The Nazi party notoriously used propaganda to gain support for the annihilation of the Jews in Europe. Nazi propaganda ranged from posters, to films, exacerbating the already present antisemitism within German society. The films from Theresienstadt serve as key examples.
Theresienstadt served as the place of deception, crimes against humanity, and perhaps the only place of possible rescue. Opening in Terezin, Czechosloakia on November 1941, the camp-ghetto hybrid of Theresienstadt was used by the Nazis as a place for propaganda during its three and half years of operation. Theresienstadt served as a transport camp for Jews to be sent to death camps in the East, a ghetto-labor camp for deported Jews of various European nationalities, and a detention center for Jews awaiting death. Created as a ruse, the facility was intentionally for the wealthy Jews of Czechoslovakia and a place for older Jews to retire. In reality, chances of survival were slim.
Theresienstadt came under surveillance once the Germans had deported Danish Jews due to the persistence of the King Christian of Denmark. After the Danish Jews arrived, the Germans permitted the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to visit in June 1944. This visit has become a notorious example of German deception during the war, which the ICRC allowed. Prior to the visit, Theresienstadt was given a makeover to look like less of a death factory. The Nazis staged social and cultural events against the will of the inmates for the visitors, using the real orchestras and artists who made up the populace of the camp. This was not the first time the Nazis had done this, as two years prior they had used the camp as a set for a film and would create a second film after the visit. Once the visit was over, all of the actors and those who participated in the production of the visit were swiftly sent to Auschwitz.
The visit occurred on June 23, 1944, with two delegates from the ICRC and one from the Danish Red Cross. This visit had different agendas for the Danish Red Cross and the Nazis.
The agenda of the Danish Red Cross aimed to ensure that King Christian’s orders he had made upon the deportation of four hundred and sixty-four Jews from Denmark were being followed by the Nazis. The Nazis viewed this visit as a propaganda event, where they could showcase that they created the perfect solution to the ‘Jewish Question.’ As survivor Vera Schiff claimed in her memoir, ‘Theresienstadt: The Town the Nazis Gave to the Jews,’ this visit would present how a “civilized nation” treated their residing Jews, despite being a burden on the economy and society. Prisoners knew by December of 1943 that an important visit was planned, as Theresienstadt had gone through a beautification process. The Nazi scheme went far beyond this visit, which was originally scheduled as a multi-day affair, but after the first day the Red Cross decided the extra day was not needed. Schiff claims that the “craftiness of the show” never aroused the suspicion of the visitors. The ICRC knew of rumors but did not let themselves find out for certain. Schiff claims that the Red Cross never asked to see anything outside the tour, nor the inside of the buildings.
The Nazis made two films, the first “Filming in Theresienstadt,” a relatively unknown film created in 1942 and the second, “The Führer Presents the Jews with a City,” was the well-known propaganda film created in 1944. The first film, produced by Joseph Goebbels, quickly disappeared after creation and used 60,000 camp prisoners as actors. The film centered on the true story of the Hollander family and followed the couple throughout their experience at Theresienstadt, as well as his experiences immediately prior to internment. The film provided a detailed itinerary of the Jewish experience beginning with receiving deportation papers from the Council of Elders and being loaded on railway cars at the nearest station. Upon arrival at Theresienstadt, the Hollanders were searched, given lodging, and sent to labour office. The film broadcasted the typical day for Mr. Hollander in the wood-working camp, meals, a trip to the cabaret, then bed where the film ends. Although the stars of the film did not choose to be actors, their contributions gave them priority on a deportation list to Auschwitz post filming. This film became lost in archives, deemed too amateur to be used for propaganda.
The Nazis sculpted a second film around the collective Jewish experience after the successful Red Cross visit. It was with the mindset of showing that the Jews were happy in their own ghetto in unity, and the successfulness of the visit that led to the creation of this second film. A Jewish prisoner from Holland, Kurt Gerron, received the order to direct and produce the second film: “The Führer Presents the Jews with a city.” Most of the inhabitants did not want to be in this film as it was better to be unknown by Nazis in the camps. The film portrayed Jews wearing the yellow Star of David on civilian clothing, playing soccer, joyfully watching plays, and working in factories. Unbeknownst to the viewer of the film, the actors pretended to be happy otherwise they would be killed. The film did not show any SS guards, because then the camp would look like the prison it was, rather than the city the Nazis wanted to portray. Unlike the first film, the Nazis took a professional approach to the creation of this film through the formation of a schedule, the organization of sounds, lighting, and shot placement. The biggest difference between this and the first film was how groups of Jews were shown; instead of a single couple in the first, no one was singled out in the film. Neutral countries were the target audience of this film because of the success from the Red Cross visit, the Nazis saw this as an opportunity to have countries willingly send their Jews. The great care that the Nazis took to make this film represents the importance of this. With rumors from the Allies of mass killings, the seed was planted in the minds of these neutral countries.
Shortly after the visit, the Danes were rescued from the camp. Schiff noted how she witnessed the Swedish Red Cross picking up the Jewish Danes from the camp, and when a SS man tried to get on the bus, the Swede said that the buses were Swedish (thus neutral) territory – there on the order of the Swedish Red Cross to pick up and return the Jewish Danish nationals. They were saved by order of the King as they belonged to Denmark, despite many of them not actually being Danish nationals. This was a significant contribution, as a little over four hundred were saved.
The story of Theresienstadt is infamous in the way film was used as propaganda.
*Piece Written by Marla Topiol, Israel and Antisemitism Education Coordinator