A Retirement Home in Bohemia

On Tuesday, August 18, 1942, sometime between 4 and 5 in the afternoon, Train Da 503 — designated Transport XII/1 by the Gestapo — pulled away from Platform 40 on the eastern wing of Frankfurt’s Grossmarkthalle. Its destination was Bohusovice, a small town north of Prague, two miles west of an old fortress called Theresienstadt. The train was packed with more than a thousand passengers. Among them were my 68-year-old grandfather Otto, identified as prisoner No. 443, and his 72-year-old sister Mina, prisoner No. 417. Both would be dead by the end of the year.

The deportees were allowed to bring a single suitcase. Although it was summertime, when daytime temperatures in Frankfurt typically reached the mid-70s, they dressed in layers so they could bring as many clothes as possible. Many wore heavy overcoats in preparation for the harsh Bohemian winter. 

The elderly Jews were led out, loaded onto trucks or carts, and driven to one of two assembly areas. Other members of the Jewish community provided assistance, moving the deportees’ luggage to the collection points and helping them fill out paperwork demanded by the Gestapo. 

Before leaving, the victims were required to sign phony home purchase agreements, called Heimeinkaufsverträge, which promised lifelong accommodation, food, and medical care in exchange for deposits of up to 80,000 Reichsmarks (roughly equivalent to $500,000 today). The deposits were calculated based on each person’s age and ability to pay. The money was turned over to the Gestapo and eventually made its way to the Reich Main Security Office, or RSHA, the organization overseeing the deportations. So, in effect, the Jews were made to finance their own murders.

To encourage their victims’ cooperation, the Nazis portrayed Theresienstadt as a pleasant ‘retirement settlement’ with villas overlooking a park, gardens, and even a spa.

To encourage their victims’ cooperation, the Nazis portrayed Theresienstadt as a pleasant “retirement settlement” with villas overlooking a park, gardens, promenades, even a spa. It was a cruel but credible deception because Bohemia was known for its natural beauty, luxurious resorts, and healing mineral baths. Dad’s photo album contains a number of pictures of him with his father and girlfriend Lotte at Carlsbad, one of Europe’s most fashionable spa towns.

Transort XII/1 pulled into Bohusovice on Wednesday, August 19. If my grandfather and the other passengers had any illusions about what awaited them, those illusions were quickly dispelled. The deportees were greeted by a phalanx of SS guards armed with machine guns, and green-uniformed Czech gendarmes. Exhausted, hungry, dazed, they were marched with their luggage two miles to the gates of the ghetto. Those who were too old or weak to walk were loaded onto trucks or platforms towed by tractors. In the distance loomed the gray walls of the old fortress town and the blue-tinged mountains of Bohemia.

Detail of drawing by unidentified prisoner of Theresienstadt, from the Ghetto Museum, Terezín Memorial.