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A Birthday in Terezin: The Story of Berta Weinshenk

I was recently in contact with the great-grandson of an elderly couple who were sent to Terezin in 1942. I learned that this couple, Jakob and Berta Weinshenk, were from Nuremberg, Germany and they were sent to Terezin on September 10, 1942.  Jakob died about six months after arriving at Terezin, but incredibly Berta managed to survive the war. She celebrated her 75th birthday in the camp and her friends wrote her a special birthday poem on a piece of cardboard, which survived. The poem celebrates Berta’s bravery and expresses the wish that Berta would live a long life surrounded by her children and grandchildren. The full text of the poem can be found here:

A Birthday in Terezin….

The story of Berta’s deliverance from Terezin is an incredible one. In 1945, the Nazis announced that a transport was being arranged to Switzerland and asked for volunteers. Berta did not believe them, but feeling she had nothing left to live for she volunteered. Unlike all the other trains leaving Terezin, this one actually did arrive in Switzerland in February 1945. Berta was later reunited with her daughter Chana, whose family had immigrated to the United States before the war. Her older daughter, Pauline, also survived the war in France, but her son Martin was murdered in Auschwitz. Berta lived with her family in the United States until her death at age 95.

There is another story about Berta that is recounted in an exhibition at Yad Vashem. There is a matzah cover, white and fringed with a salmon colored border, bearing the stamp of a Jewish home for the elderly in Vienna. It is unknown how or when Berta acquired this matzah cover, but she kept it safe during her imprisonment in Terezin and after she died it was donated to Yad Vashem by her surviving relatives. Below is the full story as recounted on the Vad Vashem website:

http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/exhibitions/passover/matzah-cover-weinschenk.asp

Jerusalem Post Article: The Unlikeliest Storyteller

I am deeply moved and incredibly grateful that this weekend Butterflies in the Ghetto was featured in the magazine section of The Jerusalem Post. A link to the pdf version of the article can be found below. Many thanks to author Stephanie Granot for sharing the story behind the blog and for bringing the stories of the artists of Terezin to many more people.

The Unlikeliest Storyteller, by Stephanie Granot, The Jerusalem Post

Elie Wiesel, Of Blessed Memory

I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of Elie Wiesel, who did so much to bring the story of the Holocaust to the world and who urged actively fighting injustice and inhumanity, reminding us that inaction and indifference only help the oppressors, never their victims.

Unlike the vast majority of individuals persecuted and murdered by the Nazis, Elie Wiesel’s story is very well known. What is not so widely known is that his famous book, Night, is a much condensed version of the original manuscript. The original work was written in Yiddish, and was over 800 pages long. Wiesel also chronicled his intense rage toward the Nazis in the original manuscript, and expressed a desire for vengeance, which were edited out of the condensed version that later became so famous. Yet, Wiesel eventually was able to overcome his rage and devote his life to defending victims of injustice and fighting oppression against Jews as well as other persecuted groups.

Much of his anger was directed towards God, as he was unable to reconcile how a just God would allow people to inflict such suffering on each other. Still, he did not turn away entirely, and in his later years he could sometimes be seen attending synagogue and praying. I remain in awe of his ability to overcome such terrible suffering and loss, his courage in fighting for justice and the incredible resilience that allowed him to live a meaningful life despite all he had been through. And now he is gone, and the void that he has left can never be filled.

Wiesel’s death also reminds me that most of the living Holocaust survivors will no longer be with us in another generation, and it will be up to the living to ensure that their memories endure. My fear is that as the number of survivors dwindle, the Holocaust will be relegated to history books and no longer seen as relevant. This is another reason why I am so committed to sharing the stories of Terezin, even though I was born 40 years after the end of World War II and have no relatives who were impacted by the Holocaust. It will never be enough, I know, and my writing will likely only be read by a few people. But this is what I believe I am here for, and I will not give up on my mission. I will continue my work to honor the memory of Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, and all those who suffered and died in the Holocaust.

