THERESIENSTADT - Paradeisghetto

by Chuck Ferree

From left to right: Vladislav Borsky, Dickie Ferree, Valie Borsky and Chuck Ferree

"Hitler's Gift to the Jews was one of the most deceptive of all the places in which the Nazis incarcerated the Jews during the Holocaust." Hitler's "model" ghetto. (from Norbert Troller's book.) His narrative also reveals the horrors beneath the facade of an "antonymous" Jewish government, which the Nazis used to conceal their plans to exterminate the Jewish population in a ghetto that was supposedly meant for the "elite" of central Europe. In reality, Theresienstadt was nothing more than a convenient collection location for transports to "the East": Auschwitz-Birkenau. The terrible burden of filling the transports with the required number of victims was put on the members of the Elder Council, the Jewish administrative body. With devilish baseness and cunning (the Nazis) did dictate the number of victims to be sent east, but they put the burden of selection on the Jews themselves; to select their own coreligionists, relatives, their friends. In the end this unbearable, desperate, cynical burden destroyed the community leaders who were forced to make the selections.

Originally a garrison town, founded in Czechoslovakia in 1780 by the Emperor Joseph II in honor of his mother, the Empress Maria Theresa. Theresienstadt was converted into a "model ghetto" with the arrival of the first Jewish prisoners on November 24, 1941.

The ghetto during the deportation of German Jews was used as an excuse for the deportation of elderly Jews who, plainly could not have been of any use in doing forced labor in the East where the extermination camps were located.

Theresienstadt (Therezin) became a collections point for Jews from Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Austria, the Reich itself, as well as many other occupied countries.

Of the more than 140,000 people who entered this walled town between November 1941 and April 1945, over 90,000 were sent to their deaths in Auschwitz-Berkenau and other death camps, another 33,000 or so died in the ghetto itself. Only about 16,000 survived.

One of the survivors was an 81 year old Czech woman who I spent two and one half days with in April of 1993. Valerie Borsky entered the camp at the age of 29, in 1942 and was liberated by Soviet troops in April 1945.

Her younger sister stayed in the camp for about eight months before being sent to her death at Auschwitz, along with 1,000 others, by order of Adolph Eichmann.

Her 50 year old mother and 55 year old father, both in good health, arrived sometime in 1943. Despite Vali's efforts to help her parents survive by stealing extra food for them, both were dead from starvation in about one year.

Theresienstadt was unusual in many ways, being the only Nazi concentration camp officially inspected by the International Red Cross. (after a great hoax to make the ghetto presentable). Inmates were forced to work around the clock, scrubbing streets and buildings by hand, planting colorful flowers, painting buildings a variety of pastel colors. Fresh clean linens and uniforms were provided to the hospital, replacing soiled and bloody rags. Many old and sick patients, including all insane and those pretending to be crazy went East to be gassed, along with hundreds of raggedy and emaciated children. Fresh new children were brought in for the inspection, they too were killed after the Red Cross gave the ghetto a clean bill of health. Everything was done to create the illusion of "Paradeisghetto".

International Red Cross officials, after their carefully orchestrated tour of the parts Eichmann wanted them to see, determined that the Nazis were telling the truth; prisoners were being treated in a humane manner, and they subsequently canceled a scheduled inspection of Buchenwald, a camp in Germany which an estimated 250,000 prisoners from 30 countries had passed through. Over 43,000 were killed or perished in this camp.

Many other unusual events took place in Theresienstadt: operas were performed, including Verde's Requiem. A full blown performance, witnessed by Eichmann and other high ranking SS officers. All performers were transported East and murdered by the Nazis including a very talented young conductor from Prague who also directed a production of Smetana's "The Bartered Bride."

One person's experiences: Valie Borsky

The main gate of Theresienstadt.

Valie moved to Prague after college. Her employment by a large Czech business allowed her to earn a decent wage, and enjoy the bountiful cultural opportunities available in this Mecca of music, theater, and other performances which drew people from all over Europe during the twenties and thirties.

Valie spent the first twenty years of her life as a productive, and happy young woman, unaware of signs of impending doom for her and millions of other Jews from one end of Europe to the other. Her fate became sealed when Adolf Hitler came to power, and the Nazi War Machine began it's historical conquest of Europe, and decreed the death sentence for an entire raceã(religion) of innocent Europeans.

Valie was arrested for being Jewish, and spent over four years in the Nazi Concentration Camp (Theresienstadt) located 40 miles from Prague. In 1941 the Germans took over the town (Terezin) and transformed it into a concentration camp for Jews. The so-called Ghetto averaged a population of 35,000 prisoners during it's five year existence, but as many as 60,000 Jews were jammed into the Ghetto during peak periods.

