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“Theresienstadt: An Analysis of the ‘Model Ghetto’ that Hitler Gave to the Jews”

Book Essay on: George Berkley, Hitler's Gift: The Story of Theresienstadt
( New York: Branden Books, 2002), 308pages.
UCSB: D805.C9 B44 1993

by Jessica Resha
March 23, 2010

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
The Holocaust in European History
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2010

About the Author
& Abstract
Book available at Google Books page

About Jessica Resha

I am a senior history and business economics double major at UCSB. During the summer of 2008 I had the opportunity to teach English in Kosovo, and while I was there I developed a greater interest in learning about genocide, especially when my Kosovar friends and their families explained how it had affected them. Furthermore, while studying abroad in Europe, I was able to visit the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam as well as the Museum of Jewish History in Berlin. These experiences, as well as my past coursework in history, have given me a particular interest in the Holocaust. I chose to write about George Berkley’s book on Theresienstadt because I had heard that it had been used as a propaganda piece by the Nazis, and I was curious to see if there was a difference between how the camp was portrayed by the Nazis and what it was actually like.

Abstract (back to top)

This book is about Theresienstadt, which the Nazis presented as a model settlement for the Jews. This is where the Nazis sent the elderly as well as war veterans, Jewish partners in mixed marriages and prominent performers, artists, and academics. Furthermore, the book discusses positive aspects of life in Theresienstadt including the good treatment of children, the encouragement of cultural activities, and the high quality medical practice. Although conditions were similar to those in typical concentration camps, in that there was extreme overcrowding, little food, and rampant death, the Nazis used Theresienstadt as a propaganda piece to make the world believe that they were treating the Jews that they deported well. Berkley argues that despite the way it was presented by the Nazis, Theresienstadt bore more resemblance to a concentration camp than a ghetto. He further asserts that residents of Theresienstadt did enjoy better conditions than inmates at traditional concentration camps. Berkley is successful in proving his argument through his organization of the book and through the detail that he presents regarding both the positive and negative sides to living in Theresienstadt.

Essay (back to top)

In Hitler’s Gift: The Story of Theresienstadt, George Berkley draws from a variety of survivor interviews, first person memoirs, and books to address the issue of whether Theresienstadt was a “model ghetto” as it was called by the Nazis or whether it was actually a concentration camp. He further seeks to answer the question of whether anything positive came out of Theresienstadt. Berkley argues that Theresienstadt bore much more resemblance to a concentration camp than a Jewish ghetto, but that these residents did enjoy better conditions than those in typical concentration camps and that there were some positive aspects of Theresienstadt such as the treatment of children, the encouragement of culture, and the practice of medicine. Berkley is successful in making these points through the way he organizes his book and the information that he presents in each section.

March 1939 to July 1943

Hitler’s Gift is divided into three parts. The first is a discussion of Theresienstadt from March 1939 to July 1943, beginning with Hitler’s occupation of Czechoslovakia. Following this move, the country’s Zionist leaders, led by Jakob Edelstein, decided to stand by their fellow Jews. Realizing that the Czech Jews could only hope to survive under Nazi rule by staying in Czechoslovakia, Edelstein worked with the Nazis, believing that through cooperation he could secure better conditions for the community (Berkley, 20). The Nazis worked towards the ghettoization of Czech Jews, and Jewish leaders were eager to help, hoping they would be able to head off deportation to Poland. Edelstein suggested that the SS keep the Jews in Czechoslovakia, and eventually Theresienstadt, a former fortress town, was decided upon (Berkley, 24). As deportations went forward, the Jewish leaders realized that Theresienstadt was their only hope, and they worked hard to prepare for its establishment and operation. The first group left for Theresienstadt on November 24, 1941 (Berkley, 25). A Council of Elders consisting of six Zionists, three non-Zionists, and three “specialists” was appointed to run the community and the plans previously drawn up in Prague were approved by the SS minus a few niceties, such as the travel bureau that had been requested. All men and women were required to work. The main focus of the Jewish administration was to ensure that the ghetto turned out goods that the Germans could use so that the ghetto would be economically useful for them (Berkley, 31). There was a Hebrew library, and people were able to practice Judaism along with Catholic and Protestant Christianity. The Nazis tried to make Theresienstadt seem like a normal community, allowing residents to send mail and receive food packages, and setting up a ghetto bank, shops, and a coffeehouse (Berkley, 35). Soon the Jewish residents realized, however, that this was a far cry from the paradise ghetto that they were expecting. There was not enough room for the number of residents that inhabited Theresienstadt – less than 18 square feet per person – and for the first year, one third of the residents had no bunk. They were only able to shower once every two months and do their laundry once every three or four months. There was a vermin problem, illness caused the death rate to soar, and corpses lay everywhere (Berkley, 46). Berkley states that Theresienstadt never became economically viable to the Nazis, but the SS was not that interested in creating an economically useful ghetto because they had other plans for the Jews (Berkley, 53). Soon deportations shattered any sense of security that the residents had retained (Berkley, 63).