Side view of the New Old Synagogue in Prague. Built in 1270, it is the oldest active synagogue in Europe, and is to me a powerful reminder that Judaism in Europe lives on.
Side view of the New Old Synagogue in Prague. Built in 1270, it is the oldest active synagogue in Europe, and is to me a powerful reminder that Judaism in Europe lives on.

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Terezin: Why It Matters Today

082Today I opted to write a slightly different post, focusing on the significance of Terezin for today. I often fear that the stories of the artists of Terezin will be regarded as a part of history, and it seems that the lessons of history are so easily overlooked in the present. The stories of the past are sometimes regarded as no longer relevant, as they seem so far removed from today, from our daily lives.

A friend of mine who teaches language arts to middle school students told me that Anne Frank’s diary had very little impact on her students. Many of her students live in impoverished inner-city neighborhoods and face incredible hardships. Still, they were simply unable to relate to the intense struggles and fears of a young Jewish girl living in hiding during the Nazi regime. It was the same when I read Anne’s diary as a middle school student and most of my classmates showed little interest in her story. Even then, I was saddened by this lack of interest, and I wanted to do something about it.

Sharing the stories of the artists of Terezin is a start, and those who take the time to read them have been deeply moved by these individuals. I have also incorporated some of these stories into my young adult novel, which I am trying to publish. But there is so much work to be done, as these stories remain largely unknown. This is such a shame, because these artists can inspire us and teach us about empathy.

Many psychology studies on empathy, such as Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, show that it is very easy for people to quickly lose all compassion for those they perceive as different from themselves. We see this and hear the news reports every day: people who are different in some way from the dominant social group are bullied, persecuted and killed. And the perpetrators are not usually violent people or criminals, but ordinary people who feel threatened by the “outsiders” and who have no empathy for them. But other studies have shown that it is possible to cultivate empathy towards others. Studies that required people to get inside another’s head and understand their perspective, such as by reading a personal account or identifying with a complex literary character, later displayed increased empathy toward the other. In the case of Terezin, we know so little about most of the artists, which makes it harder to truly understand who they were and to feel a connection with them. But I believe we can glean something of their individuality through the works they created, and empathize with them if we are truly listening carefully.

Above all, we need to remember the lesson of Terezin, that even in the face of human brutality, even during the most devastating genocide the world has ever known, the human spirit endured, and creativity flourished. If the artists of Terezin could keep on creating during such a time, it seems to me that there is hope for humanity. It is up to us, those who came after, to listen to their words, to their music, to view their art and try to understand and empathize with the individuals who created these beautiful works. The artists of Terezin can teach us a great deal about empathy and compassion if only we take the time to listen.

Ilse Weber and a Terezin Lullaby

Ilse Weber was a Czech Jewish poet and songwriter best known for the children’s songs she composed, including some she wrote while imprisoned in Terezin. Born Ilse Herlinger in Ostrava, Czechoslovakia, she learned to play a variety of instruments as a child, including the guitar and mandolin though she did not study music formally.

In 1930, at the age of 27, she married Willi Weber and moved with him to Prague, where she became known for the articles she wrote for children’s magazines. She also wrote a children’s book Mendel Rosenbusch: Tales for Jewish Children and produced pieces for a Czech radio station. In 1939, after the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia, Ilse and her husband managed to secure a place on a Kindertransport for their older son, Hanus, who survived the war in Sweden. Unfortunately, Ilse, her husband, and their younger son Tommy were unable to escape and were sent to Terezin in February 1942.

At Terezin, Ilse worked as a nurse in the children’s infirmary, caring for the children as best she could despite the lack of medication and supplies. She also wrote more than 60 poems, some of which she set to music and performed for the children, accompanying herself on a guitar.

In October 1944, Ilse’s husband Willi was assigned to a transport to Auschwitz. Many of the children Ilse cared for were also on the transport. Worried about the children, and wanting her family to be together, Ilse decided to join the transport with her son Tommy. Ironically and tragically, Ilse and Tommy were murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz upon arrival, while Willi survived the camps and outlived them by thirty years.

