The Three Screenings of a Secret Documentary

Theresienstadt Revised

Natascha Drubek
This article provides a fresh perspective on the footage shot in the ghetto of Theresienstadt, known under the titles Ghetto Theresienstadt, Theresienstadt 1942 and Theresienstadt. Ein Dokumentarfilm aus dem jüdischen Siedlungsgebiet aka Der Führer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt / The Führer Gives a City to the Jews. Revisiting original sources, the article argues, contrary to the general consensus, that the different film shoots from 1942 to 1945 constitute a single film project. Drubek suggests corrections to its filmographic data, such as the inclusion of the last Jewish Elder of the ghetto, Benjamin Murmelstein, as co-author of the script. A comparative examination of different sources establishes the date, time and place of the first official screening of the film, for delegates of the Committee of the International Red Cross, in Prague. Revising earlier conceptions on the intended effects and target audiences, the article draws attention to the fact that the film was initiated by the Sicherheitsdienst of the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA) in 1942 and screened at the end of the war to three carefully selected closed audiences. A study of the audience of the premiere on April 6, 1945, allows the reassessment of the question whether the film can be labeled as a propaganda film, or should rather be qualified as a stratagem of the German secret service.
Benjamin Murmelstein; Paul Dunant; Otto Lehner; Erwin Weinmann; Adolf Eichmann; Theresienstadt; ghetto; 1945; International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC); Theresienstadt filmography; film premiere; audiences; film reception; Der Führer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt; Holocaust; film; historiography

“Streng geheim”: The Theresienstadt Footage and the Secret Service

State of the Art and the Art of the State

Filmographic Data: The Number of Theresienstadt Films, Titles and Directors

The Film’s Premiere

Murmelstein As Witness of the Screenings

Nitrate Eppstein at “The Hradschin banquet”

Murmelstein’s “Redaction” of the Script

The Three Audiences






Suggested Citation

“Streng geheim”: The Theresienstadt Footage and the Secret Service

The history and the post-war fate of the Theresienstadt film productions as well as the surviving fragments and related film and photo materials are controlled by several major schemes of obfuscation originating in wartime strategies and practices of the Sicherheitsdienst of the Reichsführer SS (SD)1: the cover-up of the Holocaust in the East from 1942 on, followed instantly by the camouflage of death camps by the National Socialists and their collaborators on occupied territory. Even after the war, the secret service context is of utmost importance to understand the omnipresent obstructions facing anybody who wishes to access the film and facts concerning its commissioning and production. Secrecy lies at the heart of the activities of the originators of the film. The Sicherheitsdienst was trained to create and rely on systemically built-in methods of encryption, camouflage, cover-up, or dissimulation. An additional moment is the destruction of all written evidence: ironically the RSHA used the same Theresienstadt courtyards which had been filmed in 1944, to burn their secret files at the end of the war.

Burning RSHA archives in the ghetto2

The destruction is described in different sources: The last Jewish Elder of the ghetto, Dr. Benjamin Murmelstein (2014: 244), mentions the burning archives in the Sudeten barracks (E I) in connection with the visit of the Swiss delegates of the International Red Cross on April 6, 1945. Inmate Viktor Pollak (2010: 139-140) who worked as an electrical engineer in the ghetto remembered:

In the archive courtyard (na nádvоří archivu) the fires were burning for several days. Sometimes the wind caught pieces of paper and carried them away from the fire. When this happened one could see desperate SS men hunting for them. However, they did not always find them all and sometimes we got hold of a burnt snippet (útržek) of paper which was instantaneously hidden. Most of these salvaged papers (papírků) contained names, code names and other details of the employees and secret agents of the security service of the SS. When the Russian secret service found out about this, they were as desperate to find the papers as the SS was to destroy them. The liquidation of the security archives was finished one or two days before the arrival of the Russian soldiers [my translation from the Czech original].

This explains why – perhaps apart from the document issued to Walter Frentz in October 19423 – there is no official German document to tell us by whom, when and why Theresienstadt was commissioned.

Even though the documentation of the filming provided by Jewish inmates and Czech film professionals is extensive, the Nazis regarded the project as classified and successfully destroyed their own paper trail. Moreover, even the film negative was burnt – at least according to the information given by Wilhelm Söhnel after the war in relation to Michael P. Bornkamp’s documentary So schön war es in Terezin (1965; FRG; cf. fig. 2).

Oberhausen film festival 1965 leaflet containing information on Dr. Söhnel’s destruction of the negative of the film (courtesy Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen, Schriftenarchiv)4

The SD planned but was unable to do the same with Jewish memory in the form of the unusually rich documentation of Theresienstadt, which has survived in many different media and languages, all testifying to the criminal character of the Nazi Theresienstadt film project.5

Theresienstadt’s secrecy was made clear to the Czech Aktualita crew as early as January 1944, when they had to sign a non-disclosure agreement (the document was published on the DVD Truth and Lies 2013 and in Karel Margry 2016). Aktualita cameraman Ivan Vojtěch Frič (Prague 1922-2011) remembers in the interview with Barbara Felsmann: “Uns wurde gesagt, daß alles streng geheim sei;” (Frič and Felsmann 1992: 140).

