~ By the children
The last, the very last,
So richly, brightly, dazzingly 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 Friedman, 4.6.1942
I believe this is the only sad post on our blog, and it is by far the longest, but bear with me, please – the story of the children of Terezin, like the story told by Anne Frank in her diary, should be shared over and over again so that we don’t forget.
In 1995, I was fortunate enough to have a chance to work as an editor in the beautiful city of Prague in what is now the Czech Republic. I had many adventures and new experiences there; this was my first time living in a place where I didn’t speak the language, and I had so much to learn on many levels.
The most memorable of my learning experiences was a history trip I took over the course of my 20 months living in Prague. In the end – a surprise ending – this trip took me to four cities in three countries, and it ended with a book placed in my hands in my hometown in North Carolina.
Prague, Czech Republic
As I was getting acquainted with Prague in the winter of 1995, I visited the Jewish quarter and its otherworldly cemetery, where a crowd of teetering gravestones lean into each other, as if each is trying to nudge the others aside and claim a larger stake of the crowded space. Then I climbed narrow stairs to the second floor of the Pinkas Synagogue and found myself in rooms full of children’s drawings very like the ones my daughter would begin creating years later. There were poems and prose as well, but these words were far more sad than any words my girl would write.
These words and pictures, I learned, were created by the children who were rounded up with their families during World War II and imprisoned at Terezin, a concentration camp near Prague. Called Theresienstadt by the Nazis, it served as a labor camp and way station for approximately 140,000 Jewish men, women and children, many of whom who were eventually transported to Auschwitz and other concentration camps.
Many others died at Terezin – from beatings, mistreatment, starvation or the diseases that spread quickly in the inhumane living conditions. (For a short history of Terezin that is far better than any I could provide, visit the Theresienstadt page on the Web site of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.)
The Pinkas Synagogue exhibition told the story of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, an artist sent to Terezin (along with her husband) who saw to it that hundreds of children at Terezin could escape the misery of life at the camp through clandestine art lessons.
Terezin, Czech Republic
The children and their art stayed with me, and I later made a day trip to Terezin by train with a friend so I could see for myself where the haunting artwork had been created.
After walking around the grounds and trying to imagine what it had been like, we went through the exhibits, which included videos of survivors talking about their time in the camp. One was especially poignant and chilling.
The story the Nazis had spun for the world from the beginning was that they were building a special city at Terezin for certain “protected” classes of Jews. Under pressure from the International Red Cross, the Nazis agreed to allow its representatives to visit Terezin. The prisoners were pressed into service to pull off a masterful public relations coup for their captors.
First, they were put to work on a beautification effort ahead of the visit; then, when the Red Cross representatives arrived, the men, women and children put on an elaborate show designed to convince the visitors of their pleasant lives at Terezin. The ruse worked, and the Red Cross went away satisfied. The Nazis also created a related propaganda film that included footage of the visit, but they never released it.
A Terezin survivor featured in the museum exhibits recalled a detail about that day that I will never forget: ice cream was brought in for the day as part of the charade, but when the visitors left, it was whisked away. Even the ice cream was a prop, never intended for the enjoyment of the children of Terezin.
(You can read more about the Red Cross visit on the Web site of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.)
Auschwitz and Birkenau, Krakow, Poland
Months later, I traveled to Krakow on an overnight train with another friend who also felt led to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau. We saw the infamous iron gate leading to the red brick buildings of Auschwitz, the sad collection of shoes and belongings and the harrowing faces of prisoner after prisoner staring out from photographs lining the corridors.
Later, we crossed to the desolate, overgrown fields of Birkenau and stood on the spot where the transports had rolled in, their passengers having no idea that in a few moments they would be shuffled down the tracks to the gas chambers or chosen to join the laborers. Standing in that spot was overwhelming in a way I will never be able to describe. This was where a miserable journey ended for many of the children of Terezin, as well as their art teacher. When her husband was selected for transport to Auschwitz in the fall of 1944, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis volunteered to go as well; she died in the gas chambers at Birkenau several days later.
According to the web site of the Jewish museum of Prague, “before being deported to Auschwitz, Friedl Dicker filled two suitcases with about 4,500 children’s drawings and put them in a secret place; immediately after the war, they were recovered and handed over to the Jewish Museum in Prague. These drawings are a poignant reminder of the tragic fate of Bohemian and Moravian Jews during the Second World War. Only a few of the Terezín children survived; the vast majority were deported to Auschwitz where they were exterminated. In many cases, these pictures are all that is left to commemorate their lives. Without them their names would be remain forgotten.”
Fayetteville, North Carolina
I thought that the trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau had taken me to the end of the story, but in a twist that still amazes me, the ending came in the place where I spent my childhood.
I moved back to the United States in 1996, and not long after, I heard from a family friend in Fayetteville, my hometown in North Carolina. She and a friend organized estate sales, and she told me she had come across something in her work that I might be interested in; I was taken aback when I saw what she had set aside for me. Both the simple art on the cover of the worn picture book and the word “Terezin” jumped out at me.
What are the chances that a book collecting the words and pictures of Terezin’s children would make its way into my hands in my hometown, so far away from the Czech Republic?
I believe that my copy of I Never Saw Another Butterfly may be the original version published in 1959 in Czechoslovakia; in researching online, I’ve found that an expanded second edition was created in 1993 by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and published by Schocken Books; it features a foreword by Chaim Potok and an afterword by former Czech President and acclaimed writer and activist Vaclav Havel. It appears to be available online from Random House.
I realize that this is not a picture book you will want to run out and buy for your very young children, but I do hope you will share the story of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and the brave children of Terezin with them when they are older.