Elderly People in the Terezín Ghetto

Distribution of infirm people in the Terezín Ghetto

This document from the Jewish Museum in Prague from September 5th 1942 details statistics about the “Distribution of infirm people in the ghetto”.

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Statistics on the elderly and so-called “infirm” people are quite common in the departments of the Jewish Self Administration. This document includes also a map of the Terezín Ghetto next to a statistical overview though and shows the distribution of so-called “infirm” people within the individual barracks and houses at a period of time when about 55% of the inmates were over 65 years old. The document “Distribution of infirm people in the ghetto”therefore is a rare exception amongst the many documents dealing with elderly people of the Terezín ghetto.

The EHRI collection description:

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Statistics from the Terezín Ghetto

Almost every part of the daily life of the ghetto inmates was regulated by a huge number of departments and sub-departments. This bureaucracy led to the large body of archival material about the Terezín ghetto, such as reports including statistics by the various departments of the “Jewish Self-Administration”. Often these reports and statistics were beautifully designed and illustrated with decorative graphs, drawings or maps. The statistics for the SS therefore provoke a feeling of order and normality in the daily life of the ghetto.

This raises the question for many of the documents produced by the “Jewish self-Administration for the SS” in Terezín (as well as other ghettos) of whether the statistics and descriptions of the daily life of the inmates are reliable? Statistics on certain issues, such as epidemic diseases, suicides or living conditions should be considered critically and used carefully. Nevertheless, comparing the statistics with data from other sources and available databases, it seems that most of the statistics about population offer a very good overview.

The SS was especially interested in the topics of “death”, “diseases” and “population”, and so many statistics deal specifically with these issues. Many documents refer to the composition of the ghetto population according to age, country of origin and sex. Therefore, a lot of these documents also give an insight into a ghetto life increasingly characterised by death and disease and the harsh living conditions faced by elderly people in the ghetto.

A map of the Terezín ghetto was originally attached to the statistics seen in the document shown here. In this interactive visualisation below information about the geography of the ghetto and the buildings is also included.

Mapping the documents was made possible by Neatline (an Omeka plugin).

Elderly people in the Terezín Ghetto

Between 1941 and 1945, approximately 150,000 Jews were imprisoned in the Terezín Ghetto. Over 30,000 people died there between 1941 and 1945 due to starvation, poor hygiene conditions, overcrowding and disease. Another 90,000 were deported to the ghettos and extermination camps in the East, from which only roughly 4,000 returned.

For further information on the Terezín Ghetto visit the Terezín Research Guide.

While the Terezín ghetto is mainly known for its cultural life, education of children and for the misuse of the ghetto for Nazi propaganda purposes, the story of Terezín as a ghetto for elderly people is not very well known. From May 1942 onwards, the first transports from the “Old Reich” (Germany) and the “Ostmark” (Austria) began to arrive in Terezín, increasing the average age of the prisoners to the point where 44.7% of all ghetto inmates were over 65 years old by July 1942. Jews transported from Berlin and Munich were on average 69 years old. The average age of the people in the transports from Vienna was 73. Hence old people’s homes and “homes for the infirm” had to be enlarged substantially.

Between June 1942 and January 1943, Terezín served as an old people’s and decimation camp due to the high number of elderly people brought in transports from the German Reich. In September 1942, at the time when the ghetto population peaked at over 58,000 inmates, more than 30,000 were old, sick or classified as “infirm”. As this was a major issue for the SS, several statistics had to be produced about old and “infirm” people in the ghetto.

Overcrowding and inadequate hygiene facilities led to the outbreak of disease and epidemics. Between August and October 1942 more than 10,000 inmates died in the ghetto. As people over the age of 65 were not obliged to work, they were entitled to lower food rations and the welfare department was unable to look after all of them.

Elderly people often succumbed to disease or starvation particularly quickly. Their accommodation was often unconverted attics and separate barracks used as old and infirm people’s homes where disease spread quickly due to lack of hygiene facilities.

The death rate in the ghetto started to decline from October 1942 onwards. This is not due to any improvements of the living conditions in the ghetto, but rather due to high mortality rate of elderly people in the ghetto in 1942 and their transportation to the East. Hence, by the beginning of 1943 most of the elderly people transported to Terezín in the summer of 1942, had already been murdered or transported to death camps in the East.

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