The secrecy surrounding the production was not limited to the war period, but continued seamlessly after the liberation which, in Czechoslovakia, was a time of fierce retribution for collaboration with the enemy (Benjamin Frommer 2010). The Czech film business, which thrived under Nazi occupation, became a prime target. As early as May 1945 Czechoslovak police started arresting and questioning (alleged) collaborators among Sudeten German and Czech film professionals6. Anyone who, under German orders, facilitated the filming of burning Lidice or the Jewish ghetto of Theresienstadt, came under the watchful eye of the secret service. This development as well as the global climate of the Cold War, which was to a certain extent fought by the intelligence services, has in a major way contributed to obscuring our knowledge of the film.

Hence, from the beginning to the end, the secrecy of the Theresienstadt project is reflected in the inaccessibility of relevant sources in institutions and archives in Eastern, Western, and neutral countries including the archives of the ICRC. A comparison of the undestroyed materials from Czechoslovak, East- and West-German archives and other sources including memoirs reveals major discrepancies, which show the attempt to cover up the truth. The result is a multi-faceted manipulation of the factual history of the film’s production, the fate of its physical remains, and its reception. Production history is re-written; names are crossed out, replaced or unduly emphasised, and responsibilities re-assigned to different people (sometimes by the same source), all in order to create materials which comprise the enemy (kompromat). Withholding and suddenly releasing documents, such as the film scripts in January 1960 by František R. Kraus (1960), points to a provocation, especially, since names of war criminals were attached to the discoveries, in this case Hans Günther’s. 58 pages relating to the film were allegedly found in a Prague attic by a certain Otto Weil who is no relative to the, again alleged, author of the unsigned script materials, Jindřich Weil, who had perished in the camps (“Weil explained that they were not his own, but had belonged to a namesake and ghetto roommate of his, Jindřich Weil.” Margry 2016).

The shifting names and filmographic data continued until recently and is best reflected in the fate of the name of Irena Dodalová / Irène Rosnerová de Dodal (Ledeč nad Sázavou November 29, 1900 – July 1989 Buenos Aires): as a Jewish film professional and survivor who had made a film for the Sicherheitsdienst in the ghetto, Dodalová was unmentionable in Socialist Czechoslovakia, especially as she lived as an emigré in Peron’s Argentina.7

Irena Dodalová and Karel Dodal (in the right) on Ná příkopě, Prague, before the war (photographer unknown, Truth and Lies 2013)

The pioneering role she and her husband Karel Dodal had played in early Czechoslovak film animation in the 1930s was quietly attributed to another Czech animator (Dodal’s first wife) who had been involved in their company but had not emigrated. When Dutch historian Karel Margry in 1998 was confronted with Dodalová’s name, it had not yet been reintroduced into the post-1989 reappraisal of Czech film history, as film author and founder of an animation studio central to Czech and Protectorate film history of the 1930s and 1940s. Margry shifted the authorship for the film’s concept to Dodalová’s male assistants; first to Franz Peter Kien, and then Jindřich Weil, further obfuscating her unique role in the Theresienstadt film.

This explains, why many aspects of the Theresienstadt film have remained obscure until today, including the most basic questions: where, and for whom the film was screened during the war? The answer to this query will also contribute to the debate as to whether Theresienstadt was indeed a propaganda film. In 1992 Karel Margry, pioneer of Theresienstadt film studies, challenged the myth of the film having been ordered by Joseph Goebbels’s ministry of propaganda, though while designating it as an “SS-Projekt” he continued to call it a “propaganda film”.8

How do we know that the Theresienstadt film shoots (from 1942 to 1944) were ordered or commissioned by the SD? In the first film expeditions to the ghetto in the autumn of 1942 we see SD officers in uniform filming each other and documenting the film being made (Fig. 1; cf. Truth and Lies 2013).

SS-Hauptsturmführer Olaf Sigismund capturing the film shoot, 1942-43, with SD sleeve badge (photographer unknown; Truth and Lies 2013)

About the involvement of the SD in the 1945 completed film, directed by Kurt Gerron (Berlin 11 May 1897 – Auschwitz 28 October 1944), we know from written sources because a third party was involved whose archive has survived until this day, the Czech newsreel company Aktualita (cf. Margry 2009). In response to his post-war imprisonment for collaboration, Aktualita’s director, Karel Pečený, wrote several statements which make clear that the Zentralstelle für jüdische Auswanderung (in August 1942 renamed Zentralamt für die Regelung der Judenfrage in Böhmen und Mähren)9 ordered the film. We also know who was in contact with Aktualita and carried out the orders of the Zentralamt, an office representing Adolf Eichmann’s “Judenreferat” of the RSHA in the Protectorate. The names of these SD officers are well-known to Theresienstadt scholars, both worked for the Zentralamt in Prague from 1939/1940 until 1945: SS-Hauptsturmführer Günther and SS-Obersturmführer Karl Rahm. The latter replaced Anton Burger as camp commandant of Theresienstadt on February 8, 1944.

