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  1. Unit 5 Personal Action

Unit 5 Personal Action

Chapter 4 The Poetry of Terezin

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Ask yourself:

  • What Holocaust images/ texts/ ideas / events have had the biggest impact on you and why?
  • Can you write a reflection (or “artist statement”) from your perspective, explaining why you created your response piece and referencing the meaning that the original material holds for you?
  • What is your relationship to the Holocaust and genocide from your particular perspective (given your own history / identity)?

This chapter offers strategies for responding to the difficult knowledge of the Holocaust, specifically, and to genocide, broadly. It focuses on engaging your own reflections about the material you are reading and researching, by providing accessible artistic forms to help frame your responses. Highlighting Terezin (Teresienstadt), the chapter uses a foundation of poetry and images to pose questions and to help make the study of history vivid. Each of the activities has been designed to include a reflective practice component to encourage your deeply thoughtful and personal responses to the Holocaust and/or to considering social justice in your own communities.

During the Holocaust, people wrote poetry for different reasons: to produce art as a form of resistance, to assert their humanity; to commemorate the victims, to serve as a form of remembrance, or to constitute a unique form of testimony. Holocaust poetry after Auschwitz—written by survivors or children and grandchildren of survivors, for example—presents powerful images, which can impact our minds and hearts. Contemporary Holocaust Education suggests that through reading poetry about the Holocaust, readers can become more reflective about what they have studied, how they treat people, and how they react to civil and human rights in their own communities and beyond (Totten).

This really happened!

Many of the suggestions included here focus on Terezin, a ghetto-labour camp, as well as a concentration and transit camp in Czechoslovakia (also known by its German name, Theresienstadt). It existed for three and a half years, between November 24, 1941 and May 9, 1945. Of approximately 140,000 Jews transferred to Theresienstadt, nearly 90,000 were deported to points further east (e.g., Auschwitz) and almost certain death. Roughly 33,000 died in Theresienstadt itself. However, despite horrible living conditions and the constant threat of deportation, Theresienstadt also had a highly developed cultural life. Outstanding Jewish artists, mainly from Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Germany, created drawings and paintings, some of them secretly documenting the ghetto's harsh reality. Writers, professors, musicians, and actors gave lectures, concerts, and theatre performances. Of the 15,000 children who were transported to Terezin, only 240 survived (Volavkova, xix). Like Hana Brady, of Hana’s Suitcase (who was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944), as an example, most of the children fourteen years of age or younger who were deported to the extermination camps were killed.

What is also important to know, however, is that although they were forbidden to attend school, the children did so in secret, thanks to their extraordinary teachers, like Freidl Dicker Brandeis and Valtr Eisinger. The children painted, wrote poetry, and created a weekly magazine called Vedem (In the Lead) (USHMM). With the help of their teachers, the children used drawing and writing to help them cope with life under terrible conditions (see I Never Saw Another Butterfly and Vedem).

It is to these Terezin children’s poems and drawings that this unit directs you. The Works Cited list contains numerous resources to help begin a historical examination of Terezin. The goal is to provide a strong foundation on which to build a rich and deeply thoughtful unit on poetry and the Holocaust. Responding through the arts can offer another means of defining your own relationship to the Holocaust, and an opportunity to raise questions about your role as the next generation to bear the responsibility for remembrance (Hughes).

An old black and white photo of Jewish children playing together in a Czechoslovakian ghetto. enlarge image
June 23, 1944 - A group of children in Theresienstadt

Copyright © 2014 Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority

Pictured here are a group of children in the Theresienstadt ghetto. The photo was taken during a Red Cross visit on June 23, 1944. Theresienstadt was a “special” ghetto that the Germans established in Terezin, Czechoslovakia in November 1941. The ghetto was actually a way-station for Jews en route to the death camps. Theresienstadt had the outward appearance of a town. The ghetto population included many artists, composers, musicians, authors, and scientists. Between 1942-1944, approximately 13,000 children were sent to Theresienstadt. The majority was deported to death camps and only a few hundred survived.

Source: Yad Vashem Photo Archives 7 FO2

A child’s drawing of Jews arriving at the Terezin concentration camp enlarge image
13 years old. Drawing titled “Terezín arrival”.

