changed. People from our transport took different functions (warders, block elders). The camp was already half dead, there were no crowds, one could feel more freedom. People who had so far been assisting those in authority now took the reins. The assistant of camp elder became camp elder. His name was Willig Brachman or something like this. He was very humane, even if he was not a Jew, but a German criminal. …

On the occasion of the Passover festival, it must have been in March, some people, who used to be accommodated in the youth centre in Terezín, set up a specific group, and I was among them, too. On that day we got up early and headed towards the block for the young, where we received from Miriam Edelstein, employed in the block at the time, some flour which we used to bake matzo. The fire which was burning from the previous day had nearly faded, but, what we perceived as a miracle, we managed to start it again in spite of not having any matches.

June 20 passed. Nothing happened. Suddenly, selections started to be performed. Undescribable agitation in the camp. We thought that the camp was supposed to be liquidated. Everybody started packing their belongings which they had managed to keep. Women able to work without children were selected together with men—also able to work, aged 16‒45. Everybody had to walk naked, me too. Only women with children, elderly men as well as the ill remained in the camp. My twenty-year-old sister passed through the selection process, my Mum was rejected for the first time, as she had just recovered from pneumonia and in spite of the fact that she was only forty, she looked like a sixty-year-old woman. My sister tried to influence her to go through the selection again. She did not want to do that, she would explain that she was not strong enough to live anymore. Our mother tried once again, which was not always possible. But this time was successful. Not all selections were subject to the same scheme. Later, selections were performed according to the 150 or 160 cm principle—shorter people or those who had scars were “rejected”.  Sometimes they had to jump over a stone and if they did not manage to do it, they were sent to death. My father remained with me and with the ill in the camp. In addition, women were “allowed” to stay in the camp—on condition that they were able to work. However, in such case they were obliged to leave their children. But which woman would be ready to abandon her children? I would also like to mention that children were sometimes born in the camp and I recall that shortly after their birth, they had numbers tattooed—not on the hand, but on the buttock. I remember one case when a woman attempted to take her new-born baby together with her for selection, hiding it in a bag. She nearly succeeded, but at a certain moment the baby started screaming, an SS man noticed it and sent her back. It was an extremely comical situation. Many people lost their minds while facing this type of situations.

Before the selection Doctor Mengele would inform the women that together with their children they would go to a special place where the walls are clean, the buildings look beautiful and it is all peaceful and quiet. While saying this, he of course had in mind the crematoria, where everything was white.

After the selection we remained in the camp together with the old. The atmosphere was tragic. Although prisoners would not fight for each slice of bread, as it had been the case before, the camp seemed extinct. I felt like somebody sentenced to death, as I was not yet sixteen and was accommodated together with those who were chosen to be murdered. I was fourteen and a half years old. …

My father stayed with me (my mother and my sister were transported to Stutthof, where they died from exhaustion). After about a week, Schwarzhuber, main supervisor of the Birkenau camp, came again and started the selection among the young; he chose 80‒90 of us. After several days another selection took place, this time directed by Dr Mengele, who was particularly dissatisfied with the fact that a person who was not a doctor was conducting selections. It must have pushed him to organize additional selection. Terrible scenes were happening. I did not know whether to volunteer and follow my parents or not. I still had my father, but many others still had their entire families. Some of them would tell their parents that they would follow them till the end. Sometimes the parents tried to influence their children to follow them. In other cases they would also explain: “You must stay alive, I have to die, unfortunately”. It was exactly what my father told me. How weird the entire situation was can be explained by the following fact: in front of every kitchen there was a pool filled with water that nobody had the access to. On that day we were given the possibility to swim in it and nobody cared. It was the “laisser passer” atmosphere.