What we do not know, is who selected the times and places of the screenings to various audiences in 1945, and who, at the end of the war and the Holocaust of the European Jews, chose the lengthy and confusingly sober title Theresienstadt. Ein Dokumentarfilm aus dem jüdischen Siedlungsgebiet / Theresienstadt. A Documentary Film about the Jewish Settlement which only on the second sight reveals its manipulative allusivity?

State of the Art and the Art of the State

A revision of our understanding of the war-time Theresienstadt film productions has become necessary. Within the past decade, several new sources and their interpretations have been published, and some earlier sources (Murmelstein [1961] 2014) translated and supplied with new commentaries and evaluations. 2013 was an especially important year for Theresienstadt film studies: Claude Lanzmann’s documentary Le Dernier des injustes / The Last of the Unjust (2013) drew attention to the fact that the exceptional 1975 audiovisual footage of Murmelstein portrayed not only the last representative of the ill-reputed “Jewish Councils”,10 but also the last Jewish leader of the Theresienstadt ghetto in 1944-45;11 Lanzmann – departing from the practice of his earlier films – incorporated archival ghetto footage into his documentary. In the same year, in a pioneering act, original Theresienstadt footage was published by the National Film Archive Prague and the Jewish Museum, accompanied with source and contextual materials (the DVD Truth and Lies 2013). While many of the extant art works and documents on the ghetto, overwhelmingly saved by its survivors, were already known, digitisation brought a wider range of material to a broader audience. A host of documents related to Theresienstadt as well as ghetto footage was made available online, most importantly, the 8 and-a-half minute-long compilation “Theresienstadt. Dreharbeiten 1942” (“Theresienstadt 1942. Making of”) on the Digital Repository of the Polish Filmoteka narodowa in 201612.

The first thing that will strike a scholar embarking on the Theresienstadt film topic is the chaotic state of its filmography. Until 1988 – when film scholar Régine-Mihal Friedman presented Yad Vashem’s discovery of the original title (Theresienstadt) at a conference in Oxford13 – the film had been internationally known under the title Der Führer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt / The Führer Gives a City to the Jews.14 This apocryphal title, which originated in the memory of Jewish survivors, is more than just a mistake.15 As an ironic trope it is a statement on the paradoxical status of the film about a city which “the Führer gives to the Jews”. This city was Theresienstadt, the 18th-century fortress between Dresden and Prague, which, in 1941, was bestowed on the “coerced community”16 of a Nazi ghetto for Jews from Central Europe, the Netherlands and Denmark. If irony claims the opposite of what is true, the title is less ironic than euphemistic: a Führer indeed chose Theresienstadt. He decided to allow Protectorate Jews to set up camp in this Bohemian city and later turned it into a closed ghetto and transit facility to extermination camps. The euphemistic tone, reinforced by the work “schenken” (cf. the noun ‘Geschenk’ – ‘gift’) averts the attention from the unpleasantness of the lethal reality of “resettlement” (Auswanderung, Umsiedlung etc.) towards a hypothetical gift (the ghetto, later called a “settlement”) given to the Jews by the National Socialists.

Der Führer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt is the legitimate title insofar it was introduced by the survivors, and therefore expresses their perspective, their experience, their emotional relation to Theresienstadt. Endowed with a specific idiomatic humour and rhetorical imagination, after the war the ‘Jewish’ title re-appropriated, even re-settled ghetto territory. A territory occupied by the Nazis, where Jewish inmates had to work as forced labourers, producing not only goods but also texts, drawings, and films.17 If we see the film as their labour and the footage as their creative input, a new and fair filmography has to include the apocryphal title rejected almost three decades ago. When debating the problems with current Theresienstadt filmographies one needs to address the question of authorship in connection with the date of the first screening, the “Uraufführung” of the film.

Filmographic Data: The Number of Theresienstadt Films, Titles and Directors

Ordered as a “Kulturfilm” under the title Ghetto Theresienstadt in 1942, shelved and protracted, it came – after repeated interruptions – to fruition as a “Filmreportage” at the very end of the war under the title Theresienstadt. Ein Dokumentarfilm aus dem jüdischen Siedlungsgebiet. The title replaced “ghetto”, the unseemly word of the archaic and recent past, with the modern composite “Siedlungsgebiet” (“area of settlement”), leaving the toponymic kernel “Theresienstadt”, which was used by Gerron18 in several of his texts, untouched.19 At the same time the subtitle documentary (Dokumentarfilm) could not avoid echoing the most odious example of the “ghettofilm” genre from 1940: Der Ewige Jude. Ein Dokumentarfilm über das Weltjudentum / The Eternal Jew. A Documentary Film about World Jewry. Given this multiplicity of titles, I will use Theresienstadt to refer to the film project as a whole, as it was envisaged by the commissioning party, the Zentralamt. This will embrace all the production activity, with different directors, variations in the scripts, cameramen, and even various working titles such as Ghetto Theresienstadt (documented on a shot of a clapper board of 1942; cf. Eva Strusková 2009) and the final Theresienstadt. Ein Dokumentarfilm aus dem jüdischen Siedlungsgebiet.

