Introduction to Rescue in Czechoslovakia
The Republic of Czechoslovakia was created by international treaty at the end of World War I. At that time, Czechoslovakia was one of the most democratic and progressive states in Central Europe. Jews were fully integrated into Czech culture and the economy.
At the outbreak of war, 120,000-130,000 Jews lived in Bohemia-Moravia.
On March 13, 1939, Hitler’s armies invaded and occupied the western portion of Czechoslovakia, including the provinces of Bohemia and Moravia. Hitler appointed pro-German Slovak leaders Father Joseph Tiso, a Catholic priest, and Ferdinand Durcansky. Tiso and Durcansky proclaimed Slovak independence, and asked to be administered by the Nazi government.
On March 15, 1939, the German army invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia, with no armed opposition. Bohemia and Moravia were declared German protectorates, part of the greater German Reich. Soon, the Czech army was demobilized.
On June 21, 1939, all Jews were placed under the laws of the Reich Protectorate, which issued antisemitic decrees defining the status of Jews. The expropriation of Jewish property began almost immediately. Within six months, the Gestapo expelled 35,000 Jews.
The Nazis wanted to confiscate Jewish wealth in Czechoslovakia worth an estimated 17 billion Kc. One third of all the industrial and banking capital in Czechoslovakia was under Jewish ownership or control. This included mines, ironworks, coal, banking, timber, glass, and textiles. This wealth was soon “Aryanized” into German hands.
In October 1939, the Nazis deported the first transport of Jews to Poland.
During this period, the Gestapo expelled 35,000 Jews.
On March 5, 1940, an office for Jewish emigration, on the model of the Vienna office, was established by Adolf Eichmann. As in Vienna, Eichmann used the Kulturgemeinde of Prague for issuing orders and proclamations to the Jewish community. The Jewish Council was forced to provide a census of Jews in Czechoslovakia. Eichmann demanded that the 70,000 Czech Jews leave in a year.
Soon, a series of Nuremberg-style German laws was enacted against the Jewish community. These laws confiscated Jewish property and businesses, froze bank accounts, and impoverished and disenfranchised the Jewish community.
Between March 15, 1939, and September 1939, 26,000 Jews emigrated from Bohemia-Moravia. By the outbreak of the war, 90,000 Jews remained.
Getting visas became increasingly more difficult. Many Jews were forced to obtain bogus Latin American passports.
Eichmann continued to pressure the Prague Jewish Council to push Jews out of Czechoslovakia. Eichmann demanded that 70,000 Jews be forced to leave within a year. He threatened Dr. Kafka of the Jewish Council, “If you do not get these Jews out of the country, I will order the arrest of three hundred men per day and I will send them to Dachau and Merkelgrün, where I am sure they will become very enthusiastic about emigration.”
Three Jewish organizations in Czechoslovakia aided refugees in leaving the country. They were the Supreme Council of the Union of Jewish Communities, the Prague Jewish Community, and the Joint Social Commission (made up of 16 Jewish organizations). These organizations were even aided by funds from the British government.
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Hebrew Immigration Aid and Sheltering Society provided funds and helped secure documentation for Czech Jews to leave the country.
Beginning in September 1940, Jews were forced to wear the yellow star.
In early September 1941, German administrator Hans Günther had the Jewish Religious Congregations (JRC) prepare a census and lists of all Jews. The registered 88,105 Jews in Bohemia-Moravia.
On September 18, 1941, Himmler wrote to Heydrich. He stated that this region must become German and that Czechs in this region have, after all, no right to be there.
On September 27, 1941, Heydrich arrived in Prague to begin the preparation for the deportation and murder of Czech Jews.
In the fall of 1941, the Theresienstadt (Terezin) ghetto was established in Prague. Theresienstadt was established as a fake model ghetto to disguise their intentions and, later, as a deportation center to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. In 1942, 55,000 Jews were imprisoned in Theresienstadt. By war’s end, most of them had been deported to their deaths.
By war’s end, only 10,000 Jews survived in the Bohemia-Moravia section of Czechoslovakia.
Thousands of German Jews immigrated to Prague after Hitler’s seizure of power. By 1935, German Jews began settling in. After the Anschluss in March 1938, thousands of Jewish refugees flooded in from Austria and German-occupied Czechoslovakia.
By March 15, 1939, the day the Nazis occupied Prague, there were 56,000 Jews there.
On July 29, 1939, the Central Office for Jewish Emigration in Bohemia and Moravia was established under Eichmann. This office was established on model of the Vienna office, for the purpose of forcing Jews to leave the country. On February 16, the office was tasked with forcing Jews out of the protectorate. In March 1940, it extended its area of jurisdiction to all of Bohemia and Moravia.
On September 1, 1939, Jewish community leaders were arrested and deported to the Buchenwald concentration camp.
As in other Nazi-occupied cities, the Jews were deprived of their property, livelihoods, cultural and religious and other forms of activities. Jews were excluded from the professions, public transportation, and utilities.
A Palestine office, directed by Jacob Edelstein, was established to facilitate Jews emigrating to Palestine. This office helped 19,000 Jews to successfully emigrate to Palestine. It was permitted by the Nazis to operate until 1939.
Prague Jewish community leaders were forced to cooperate with the Nazis and provide them deportation lists and force Jews to report to the assembly centers for deportation to the camps.
From October 6, 1941, to March 16, 1945, 46,067 Jews were deported from Prague to the camps in the East or to Theresienstadt (Terezin).