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The Coerced Community of Theresienstadt

H.G. Adler survived the Holocaust to write a monumental, meticulous study of the Nazi’s ‘model community,’ one of the first of its kind, in German. Why did it take so long to be translated to English?

Peter Filkins
July 12, 2017
Photo: Wikipedia
A photograph documenting the shooting of 'Theresienstadt,' a propaganda film made by the Nazis to show the International Red Cross and others that they were not mistreating Jews in the "ghettos."Photo: Wikipedia
Photo: Wikipedia
A photograph documenting the shooting of 'Theresienstadt,' a propaganda film made by the Nazis to show the International Red Cross and others that they were not mistreating Jews in the "ghettos."Photo: Wikipedia

Books disappear, are lost, or are overlooked for many different reasons. Even books that meet with wide acclaim upon publication can end up relegated to the shadow life of specialized scholarship, or the dreaded moniker of a “classic” that few read. H.G. Adler’s 1955 study, Theresienstadt 1941-1945: The Face of a Coerced Community falls somewhere between these two categories, and curiously so. Universally praised when it first appeared, and published in a second edition just five years later, it remains in print in Germany after being reissued on its 50th anniversary in 2005. However, unlike Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews or Eugon Kogon’s The Theory and Practice of Hell, it is not read or cited widely, the primary reason being that it has not been translated into English until now.

Another reason, sadly enough, is the subject itself. Unlike with Auschwitz, Buchenwald, or Treblinka, the horror of Theresienstadt is not reducible to images of gas chambers or crematoria. And what might be known of it—such as the fact that it was set up by the Nazis as a “model” community, or that Hans Krása’s opera Brundibár was performed by children thereeither causes people to dismiss it as a detention center free of peril, or sentimentalize it into the heroic valuation of culture upheld in the face of impending death. The truth, however, is far more complex, far more interesting than that, and Adler was the first to capture it.

H.G. Adler. (King’s College London)
H.G. Adler. (King’s College London)

Should you wish to know the average daily caloric intake from potatoes for children (168 calories) in Theresienstadt, you will find it here. Should you wish to know the names of the first council of elders at the ghetto’s founding in late 1941, as well as their duties, individual character traits, and nationality, you will find it here. Should you wish to learn about the sham bank set up in Theresienstadt, or the equally dubious café, post office, grocery and clothing store, you will find it here. You will also find samples of poems written by inmates, the titles of hundreds of lectures delivered, descriptions of the many concerts given, and a detailed account of the efforts made to dupe the International Red Cross when it inspected the ghetto in June 1944. And of course, if you wish to learn about the deportations and the fate of the 140,000 prisoners who passed through Theresienstadt (only 15 percent of whom survived), you will find that here as well.

Astonishingly, Adler’s effort to wrap his arms around the entirety of the ghetto and the experiences of its inhabitants commenced when he himself was a prisoner there. Born in 1910, he was deported to Theresienstadt from his native Prague along with his wife, Gertrud Klepetar, and her parents on Feb. 8, 1942. Because Gertrud was appointed head of the medical lab (valid research on disease and hematology was actually done and lectured about in Theresienstadt), she had access to the many protocols, reports, and documents issued by the Jewish administration at the behest of the Nazis. Early on, after a six-week period of despair and disorientation, Adler vowed to set down the day-to-day reality of the enclosed ghetto as both a scholar and a literary artist. Though he could have easily worked for the Jewish administration, he purposely opted for menial jobs as, among other things, a bricklayer and a librarian (there was a lending library of nearly 50,000 books, most brought in by the prisoners themselves), for he knew there could be no good way to do the Nazis’ bidding.

Already a mature writer and trained scholar, Adler began a novel, wrote several short stories, and more than 100 poems during his 32 months of imprisonment, also collecting documents and taking notes in the hopes of one day writing a study of what he was the first to call a “coerced community.” When he and Gertrud and her mother (her father had already died in the ghetto) were deported to Auschwitz on Oct. 12, 1944, Adler left behind a black leather attaché crammed with documents and literary writings. Returning after the war to retrieve it from Leo Baeck, the honorary head of the council of elders, he walked out of Theresienstadt with the basis for the next 40 years of his work as a scholar, poet, fiction writer, sociologist, religious thinker, and historian in his hands.

But not immediate salvation. Back in Auschwitz, Gertrud had chosen to accompany her mother to the gas chamber, casting a last mercurial smile toward Adler as he was marched off to the quarantine camp as an able-bodied worker. After two weeks he was sent on to a small labor camp in Niederorschel, where he helped fabricate airplane wings, and then on to a horrific underground airplane factory in Langenstein, where he was liberated by American forces in April 1945. When he returned to Prague in June 1945, he learned that 18 relatives, including his parents, had perished. Only an aunt who had emigrated to America and a cousin who survived in Paris were left to him.