In April 1945 the completed Theresienstadt sound documentary was shown in several private screenings, but disappeared before the Uprising within the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia in 1945, when the Red Army arrived in Prague (May 9) and in Theresienstadt (May 10), now called Terezín again.20 It took a decade and a half for scripts and segments of the film to began to surface, and two decades until original Theresienstadt film material was made partially accessible to a broader public in West Germany as well as in Czechoslovakia.21

I deliberately avoid speaking about the Theresienstadt films as separate projects (two, three, or even four) or the two or three shooting periods, as has become usual over the last two decades. That fragmentation has led to an artificial separation of the completed 1945 film from the earlier film materials dating from 1942-194322 and February-March 1944, which has interfered with the overall understanding of the film Theresienstadt. If one compares the motifs of all film shoots as well as the constant of the genre of the kulturfilm one will find more continuities than differences. Both the footage from 1942 and 1944 could be more specifically characterised as a Querschnittsfilm, presenting the “broader front of life”, in this case the “profile” (Querschnitt) of a ghetto.23

The actor Hans (Hanuš) Hofer24, in “The Film about Terezín. A Belated Reportage”, explicitly describes Theresienstadt as a “Kulturfilm” ordered by Herbert Otto in 1942: “Mit der Leitung wurde der SS-Hauptsturmführer von Ott vom Stab des früheren Lagerkommandanten Dr. Seidl betraut. Dieser Direktor ließ die Prager Regisseurin Irene Dodalová rufen und gab ihr den offiziellen Auftrag, ihm binnen acht Tagen einen Entwurf zu einem ‘Kulturfilm’ vorzulegen.” (Hofer 1968: 195)25 Researchers who examine the topics covered,26 will find common motifs, and even tropes. The 1942 and early 1944 shoots depict journeys and/or arrivals of Jews in the ghetto; both 1942 and summer 1944 films show how the ghetto inhabitants work and enjoy leisure time; both give prominence to cultural life (theatre, cabaret, concerts, and café scenes); both scripts cover railroad work, food preparation, sports, and both have scenes connected to water (watering, fire brigade, washing, showering,27 swimming, scenes at the river Eger/Ohře or/and a pool), inspired by the “Wasserbaukunst” of the fortress Theresienstadt.28 It was Hofer who detected the recurrent motif of water as the common denominator of Gerron’s script (“Einen Drehbuchautor fand Gerron in Manfred Greiffenhagen, einem Berliner Krawattenfabrikanten. Zur filmischen Erfassung der verschiedenen Abteilungen des Ghettos brachte dieser Autor alle Ansichten von Theresienstadt auf einen gemeinsamen Nenner, und dieser hieß – Wasser.” Hofer 1968: 196).

Comedian Hofer was – besides the functionalist architect and graphic artist František Zelenka29 – one of the professionals who was credited to have actively participated in both film shoots (1942 and 1944). His testimony deserves special attention as he is – unlike Murmelstein and Adler – our only Jewish eyewitness who was active in both films, who survived the Holocaust and bore witness in writing. His account conceives the filming as a whole, stressing its two different stages: “Dieser Film, oder eigentlich diese beiden Filme, sind einmalig in der Filmgeschichte.” (Hofer 1968: 195) Hofer speaks of an “intermission of two years” and discusses how professional each shoot was, but does not mention major changes in the content: “Schließlich war der Film doch zu dilettantisch, um für Propagandazwecke verwendet werden zu können, und darum verschwand er. Dann folgte eine Pause von zwei Jahren […].” Additionally, Hofer (1968: 197) stresses the differences in the technology and the process of production of 1944 when a “real script” (“ein richtiges Drehbuch”) existed, which in his eyes for example consisted in the division in “days of shooting” (“Drehtage”):

Dann ging man diesmal wirklich fachmännisch ans Werk. Mit der Aufnahmeleitung wurde der Leiter der damaligen Wochenschau "Aktualita" aus Prag betraut. An der Kamera standen zwei professionelle Kameramänner. […] Diesmal waren auch die Drehtage genau eingeteilt, man wußte im Voraus, wo und was gedreht werden würde, es gab einen Tonwagen, einen Lichtwagen, Scheinwerfer, ein richtiges Drehbuch und einen kompletten technischen Arbeitsstab, den besten, über den das Ghetto verfügte, bestehend aus einem Regisseur, einem Hilfsregisseur, einem Beleuchter, einem Kameraträger und einem Friseur, – kurz, man kam sich vor wie beim Drehen eines richtigen Films.

Based on the eyewitness accounts or participant sources such as Hofer I would characterise the film shoots preceding the summer of 1944 as trials and tests30 with different crews. The experimental character of the shoots in 1942 and early 1944 mainly applied to developing cooperation between the team and the ghetto inhabitants, less to the script itself as was assumed by Margry (1998: 187) and Strusková 2009.

Work on the film in 1942 apparently suffered from several problems – quoting H. Král’s memoir, Strusková (2009) stresses the inmates’ unwillingness to comply with SS goals. What other problems did the project have to face?

