Life in Theresienstadt: a sword of Damocles

A public prosecutor recalls his friend Martin Ephraim and Hans Neumeyer while incarcerated in Theresienstadt camp in 1944. This is a hitherto unpublished report (translated by Phil Goddard) by Dr Hans Walter Hirschberg, a Berlin judge, inmate of Theresienstadt concentration camp from February 1944 to May 1945. He was a friend of Martin Ephraim, my great-grandfather.

Theresienstadt was in many ways a sham set up by the Nazis, partly to impress the Red Cross: many arriving Jews believed they were coming to some sort of Jewish retirement home, and handed all their money over for the privilege, with the option of having a room with a view over the park, or whatever. Some brought their evening dress. Only when they arrived did it become apparent that this was far from the case.

Yet Hirschberg’s report hints that some aspects were not so terrible at certain times: a view that seems hard to swallow now when it was seemingly hell on earth in so many respects. Hans Walter Hirschberg arrived at Theresienstadt on transport number I/107, which left Berlin on 10 February 1944. He played an active in Protestant church life in the camp and painted an altarpiece used by Protestants and Catholics. In 1945 he wrote an unpublished eight-page manuscript Christen im Ghetto (Christ in the Ghetto), explaining the close relations between Protestants and Catholics in Theresienstadt. “Every tenth prisoner was Christian. There were clearly no differences between Lutherans, Calvinists and Bohemian-Moravian Brethren. But also between Protestants and Catholics, fraternal unity was the rule. From the very first, every sect had made it a point to invite the others to their lecture evenings.”

I’ll be describing my own visit and impressions of this extraordinary place in the Czech Republic in a later blog.

Hirschberg begins:

I arrived in Theresienstadt on 11 February 1944 and of course went to find Martin Ephraim straight away. He had declined a great deal mentally since coming to Theresienstadt a few weeks previously, and had lost much of his freshness and initiative. This is the only explanation I can see for the fact it was not until several weeks later that he mentioned, almost in passing, that Hans Neumeyer was also in Theresienstadt.

Martin Ephraim May 1939 (2)

Martin Ephraim in the late 1930s

Shortly before Martin’s birthday on 23 March (he was so weak that he no longer went outside), I went to see Hans in the engineers’ barracks, part of which had been fitted out as a hospital for lung diseases. I found him to be typical of patients with serious lung problems. I introduced myself, and he was delighted to meet someone who showed such great sympathy for him; the only other person apart from me was Mr Weiner, from Munich. Hans wrote a few very warm words to Martin, which I handed over to him on his birthday, much to his pleasure.

Martin died on 4 April. I believe he was very depressed, though I think there is little point in enquiring about the cause of death when the patient is 84 years old.

Hans Neumeyer’s final demise

Although not an extermination camp as such, Theresienstadt was a point from where prisoners were regularly transported to Auschwitz and the gas chambers. In Theresienstadt, conditions were grossly overcrowded, and disease was rife. However, despite his blindness my grandfather Hans Neumeyer survived an extraordinarily long time there. He arrived on transport II/76 on 4 June 1942, on a transport bearing sick and disabled people, and lived until 19 May 1944, giving music lessons in exchange for food. He was known to his pupils as ‘The Professor’. Indeed music positively thrived here: there were regular concerts and an extraordinary range of talented musicians. Nearly all of them perished.

Hans Neumeyer

Hans Neumeyer

Hirschberg continues:

From then onwards, I often visited Hans. Although I have spent time with many tuberculosis patients, I did not suspect that he was so close to the end of his earthly life. However, he was becoming increasingly weak. The first few times we talked about music, but this soon became too much of an exertion, for him. He was sharing a room with about six men, and sometimes we all engaged in political discussions, but these made him irritable and often resulted in voices being raised. However, as far as I am aware, Hans did not suffer a great deal: he did not have the convulsive coughing and shortness of breath that are the usual symptoms of the final stage of tuberculosis, and this made me rather too optimistic about his overall condition.



is this man in Terezin Hans Neumeyer?

Inmates in Theresienstadt: a drawing by Leo Haas. I showed an earlier sketch for this drawing to my uncle, Raymond Newland (Raimund Neumeyer, son of Hans) who was certain that the man in dark glasses in the foreground is a depiction of the blind Hans Neumeyer himself. Hans survived two years in the camp, giving music lessons in exchange for food. The caption in the museum in Thereisenstadt describes the sketch ‘Those affected with a disease’, so it confirms that the scene is in a sick bay.