Credit: Yad Vashem

Source: “And God Saw that it was Bad” by Helga Weissova

Helga Weissova entered Terezin when she was only 12 years old. She brought a box of painting and notebook with her and drew more than a hundred paintings as instructed by her father to: “Paint whatever you see.” Here ended Helga’s childhood with the responsibility of painting everything she saw and experienced. She was one of the few survivors.

A child’s drawing of two sad children at the exit of the Terezin concentration camp enlarge image
13 years old. The last drawing of her series, made at Terezins’ exit. The children’s faces tell it all.

Credit: Helga Weissova

Poems from … “I never saw another butterfly”
 

The Garden

A little garden,
Fragrant and full of roses.
The path is narrow
And a little boy walks along it.
 
A little boy, a sweet boy,
Like that growing blossom.
When the blossom comes to bloom,
The little boy will be no more.

Franta Bass
P. 70
Franta Bass was born on 4 September, 1930. He was deported to Terezin on 2 December, 1941, and died in Auschwitz on 28 October, 1944

Cover page of a book of children’s drawings and poems from the Terezin concentration camp enlarge image

Credit: "The Butterfly," "Terezin," "On A Sunny Evening," "The Garden," "Fear," "Homesick," and "At Terezin" from I never saw another butterfly: Children’s drawings and poems from Terezin Concentration Camp,1942-44 by Hana Volavkova, copyright © 1978, 1993 by Artia, Prague. Compilation © 1993 by Schocken Books. Used by permission of Schocken Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC.

At Terezin

When a new child comes
Everything seems strange to him.
What, on the ground I have to lie?
Eat black potatoes? No! Not I!
I've got to stay? It's dirty here!
The floor—why, look, it's dirt, I fear!
And I'm supposed to sleep on it?
I'll get all dirty!
 
Here the sound of shouting, cries,
And oh, so many flies.
Everyone knows flies carry disease.
Oooh, something bit me! Wasn't that a bedbug?
Here in Terezin, life is hell
And when I'll go home again, I can't yet tell.

P. 3 "Teddy" L410, 1943

On A Sunny Evening

On a purple, sun-shot evening
Under wide-flowering chestnut trees
Upon the threshold full of dust
Yesterday, today, the days are all like these.

Trees flower forth in beauty,
Lovely, too, their very wood all gnarled and old
That I am half afraid to peer
Into their crowns of green and gold.

The sun has made a veil of gold
So lovely that my body aches.
Above, the heavens shriek with blue
Convinced I've smiled by some mistake.
The world's abloom and seems to smile,
I want to fly but where, how high?
If in barbed wire, things can bloom
Why couldn't l? I will not die!

1944 Anonymous, p. 77
Written by the children in Barracks L 318 and L 417; ages 10-16 years

Terezin

That bit of filth in dirty walls,
And all around barbed wire,
And 30,000 souls who sleep
Who once will wake
And once will see
Their own blood spilled.
 
I was once a little child,
Three years ago.
That child who longed for other worlds.
But now I am no more a child
For I have learned to hate.
I am a grown-up person now,
I have known fear.
 
Bloody words and a dead day then,
That's something different than bogeymen!
 
But anyway, I still believe I only sleep today,
That I'll wake up, a child again, and start to laugh and play.
I'll go back to childhood sweet like a briar rose,
Like a bell which wakes us from a dream,
Like a mother with an ailing child
Loves him with aching woman’s love.
How tragic, then, is youth which lives
With enemies, with gallows ropes,
How tragic, then, for children on your lap
To say: this for the good, that for the bad,
 
Somewhere, far away out there, childhood sweetly sleeps,
Along that path among the trees,
There o'er that house
That was once my pride and joy.
There my mother gave me birth into this world
So I could weep. . .
 
In the flame of candles by my bed, I sleep
And once perhaps I'll understand
That I was such a little thing
As little as this song.
 
These 30,000 souls who sleep
Among the trees will wake,
Open an eye
And because they see
A lot
They'll fall asleep again. . .

IX 1944
Hanus Hachenburg was born in Prague on 12 July 1929, and was deported to Terezin on
24 October 1942. He died on 18 December 18, 1943, in Auschwitz.