Hofer (1968: 196) specifies the name and function of the SD officer who served as cameraman in the German army: “An der handbetriebenen Kamera war ein P.K.-Berichterstatter namens Sigismund.“31 (Cf. Fig. 4) A P.K. reporter with a SD rank who, in the first three years of the war would have filmed Jews with an anti-Semitic lens in the newly established ghettos of the “East”, was now asked to cooperate with Jewish inmates. Hofer (ibid.) described a scene where a Jewish member of the crew was slapped in the face for putting his coat over that of an SS man: “[…] daß ein Beleuchter geohrfeigt wurde, weil er seinen Mantel über den eines SS-Mannes gelegt hatte.” In 1942 – especially compared to the summer of 1944 – most SS officers would utterly reject any personal or professional contact with Jews in a ghetto, whether for reasons of personal hostility or official policy; communication usually was through the Judenrat, in Theresienstadt the Jewish Elders. SS-Obersturmführer Herbert Otto had been Deputy Commandant of the Sonderkommando Lange in Kulmhof (Warthegau) in occupied Poland in the first three months of 1942 (Patrick Montague 2012: 53).32 It was the administration of the nearby ghetto of Litzmannstadt (Hans Biebow) which economically profited from the confiscations in Kulmhof (Chełmno).33

As the deputy Otto would typically have been in charge of the tests and technical implementation of the gas vans and also the exhuming and burning of bodies which started in spring 1942. By setting up Kulmhof as death facility for the Warthegau and ghetto Litzmannstadt in late 1941, Lange and Otto literally stood at the beginning of the Holocaust, overseeing mass-murder by suffocation with exhaust fumes in this remote place which was visited later in 1942 by Auschwitz commandant Höss as an expert place for the disposal of corpses (Hilberg 2003: 1042). Even though Kulmhof was very different from Theresienstadt, they were similar in two respects: neither was originally accessible by train: future inhabitants had to march to Theresienstadt with all of their belongings which, humiliatingly, would be taken away as soon as they arrived. In the Warthegau from March 1942 the journey from Litzmannstadt involved transportation with trucks and a change to the narrow gauge railway to the village of Powiercie. It was administered by the SS and SiPo (security police) in such a cruel way that the local director of the railway protested against the inhumane transfers (“Umladen der Juden”; Adalbert Rückerl 1977: 277). In the first three months of 1942 – when Otto served as deputy of the Sonderkommando – West-German attorney Adalbert Rückerl gives the number of victims shipped to Kulmhof as 27001.34 As Rückerl writes in his 1977 book NS-Vernichtungslager im Spiegel deutscher Strafprozesse, Otto would have been put on trial for what had happened in Kulmhof of he had he not been killed on May 6, 1945 in Prague (Rückerl 1977: 2486).

Powiercie: From freight waggons to trucks: SS officers and their victims in front of the narrow gauge railway on their journey to the death camp in Kulmhof; unknown photographer [30-4-2017]

This results in 300 murders per day. If most employees of the Prague Zentralamt who were supervising the filming, worked mainly from their desks, Otto had direct and practical experience with the gas van technology of the murder of Jews. It is not clear how Otto, a person who in several testimonies is described as somebody who enjoyed humiliating women and girls, would have dealt with co-directing a film with a Jewish woman – Dodalová; the fact that she was the professional, whereas he was not, even would have exacerbated the tension. Due to the Germans’ racist principles pairing Jewish film professionals (inmates) with SD / security police and Waffen-SS “fresh from the front” (Dodalová 1946: 294) was fraught with difficulty.

Additionally, the combination of crew members in 1942 created tension of another kind. German SD cameramen had to work with bilingual Protectorate Jews who, of course, spoke German with them, but this led to an alienation between the bilingual “amphibians” (as they were called in the ghetto) and the assimilated Czech speakers (Drubek 2014). Moreover, a woman leading a film production would have caused a negative reaction in the ghetto where women were restricted to traditional roles and had no representation in the Council of the Elders.35 Dodalová’s impeccable German idiom and her role in the film apparently led to strain between her and other ghetto inhabitants, who were surprised that SS officers would smile in her presence: she must have looked to them like a Protectorate version of Leni Riefenstahl, a German film director who cooperated closely with Nazi authorities. Grete Wurm, an “educator” from Prague, speaks of “SS-Hauptscharführer and his ginger-haired director” who “ordered [Befehl] her to provide a tablecloth, cutlery, and real plates”36 which even children usually had to go without.

A careful analysis of the sources on the two “directors”, as Hofer calls them, leads me to reassess their roles in the filming in 1942: Otto seems to have been “Direktor” of filming in Prague, Bohušovice / Bauschowitz and perhaps the Small Fortress and other non-public shoots in Theresienstadt, whereas Dodalová was “Frau Direktor” (Hofer 1968: 195) of the ghetto production carried out in public. Hofer makes this division of labour relatively clear, when he describes the filming in Prague, the journey and “arrival in the ghetto”, after which “director Dodalová took over” (“An diesem Punkt hatte nun die Arbeit der Frau Direktor Dodalová einzusetzen.” Hofer 1968: 195). Since Wurm mentioned the rank of the SS man as SS-Hauptscharführer, it could not have been SS-Obersturmführer Otto, who was four ranks higher.

