Secrets and Propaganda

The Nazis worked hard to keep their deadly secret from the world. Concentration camps were often referred to as “re-education camps,” and the camp at Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia was made to look like a model ghetto to impress outside visitors and calm new prisoners, who arrived by the trainload. Established in 1941, Theresienstadt housed a number of prominent Jews, including heroes of World War I, Danish Jews, and others who were actually forced to pay for what was euphemistically called a “transfer of residence.” The camp was ostensibly administered by a Jüdenrat, or Council of Jews, but, in fact, the Nazis held absolute power and intimidated council members into doing their bidding.

The Nazis forced the prisoners at the Theresienstadt concentration camp to make a ridiculous propaganda film titled Hitler Presents a Town to the Jews. However, the prisoners who acted in the film so obviously exaggerated the kindness of the Nazis that the film was never released. As retribution, many of the actors in the film were sent to their deaths at Auschwitz.

The Nazis often used Theresienstadt as a public relations tool, cleaning it up for the benefit of foreign dignitaries. Leaders touted the camp's schools, concerts, and other artistic endeavors, but for the most part it was all a hoax. The people living at Theresienstadt could not leave, and thousands died there. Starting in January 1942, Theresienstadt was a stopover for prisoners being transferred to the death center at Auschwitz. More than 140,000 Jews were sent to Theresienstadt; fewer than 14,000 survived. Of the estimated 15,000 children who passed through its gates, fewer than 100 survived the war.

Concentration camps were guarded by SS members who were part of what became known as Death-Head detachments; members were identified by a special skull-and-crossbones insignia on their coats and caps. The guards were, for the most part, viciously cruel to prisoners, and spontaneous executions, often for something as minor as looking at a guard, were common. To get away with such an atrocity, all a guard had to do was claim that a prisoner had attacked him or was trying to escape. There were occasional acts of kindness among the less brutal among the guards, though these were extremely rare. Guards caught assisting prisoners were harshly punished.

Indeed, prisoners were routinely treated worse than animals. Many were forced to have identification numbers tattooed on their arms, and the standard-issue clothing was a vertically striped uniform with a triangular patch designating the prisoner's category: red insignias for political prisoners, yellow for Jews, pink for homosexuals, black for “work-shy” prisoners, purple for Jehovah's Witnesses, and green for criminals. Some prisoners overlapped in category and wore multiple patches.

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