This section about the early life of Theresienstadt provides evidence to support the thesis that Berkley presents. Berkley makes it very clear that Theresienstadt as it actually existed was fundamentally different from the way that it was described by the Nazis and the plans that the Czech Jews had for it. Through showing this contrast, Berkley effectively asserts that Theresienstadt was more similar to a concentration camp than a traditional Jewish ghetto. Berkley states, “A ghetto, first of all, is part of a larger community and inevitably has some contact with it. This was true of the Polish ghettos even under the Nazi regime. Concentration camps, on the other hand, were self-contained units, physically cut off from other communities.” (Berkley, 58) We have seen that Berkley supports this through explaining how the Czech Jews and then later Jews of other nations were relocated to Theresienstadt from their home cities, which was not part of any city. Originally, the Jewish leaders wanted their ghetto in Prague, believing that it would actually be a true ghetto, but the fact that the Nazis would not allow it to be established there is testament to Berkley’s view that this ghetto was not really a ghetto at all. He further states that Theresienstadt was more like a concentration camp because most families did not lived together and because the Nazis considered it a concentration camp (Berkley, 58). Moreover, the fact that there were deportations from Theresienstadt to other concentration and death camps makes it seem more like a transit camp than anything else. However, this first part of Berkley’s book also supports the second part of his thesis that the residents of Theresienstadt did truly live a better life that the prisoners of other concentration camps. Even aside from the treatment of children and the cultural activities that occurred there, which Berkley discusses later, Berkley shows that the living conditions were simply better at Theresienstadt than at the average concentration camp. He says, “If Theresienstadt was a concentration camp, it was a concentration camp of a special kind…despite its many perverse peculiarities, it was a better, certainly less brutal, camp than most others.” (Berkley, 58) Berkley successfully gives evidence for this claim through explaining that the Nazis attempted to create an atmosphere of normality in the camp. Edelstein was even pleased with how the camp turned out and the residents thought that life there was Heaven compared with what they knew of other concentration camps (Berkley, 35).