Adler quickly assessed that his future as a stateless Jew and confirmed anti-Communist did not bode well for his remaining in Prague. Contacting Franz Baermann Steiner, his closest friend from childhood who had escaped the war as an anthropologist at Oxford, as well as Elias Canetti, whom he had befriended in prewar Prague, Adler knew he had to find a way out. But it was not his esteemed friends who made it happen, but rather a high school acquaintance, the sculptress Bettina Gross, who had fled Czechoslovakia for South Wales in 1938. Their first letters to one another crossed in the mail, and after just six weeks of feverish correspondence in which Adler poured out his shattered state while she mourned the loss of her mother (Adler had known Berta Gross in Theresienstadt and she traveled on the same transport as him to her death in Auschwitz), she agreed to marry him. Arriving in London on a cold, snowy night in February 1947, he was met by Canetti, Steiner, and Bettina, whom he married five days later. Packed in his suitcase, just 20 months after liberation, was the first draft of Theresienstadt 1941-1945.

It would take him seven years to find a publisher. Eventually, Hans-Georg Siebeck accepted it for publication at J.C. B. Mohr-Paul Siebeck (the publisher of Max Weber) before he even finished reading the manuscript, and Theodor W. Adorno was instrumental in helping raise a subvention of 8,500 deutschmarks from the home office in Bonn to cover printing costs of the nearly 1,000-page monograph. Following its publication in November 1955, glowing reviews poured in from Europe, America, and Israel, along with letters from Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem, and German President Theodor Heuss, all of whom arranged to meet Adler in person. To say that Adler was a made man would be an exaggeration, but the book’s success, along with that of a 1958 companion volume of Theresienstadt documents called The Hidden Truth, soon brought him numerous lecture invitations (including from Adorno at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt), well-paying work writing essays and reviews he recorded for German radio, and a contract from the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich to write what became his other magnum opus, Der verwaltete Mensch (Administered Man), published in 1974.

So why, given such success, has the book’s journey to the shores of English taken 62 years? Again, the answer is complex. From the start Adler was quite keen that it come out in English, for already by 1948, he had sent the manuscript to Hermann Broch, who in trying to find an American publisher for it, sent it on to Hannah Arendt and the editors at Commentary. However, nothing came of such efforts and Adler was left to fend for himself. Arendt would later quote Adler’s text, as well as rely heavily, if not misguidedly, on its central observations in characterizing the culpability of the Jewish leadership of Theresienstadt in Eichmann in Jerusalem, and even Eichmann himself is said to have read the book while awaiting trial in Jerusalem in order to brush up on what he had done. Given such good reviews, respect, prominent support, and even notoriety, what could have been the problem?


There was and remains no book quite like Theresienstadt 1941-1945, and it is easy to see why British and American publishers struggled to know what to do with it. Part history, part sociological study, and part psychological analysis (the book’s three sections are organized under these disciplines), it is encyclopedic in scope yet riveting in its underlying narrative; relentlessly objective and quantitative in its research, yet searing in its moral indictment of the Nazi and Jewish leadership alike; and in the end it argues both the dangers of the modern bureaucratic state and simultaneously rises to the level of what Hermann Levin Goldschmidt called a prophetic “indictment” of what Adler referred to as “the latest unfathomable calamity to befall the Jewish people.” As Jeremy Adler, the author’s son, suggests in an authoritative afterword on the book’s history, significance, and meaning, “It is the facts that permit a truthful presentation of the entire story, and it is the coherence of their presentation that renders the empirical facts conclusive.”

Further complicating the book’s narrative scope is the fact that, despite his 32 months of confinement in the ghetto, nowhere does Adler front his own personal experience. True, four small paragraphs in the preface to the extensively annotated “sources” at the back of the book outline his camp experience, but they read far more like a footnote than a memoir. Instead, the ethos that drives the narration is that of the “participant observer,” an approach Adler borrowed from the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski by which Adler told himself in Theresienstadt, and as he outlined in an essay written years later, “You need to view life in this society as impartially and soberly as a scholar who wants to investigate a little-known tribe, and in the process you dare not cut yourself off from anything in the prevailing order.” Hence, when it comes to the events described, Adler is nowhere and everywhere at once.

Take for instance the arrival of 1,260 children shipped from the Bialystok Ghetto to Theresienstadt on Aug. 24, 1943. Adler’s description succinctly and sympathetically sets down their condition: “They were shy and seemed mute; many were barefoot; and all wore pitiful rags and were half-starved. In their hands, they clutched small packets or prayer books, if they had any ‘luggage’ at all.” He then quotes a Czech account published in 1948 that describes their fear of being gassed when they were taken for de-lousing. The reason why was because the children had learned of what could happen in the “showers” of the East, which in turn provided one of the first accounts of the gas chambers that awaited those deported from Theresienstadt. However, people in the ghetto either did not believe these accounts or did not hear of them. Adler, however, quotes Leo Baeck as saying after the war that he knew personally what was going on in Auschwitz as early as 1941, but he told no one in Theresienstadt, something for which Arendt unfairly took him to task years later. Nevertheless, as a seeming eyewitness to the arrival of the Bialystok children who then reflects on the psychological consequences of the general population’s ignorance of the gas chambers, Adler serves as observer, witness, scholar, and historian all at once, his facility with Czech, German, and English allowing him to move through publications and documents with ease.

