top of page

The History of Theresienstadt and the Danish Jews - In Brief


The persecution of the Jews as a state policy started as soon as Hitler took power in Germany in 1933: the Jews were to be removed from society. Initially, this was done by forcing them to emigrate. Some Jews fled from Germany and later Austria and the Czech lands to Denmark, and although Danish refugee policy became more and more restrictive, in October 1943, when the persecution of Jews started in Denmark, there were about 1500 German, Austrian and Czech Jews in the country, whom the Nazi government had made stateless. Another 3,000 or so were first- and second-generation immigrants who had arrived from Russia during the years leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1917, when Jews fled distress, misery, and pogroms in the areas belonging to Tsarist Russia. Finally, there lived in Denmark about 3,000 members of the so-called "old Danish-Jewish families" who had lived in Denmark since the 1800’s, 1700’s or 1600’s. The Jews were granted full civil rights in Denmark during the 1800’s, and most were very well integrated into Danish society. They had to contend with skepticism and prejudice on the part of the majority population, but as militant Jew-hatred gained ground in Germany and other countries, the media and the population of Denmark sided more and more with the persecuted minority.

When the Germans occupied Denmark on April 9, 1940, they recognized that Denmark should continue to be a sovereign and neutral state. The Danish political system could continue to function. The Social Democratic-Social Liberal government was expanded to include representatives of the Liberal and Conservative parties, and together with the business organizations, they agreed to cooperate with the occupying power. The cooperation was economically and propaganda-wise a great advantage for Germany, and when the Danish authorities clearly stated that they would not participate in any kind of racial legislation, the occupying power for the time being refrained from anti-Jewish advances.

In August 1943, however, the rules of the game changed dramatically. A wave of strikes and sabotage actions across most of the country forced the government and parliament to cease functioning. A resistance movement had emerged, and more and more Danes supported it. A power vacuum arose, and although leading Danish civil servants and German officials agreed to continue the policy of cooperation, the occupying power began to step up the pressure, so that 1944-45 was marked by German terror and an increasingly active resistance. "The Jewish Action" on October 1, 1943, and the first two deportation transports from Aalborg and Copenhagen on the next day were the first major steps towards the brutal reign of violence that was already commonplace in the rest of German-dominated Europe. One could say that the August Uprising and the Jewish Action of 1943 normalized the situation in occupied Denmark. As the political leaders had stepped down, it was up to the top Danish officials to continue to try to protect the country, the population, and the deportees, and they did so with varying degrees of success.

Actually, Jews who lived in "mixed marriages" with non-Jews, and the children of these unions, were not to be deported, nor were Jews over the age of 65. But the German police did not take these formalities too seriously. The deportations to Theresienstadt were meant to – at least partly – cover up the fact that the "Jewish action" as a whole had been a failure. Persecution had come late, and the vast majority of the Jews had escaped. Four transports in October-November 1943 and a few smaller ones in early 1944 brought 470 Jews from Denmark to Theresienstadt.


Theresienstadt was a ghetto, established in November 1941 as a collection point for the Jews from Bohemia and Moravia (i.e. the Czech parts of former Czechoslovakia). Here they were to be concentrated, plundered, and then sent to ghettos in the German-occupied "eastern territories" or to the annihilation camps.

From June 1942, German Jews also were taken to Theresienstadt: artists and scientists, decorated war veterans, businessmen with international contacts and other

"prominent" people, and old people. From the summer of 1941 (the attack on the Soviet Union), German policy had shifted from forced expulsion of the Jews to systematic mass murder. The Jews were deported to killing sites in the “eastern areas” under the guise of resettlement and forced labor. To cover up the fact that "resettlement" actually meant murder in gas chambers, Jews who were too old and weak to work were sent to Theresienstadt which was propagandistically renamed an “Altenghetto” (old people’s ghetto).

Theresienstadt was located in an old fortress town built in the late 1700’s for 3,000 soldiers and a similar number of civilians. At its peak, up to 60,000 Jews lived in the ghetto, so the overpopulation was extreme and caused diseases to spread. The German political police, the Gestapo, appointed a Jewish "council of elders" to organize a Jewish ‘self-administration’ to manage everyday life, but not enough food or medicine was provided, so the Jews lived in hunger and misery. In total, 156,000 Jews passed through Theresienstadt. 33,500 perished in the ghetto. Of the rest, 88,000 were sent in large train transports to Auschwitz-Birkenau and other annihilation camps, where most were murdered with poison gas as soon as they arrived.

Only one of the 470 Jews from Denmark was sent on from Theresienstadt. The Danish authorities constantly pressed to keep in touch and managed to ensure that from the spring of 1944 food parcels could be sent to the Danes in the ghetto. On 23 June 1944 two Danish officials could even inspect the ghetto and see that the Danish Jews were alive. The inspectors were later blamed that they had been fooled by Nazi propaganda, but insisted that they had just pretended so in order to bind the Germans to the fiction they had created – read more and see the route taken by the inspectors through the ghetto elsewhere on this website. A Danish demand that the deportees to be brought home was not fulfilled until April 1945, though. By then, 53 of the Jews from Denmark had died because of the miserable living conditions in Theresienstadt.

Those who survived the distress and brutal regime in Theresienstadt generally suffered damage to both body and psyche. Some had their lives significantly shortened, many experienced health problems, developed what is today known as PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder) and suffered from reduced quality of life.

By Therkel Stræde, Professor of Contemporary History, University of Southern Denmark in Odense

The vast majority of the Jews who lived in Denmark during the German occupation of 1940-45 escaped the Nazi persecution. They were able to flee, with their own and non-Jewish Danes' help, to Sweden when the Germans started hunting for them in the autumn of 1943. But 470 Jews ended up in the Ghetto of Theresienstadt (Today Terezín) in the German-occupied Czechoslovakia. 53 Jews from Denmark perished in the ghetto. A few days before the war was over, the survivors were evacuated with the White Buses from the Danish and Swedish Red Cross. Shortly after the liberation almost all returned to Denmark.

Racism and anti-Semitism were central elements of Nazi ideology. So in every country Nazi Germany occupied, Jews were segregated, persecuted and deported of Jews, which resulted in mass murder. The Nazis defined the Jews biologically. They believed the Jews belonged to a particular race and used their alleged racial affiliation as a basis for persecution. Thus, the genocide affected religious Jews from the Jewish communities as well as Christians, the irreligious, and atheists with Jewish family backgrounds.


Bahnhofstrasse, herfra afgik transporterne mod 'ubestemte' steder. Dette ville sige udtryddelseslejrene. Theresienstadt, foråret 2018. Foto: Jacob Kornerup Ditlevsen

bottom of page