The Butterfly

The last, the very last,
So richly, brightly, dazzlingly yellow.
Perhaps if the sun's tears would sing
against a white stone...
Such, such a yellow
Is carried lightly ‘way up high.
It went away I'm sure because it wished to
kiss the world goodbye.
For seven weeks I've lived in here,
Penned up inside this ghetto
But I have found my people here.
The dandelions call to me
And the white chestnut candles in the court.
Only I never saw another butterfly.
That butterfly was the last one.
Butterflies don't
live in here,
In the ghetto.
Pavel Friedmann 4.6.1942

The poem is preserved in typewritten copy on thin paper in the collection of poetry by Pavel Friedmann, which was donated to the National Jewish Museum during its documentation campaign. It is dated June 4, 1942 in the left corner. Pavel Friedmann was born January 7, 1921, in Prague and deported to Terezín* on April 26, 1942. He died in Oswiecim* (Auschwitz) on September 29, 1944.

Fear

Today the ghetto knows a different fear,
Close in its grip, Death wields an icy scythe.
An evil sickness spreads a terror in its wake,
The victims of its shadow weep and writhe.
Today a father's heartbeat tells his fright
And mothers bend their heads into their hands.
Now children choke and die with typhus here,
A bitter tax is taken from their bands.
My heart still beats inside my breast
While friends depart for other worlds.
Perhaps it's better – who can say? –
Than watching this, to die today?
No, no, my God, we want to live!
Not watch our numbers melt away.
We want to have a better world,
We want to work – we must not die!

The poem is preserved in a copy turned over to the State Jewish Museum in Prague by Dr. R. Feder in 1955. It is signed at the bottom, "12 year old Eva Picková from Nymburk". Eva Picková was born in Nymburk on May 15, 1929, deported to Terezín on April 16, 1942, and perished in Oswiecim (Auschwitz) on December 18, 1943.

Entrance to Terezin concentration camp enlarge image
Entrance to the small fortress of Terezin Camp. The gate bears the motto “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work makes one free.)

Credit: Jewish Virtual Library

 

Responding to Poems from the Holocaust

Action 1 Responding to Poems from the Holocaust

Do>

A Letter to the Poet

Select a poem about the Holocaust and write a letter to the poet. In your letter, you may write anything you wish about the poem. You may tell the poet what you like or dislike about the poem, or what you don’t understand about it. You might want to ask probing questions about the poem or offer your own interpretation and insights. The point is, you may approach it in any way you wish. It is your perspective, your point of view and your response that is important. Take 15-20 minutes to write your response to the poet

In small groups, assign one member of the group to serve as the recorder. This person will document the most important points made during the small group discussion. Have each person read his/her letter while the rest of the group listens. Once everyone has read their piece, each person should read their letter again, followed by discussion. Members of the group should ask questions and make comments about each of the letters. Do reflect on similarities and differences between the letters. Be sure to keep returning to the poem in order to substantiate and clarify your ideas. (Totten, 168-177)

Action 2

Do>

The Poets

By doing an online search, read biographical or critical work about poets who have written about the Holocaust (see sources in the works cited list, for example). In small groups create posters or website pages or murals about the poets. Select specific quotes by the poets to include in your artwork. Explain why you have selected these quotes in an “Artist Statement” and include your sources.

Action 3

Do>

Responding Through Poetry
  • Find a work of art or a poem that represents an important moment or experience in your learning about the Holocaust. Write a letter to a character in the poem or to a figure in the artwork.
    • If you could speak to the figure in the poem, what would you say?
    • If you could speak to anyone in the artwork, what would you say?
    • If you could imagine any of the subjects speaking, what do you think they would say?
  • Now, write a poem reflecting on your experience of the poem or drawing. Comment on the most important new ideas / concepts/ insights or what you may never forget after reading the poem or viewing the art. Do consider writing about what the poem reveals to you about the nature of violence, genocide, or human behavior, or you may simply wish to write a list of the questions that the poem raises for you. Notice how your list of questions becomes a poem, too.

Action 4

Do>

Postcards

Postcards were sent from the concentration camp Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia, but there were many very strict regulations:

Every prisoner of preventive detention is allowed to receive and send one letter or card per month. Envelopes must not be lined. Only one stamp can be added. The letters can have no more than 2 pages with 15 lines each, must be written with ink and clearly readable. Letters to prisoners who are not here anymore will not be forwarded. Letters which do not meet the instructions will neither be sent nor handed over.

