I am glad to be joining the Poetry Friday community this week hosted by Mary Lee Hahn from A Year of Reading. As per usual, my Poetry Friday offering is connected to our current reading theme til first week of September.
I learned about this book as I was preparing my text-set for my higher-degree course on multicultural children’s literature, and I requested our institution’s library to purchase it.
I was immediately taken by this powerful book that featured drawings and poems of children from the Terezin Concentration Camp from 1942-1944. I learned about the Terezin Ghetto from Paul Janeczko’s novel-in-verse Requiem which I featured here.
Chaim Potok describes the inhabitants of Terezin in this fashion, as there are a group of Jews that gave the Führer a difficult time in terms of where they should be placed exactly:
What, some Nazis asked themselves, were they to do with old and sick German Jews? And the many decorated Jewish veterans of the First World War; the wounded, the amputees, the bemedaled – were they all to be rounded up and herded off like cattle? Was that a proper way for the vaunted German Army to treat its soldiers, men who had proudly worn the uniform of Germany and fought valiantly for the Fatherland?
What of the intellectuals, the writers and composers and conductors known throughout the world, the thousands involved in film and the theater? What of spiritual leaders like Rabbi Leo Baeck?
And what of the propaganda war? How stave off possible international embarrassment if Germany’s treatment of the Jews would ever become too widely known? How bring about the Final Solution and at the same time effectively conceal it from the world?
Theresienstadt was apparently conceived by Heinrich Himmler. Make Terezin a “model ghetto,” exhibit it as “a town inhabited by Jews and governed by them and in which every manner of work is to be done” – Himmler’s words – and solve all the awkward problems attending the Final Solution.
Terezin is a ghetto built on lies: a fabricated world used by the Nazis for propaganda purposes. Despite this, the inhabitants, mostly academics and artists made certain that the place is livable, especially for the children. Well-known artists taught the children art classes, such as Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, described as a small woman with large expressive eyes. Potok described her lessons with the children, bordering on art therapy, in this fashion:
She would tell stories, and the children would be required to draw the objects she had mentioned twice. They drew flowers, butterflies, animals, cities, storms, rainbows, streets, railway stations, family portraits, holidays, merry-go-rounds. They drew their concealed inner worlds, their tortured emotions, which Friedl Dicker-Brandeis was then able to enter and try to heal. She helped restore a balance to the trembling consciousness of terrified children.
A total of 5,000 drawings, collages, poetry were collected from the children. For just a few hours every week, the children had the opportunity to think about something else other than where they were, as they immersed themselves in colors and words – what a small window away from pain.
Most of the poems provide detailed descriptions of Terezin, the many questions the children have about the presence of the soldiers and why their lives have been turned over on its head. Here is a fragment from the poem The Closed Town:
There are also letters to loved ones written in verse, as could be seen in A Letter to Daddy:
… and their longing for a life now disappeared. There is a detailed catalog of drawings and poetry found at the end of the book which provides what little information there is about the artists and the poets, as well as the medium used in the art works. In Vaclav Havel’s Afterword, he wrote about what these poems and drawings mean to him:
I still read the poems of children from Terezin. They are full of longing for a world different from the miserable life they led, a longing for games and freedom, for gentleness and beauty. Death, which was so close, appears only between the lines. I also look at their drawings. There is only a shadow of grief and anxiety in them, there is much more about dreams of spring, of flowers, butterflies, birds, and also a great longing to be happy and carefree. The souls of these children used poems and drawings as a defense, sometimes by giving vent to anxiety and at other times by depicting a dream.
I took photos of some of the poetry that spoke to me so that I can share them with you here:
From the poem: Night in the Ghetto
In this Untitled Poem, there is the defiant wish for someone, anyone, to come save them from their living nightmare. I took a photo of the page and edited it using an iPhone app.
From Birdsong: An Invitation to Feel Alive – page photo is edited using an iPhone app.
The one below is my favourite: from “The Butterfly” by Pavel Friedmann, 1942 – page photo is edited using an iPhone app.
And as Jiri Weil says in his Epilogue:
From these 15,000 children, who for a time played and drew pictures and studied, only 100 came back.
… i never saw another butterfly… Children’s Drawings and Poems from Terezin Concentration Camp, 1942-1944, edited by Hana Volavkova. Expanded Second edition with a Foreword by Chaim Potok. Published by Schocken Books, 1993. Book borrowed from the NIE Library. Book photos taken by me.