I've been trying to stay off the computer for a few days to get some work done, but this book is due back at the library today, and I just had to say a little something about it. It's a beautiful book. It's a powerful book. It's a book that will rip the heart right from your chest.
The subtitle of the book describes the contents of this book. But there is also a foreword that tells of the history of Terezin, a walled fortress town built in the late 1700s in the hills outside of Prague. It eventually became a civilian town and housed about 8,000 people. In October of 1941, the Nazis took over Terezin and renamed it Theresienstadt. The ghetto of Terezin become a stop along the way toward their death for many Jews. For many it was the place of their death. There is no way to put a pretty face on the conditions of Terezin, and yet that is exactly what the Nazis tried to do. They used Terezin as a model to show off to the world. In 1944, they went on a rapid "beautification" campaign and tried to put a pretty face on the ghetto for a Red Cross inspection visit. They also shot a propaganda film at this time.
But the truth was entirely different. People died of starvation and disease on a continuous basis. They were beaten and deprived of the basic necessities. But the Jews who had been sent there fought back in their own secretive ways, including by secretly teaching art to the children. The drawings and poems featured in this book are but a few of the pieces that have been saved and housed in the State Jewish Museum in Prague.
The art is incredibly moving. There are pencil drawings and paintings and collages. The materials used were whatever they could find, including a great deal of office forms. A few of the poems contain an innocence that is every bit as heart-breaking as the poems full of pain. Chaim Potok writes in the foreword:
And the children--did they know that death lay waiting for them, too? It is probable that many of them did, in the way that children get to know things, by tunneling beneath adult deceits and repressions and coming upon truths they sense with animal keenness, truths that fuel their darkest terrors.
The book contains a catalog of the poems and a catalog of the artwork. Whatever biographical information that could be found on these children artists is included. Often just their date of birth, the date they were transported to Terezin, and the date they were transported from Terezin to Auschwitz. Far too many of these miniature biographies end with a variation of "She was sent to Auschwitz on May 18, 1944, where she perished." In fact, of the 15,000 children sent to Terezin, fewer than 100 survived the war.