It is not clear for how many shooting days Otto and Dodalová overlapped, and whether they cooperated directly in the ghetto, at all. There are no photographs of Dodalová and Otto together, and the SS-Obersturmführer does not appear in the test and making-of-footage, though SD officer Gerhard Günel, cameraman Sigismund and other Germans do. Otto’s special film shoots could have taken place either in the medicinal pool or the Zentralbad (E VI, inside the ghetto), or the outside concrete basin in the Small Fortress. The plan to film Jewish girls in secular pools and ritual baths might have been one of the reasons why the Zentralamt chose a woman director in the first place. If we follow this line of thought, Otto could have either cooperated with Dodalová exclusively on the ‘secret’ washing and swimming scenes in Theresienstadt, or their preparation – such as Otto’s snatching girls from the street as described by Adler. He characterises Obersturmführer Otto not only as “an evil man” but also – without being aware of it – describes one of the film shoots which involved young Jewish women.37 Otto’s reputation in the ghetto could be reflected in Dodalová’s “fresh from the front” remark: apparently Otto arrived with certain preset ideas how Jewish women should be treated, practises he had acquired during his time on the Polish front where he was sent in October 1939.38 In describing the activities of the Sonderkommando in Kulmhof, Rückerl (1977: 270) mentions that, according to a 1961 testimony, women – before being murdered in the gas vans – were made available to the Kulmhof crew in a specially allocated basement room in 1942. Otto, as the Deputy Commandant of Kulmhof was either initiating or made clear his tolerance of this type of contemptuous treatment of female victims which sanctioned rape, a practice not common in Theresienstadt.

The other option is that Dodalová was asked to help Otto on these scenes in order to avoid breaches of decency, typical of early propagandistic “ghettofilm” shoots in occupied Poland (showing women forced to immerse themselves in a mikveh), but unwanted in the Kulturfilm on Theresienstadt. One of the participants shared her memory of the washing scene in a letter to Karel Margry stressing the fact that the parents did not know the whereabouts of their children during the filming: “They opened a large room equipped as a simple public washroom with basins and taps. We were ordered to undress to our underwear and brush our teeth. Of course I was not aware of who commanded this operation; we could not know because we were not allowed to address them - the atmosphere was not friendly as an SS man was present. [...] We certainly had the feeling of being used.”39 Susi Weiss described the “very humiliating” (“Wir waren sehr, sehr erniedrigt.") experience of having to swim in a pool in front of both inmates and SS cameramen.40 Most certainly there were complaints to the Jewish Elders concerning these shoots with the kidnapped girls and teenagers.

The need to involve Dodalová could have arisen either before or after Otto’s (perhaps unsuccessful) shoot at the pool or in the washroom. Following Margry’s argument that most memoirs concerning the bathing scenes are not datable means accepting that they could have happened either in 1942 or 1943. Since Otto left Kulmhof in April 1942 and arrived in the Protectorate in July, the bathing scenes with his involvement, or at least their preparation, could have taken place any time between July 1942 and 1943, that is the time when he worked for the Zentralamt Prague.

We do know that Otto received support in the Prague shoot from Zelenka who before the war was stage-designer for Voskovec&Werich’s avantgarde Liberated Theatre (Osvobozené divadlo). During the Protectorate he was employed by the Jewish Community in the Department of Buildings Management (Hausverwaltung/Správa budov), as described by Magda Veselská (2012: 67, 110-111). Zelenka intended to design the interior of the Protectorate exhibition in the Jewish museum, Prague (“Jüdisches Zentralmuseum Prag”), ordered by the Zentralstelle.41 This explains Richard Israel Friedmann’s involvement in the film, mentioned by Strusková (2009: 13, 26; 2011: 143) and documented by a still which shows him together with members of the film crew; Friedmann was a functionary of the Jewish Community Prague, formerly Vienna. Zelenka’s input can be detected in the poetics of the surviving 1942 film material outside of the ghetto (people walking in the mud, rail station shot from below etc.) which look completely unlike Wochenschau footage. Since Pečený speaks of “cameramen for filming Jewish flats in Prague”, we cannot discount some of this early footage being shot by Czech cinematographers, who in this case would have worked with Zelenka, who was not yet ghettoised in 1942.

An uneven pair: F. Zelenka and H. Otto (still from the film shoot 1942-43; Truth and Lies 1943)

Contrary to Strusková (2011), who assumed that the still of Otto talking to Zelenka was taken in the ghetto, I would suggest that it originated in Prague. In his confrontation with the leather clad SS-Obersturmführer the architect is still wearing a quality woollen suit, pre-ghettoisation. Furthermore, Zelenka was deported to Theresienstadt only on July 13, 1943, and no Jew could legally leave the ghetto after entering it. Therefore an improved filmography would include Zelenka as artistic director for the Prague and the Bauschowitz filming. Zelenka’s facial expression implies that cooperation with Otto was not without problems, either.

