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Theresienstadt: A Documentary Film, 1944

Theresienstadt Film
US Holocaust Memorial Museum

In the fall of 1944, Nazi authorities ordered the creation of a propaganda film in Theresienstadt, a ghetto and concentration camp in the German-occupied region of the former Czechoslovakia.1 The film—a portion of which is featured here—seemed to show Jewish prisoners happy and thriving. The camp was described as a "spa town" where elderly Jews could "retire in safety." The carefully crafted image of Theresienstadt became a means to deceive the public about the fate of European Jews. In reality, more than one-half of the roughly 140,000 Jews held there were deported to killing centers in German-occupied territories. Another 33,000 died while imprisoned in Theresienstadt.

Pressured by the Danish government, in 1944 German authorities permitted the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to inspect the camp to verify that Danish Jews there were not being mistreated. The Red Cross visit gave German authorities the opportunity to stage an elaborate performance that seemed to confirm that Jewish prisoners were living well at Theresienstadt. Before the visit, camp leadership took extensive measures to "beautify" the camp—they deported a large portion of the population to reduce overcrowding, built a swimming pool, planted gardens, constructed parks, renovated barracks, and planned cultural events.

After successfully deceiving the Red Cross representatives,2 Nazi authorities then decided to make a propaganda film on location at Theresienstadt. The film's "cast," musicians, and director Kurt Gerron3 were all prisoners of Theresienstadt. The film was made under the close supervision of the SS. A production company was hired from Prague to produce the film, along with a Czech photographer and cameraman named Ivan Fric. The film was shot between August and September of 1944 but was not completed until early 1945. 

As this clip demonstrates, the film created a fantasy world. The scenes portrayed Jewish inhabitants of Theresienstadt partaking in sporting events, attending musical concerts, working in a factory, relaxing, and enjoying meals together. In an interview, Fric4 called the film "absurd theater." He stated that he would not have believed the scenes in the film if he had not personally shot them. Immediately following the film shoot, deportations to Auschwitz renewed and intensified, and most of the Jewish people featured in the footage were deported shortly afterward. Gerron was sent to Auschwitz on the last train from Theresienstadt on October 28, 1944, where he was immediately killed. The film was never publicly shown, and today it exists only in fragments.

The film is sometimes known by its German title, The Führer Gives a City to the Jews [German: "Der Fuehrer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt"]. For more on the Theresienstadt camp, see H.G. Adler, Theresienstadt, 1941–1945: The Fate of a Coerced Community, translated by Belinda Cooper (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017). For more on Theresienstadt as a subject of Nazi propaganda, see USHMM's online exhibit State of Deception.

On June 23, 1944, two delegates from the International Committee of the Red Cross and one from the Danish Red Cross visited the ghetto and were apparently satisfied with conditions there. For the perspective of one of these representatives, see the related Experiencing History item, Shoah Outtake with Maurice Rossel.

Before the war, Gerron was already a famous cabaret performer, actor, and movie director. Gerron appeared in more than 70 films in the 1920s and directed several landmark European films. In 1942, Gerron was arrested in Amsterdam and interned at Westerbork. He was transferred to Theresienstadt in 1944. There, Gerron staged his own cabaret with fellow actors and musicians called "Carousel" for the camp prisoners. Survivors of Theresienstadt who remember Gerron have stated that art insulated him in a fantasy world, living outside the reality of the camp. Directing the propaganda film gave Gerron one last opportunity to pursue his passion, to work as a director, and to regain some sense of normalcy. In exchange for making the film, camp authorities promised Gerron protection from deportation. The Czech filmcrew were never allowed to interact with Gerron directly—they were forced to speak only through an SS officer.

Fric's interview appears in two documentaries: Kurt Gerron's Karussell, directed by Ilona Ziok (Los Angeles, CA: Seventh Art Releasing, 1999) and Prisoner of Paradise, directed by Malcolm Clarke and Stuart Sender (Alexandria, VA: PBS Home Video, 2005). 

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Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum
RG Number 60.0269
Date Created
August 1944 to 1945
Duration 00:14:59
Sound Yes
Videographer / Creator
Kurt Gerron, Ivan Fric
Reference Location
Terezín, Czech Republic
Moving Image Type Documentary
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