There were two women who went and read to Hans at my request, but they told me that he kept falling asleep, and with hindsight there was not much point in making these efforts at this late stage.

When I visited him one day in May, I found Mr Weiner very concerned about him, and he had deteriorated so much that I withdrew straight away. I believe he died on the following day. Unfortunately, Mr Weiner did not know where to find me, so he did not manage to tell me about the cremation in time.

In Theresienstadt, cremations were required to take place within 24 hours of death, so when I came to see Hans on the afternoon of that day, the bed was empty and the funeral had taken place a few hours beforehand. There is very little else I can say.

I  do not know how far Hans’ lung disease was a result of Theresienstadt or whether he was a direct victim of persecution. The healthcare was well organised, at least at the time when I arrived, when 10 per cent of all the inmates were employed in this area. The people with lung diseases were kept in beds with white sheets, and the “ward”, with its matron’s inspections and visiting times, was little different from an ordinary sanatorium.

Like many people, you may have been given the impression by propaganda, press coverage etc. that Theresienstadt was a hell, but that was not true of the time I spent there. It was intended as a model camp because foreign committees quite often visited it. There was a lot of pomp and circumstance put on for their benefit, but in fact this was not really necessary.

The worst thing about Theresienstadt was the mental aspect: the fact that we had been deprived of our freedom and there was a sword of Damocles hanging over us because we did not know what they were planning to do with us. We heard afterwards that they were planning to gas us all in April 1945. It was said at the camp commandant’s trial that he had made every effort to sabotage the gassing, but he was executed because he was accused of being responsible for the atrocities that took place in the small fortress 500 metres from Theresienstadt.

 “Paradise on earth; everything is relative”

sm Martin Ephraim's writing

This scrap of paper bears Martin Ephraim’s handwriting: he quotes Martin Luther: “If the world would end tomorrow, I would still plant my apple tree today”. My mother told me that the blue writing below is by Dr Hirschberg: “This helped in Auschwitz, 1945.” The records show Hirschberg as a survivor at Theresienstadt, so I presume he went to Auschwitz in his role of public prosecutor.

Hirschberg returned soon after the war in the role of public prosecutor. I am not clear to whom he is addressing this, but the reference to Franz Kaufmann is interesting. This would appear to be the man who was responsible for underground activity in Berlin in assisting many Jews to escape the Nazis by providing them with false documents. Kaufmann was taken to Sachsenhausen in February 1944 and shot:

Today I met a former inmate of the camp who came to the east in the autumn of 1944 and was one of the few people to be saved. He said that in the eastern camps, Theresienstadt was regarded as a paradise on earth. Everything is relative.

I was often with your cousin Franz Kaufmann, latterly in the Jewish prison in Berlin where I spent my last ten days before being deported to Theresienstadt, and where he was held for interrogation. A few days after I arrived, he was taken off in chains and executed. He should be honoured as a martyr. We met in his apartment in 1940.

I have not experienced any anti-Semitism during my six-month stay. Most of the men look emaciated, though the women tend to be better off. We are also fact in winter and there is an unprecedented shortage of heating fuel. My salvation is my job as a public prosecutor working with young people, which gives me great pleasure, stops me from thinking too much, and takes my mind off the fact that my stomach is rumbling.

A note from Alois Weiner

Hirschberg mentions Alois Weiner in his report above. Weiner was from Moosburg in Bavaria, and survived Theresienstadt, returning to his home town after liberation in 1945, where he took part in the democratic reconstruction of municipality and became deputy mayor. Before the war he ran a textile store and was forced by the Nazis to divorce his Aryan wife. Among my mother’s papers  I found an account written in German by Weiner on 25 July 1946, addressed to Herr Gustav Guldenstein, of the Academy of Music in Basle, and a colleague of Hans Neumeyer. He describes Hans’ demise in Theresienstadt:

For Hans Neumeyer things were tough time here because of  his blindness and camp life was a heavy burden too.   At times he had 3-5 students, The Czech students who took lessons in composition from him had continued to support him with food.  But one day his lung trouble erupted and he was taken into the hospital and unfortunately had to breathe the air in the room. His final decline was rapid and he knew he was at an end. He died on May 18, 1944 and was cremated on May 21. As was the custom in Theresienstadt all that was left of him was taken to the cremation chamber.

© Tim Locke 


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