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The Red Cross Visit



Written by: Anders Nedergaard Bæk Petersen, MA, History and Social Studies, University of Southern Denmark



Edited by: Therkel Stræde, Prof. of Contemporary History, and Pelle Mose Hansen, MA, History and Social Studies, both University of Southern Denmark

Eight months after the Danish Jews had been deported to Theresienstadt, the ghetto was visited by a Red Cross delegation with representatives from Denmark and Switzerland, among others. From the very day of the first deportations, the Danish authorities put pressure on the Germans to obtain permission to inspect the situation under which the Danish Jews lived in Theresienstadt. The timing of the event and the visit were carefully planned by the Nazis. The arrival of the inspectors was postponed until a ‘beautification’ had been conducted which made the ghetto appear more ‘civilized’. When the Danish Jews arrived at the camp in October 1943, the ghetto was seriously overcrowded and living conditions were very deprived. Therefore, as a prelude to the visit, the Nazis chose to deport some 17,000 Jews to the extermination camps, so there were fewer people when the Red Cross delegation came to visit. 

This is roughly how the Danish Red Cross delegation experienced the visit to Theresienstadt: German propaganda film from Theresienstadt, 1944. The film was made after the visit of the delegation.

In addition, the visit was planned to take place during summer; in this way, the area looked better with green trees, parks and gardens. The worn-down garrison town was restored in certain areas, if only in those areas that were to be inspected by the

Red Cross delegation. This meant that several houses were painted, and selected Danish Jews were moved into new housing located at Rathausgasse. Those who were seriously ill or otherwise in a bad condition had either been deported or hidden away, so that the Red Cross delegation could not see what the conditions really were. This prelude to the delegation visit was called the Verschönerung ('beautification process'). In addition, small kitchen gardens were laid out in the earthen ramparts so that the delegation would get the impression that the Jews had the freedom to grow their own vegetables and provide themselves with a healthy supplement to the ghetto diet.


The delegation arrived in Theresienstadt on Friday, June 23, 1944. The delegation included two Danish representatives: Frants Hvass, a Danish diplomat at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Eigil Juel Henningsen, a leading consultant at the Danish Health Authority. Both subsequently prepared reports that gave the impression of great satisfaction with the visit.


The delegation was received by Karl Rahm, SS-Sturmbahnführer and Commandant in Theresienstadt, as well as Dr. Erwin Weinmann, Commander-in-Chief of the German Security Police in Bohemia and Moravia (today’s Czech Republic).


The delegation first met with the Jewish elder Paul Eppstein, who was presented as the Jewish "mayor" of Theresienstadt. Eppstein had been assigned to show the delegation around the city and told the members of the delegation that what they would see was "... life in a normal city."


During the visit, the delegation also met a few Danish Jews, with whom they had the opportunity to talk, if always under the surveillance of a Danish speaking member of the German security police. These Danish Jews reported that conditions had greatly improved over the past six months. Here, of course, one must bear in mind that the Danish Jews had been briefed by the SS in advance and were under great pressure, which meant that they did not dare tell the delegation anything critical for fear of the consequences. It is likely that Eigil Juel Henningsen looked through the fraud, but he did in his report emphasize that the delegation had been allowed to walk around freely throughout the city and inspect everything it wanted. On closer inspection of the route the delegation took through the ghetto it is obvious that this was not true. The picture the inspectors were allowed to see was carefully crafted by the SS.


In his report, Henningsen recounted how Jews were given opportunities to enjoy their cultural life in the library, in the center of town and at the "Kaffeehaus" (coffee house), where Jews could buy refreshments. Opposite the café, a Jewish orchestra was set up in the town square, which played the whole day in a newly erected music pavillon.


In addition to this, the delegation also visited orphanages, post offices, pharmacies and hospitals. Henningsen’s report as well as the report of Hvass and a shorter version the two of them

made together were meant to be shared with the Danish authorities, but also with the German occupational authorities in Copenhagen, and both inspectors were well aware of this fact. The final conclusion of Henningsen's report was that there was nothing to put a finger on as such, except that the city seemed somewhat overcrowded. This overpopulation was the only health hazard in the eyes of Henningsen. Earlier challenges, he believed, had been solved by good organization.


After the war, Eigil Juel Henningsen was confronted with the ‘idyllic’ picture painted in his report and accused of contributing to the Nazi ‘cover-up’. Henningsen testified that from the Danish side, one did not dare to report differently for fear of the safety of Danish Jews, who might easily be punished after the inspection visit, had the Germans been dissatisfied with the findings of the inspectors. Also, he said as justification, it was not possible to report things that he and Hvass had not been seen with their own eyes. Henningsen claimed that he had been skeptical during the visit, and that many of the new buildings appeared to have been “beautified” recently – which implied that conditions had been worse before the inspectors came to visit the ghetto. Likewise, Henningsen could not write anything but the words that the Danish Jews themselves had spoken to him.

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