by Dr. Rafael Medoff
Appearing on the “Meet the Press” on February 23, Bush administration official Richard Perle compared the charade of visits by United Nations weapons inspectors to Iraq with the infamous 1944 visit by Red Cross officials to the Nazis’ Theresienstadt ghetto, where the performance of the prisoners’ orchestra helped lull the visitors into believing that Nazi treatment of the Jews was not so terrible after all.
Perle was referring to Saddam Hussein’s systematic effort to hide Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. As described by Secretary of State Colin Powell in his recent speech to the UN Security Council, Baghdad’s evasion tactics include hiding prohibited items in the homes of government officials, storing key files in cars that are driven around the countryside, hiding launchers and warheads in groves of palm trees, and using mobile biological warfare laboratories that can be mounted on trucks and moved on a moment’s notice. Saddam’s regime has even concealed scientists involved in the production of banned weapons, by sending them into hiding and issuing false death certificates.
Perle’s remark was the latest in a series of statements by U.S. officials drawing analogies between current events and those of the Nazi era. President Bush, in his speech after the September 11 attacks, said that Muslim terrorists “follow in the path of Nazism.” Other U.S. officials have compared European reluctance to confront Saddam with Europe’s reluctance to confront Hitler in the 1930s.
The Theresienstadt episode was the Nazis’ ultimate effort to camouflage their mass murder of the Jews. As part of their disinformation strategy, the Nazis in June 1944 permitted a delegation from the International Red Cross to visit the Jewish ghetto that the Nazis had created in northwestern Czechoslovakia. Theresienstadt was a transit point for Jews being shipped to the gas chambers in Auschwitz; but the Nazis sought to present the camp as an “Endlager,’ a final destination camp where Jewish prisoners lived happily.
In ‘The Terezin Diary of Gonda Redlich’ (edited by Saul S. Friedman), a Theresienstadt inmate noted the Nazis’ preparations for the Red Cross visit: “They rain down order after order. Kindergarten children are to sing during the visit, the workers are to return home. Plays and cultural events and sporting activities must take place. Even the few lambs left here roam about on the grass around the city. The children, the workers, the sheep–a perfect idyll.”
Another Theresienstadt prisoner recalled: “A playground was laid out with sandboxes and swings, a “children’s pavilion’ was built and painted from inside with big wooden animals as toys. Behind a glass veranda you could see a dozen cribs. It was like a story book–but children were only allowed to enter this little paradise on the day the commission visited Theresienstadt.” Houses were freshly painted–but only those portions that would be visible to the Red Cross inspectors.
During the weeks preceding the visit, the deportations to Auschwitz were increased so as to temporarily relieve overcrowding in the camp. The Nazis hastily constructed schools, stores, a bank, and a cafe, to give the appearance of a normal village. With Theresienstadt’s flower beds neatly trimmed and its orchestra well rehearsed, the Red Cross delegates could see only what the Nazis wanted them to see.
The visitors’ subsequent reports to Red Cross headquarters were critical of some aspects of Theresienstadt, but also described conditions there as “relatively good.” They agreed with the Germans’ contention that it was a final-destination camp–even though the Red Cross knew that the population of Theresienstadt at the time of the visit was 30,000 less than it had been shortly before.
The visit went so well from the German perspective that they later prepared a movie depicting the Jews’ pleasant life in Theresienstadt. After the filming, the cast was shipped to Auschwitz.
Richard Perle’s invocation of the Theresienstadt visit raises anew the broader question of whether it is appropriate to compare the events of our own time to those of the Nazi era. It is undoubtedly true that polemicists are often too quick to exploit Holocaust imagery or terminology to score political points. Using the memory of the Six Million for narrow political advantage should be off-limits.
Yet history does matter. The events of the 1930s and 1940s are indeed relevant today. There are comparisons that are valid and instructive, and there are lessons to be learned.
Surely one of those lessons is that dictators, then and now, have proven themselves all too adept at manipulating visits by foreigners in order to deceive the international community.