The second conjunction in 1944 was more fortunate, as Czech film professionals brought in from Prague worked with a top Jewish film professionals and performers, originally from the major countries represented in the ghetto: Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, and Denmark. By August 1944 a functioning team had been assembled. The Czech Aktualita crew had proven suitable to work with Jewish ghetto inhabitants, and name and fame of former UFA star Gerron – imported from Westerbork in February 1944 – had the respect a director of such a large project needed. Gerron arrived in the same month, when Karl Rahm became commandant of the ghetto. Together with the talented organiser Murmelstein, who had started to take care of the ,beautification’ of the ghetto set in 1943, Gerron embodied a “colossal” heavyweight duo of male power, as Karl Prümm says: “Gerron embodies principles, he represents the masculine par excellence, the irrepressible will to power.”42

Following the discovery of footage in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s, additional material was found in 1987 in Yad Vashem; in 1988 Friedman reconstructed the main title of the film. When new footage surfaced in Poland43 in 1994, Margry identified the 1942 film material in the late 1990s. This led to a misrepresentation of the role of the leader of the first team, Dodalová, corrected in 2009 by Eva Strusková. Due to the changes to crew members and the long pauses in production between 1942 and 1944, the 1942 footage was declared an independent “predecessor” of the 1944-45 film, suppressing all evidence pointing to the intermittent continuation of the film project in 1943.44

The filmographic result of my research is:

Irena Dodalova, Kurt Gerron, Karel Pečený, and Zentralamt für die Regelung der Judenfrage in Böhmen und Mähren. 1945. Theresienstadt. Ein Dokumentarfilm aus dem jüdischen Siedlungsgebiet. Aktualita.

Previous or alternative titles and additional co-directors:

Treating the film shoots and the corresponding surviving materials as self-contained projects has certain advantages when it comes to creating a sharper image of the Jewish and Czech artists, analysing their contribution as film professionals and artists. The main Jewish participant in Prague and the ghetto was Zelenka. In the ghetto script-writing and film production was carried out by Irena Dodalová (head of dissolved animation studio IRE-Film, Prague), assistant cameraman Jindřich Weil, actor Hans Hofer, artist Franz Peter Kien45, photographer Hanuš Král,46 and draftsman Adolf (Dolfi) Aussenberg whose father was an internationally successful film producer.47

Team members of the two production periods (excluding German SS officers). Artists and authors who participated in both periods are in red. Italics mark the Czech crew

Since the script of Theresienstadt was developed by the Dodalová team, its members have a part in the completed film of 1945.48 In 1944-45 newsreel executive Pečený and comedian Gerron were the main directors, with the set designer Zelenka – who was involved in both productions – forming a bridge to the earlier stages of the film project. Another central personality was Murmelstein whom James Hoberman – without being aware of the documents I will discuss below – called “the movie’s de facto producer”.49

Wholly new in the team were participants from the Netherlands such as the caricaturist and illustrator Jo Spier (arrived in April 1943) or “Kameraassistent” Benda Rosenwein, Stadtkapelle musician Martin Roman (arrived in January 1944) and Gerron himself (arrived in February 1944).50 The music was chosen and arranged by composer and former conductor of the Copenhagen Royal Philharmonic, Peter Deutsch who, though born in Berlin, had arrived in October 1943 from Denmark. He was one of the two conductors in the ghetto.51

Aktualita employees Jaroslav Čechura and Josef Franěk were responsible for the technical side of the soundtrack, which was recorded in March 1945.52 Josef Čepelák (1905–?) worked as Aktualita cameraman in the ghetto only in early 1944, not in the summer of that year.53

Whereas separating the shoot into two or three periods concentrates on the individuals and their teamwork, it does hamper an investigation of why the film was ordered, made, finished (unlike the “films unfinished” from the ghettos in occupied Poland)54, and screened in April 1945, and who was tenacious and resourceful enough to follow through this costly and time-consuming endeavor at a time when the German occupying forces were covering up everywhere. Which goals were pursued by the Protectorate SD with the help of the cinematic medium in the last weeks of the war? Only by investigating the entirety of the SD film project in the context of the history of the Holocaust and of the Protectorate allows to answer this question.

The Film’s Premiere

Until now it was assumed by scholars of Theresienstadt. Ein Dokumentarfilm aus dem jüdischen Siedlungsgebiet (1945) that the date of its premiere was unknown. The two most detailed analyses of all recorded screenings of the film during the war were published by Karel Margry in the 1990s and, with slight corrections, on the timeline of the DVD Truth and Lies 2013. This lists prime eyewitness sources reporting on the premiere – usually Dr. Otto Lehner, delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Berlin (Adler 2017: 164), Paul Dunant, Benjamin Murmelstein, and Karl Rahm. I will attempt to ascertain the date of the premiere and who exactly was in attendance by a comparative investigation and textual analysis of newly discovered materials and a new interpretation of old sources.