Where he breaks the “fourth wall” of his supposed detachment is in the outrage he pours upon the absurdity of life and governance going on as normal, despite the deportation of all of the children to Auschwitz that October, along with their 53 caretakers, one of whom was Franz Kafka’s favorite sister, Ottilie. Adler cites a daily order of the council of elders issued just a week before their departure, which proclaimed blithely, “On the occasion of the New Year, the council of elders thanks everyone for the work accomplished in the past year and expects that in the future everyone will remain aware of their responsibility for the community.” Then, after citing in the very next paragraph the daily order for Nov. 24, the second anniversary of the ghetto’s founding, which blandly congratulates the community for its sense of civic responsibility, Adler erupts by saying, “The appeal continues in this vein … after the deportation of nearly 56,000 people! The words sound like empty noise. … [The] words did not mean anything real; they did not express an actual reality. … Husks, and shells of a former reality led a shadowy existence … they wandered like ghosts in this real world of brittle stammering.”

The Bialystok episode thus traces the arc of Adler’s method, one in which, as Jeremy Adler sums up, “the prisoner became an observer, the observer a theorist, the theorist a witness, and the witness an admonisher.” Much of the challenge and reward of Adler’s book lies in seeing the various limbs of the monstrous origami of Theresienstadt unfold throughout its narrative, within its sources, and beneath its surface in this way. Ultimately, as Adler himself hoped, one is “able to empathize a bit with this improbable world” and “can grasp the events to come and understand the extent to which this ‘ghetto’ was more uncanny than any of the other camps.” For Adler, what distinguished Theresienstadt from Auschwitz was, “The truth only occasionally arose out of the darkness, touched the people, and then, after a moment of terror, allowed them to fall back into their masked existence.” Theresienstadt 1941-1945 simulates this eruptive experience, page by page, the difference being that its insights, raw data, and sources eventually weave together a cohesive overview that is all-encompassing, yet of a consistent mien that is ably captured in Belinda Cooper’s translation.


There have been those who have found Adler’s condemnation of the Jewish administration to be unfair or have misinterpreted his criticism of certain individuals as aimed at whole groups, be it Zionists or Communists. Benjamin Murmelstein, the last head of the council of elders, even went so far as to sue the publisher for 5,000 marks, demanding that Adler remove a sentence from the first edition that he felt implied he had organized the last transport to Auschwitz himself. Adler did so for the second edition, and the case was resolved without penalty, but the text still maintains coolly that, when it came to the suffering of his fellow prisoners, “Murmelstein seemed well-armed against compassion.” However, the aim of such pointed observations carries with it no animus, for Adler insists, “The issues, which I raise in all seriousness, are not meant to incriminate or exonerate anyone; they are only intended to deepen our insight into the tragedy that befell those who were in charge—a tragedy for which they remain blameless—and our understanding of their failures, for which they may be blamed.”

The distinction made here is the fine line between empathy and forgiveness. While Adler makes clear he feels beholden to document and condemn “acts that exceeded the orders [the elders] were forced to carry out,” he nevertheless empathizes with the tragedy of their having been swallowed up by a nemesis far stronger than their human failings.

Nor did Adler see this tragedy as unique to the Jews. Rather, as he outlines in the final section on “Psychology,” it was the historical propensity toward what he dubbed “mechanical materialism … a way of thinking that is devoid of ideas, colorless and coarsely sensual, and that exists in poor, rigidly rational forms that are unable to see or accept the potential of life,” which he maintained festers at the core of modernity.

National Socialism was, in Adler’s view, a manifestation of mechanical materialism, rather than its prime source. This means it can and does reoccur whenever “Power [plays] the role of fate,” and by which “powerlessness [is] humanity, degraded to a commodity, which [is] sorted, numbered, and, through the magic of statistics, turned into the object of a perverse mysticism.” Cue then the modern state and any kind of soulless bureaucracy. Consider the tentacles of the internet and social media infiltrating our common day. Reflect upon the next column of destitute refugees marching across our screens. There you will find the “mechanical materialism” Adler saw as the root of what still lurks at our doorsteps, namely a world in which “humanity will be destroyed by massification if it is accepted without protest, and every ideology forms a mechanical substitute for the animated intellectual life of an educated human being.”

Writing to a childhood friend in October 1947, Adler described his book as “a Kafka novel with the terms reversed, transcribed according to reality,” by which he meant that, rather than conjuring a nightmare world that reflected modern ills, all he had to do was set down its quotidian reality in order to speak its horror. Accomplishing this amounted to no less than “an act of liberation” for the author, as he would claim in a 1986 interview two years before his death. The book holds the same potential for the careful reader, for its aim is neither to frighten nor shock, but rather educate and warn. “Mechanical materialism, with its ideological antics, continues to proliferate,” concludes Adler. “Theresienstadt is still possible.”

Peter Filkins is the translator of H.G. Adler’s novels Panorama, The Journey, and The Wall. His biography of Adler will appear from Oxford University Press in 2018. He teaches writing, literature, and translation at Bard College and Bard College at Simon’s Rock, where he holds the Richard B. Fisher Chair in Literature.