Many of Ilse’s poems survived the war, and were published in a 1991 book entitled Inside These Walls, Sorrow Lives. Some of her songs were later recorded by others singers, most notably her Terezin lullaby, “Wiegala”. Ilse’s surviving son Hanus Weber has also commemorated his mother and her work through his participation in various cultural programs honoring her work. Hanus also published a book called Ilse Weber: A Love Story Without a Happy Ending, a tribute to the gifted, compassionate mother who saved him from the Nazis.

Rendition of Ilse Weber’s lullaby (Wiegala) set to a slideshow of pictures of Ilse.

Franta Maier and the Boys of Room 7, Part 1

One of the many extraordinary individuals dedicated to the children of Terezin was Franta Maier, the madrich or leader of the boys’ home in Room 7 in barrack L417. This was the same home where the young diarist Pavel Weiner was assigned, and he and the other boys who survived remembered the profound impact Franta had on their lives many years later.

nesarim

Determined, take-charge, passionate, generous and resourceful are some of the words used to describe Franta by those who know him. These traits were already evident when Franta was 18 years old. The year was 1940, and Franta was sent to Prague to complete a teacher training course. There was a severe shortage of teachers to educate the Jewish children who were being expelled from the public schools, so Franta had to complete the course in two months. He passed the state teacher’s exams and was assigned to teach a class of 60 third-graders. Some of the children came from a Jewish orphanage, and Franta noticed that these children were unkempt and anxious, and their lunch consisted only of cold boiled potatoes. Franta spoke with the leader of the Brno Jewish community, Otto Zucker, who listened to his concerns and later observed Franta’s classroom. Nothing changed, however, and in a few months, the Nazis closed the school.

Otto Zucker offered Franta a position as the teaching and education chair at the orphanage, where 200 boys and girls between the ages of 5 and 14 lived. The orphanage was poorly funded because it was dependent on donations. Due to the war, many people were reluctant to provide money. Franta was well-known and popular in the community for being a talented soccer player, and managed to arrange for better washrooms and accommodations.

Franta also managed to introduce many positive changes to the orphanage and organized singing and music groups, Shabbat services and classes. Children from the outside were invited to participate in these activities, and friendships developed. Women from the Jewish community helped with the laundry and taught the children about grooming and how to take care of their clothes. This was a valuable service, because the children at the orphanage regarded themselves as unattractive and inferior to other children.

Franta observed that the children needed someone to listen to them and care about them, someone who could take a leadership role and instill discipline while demonstrating concern. He tried his best to be that person, and encouraged the other orphanage workers to do the same. An especially poignant scene is a description of Franta, a skilled violinist, walking down the hallways when the children were in bed, playing folk songs and lullabies to soothe them to sleep. He did this to comfort them and because he knew this was an experience that these children never had before.

The positive changes that Franta introduced were tragically halted on March 15, 1942, when he and the entire orphanage were transported to Terezin. Franta would need to rely on his intuitive understanding and all he had learned in the past two years to meet the immense obstacles he would face in mentoring the children of Terezin.

Further Reading
Nesarim: Child Survivors of Terezin by Thelma Gruenbaum

Ottla Kafka: Franz’s Lost Sister

Another fact that is seldom mentioned about Franz Kafka is that his closest sister ended up in Terezin. Franz’s three younger siblings, his sisters Ellie, Valli, and Ottilie all died in the Holocaust. Of the three sisters, most is known about Ottilie, known as Ottla, due to the many letters she and Franz exchanged, which were later published in a book titled Letters to Ottla and the Family. She and her brother were very close, and he considered her a confidant. She took him in during bouts of illness and provided space for him to work on his writing. Though few recognized Kafka’s talents during his lifetime, least of all his own parents, Ottla was supportive of his writing efforts.