Source: The Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, University of Minnesota

Create a postcard sharing an image and poem that made an impact on you, explaining how it made an impact. The postcard can have no more than 15 lines. Send the postcard to someone else with whom you would like to share your reflections about the Holocaust.

Action 5

Do>

Classroom Community

As a way of responding to the Holocaust as a classroom community, select an image or phrase from the poetry that touched you and helped you to begin to see the Holocaust in a new and unique way. Record these images on large sheets of paper around the classroom.

Action 6

Do>

Tableaux

In groups of three, create a series of three tableaux (frozen images) to depict the words, phrases or images that most moved you. Each person in the group will contribute one word, phrase or image and all three people will create the tableau of each word. Share with your group the source of your words and the history or narrative that accompanies the reason for your selection. You will need to create the transitions between the three tableaux, as well as titles for all three tableaux that your group creates.

Action 7

Do>

Poems and Images

You are asked to pair a photograph or painting with an appropriate poem. For example, you could pair renowned Yiddish poet, Abraham Sutzkever’s “A Cartload of Shoes” poem with a photograph of the piles of shoes left behind by the victims of the Nazis (USHMM).

Action 8

Do>

Found Poetry
  • Gather lines from all the Holocaust pieces that affected you and your classmates the most, in order to create a found poem. Select words, lines or phrases from the Holocaust material you have been studying (e.g., poetry, novels, historical or background information about the Holocaust or genocide) and transform the text into a poem. Draw on words, phrases or full quotations that are particularly meaningful or directed you toward new insights.
  • Prepare a list of 15-20 different words or phrases from your source materials so that you have lots of ideas from which to choose when composing your poems. You can trade lists and describe the themes or main ideas you see in your partner’s list.
  • You should decide on the order of the lines to create their new poem. Write all of the words and phrases on individual slips of paper, so that the words or phrases can be moved around easily until you and your classmates can solve your found poem. In small groups, you can negotiate how to rearrange the words, repeat, eliminate or add words that will help the research text transform into a poem. You can also consider the following as you create your found poems:
    • Will you use key words to start or end the lines?
    • Which phrases will have greater impact by standing on lines alone?
    • Which phrases will benefit by being stretched over two or more lines?
    Remember, you cannot add your own words when creating a found poem, but you can repeat words or phrases as often as you like. When composing your found poems, you do not need to use all of the words or phrases you previously selected. Be sure to save all your rough drafts to show the development of your ideas and to help you explain your decisions.
  • You can perform your poems as choral readings. Alternatively you can read the poems silently. Pass your poems to the left once. Each student will read the poem, write a comment (students should sign their name to their comment), and then pass the poem again to the left for another comment. Depending on how much time you have, you might allow for three or four passes, or you might have time for students to comment on all of the poems created by your classmates. When you have completed your commenting consider:
    • What strikes you about these poems?
    • What do they have in common?
    • How are they different?
    • What surprised you when reading them?
  • Group Found Poem: You collaboratively create a group found poem by having each person select one line for the collective full-class found poem. Alternately, you could have the whole class determine the words and phrases that will be used but allow each student to create his/her own arrangement of this collectively created text.
  • Write an “Artist Statement” explaining your poem and its message. How do the found texts in your poem support your message? Why is this message important to you? You can publish their poems, in printed format or on the web, as a way of sharing them with a wider audience, or by organizing a poetry reading for other classes in the school; parents can be invited to attend. Make sure to conduct a question and answer session after the reading so that your classmates have an opportunity to talk about their ideas.

Action 9

Do>

Choral Reading

In groups of five, use choral reading strategies to perform one of the Holocaust poems. Consider the following notes: What lines will be said solo? In pairs? As a group? What words, phrases or sentences can be repeated? How will you begin and end the poem? What gestures or actions can you choose to accompany your line(s) in the poem? Experiment with volume, tempo, pitch, and emotion. Try it with everyone speaking together. How can you build in voices, or gradually remove voices to communicate your intended meaning to the audience? Can you use volume in an interesting way?

Further reading

Rubin, Susan Goldman Fireflies in the Dark: the story of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and the Children of Terezin, 2000

When she was sent to a concentration camp, Art teacher Friedl Dicker-Brandeis packed art supplies rather than personal items. Art provided sanity and an outlet to the emotions of children living in horrific circumstances.