The Nazis fooled the German Red Cross, and wealthy Austrian and German Jews into believing that Thereisenstadt was actually a resort, and lovely spa with all kinds of cultural activities, theaters, coffee houses, and beguiled thousands of Europe's elderly Jews into actually paying a fee to live in this Paradise. Brochures were produced by the Nazis, depicting Theresienstadt as a health resort, a spa, located on a beautiful river, with acres of fruit trees, rolling hills and lovely summers. Hundreds of wealthy German and Austrian Jews fell for the propaganda, and requested an apartment with a view. They were assured that they would love the place.

Valie worked in the Records Department, which made up lists for transport to Poland and death in the infamous gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau. She soon learned that Thereisenstadt was nothing more than a way-station for Jews condemned to death by Nazi Germany. Valies main job became that of typing the names of inmates bound for transport to the "East." Working twelve to fourteen hours every day, Valie and her co-workers placed the names of more than 100,000 Jews from all over Europe on 70-80 lists for shipment to their deaths. Men, women and thousands of children. Her own name appeared on the "Transport" list on four different occasions. Each time her name was removed by co-workers, but another person had to be chosen to make up the complete Transport.

One of the cruelest schemes the Nazis used in Theresienstandt, became the hoax of selecting a committee made up of so-called elected Jewish leaders, headed by one person appointed by the SS, and named "The Elder of the Jews."

During it's existence, Theresienstadt, produced several so-called Elders, all of whom were simply figureheads with no real power. They all perished one way or another, usually shot along with their families, and usually after weeks of torture. Another strange twist invented by the Nazis; each list of names destined for transport, had to be submitted by a committee of the Elders and approved by the Camp Commandant, who in reality cared less whose name appeared on the heinous list, so long as the quota was filled. This policy created a great deal of chaos, because even though some inmates were considered safe" by their jobs or value to the ghetto their names were often selected by other Jews who didn't know them, but had to complete the necessary quota, often with less than twenty-four hours notice.

Frequently, spouses would volunteer to go along with their families, and it wasn't unusual for a mother to take all of her children with her even though most suspected "Transport" meant death, or being shipped to slave labor camps, which were much worse than Theresienstadt. On the other hand, many families were separated forever, when the father or mother or children appeared on the list, and nothing could be done to make changes once the list had been approved and submitted.

In the mean time, an estimated 160,000 people perished in the Ghetto from many causes: disease, execution, and starvation. Vali's parents arrived late in 1941 along with her younger sister. Her father died at the age of 55 of starvation, a broken spirit and broken hearted. Her mother soon followed. Her beautiful blonde, blue eyed sister went to her death in the death camp Auschwitz before her 21st. birthday.

Valie typed the names of many of her friends on the death lists, including her fiancee. Vali's years in the Ghetto were miserable, as were the lives of most other inmates. Fleas and lice were a constant problem, the source of Typhus and other contagious diseases. Hunger never left her. Stealing food meant survival, but just barely. Every prisoner became emaciated and many simply gave up and died.

Valie told me that stealing food became an honorable thing to do, even though the penalties were severe if caught. Some of the inmates who worked outside, harvested weeds and grass which they cooked and ate. Eventually, the SS outlawed this practice, but inmates furtively continued stealing grass and weeds, which the horses grazed on. She told me that when boiled, the weeds and grass tasted a little like spinach.

Potatoes became a most valuable commodity, while the staple food was watery soup and stale bread.

Valie lived in a one of the military barracks, sharing space with other women working in her department. They slept on straw scattered on the wooden floor, with one tattered blanket each to keep them warm during the wretched winter months. Many succumbed to pneumonia and other diseases caused by malnutrition and the cold, damp winters.

Valie continued to augment her diet by stealing and or trading items of one kind or another for more edible food. She finally got caught with three stolen potatoes, and the punishment was a severe beating administered by one of the many Czech ghetto police, hired by the SS, and armed with whips and clubs.

Valie suffered grievous wounds during the punishment, which was supervised by a young SS officer who encouraged the Czech to "beat her to death, to teach the rest a lesson." The club injured her internally, but the worst consequence was broken bones in her back, arms and shoulder. Even though hospitalized for weeks, the Jewish doctors did not have the necessary medication nor equipment to treat her properly, and as one result, she became a "hunchback," with a distorted spine and one leg shorter than the other. She never stood upright again. Her height had been shortened by four inches and she was crippled for the rest of her life. All for three potatoes, and the maliciousness of the SS.