Shortcomings and Successes

Before writing about Theresienstadt from July 1943 to August 1945, Berkley takes a break from this somewhat chronological approach and delves into a discussion of the shortcomings and successes of Theresienstadt. He begins with a description of the formal and de facto hierarchy that governed Theresienstadt. In charge of the camp was Siegfried Seidl, who according to Berkley was mild compared to his second-in-command, Bergel, whom he characterizes by his “stupidity” and “brutality.” Underneath these two men were the rest of the SS who also behaved brutally to the Jewish prisoners, terrorizing them on a daily basis. According to Berkley, violence was at times “officially sanctioned and even required” by these men (Berkley, 83). Under the SS were the Czech gendarmes. Most of these men despised the SS and actually behaved decently toward the Jews (Berkley, 86). Finally, the Council of Elders had administrative authority over the Jewish residents (Berkley, 87). Following his discussion of the social and political structure of Theresienstadt, Berkley spends time investigating the welfare of the children of Theresienstadt and the devotion of its people to the young. According to Berkley, this is because Jewish tradition places a great deal of importance on the care and protection of children. Adult residents worked to save the young to ensure biological continuity, which, according to Zionists in the ghetto, would lead to the fulfillment of a Jewish state (Berkley, 108). A youth welfare department was created for this purpose, and many residents were willing to assume responsibility for the orphans in the camp. Though teaching was banned, teachers were able to disguise their instructional activity through games, plays, and songs, or would have someone keep watch if more traditional teaching was required (Berkley, 112). Berkley states that another success of Theresienstadt was the healthcare that it offered. A medical department was opened right as people arrived in Theresienstadt, and the facilities were stocked with smuggled medical supplies as well as equipment given by the SS. Some of Europe’s best physicians were brought to Theresienstadt, as were many professional nurses, and together they achieved impressive survival rates for disease, despite unfavorable circumstances (Berkley, 121). Furthermore, some doctors were sensitive to the psychological toll that the stresses of life in Theresienstadt were placing on its residents, and a special unit to help new arrivals overcome shock of Theresienstadt life was established as well as a suicide intelligence service (Berkley, 123). Moreover, culture could be found everywhere in Theresienstadt. Eventually, the SS even encouraged the proliferation of cultural activity because it kept inmates quiet and enhanced the camp’s image as a privileged ghetto. There were cabaret nights, musicales, lectures, and formal theatre presentations available to anyone who could physically get to them. (Berkley, 126) Many people wrote in diaries and wrote poetry, and artists created works of art for the SS by day and created images of Theresienstadt as it really was in their spare time. These cultural outlets allowed residents to endure this life that had become reality (Berkley, 143).

This middle section of the book, in which Berkley writes about the hierarchy of Theresienstadt, the importance placed on the welfare of the children, and the medical care and culture at the camp very well illustrates his thesis. First of all, the fact that Berkley diverges from his somewhat chronological approach to discuss these things puts great emphasis on this section. Through this he successfully draws attention to the fact that although the Theresienstadt experience was similar to the terror of many concentration camps, there were certainly some significant bright points that stand out. His discussion of the people who ran Theresienstadt ties this ghetto-concentration camp hybrid to typical concentration camps because like these more standard concentration camps, Theresienstadt was managed by SS men who were often very cruel to the residents (prisoners). Still, the structure of this ghetto does not support the comparison of Theresienstadt to most concentration camps in many ways. For instance, Czech gendarmes were not present in other concentration camps as they were in Theresienstadt. These men often supported the Jews and “smuggled out mail and brought in contraband, chiefly food and newspapers.” (Berkley, 86) Berkley says, “They provided the residents with a link to the outside world and helped them feel they were not abandoned and forgotten.” (Berkley, 86) In addition, the fact that there was Jewish leadership “that wielded life and death powers over the community’s inhabitants” makes it seem less like a concentration camp (Berkley, 87). This supports Berkley’s claim that Theresienstadt was like a concentration camp, but one where the inhabitants enjoyed more favorable circumstances than were usual. The presence and treatment of children in Theresienstadt gives further evidence to support Berkley’s thesis. Typically children were the first to be sent to the gas chambers, as they were seen by Nazis as the future of Judaism and needed to be eliminated. The fact that children were allowed to live in Theresienstadt differentiates this ghetto from typical concentration camps, possibly even so far that it seems to refute Berkley’s claim that this ghetto was essentially a concentration camp. That residents had the free time to give these children an education sheds light on the somewhat privileged situation that they enjoyed. Finally, the culture that was allowed to flourish at this camp proves that the residents of Theresienstadt lived through better conditions than the residents of most concentration camps. Despite the fact that the SS allowed this culture to develop only to make it easier to control the residents, the point remains that all residents were able to participate in cultural activities that improved their quality of life during their time at Theresienstadt.

