The Theresienstadt Propaganda Film

Catherine Hokin

The Theresienstadt film made by the Nazis is a haunting example of fake news.
Ghetto Fighters House by Bedřich Fritta
Home » Articles » Historical article » The Theresienstadt Propaganda Film

The concept of history as a mirror is a familiar one, but it can be a dangerous adage to follow. For novelists dealing with the Third Reich, a period which can feel as soaked in fake news as our own, it is particularly troublesome. Most of us are aware of Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl but the propaganda web which features in my novel The Girl in The Photo ran wider still.

Theresienstadt/Terezin is a small fortress town about an hour north of Prague. It was built in the late 18th century as a barracks and converted by the Nazis into a ghetto. It was then, in a piece of brazen positioning, marketed as a ‘model town,’ offering a comfortable standard of living to the elderly members of the Jewish community in Germany and beyond. It was, of course, anything but. Not only was Theresienstadt merely a transit stop on the way to Auschwitz, it was a place of misery and squalor.

The town was built to house 7000 residents – by 1942 it accommodated over 50,000. Disease, over-crowding and starvation were rife. Between 1941 and 1945, 141,000 Jews were sent to Theresienstadt; 33,430 died there, 88,000 were shipped to death camps. Less than five thousand survived. The conditions were inhuman, the cruelty was widespread so why, in the summer of 1944, did the Nazis choose the town as a location for a film which would show the world how well they treated their Jewish population?

The answer is simple: because they never intended to show its true face.

There are many historical sources to draw on for Theresienstadt but I found Karel Margry’s studies of the Theresienstadt film and the misconceptions around it, particularly valuable when I was writing my novel.

According to his work, the name is the first area of dispute. This is usually given as Der Führer Schenkt den Juden eine Stadt (The Führer Donates a Town to the Jews). Documents uncovered in the Vad Yashem archive suggest however that this was a working title and on release it would be named Ein Dokumentarfilm aus dem Judischen Siedlungsgebiet (A Documentary Film from the Jewish Settlement Area), with the word Documentary included to support its authenticity. There is also a question mark over who ordered it to be made with Goebbels, the Propaganda Minister, normally credited. The film, however, originated at the Zentralstelle zur Regelung der Judenfrage, the Gestapo Central Jewish Office in Prague, without his involvement.

What isn’t in dispute is the intended audience – the International Red Cross, the Vatican and countries outside Germany and its occupied territories – and its intention. The film was shot to give a false image of life at the ghetto and to deceive the world about was really happening to Europe’s Jews. And it was going to do that by starting from a dishonest base.

In the spring of 1944, to prepare for a Red Cross visit demanded due to the presence of Danish Jews in Theresienstadt, the SS had embarked on a major beautification programme of the town. Buildings were painted, flowers were planted, a false playground and music pavilion were added and, to give the appearance of space, 7,500 people were deported to Auschwitz. The delegates were so completely fooled, they no longer saw the need to visit other camps.

With the stage thus set, the filming began a few weeks later, under the nominal guidance of the Berlin actor, film director and prisoner Kurt Gerron but all under SS control.

The film was finished but not released and no complete copy of it exists. What remains is an edited document which lists its scenes in order, plus some fragments and a set of 332 sketches by Danish painter Jo Spier which were made during the shooting. These remnants, and in particular the first eight sequences, show a town full of healthy, smiling citizens engaged in meaningful work and provided with plentiful food and leisure time. The message is clear: who wouldn’t want to live in Theresienstadt?

The truth, of course, is the desperate people condemned to try and exist there.

The Theresienstadt film is a record of a place which never existed. It doesn’t show the hunger, the overcrowding or the slave labour details. It doesn’t show the transports leaving for the East which took Gerron and the prisoners forced to perform for the cameras to their deaths. It exists as a piece of false history, and what it demands from us is wide open eyes.

Catherine Hokin is the author of The Girl in the Photo, out 27th January and published by Bookouture.