Such treatment of inmates was common, the brutality of her fellow countrymen, was only surpassed by the inhumanity of the Nazi SS. Eventually, the Czech police were dismissed and some killed when they became part of the Czech resistance. One reason they were replaced by SS was suspicion on the part of the camp Commandant that they might become organized and cause trouble for him.

When the Germans realized that the Russians were closing in on Prague, Adolf Eichmann received orders from Heinrich Himmler to set up gas chambers and kill all the people still in the camp. The gas was delivered and one of the buildings was set up as a gas chamber. The Commandant made preparations to follow orders.

The Commandant, an Austrian (all three Commandants of this camp were Austrians) named Karl Rahm, a tool maker in civilian life, became concerned that if he followed through with gassing the thousands of inmates, he could be tried as a war criminal. He didn't want to risk being hanged as a war criminal, so he procrastinated on the orders to gas all the remaining inhabitants, and made good his escape just before the camp was liberated by the Russian army. Rahm did get captured by the Allies, was returned to Prague after the war, where the Czech courts tried him and sentenced him to death. Rahm did hang, as did other's involved with crimes committed in Theresienstadt.

In the mean time, the Russians found a raging Typhus epidemic, and did the best they could under difficult circumstances to help the sick inmates. Many perished, but Valie survived.

After a brief period of recuperation, Valie set out along with other former inmates for Prague, expecting help from the government. The forty mile walk was very difficult, because many were still ill, and weak from years of suffering.

Upon reaching Prague after a most difficult journey, Valie found total chaos. None of the officials could offer help or assistance. She had no money or other assets, just the clothing on her back and a cardboard suitcase with a few extra tattered things to wear. She was helpless and hopeless. Hungry and desperate. She wandered around Prague, along with many others who had been recently liberated, finally finding her way to the oldest Synagogue in the city. She was fed, and given shelter in "Old Prague," along with a few coins which she used to rent a tiny apartment, sharing it with another woman and her nine year old son, who also had been in the ghetto.

Everything a person needed to survive was scarce, there were no jobs available, the country had been occupied by Germany for almost five years, and now the Communists were trying to put things back in order.

Valie managed to find her way to Austria, where she found domestic work, and saved her money to leave Europe. Her words to me were; "I didn't want any part of Europe. I hated my own people, and other Europeans as well."

She booked passage on a ship bound for Australia. During the voyage Valie met another Czech named Vladislav Borsky. (her maiden name was Tick). They fell in love and were married during the long voyage.

Vladislav was not Jewish, and he had survived during the war and occupation by becoming a bootlegger, providing the occupation forces with booze, some of which he made himself. An engineer by education, Vladislav, was a very bright and resourceful man. He had plenty of money, and when their ship reached the shores of Australia, he purchased a house and took a job operating an aluminum factory. Eventually, he opened his own business and they prospered.

Vladislav wanted to return to Europe, at least for a visit, or maybe to return to Prague and pursue his career as an engineer. Valie refused and they decided to visit friends in America. After this visit, they decided to immigrate to the states. They settled in Oakland, California where Vladislav worked in his profession until retirement.

They had one child, a boy, who went to medical school and practices Ophthalmology.

They never returned to Europe although Vali expressed a desire to visit Prague once more before she died.

Valie who seemed healthy except for her injuries, suffered a heart attack in August 1995 and died after two days in a hospital.

During our many talks, she expressed little bitterness or hatred against any one. Her son, knows about her past, but not in detail. She has always been reluctant to discuss in detail, her terrible experience and suffering at the hands of the Nazis, but because she trusted me and felt time may be running out, she shared her story with me.

As a person who entered several Nazi concentration camps shortly after their liberation, and saw the manner in which millions of innocent people were killed or died because of the Nazi policies, and having returned to Europe several times, re-visiting places where I saw so much death and destruction, I've come to believe that even though many have seen documentary films of the Holocaust, and read about the terror perpetrated upon millions of Europeans by Hitler and Nazi Germany, if you haven't smelled the smells, personally viewed the deep pits filled with unknown corpses, it would be difficult to develop a realistic feeling for the significance of Valie's experiences.

In 1994, we visited Theresienstadt. I walked on the same ground Valie walked on. I visited museums in the Little Fortress, I went into the deep underground dungeons, where hundreds of prisoners were tortured and murdered by the SS. I'm haunted by the ghosts of Valie and the others.

Valie is an Angel now, and she's at peace. I'll never forget this kind, gentle woman who treated us so graciously, cooked special Czech meals for us, and patiently answered my long list of questions of her life in what has become to be known as the most unique concentration camp of all. Not a designated "Death Camp," rather as the "Gateway To Hell."

Chuck Ferree