July 1943 to August 1945

Finally, the last section of Berkley’s book is a discussion of Theresienstadt from July 1943 to August 1945. At the middle of 1943, there was a confident and cheerful mood about camp, which was mainly a result of the news of the Allied advances. Many thought that their ordeal would be over in mere weeks, and the SS seemed to confirm these hopes especially with the news that there would be no more deportations. However, this was not the case and in September and October of 1944, two thirds of the population was deported. Though this solved the overcrowding problem temporarily, these spots were soon filled by Jews who were transferred from other camps and countries, and conditions continued to worsen. This last part of the book also discloses information about Theresienstadt being used by the Nazis for propaganda purposes. They put their model ghetto on public view on January 18, 1944 when they filmed the arrival of 876 Dutch Jews receiving red carpet treatment (Berkley, 164). Later, they invited two German Red Cross officials to inspect the camp, and they were horrified at what they saw. As word of the gas chambers spread abroad and as the war continued to go against them, the Nazis grew more amenable to such visits as they hoped to show off Theresienstadt as an example of their human policies toward Jews (Berkley, 165). However, much work had to be done to make Theresienstadt look more like what it was supposed to be. The beautification process brought many changes: some residents were allotted small plots between the embankments to grow food, more books were put in the larger library, additional musical instruments, operatic costumes, wigs, and other theatrical gear arrived, a new playground was built, another deportation, which sent to concentration camps many sick adults and orphaned children, was ordered to deal with the overcrowding problem, and cripples and poorly dressed people were told to keep out of sight (Berkley, 169). On June 23, 1944, two Danes and one representative from the International Red Cross came to inspect the camp, and they were generally pleased and surprised by what they saw (Berkley, 177).

The chapter that Berkley writes about the Nazis putting Theresienstadt on display as a propaganda tool is particularly successful in proving his thesis. The fact that they felt the need to change the appearance of Theresienstadt and cover up what truly happened there shows that this was not actually a model ghetto, and even the Nazis understood this. For example, even visiting Germany army officers were startled to see that the residents slept in 3 tiered double bunks with hardly any space between them (Berkley, 169). This sounds very similar to the sleeping arrangements that prisoners faced in other concentration camps. This was solved by deportation, but even then, the visitor from the International Red Cross still observed overcrowding (Berkley, 177). Similarly, the administration told the crippled, sick, and poorly dressed to stay out of sight, trying to hide the horrible conditions that would lead the world to believe that this was different from a “privileged” ghetto. While this section supports Berkley’s claim that Theresienstadt was more a concentration camp than a ghetto, it also provides evidence for Berkley’s assertion that these residents enjoyed better conditions than the inhabitants of most concentration camps. He goes on to say, “The Nazis also retained many of the beneficial changes which the beautification had produced.” (Berkley, 180) Those given more comfortable beds and gardens were allowed to keep them, the band pavilion and concert hall remained, the nightly curfew was extended for the summer, and the population was allowed greater access to formerly restricted areas. Berkley thus demonstrates that these instances where Theresienstadt was put on display show both that this ”model ghetto” was more similar to a ghetto and that the Jews who lived there did enjoy somewhat decent conditions compared with the residents of typical concentration camps. Prisoners at other camps did not have the opportunity to enjoy the good things that came out of beautification because the Nazis would never dare to let outsiders see the horrors of the other concentration camps.

Overall, Berkley is successful in convincing readers that Theresienstadt truly resembled a concentration camp more than a Jewish ghetto. He also does well in showing that residents of Theresienstadt did enjoy better conditions than those endured by prisoners in typical concentration camps, and that the camp had some successes including the treatment of children, the camp’s culture, and the practice of medicine. Berkley is successful in making these points through the organization of Hitler’s Gift: The Story of Theresienstadt and through the information that he presents in each section. This book is significant to Holocaust history because it presents a full and detailed account of what may be called a ghetto or a concentration camp with a unique story. It shows that the camp was much different from the “model ghetto” that the Nazis presented it as, while admitting that conditions were undoubtedly much better than in typical concentration camps. Through using a variety of secondary sources as well as memoirs and interviews, Berkley presents a well-rounded account that is both academic and relatable.