Franz Kafka and his sister Ottla
Franz Kafka and his sister Ottla

Though described as quiet and reserved, Ottla also demonstrated an independent streak. As a young woman, Ottla entered an agriculture program in which she was the only woman. The program was challenging in a number of ways, and Ottla had moments where she felt discouraged and considered leaving the program. Franz was supportive of his sister’s pursuit, but was also sensitive to the difficulties she faced. He assured her that there was no shame in leaving the program if she felt that was the right decision. Ottla persevered and ended up managing her brother-in-law’s farming estate in the northern Bohemian town of Zurau. Despite her father’s objections, she later married a Czech Catholic named Joseph David in 1920. The couple had two daughters, Vera and Helene. Life in central Europe following World War I was far from easy, and the family had to contend with food shortages, poor housing and widespread illness. Franz’s illness worsened, but he and Ottla still managed to meet occasionally until he died in 1924.

It was during World War II that the depth of Ottla’s courage and compassion became fully revealed. In 1942, as the deportation of Jews accelerated, Ottla divorced her husband, hoping that by disassociating herself from the family she could protect them from the Nazis. Soon after, she was deported to Terezin. Her daughters went to the police and begged to be allowed to join their mother, but their request was refused. Ottla’s daughters were never deported, and were able to remain with their father during the war.

In Terezin, Ottla helped to care for children who had been orphaned or abandoned as a children’s counselor. In 1943 she was selected to help care for a group of Polish children who arrived in Terezin from the Bialystock ghetto. The children were emaciated, with shaved heads, frightened eyes and would scream and cry in terror when taken to the showers. They were placed in a barrack separate from the other prisoners. Other prisoners were forbidden to interact with them and Ottla was forced to remain silent about her interactions with them. In 1943 the children were put on a transport to Auschwitz, and Ottla volunteered to go with them. She gave them what comfort she could in the final hours of their lives, what were to be the final hours of her life as well. Ottla and the children were murdered at Auschwitz upon arrival.

For many years Ottla’s daughters carefully preserved Franz’s letters to their mother. It was many years before Czech authorities allowed them to be published. Since then, they have been translated and published in English. Unfortunately, Ottla’s letters to Franz have never been found and are regarded as lost, which robs us of greater insight into this remarkable woman. This means that aside from historical facts, the most we know about Ottla as a person is what we can glean from letters written by the brother who adored her.

Further Reading
Letters to Ottla and the Family, by Franz Kafka

An Unlikely Chronicler

At first glance I may seem an unlikely person to spread the word about Terezin. I converted to Judaism in college after many years of study, and as far as I know, I have no Jewish ancestry. In college and graduate school I studied literature and psychology, not Jewish studies, and my research on Terezin has been entirely self-conducted.
I also have a strong creative drive and for years have been writing fiction and poetry and creating visual art. The fact that so many creative geniuses were imprisoned in Terezin, the fact that the children and young people bravely continued to create art, poems, and even a literary magazine called Vedem resonated strongly with me from the start. I don’t exactly remember how I first learned of Terezin. It may have been the reference to the butterfly poem in the documentary Paper Clips, about a school in Tennessee that built an incredible Holocaust memorial. I began to research Terezin and learned that many creative works were produced there, including poems and artwork, a children’s opera, symphonies and plays.

Much of the children’s poetry and artwork was hidden away in suitcases by a talented artist and extraordinary educator named Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. The suitcases were eventually discovered and the poems were published in anthologies and the artwork put on display in exhibits worldwide. Very little is known about the identity of the young people who produced these poems, generally nothing more than a name, a birthdate and hometown, and the time and place of death. Less than 200 of the 15,000 children survived the war, most of them were deported to Auschwitz and murdered on arrival.

After reading a number of books on the topic, I found myself wanting to visit Terezin to get a sense of the ghetto for myself. I bought a travel guide on the Czech Republic, though it would be several years before I had the opportunity to visit. When I finally did visit, I was inspired to write a young adult novel which was set in part at Terezin. Initially, I believed this novel would provide a way for me to spread the word about Terezin. After realizing how incredibly difficult it is to get a book published, I knew I had to find another way to share this story with others, and eventually this blog was born.

I’ll begin by giving you a tour of the landscape and buildings that make up Terezin, which I experienced for myself in January, 2011. Next I will share the story of my visit.