“This is a story about any society”: New book details world of Terezín Ghetto

'The Last Ghetto: The Everyday History of Theresienstadt', photo: Oxford University Press

The Nazis operated Terezín (Theresienstadt in German) as a transit ghetto between late 1941 and May 1945. They first used the fortress town north of Prague to intern mainly Czech Jews, before the arrival of Jewish prisoners from other countries made its population far more heterogeneous.

In her new book The Last Ghetto: The Everyday History of Theresienstadt Anna Hájková draws on extensive research to recreate the world of Terezín.

Most notably the historian explores the ghetto’s social hierarchies, detailing how they relate to ethnicity and language, as well as influencing access to food and even arts events. I spoke to Dr. Hájková from her home in the UK.

In this book you create a really comprehensive portrait of life in the Terezín ghetto. What inspired you to write the book?

“I was really struck with the world of Theresienstadt when I visited Israel for the first time in summer 1999; it’s a long time ago, it really dates me.

“I was a young student and my late grandparents, knowing that I was going to Israel, gave me contacts for their old friends from the Communist resistance.

“In the Czech context my grandparents are kind of semi famous: Alena Hájková and Miloš Hájek. They both became Righteous Among the Nations.

“I was struck by these vital grandparents sharing stories about how they played soccer and hit on pretty girls.”

“They had a lot of friends from the Communist resistance who did not go into hiding and who were deported to Theresienstadt.

“They were great friends with my grandparents and they passed me on like a relay stick.

“We would drink lemonade and eat hummus and talk about all of these stories.

“I was struck by these 70- and 80-year-old vital grandparents sharing stories about how they played soccer and how they hit on pretty girls and how they managed without toilet paper, and if they had actually had toilet paper.

“I realised there is this whole social world that we do not know when we have a superficial understanding of the Holocaust.

“And I thought I would really like to know it.

“Then fast forward to 2005, as I was thinking about, Do I want to go do a PhD, or do I want to be a normal human being?

“I decided to be a crazy academic and wrote a proposal to research it.

Anna Hájková | Photo: Seed9

“That led me also very quickly to ask the question, What are the stories not told?

“Because the former brilliant social elite of young Czech Jews, who I met in Israel, is the story that is most frequently told – it’s kind of the master narrative of young Zionists from Theresienstadt, and also pretty much the story you find today in the Czech Republic.

“And I realised we have to look at the Slovak Jews, we have to look at the elderly – and that’s something that I worked very hard to reconstruct.”

One line from the book that really struck me was where you say that the social elite in Terezín could live in a bubble. What did you mean by that?

“We imagine that all people in Theresienstadt knew each other.

“I talked with a friend of mine, Randy Schoenberg in LA, recently.

“He read this book and sent me wonderful pointers, but he was struck how these people – even though in September ‘42 there were 60,000 people, usually it was between 30 and 40 thousand people – how come with the six levels of separation they did not know each other.

“And it’s a story of elites and of stratification.

“The social elite are almost exclusively young Czech Jews.”

“This is not a story of how the people in Theresienstadt were not virtuous. This is a story about any society.

“And it’s also the nature of social elites that they do not ask too many questions regarding how it is.

“Also of course I talk about social elites, but what I hope I show in the book is that these people suffered too.

“They too were hungry, they too were bitten by bedbugs and they too were eventually almost all sent on transports.

“And even if they were lucky enough to survive in Theresienstadt, they had to say goodbye to many of their dear friends and to family members.

“But anyway something that I really pushed for in the book is to take the Holocaust out of its story of exceptionalism – and to take it as a story about what human society can be.”

What were the ways that people could demonstrate their status in Terezín? For example, you say that having a lover was a kind of status symbol.

“In Theresienstadt these things shift.

Photo: Oxford University Press

“But it’s access to your own accommodation. It’s being able to sexually active, possibly with a number of women.

“For women, it is about the dresses you wear, whether you wear makeup, whether you have access to cultural events.

“We know so much about the cultural events in Theresienstadt, but what is really usually not talked about is that these were exclusive and expensive, and often people were not able to get tickets to see these.

“And of course for various levels of the social elite, being a member of the elite depended.

“But I guess the bottom line will be, What is your access to food? Are you protected from transports? And are you able to sleep in a room of your own?

“That was kind of the ultimate status of being an elite person – also because if you want to be intimate with someone, it’s much nicer to have a room of your own than to make love in front of strangers.”

Tell us about the tensions in Terezín between the Czech Jews and the German and Austrian Jews.

“Much scholarship has been done and people interested in Jewish history and Jewish Studies have paid attention to the lost multilingual world of the Czechoslovakia of the 1920s and 1930s:

“Who spoke German, who spoke Czech, were these people ethnically ambivalent or ethnically indifferent, or were they amphibians, as some scholars call them.

“I talk about social elites but what I hope I show in the book is that these people suffered too.”

“I found out that this kind of starts coming to an end in Theresienstadt, where even those Czechoslovak Jews who would actually mostly speak German, and their Czech was not great – in their testimonies you see how they kind of use funny Czech…

“But suddenly it is about the kind of German you speak, what accent you have, if you have a Prague or Opava or Brno accent, or if you have a Viennese or Berlin accent.

“So it’s really interesting how in Theresienstadt, even though you have Danish and Dutch and Slovak and other Jews, the thinking is kind of between the locals, being the Czech Jews, which are the biggest group and also the pioneers who set up the ghetto and arrived as the first, and then the foreigners.

“And that thinking in binary is pretty much accepted by most people in Theresienstadt.”

And you say that the Germans even had less food than the Czechs?

“This is a big question.