On July 6, 1944 our group, consisting of 86 or 89 boys, was directed outside. A Polish Kapo prisoner came from the men’s camp. Then we marched off, but where? We did not know it at the time. We were heading in the direction of the crematorium. We were still thinking that we were going to the next camp or to the crematorium. We passed sectors B, C, D. What would give us some hope was the fact that the young, who served as messengers for the SS men, were marching with us. Tension was growing. We reached sector E—the Gypsy camp. There was a small disinfection unit where they deloused us. Doctor Mengele’s experimental station was located in its immediate vicinity. … We were directed to the men’s unit, more exactly accommodated in block 13 (penal company). It was one of the worst blocks. We were not led there as part of the punishment inflicted on us, but in order to be treated in a special way. Our hair was not cut either. There was strict discipline in block 13. Excessive cleanness. Penal blocks 9, 11 and 13 constituted closed ones—number 11 was the crematorium [Sonderkommando] barracks.  A few toilets were installed in the block. Bednarek was the block elder and he was a Volksdeutsch from Poland who had some privileges in the camp (he did not have to have his head shaved). He was a political prisoner who received us in quite a kind way. We were surprised how clean and tidy the entire place was—it was the penal company. …

Source: A-BSMA, Testimonies Fonds, vol. 23, pp. 18‒36.

Zdjęcie byłego więźnia Jehudy Backona wraz z rodziną, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
Jehuda Backon, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Muzeum Archive, From the collection of: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
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Photograph of former Auschwitz prisoner Yehuda Backon
together with his family. Source: A-BSMA.  Photograph of Yehuda Backon taken in 1946, after his arrival
in Palestine. Source: A-BSMA. 

Excerpts from memoirs of John Freund, deported to Auschwitz on December 15, 1943 from the ghetto in Theresienstadt, assigned the prisoner number 168329.

The spring of 1944 came. The weather improved slightly, but there was more mud. The alarm was raised in March. All those prisoners who had arrived from Terezín in the transport before us were supposed to leave. Nobody knew where. They hardly managed to suppress the panic. At the time everybody knew that huge factories located nearby were gas chambers. Nobody had any doubt anymore. In March, all those “old” prisoners from the family camp were taken away by trucks and nobody heard anything about them. When would it be our turn? It was our main besetting question. …

Beginning of July. Huge panic. It was our turn to leave. Would we follow in the footsteps of our mates who disappeared in March? …

As far as I remember not all of us were transported at the same time, we were transported in groups: first all healthy men aged between ages 16 and 50. I said goodbye to my father and Karl and I watched them leave. It was a scorching hot day. I later overheard that they were transported as labourers to a labour camp. I never found out how they perished.

On the next day—it was July 6, exactly a month after my birthday—all boys aged between 14 and 16 were gathered. We were standing naked in a row in front of a beast—the most frightening man, Doctor Mengele. He was handsome and was wearing his most elegant uniform. When we were walking past him, he would point with his finger—to the left or to the right. There were nearly 100 boys in the group which I joined. They ordered us to take our belongings, say a quick goodbye to the others and stand in a row in front of the camp gate. I said goodbye to my mother. I think that she was happy that I was together with stronger boys. She knew what her end was supposed to look like. … That night those who had stayed in the family camp went to gas. They were taken away in closed trucks. Many of them were crying. As we later learnt from the gas chamber staff, Czech Jews were dying, singing Czech national anthem “Where is my home” and “Hatikvah”.…

A hundred boys who arrived from the family camp were accommodated in barracks 13 [in the men’s camp, in the BIId sector in Birkenau—editor’s note]. …

We had our duties. The day began at 5.30, both in summer and in winter. When it was bright, we were transporting such materials as bricks or sand and snow in the winter on a huge uncovered cart. It was not pulled by a horse, but pushed by us. About 15 boys worked on one cart. They would show us the place where we were supposed to push the cart and we were ordered to stay there. In the evening we would sit on our bunks or on the chimney in the middle of our barracks, talking or playing word games. Huge and hungry rats used to wake us up at night and attack. …

January 1945 came. Our camp was evacuated. The last march began. …

Source: A-BSMA, Memoirs Fonds, vol. 234, pp. 186‒192.

Credits: Story

Autor—dr Łukasz Martyniak, Centrum Badań PMA-B

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