Why is this of importance? The details of the first screening will reveal the primary intention of the film’s commissioners, whether the intended audience was reached and the goal was met.

Margry (1996) roughly dated the first screening in Prague as “in the end of March, or beginning of April 1945” and established the total number of screenings as “minimally four”:

Viele Forscher gehen davon aus, daß der Theresienstadtfilm niemals in fertiger Form oder überhaupt niemals zur Aufführung gelangte. Tatsächlich aber gibt es mindestens vier belegte Aufführungen des fertiggestellten Films. Die erste fand Ende März oder Anfang April 1945 statt, und zwar im Czernin-Palast in Prag, dem Sitz des Deutschen Staatsministers im Reichsprotektorat Böhmen und Mähren, Karl Hermann Frank, und war eine private Vorführung für Frank und eine ausgewählte Gruppe hochrangiger SS-Offiziere. Günther und Rahm waren ebenfalls anwesend (Margry 1996: 333).

Margry based his four-screenings-chronology on Rahm’s statements at the Extraordinary People’s court in Litoměřice in 1947. How reliable are the SS-Obersturmführer’s statements at the Court, and can we believe Rahm when he says that he was present at the first screening?55 Benjamin Murmelstein noted that on April 6 Rahm “was lying in bed with a fever”: “Ausgerechnet am 6. April, als ich die Kommission des Internationalen Roten Kreuzes empfangen sollte, lag Rahm mit Fieber im Bett. […] Eichmann kam in Begleitung des Befehlshabers der Sicherheitspolizei in Prag, Weinmann, gefolgt von Möhs, Günther und dessen Sekretär Günel.” (Murmelstein 2014: 242-243). This means that either there was no screening on April 6 or Rahm lied about his attendance, so we have to cross him off both the lists of people who attended the premiere and the eyewitnesses. If Rahm did not take part in anything on 6 April, it remains unclear why he claimed otherwise.56

In June 1945 Murmelstein was accused of collaboration and questioned in investigative custody in Pankrác prison. He supplied a German-language report about the films made in Theresienstadt, written in March 1946, a year after the film’s completion, carrying the title “Bericht über den deutschen Propagandafilm Theresienstadt”. It contains the following passage describing how Rahm and his deputy Baltrusch on 17 April, 1945 wished to discuss the film with Murmelstein on the day after they “had seen the film allegedly for the first time” (“Am nächsten Tage hatte ich die Gelegenheit Rahm und seinen Vertreter Baltrusch zu sprechen. Beide fragten nach dem Film, den sie angeblich am Vortage zum ersten Male gesehen hätten.” Murmelstein 1946; ABS 305-633-1, p. 110). Additionally to opening up the possibility that Rahm saw the film earlier (e.g. in the Aktualita editing room in Prague or in the so-called SS-Kino in the Theresienstadt Bodenbach barracks), Murmelstein’s memoir relating to April 17 confirms our hypothesis that Rahm was not present at the premiere.

Margry’s account places the screening for the delegates of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in the ghetto:

Die anderen drei Vorführungen, in Theresienstadt selbst, galten Repräsentanten ausländischer Organisationen, die mit den Nazis über die Rettung von Konzentrationslagerhäftlingen verhandelten. Am 6. April 1945 wurde der Film zwei Delegierten des Internationalen Roten Kreuzes gezeigt, Dr. Otto Lehner und Paul Dunant, die nach Theresienstadt gekommen waren, um über einen Plan zu verhandeln, der vorsah, das Lager unter den Schutz des Roten Kreuzes zu stellen. Sie wurden von einem Schweizer Diplomaten begleitet, einem Herrn Buchmüller, der den Film ebenfalls sah. Außerdem waren der SS-Standartenführer Erwin Weinmann, der Befehlshaber der Sicherheitspolizei und des SD des Protektorats, und zwei Funktionäre des Auswärtigen Amtes, der Legationsrat Eberhard von Thadden und der Gesandte Erich von Luckwald, anwesend (Margry 1996: 333).

Dr. Otto Lehner wrote his report on Theresienstadt on April 7, mentioning the ICRC visit to the ghetto as well as the film, which confirms that the first screening coincided with the Red Cross visit on April 6. The problem with Lehner’s text (published partially by Adler in 1958) was that he did not mention the place and time of the screening, perhaps because the ICRC delegates were invited to the Prague Castle by Karl Hermann Frank (Adler 1958: 355-356). The fogginess of Lehner’s tale led Margry to assume that the screening of the film must have been in the ghetto. Consequently, he split the event at the Czernin Palace/Černínský palác in Prague in two: One undated in Prague (“private Vorführung für Frank”) and one on April 6 in the ghetto (since the 1990s this has been the general consensus on the first screening and is reflected by the Timeline in Truth and Lies 2013). Margry’s descriptions for what he identified as the first two screenings, both refer to April 6, that is one single day, spent in both Theresienstadt and Prague, with the “private film screening” taking place – without Rahm and probably even without Günther57 – in the Czernin Palace of the Prague castle, the seat of German State minister in the Protectorate, K.H. Frank.

Murmelstein As Witness of the Screenings