When is a Concentration Camp not a Concentration Camp?

On June 23, 1944, a delegation of Red Cross inspectors entered the Nazi ghetto/concentration camp of Theresienstadt. As a response to the reports of horrific conditions at Nazi concentration camps throughout Europe, including camps devoted to mass murder, this inspection was carried out to both dispel those “rumors” and appease Scandinavian leaders concerned about the wellbeing of Jewish citizens deported by the Nazis. The Nazis described Theresienstadt, also known as Terezin, as a “spa town” where elderly Jews went to retire under Nazi “protection.” In preparation for the Red Cross inspection, the victims held in Terezin were forced to plant gardens, paint buildings, and act out farcical scenes in front of the inspectors, including soccer games and a trial of a fellow victim found to have stolen something from another “resident.” For their part, the Nazis “assisted” in the preparation for this inspection by deporting thousands from Terezin to their deaths at Auschwitz to ease overcrowding in the ghetto. Holocaust survivors often have difficulty finding words to describe concentration camps and ghettos because life within these places was so foreign to anything experienced by anyone who was not there. If the default description of a concentration camp is hell, then Terezin during this inspection, when victims were forced to smile and pretend they were living in “a paradise,” was a cruel dystopian Potemkin village. So pleased with their deception were the Nazis they actually made a propaganda film about Therezin to counter news reports of Nazi war crimes.

Holocaust victims in Theresienstadt watching a soccer game as part of the Nazi plan to deceive Red Cross inspectors.
Liberated Nazi victims pass under the gate at Auschwitz.

Holocaust Historian and Georgetown University Assistant Dean

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