There­sien­stadt 1941 – 1945: The Face of a Coerced Community

H.G. Adler; Amy Loewen­haar-Blauweiss, ed; Belin­da Coop­er, trans.
  • Review
By – September 7, 2017

There­sien­stadt 1941 – 1945: The Face of a Coerced Com­mu­ni­ty was first pub­lished in 1955 in Ger­man, and is now final­ly trans­lat­ed in Eng­lish. H.G. Adler, a poet and schol­ar, may be unfa­mil­iar to the shoah read­ing pub­lic, but in Holo­caust schol­ar­ship his work is essen­tial read­ing along­side the writ­ings of Pri­mo Levy, Ger­ald Reitlinger, and Raul Hilberg, who was influ­enced by Adler.

In 1942, Adler was deport­ed with his fam­i­ly to the There­sien­stadt ghet­to, and sub­se­quent­ly to Auschwitz, where eigh­teen mem­bers of his fam­i­ly, includ­ing his first wife, per­ished in the camp. By record­ing what he observed — which includ­ed pris­on­ers housed in dirty bar­racks, cor­doned off from the out­side world and even from fel­low inmates — Adler sought to write an objec­tive his­to­ry of the There­sien­stadt ghet­to. He not­ed sig­nif­i­cant social divi­sions: Czech Jews, for exam­ple, who were the first to be deport­ed to the ghet­to, resent­ed Aus­tri­an and Ger­man Jews who arrived later. 

Ghet­to life might have appeared fair­ly nor­mal as exem­pli­fied by con­certs, lec­tures, and sport­ing events, but the real­i­ty was that Jews lived under a death sen­tence. The enmi­ty of the Jew­ish pris­on­ers was direct­ed toward the Jew­ish lead­er­ship, in the form of a Jew­ish Coun­cil, rather than the Nazis. This is because the Elders who made up the Coun­cil were part of the bureau­cra­cy that the Nazis cre­at­ed, in order to give inmates a sense of pre­dictabil­i­ty; how­ev­er, they helped imple­ment Nazi orders, includ­ing depor­ta­tion, and thus fos­tered in the ghet­to a ter­ri­fy­ing sense of uncertainty. 

Mean­while, Nazi offi­cer Hein­rich Himm­ler ordered the camp to be beau­ti­fied” for the pur­pose of con­vinc­ing out­side agen­cies, such as the Inter­na­tion­al Red Cross, that There­sien­stadt was a mod­el ghetto.”The absur­di­ty of this sit­u­a­tion was exem­pli­fied when the Nazis cre­at­ed a film pro­mot­ing the won­der­ful” exis­tence of the There­sien­stadt Jews — one scene depict­ed a ghet­to children’s cho­rus singing from the opera Brundibar. The day after film­ing, most of the chil­dren were deport­ed to Auschwitz. By 1945 most of the ghetto’s Jews would be deported.

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

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