“I would say that the younger people had the best access to food – the social elite, who are almost exclusively young Czech Jews, both men and women, because they arrived first, because they were often friends or relatives, or even were the Aufbaukommando, the construction detail.

“They were in the jobs like butchers or bakers, or the head of the health services.

“And with that they have the best accommodation and the best access to food and are able to help their friends.

“When you look at the testimonies of the survivors, you see how they help each other because they went to school together, or they were cousins – and these kinds of networks carry on.

“But you have also younger German Jews who are able to have good access to food – usually because they are friends or lovers of members of the social elite in Theresienstadt.

“But if you were elderly, your access to food was completely different.

“Theresienstadt was run by the Nazis, but the actual day to day organisation was done by the Jewish self-administration – they were all too keen to outsource this heavy labour.

“So they pass this on to the Jewish self-administration.

“Now, we know from Gonda Redlich and from others that in early May 1942 the Jewish functionaries in Terezín found out that the elderly from Germany and Austria would start arriving.

“And this is the moment when the Jewish self-administration introduced food rationing into three major groups: the non-workers, people who are above 60 or 65 who no longer work, normal workers and hard labourers.

“There are more categories, but for the sake of simplification this is really important here.

“Not only do the non-workers get the smallest rations, they are also the least heterogeneous and kind of the least healthy.

“It’s really just carbohydrates, very little protein and almost no vitamins.

“Today we know Theresienstadt as being about the beautiful and meaningful care for the children, about the rich cultural life.”

“This then brought about why the mortality of the elderly is hands down the highest.

“It’s also because many of them became sick with enteritis.

“Enteritis is something that almost everybody in Theresienstadt was sick with.

“But if you are elderly, if you have a weak immunity system and if you already are malnourished, that explains why the mortality was above 90 percent.

“Which is way higher than anyone else in Theresienstadt.”

One thing that also strikes me from the book is that the German Jews seem to see the Czech Jews as being less Jewish, in a sense – less observant at least – and more Slavic.

“The argument that I make is that you have this narrative pretty much with everyone in the ghetto.

“Jewishness in Theresienstadt is not self-ascription – it’s always a demarcation.

“So you have the Czech Jews who look at the German Jews and say they are too Jewish, or they are not Jewish enough, or they are Jewish in the wrong way.

“Then you have the Austrian Jews and the German Jews who look at the Czech Jews and say, again, They do not look very Jewish, and they are very athletic and they are well-grown and physically fit and have blonde hair and red cheeks.

“And of course if you read this as a Czech reader, or a Czech-sympathetic reader, we look at ourselves and say, Yes indeed, we are tall and red-cheeked and fit and athletic and do aerobics and whatnot, and that makes us feel good.

Terezín concentration camp,  photo: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,  Public Domain

“But I think the bigger task at hand is: Why are prisoners in a ghetto, who are all at least nominally Jewish, obsessing about each others’ looks and having these really kind of racist statements?

“And I suggest that we take Theresienstadt as a point of departure and really have a hard look at how ethnicity is a construction, and all these people thrown together realise that what they have in common is that they are human, not that they are Jewish.”

At what point did prisoners in Terezín learn about the extermination camps? Assuming they did learn about them.

“They could find out about it pretty much any time.

“But like with any bad news, they found elaborate psychological means to kind of not come to terms with the bad news.

“I describe various moments when people have friends who drop them the news.

“I describe a moment where people are sent to a labour commando near Kladno where somebody listens to illegal BBC, where there are news in 1942 about what exactly is happening to Auschwitz.

“And it goes even so far that relatives who are sent to Sachsenhausen or to Auschwitz smuggle, at great danger, postcards to Theresienstadt where they will say something like, I met an uncle – and this uncle is a well-known person who everybody knows was murdered by the Nazis.

“And rather than saying, If they met the uncle it means that something horrible is happening there, the conclusion over and over is, Oh, the uncle is actually not dead.

Terezín cemetery | Photo: Hans Weingartz,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 2.0

“The exception, when people start accepting the news, is only when they meet an eye-witness whom they personally knew.

“But they need to meet the eye-witness.”

A couple of times in the book you mention what you call the “legend of Terezín”. What is the legend of Terezín? That it was a relatively orderly place?

“The legend of Terezín is what we academic historians would call the master narrative.

“In Theresienstadt the prisoners developed a master narrative of what does it mean to be a prisoner – and with that they kind of created a common spirit.

“Today we know Theresienstadt as being about the beautiful and meaningful care for the children, about the rich cultural life, about the performance of the Requiem, about the first sentencing and executions in January and February 1942.

“It also has aspects that are forgotten today, but the master narrative was so important because pretty much everybody in Theresienstadt, apart from two groups, subscribed to it.

“This master narrative dictated not necessarily what does it mean to be Jewish in Theresienstadt, but what does it mean to be in Theresienstadt and what is actually good about it.

“Then the two exception groups are also incredibly salient: the Dutch Jews, and then the people from the mixed marriages from Bohemia and Moravia, who were deported between January and April 1945.

“Then you often have a clash between siblings, where one was deported to Theresienstadt in ’41 or ’42 and experiences the whole thing and is completely subscribed [to the master narrative], like the pianist Alice Herz-Sommer.

“And then there was her brother, I think Pavel Herz, who was for a long time protected by being in a mixed marriage.

“Until the very end Alice Herz-Sommer plays on the piano and it’s beautiful and it’s meaningful.

“And Pavel Herz is deported to Theresienstadt in the last three months and he was like, Why should I subscribe to it? I was sent somewhere for forced labour and this is complete nonsense.

“With that he breaks the master narrative. He doesn’t subscribe to it, because why should he?

“And these are some of the mechanisms that I was trying to unearth.”