Annotated Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/23/10)

Book Reviews

Books and Articles

  • Hannelore Brenner-Wonschick, The Girls of Room 28: Friendship, Hope, and Survival in Theresienstadt. New York: Schocken, 2009.

    This book focuses on the prisoners in Room 28 of the children’s barracks and the uncertainties, anxieties, and fears that they faced. It begins with their prior carefree lives and continues to document the joys and despair of daily life in the camp including the eventual deportation of many of the girls and their loved ones to death camps. The book conveys the girls’ horror, their indomitable spirit, and their will to survive, as well as the noble acts of adults who tried to help them.

  • Anne Dutlinger, Art, Music, and Education as Strategies for Survival: Theresienstadt, 1941-45. New York: Herodias, 2001.

    This book presents the artwork that was hidden in the walls and attics of the ghetto as well as historical accounts and essays that examine the meaning of this art at that time and today. Furthermore, each piece is accompanied by information on the life and fate of the artist.

  • Margorie Lamberti. "Making Art in the Terezin Concentration Camp.", New England Review 17.4 (1995): 104-11.

    This journal article discusses art in Theresienstadt, asserting that this art left a legacy that conveys the Holocaust experience powerfully. The author states that a culture of art production was allowed to develop because of the camp’s nature as a propaganda piece. Creative expression at Theresienstadt became a form of resistance and a strategy for survival.

  • Zdenek Lederer, Ghetto Theresienstadt. New York: Fertig, 1983.

    This book is a complete and well-documented synthesis of the history of Theresienstadt. It includes a good description of the social structure of the camp, the moral code that people operated by, the activities and policies of the Jewish Council of Elders, and the day to day life and cultural activities of the camp. It uses unpublished first-hand materials to present a detached account of the camp. Despite the fact that the author is a Theresienstadt survivor, he does not include his personal story, so the account remains a depersonalized narrative.

  • Gerty Spies, My Years in Theresienstadt: How One Woman Survived the Holocaust. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 1997.

    The book is an account of the author’s daily life in Theresienstadt that includes a mixture of prose, poetry, and diary entries. Spies writes about how she found time to give recitals and write poems despite miserable conditions, showing how prisoners managed to maintain a semblance of dignity in the midst of horrific circumstances.

Relevant Websites

  • University of Minnesota Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies, “Theresienstadt” (October 22, 2009),

    This site presents information on arrival to the camp, housing, conditions, embellishments for propaganda purposes, and transport to death camps. Furthermore, images of primary documents such postcards, death lists, programs and tickets for cultural events, and shopping vouchers help to make the camp and experience seem more real.

  • United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Theresienstadt” (May 4, 2009),

    The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum offers a concise look into Theresienstadt describing it as a transit camp, a ghetto-labor camp, and a holding camp. It also covers the use of the camp in Nazi deception, deportations to death camps, and cultural life at the camp. Furthermore, this site includes links to related articles and more detailed articles on the subtopics of this page.

  • Scrapbookpages.com, “Theresienstadt” (2000),

    This site offers a comprehensive look into the history of Theresienstadt including its early years before it was a camp, its use as a ghetto, and a look into the Red Cross visit. This site also offers many essays including some by the son of Benjamin Murmelstein, the last Elder of Theresienstadt. An interview with a child survivor makes the whole affair seem more personal, and the ghetto tour with pictures of different parts of the camp and descriptions gives you a clear idea of what it felt like to be inside the camp.

  • Melissa Misicka, “Terezin” (June 11, 2009),

    This website has a section with quick facts and history that provide a good basis for studying Theresienstadt. It also offers good information about the children that lived at Theresienstadt, the artists and musicians of the camp, and propaganda and the Red Cross visit.

  • Elizabeth Kirkley Best, “Terezin” (2003-2004),

    This website provides a descriptive history of Theresienstadt as well as a detailed section regarding music at the camp. Furthermore, it presents artwork created by survivors, photographs of the camp, and passages from the diaries of residents of the camp.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Jessica Resha on 3/23/10; last updated: 3/23/10
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