“Theresienstadt 1941–1945: The Face of a Coerced Community” by H.G. Adler— A New Classic in English

Adler, H.G. “Theresienstadt 1941–1945: The Face of a Coerced Community”, Translated by Belinda Copper, Cambridge University Press and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2017.

A New Classic

Amos Lassen

Originally published in German in 1955, and revised in 1960, H. G. Adler’s Theresienstadt 1941–1945” is considered a foundational work in Holocaust studies. It is the first scholarly monograph to describe the particulars of a single camp—the Jewish ghetto in city of Terezín and it is the single most detailed and comprehensive account of any concentration camp. H.G. Adler who is a Theresienstadt survivor, gives us a history of that ghetto, a detailed institutional and social analysis of the camp, and his personal psychological understanding of the perpetrators and the victims.

The book is divided into three sections: a history of the ghetto, a detailed institutional and social analysis of the camp and an attempt to understand the perpetrators and the victims psychologically. This new English edition is a collaborative effort between the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Terezin Publishing Project and it is the authoritative text on Holocaust history in the English language and contains a new afterword by the author’s son Jeremy Adler.

Adler was imprisoned in Theresienstadt, Germany in 1942, and after even being transported to Auschwitz and a small labor camp in Niederorschel, he survived after the liberation by advancing Russians in early 1945.

Theresienstadt was set up by the Nazis as a “model” community but we see the truth to be far more complex. Everything we need to know about Theresienstadt is here from the average daily caloric intake for children to the names of the members of

the first council of elders at the ghetto’s founding in late 1941, including their individual character traits, and nationality. We read of the sham bank, sham café, sham post office, sham grocery and sham clothing store. There are also samples of poems written by inmates, the titles of hundreds of lectures delivered, descriptions of the many concerts given, and a detailed account of the efforts made to fool the International Red Cross when it inspected the ghetto in June 1944. We read about the deportations and the fate of the 140,000 prisoners who passed through Theresienstadt (only 15 percent of whom survived).

When originally published in November 1955, the book received glowing reviews from Europe, America, and Israel and was praised in letters from Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem, and German President Theodor Heuss. It took years as

British and American publishers struggled to know what to do with it. While it is encyclopedic in scope, it also a riveting narrative that is relentlessly objective and quantitative in its research and a moral indictment of the Nazi and Jewish leadership alike and in it Adler argues about the dangers of the modern bureaucratic state prophetically indicts the Nazis for the “the latest unfathomable calamity to befall the Jewish people.”

Some have found Adler’s condemnation of the Jewish administration to be unfair or have misinterpreted his criticism of certain individuals as aimed at whole groups whether Zionists or Communists. Benjamin Murmelstein who was the last head of the council of elders sued the publisher for 5,000 marks, demanding that Adler remove a sentence from the first edition that he felt implied he had organized the last transport to Auschwitz himself. Adler removed it in the second edition and even though the case was resolved without penalty, the text still maintains that “Murmelstein seemed well-armed against compassion.” Adler said that he issues, which he raised in all seriousness, “are not meant to incriminate or exonerate anyone; they are only intended to deepen insight into the tragedy that befell those who were in charge—a tragedy for which they remain blameless—and our understanding of their failures, for which they may be blamed.”

The reason we have not heard much about the book here is because it was never before translated into English and also because of what Theresienstadt was to represent to the outside world. It was not “a detention center free of peril, or the heroic valuation of culture upheld in the face of impending death”. The truth, is far more complex, far more heartbreaking and far more interesting than that.

When he was deported to Auschwitz on Oct. 12, 1944, Adler left behind a black leather attaché crammed with documents and literary writings. Returning after the war to retrieve it from Leo Baeck, the honorary head of the council of elders, he walked out of Theresienstadt with what would supply him for the next 40 years of his work as a scholar, poet, fiction writer, sociologist, religious thinker, and historian.

From the start Adler wanted his book to come out in English and in 1948, he had sent the manuscript to Hermann Broch, who in trying to find an American publisher for it, sent it on to Hannah Arendt and the editors at “Commentary”. When nothing came of such efforts, Adler was left to fend for himself. Arendt would later quote Adler’s text, as well as rely heavily, on its central observations in characterizing the culpability of the Jewish leadership of Theresienstadt in “Eichmann in Jerusalem” and even Eichmann himself is said to have read the book while awaiting trial in Jerusalem in order to brush up on what he had done.

Below is the Table of Contents as I tried to cut and paste from the press release for the book:


Foreword by Leo Baeck
Preface to the second edition by H.G. Adler
Preface to the first edition by H.G. Adler
Part I. History:
1. The Jews in the ‘Protectorate’, 1939–1941
2. Theresienstadt: history and establishment
3. Deportations to and from Theresienstadt
4. Closed camp: November 1941/July 1942
5. ‘Ghetto’: July 1942/summer 1943
6. ‘Jewish settlement area’: summer 1943/September 1944
7. Decline and dissolution
Part II. Sociology:
8. Administration
9. The transport
10. Population
11. Housing
12. Nutrition
13. Labor
14. Economy
15. Legal conditions
16. Health conditions
17. Welfare
18. Contact with the outside world
19. Cultural life
Part III. Psychology:
20. The psychological face of the coerced community.
Chronological summary
Sources and literature
Afterword by Jeremy Adler