Category Archives: Terezin Artists

Hana Brady and the Long-Lost Suitcase

Hana Brady’s story was shared with the world through an incredible turn of events. The story involves a battered suitcase with a few words painted on it: Hana Brady, born May 16, 1931, Orphan. Who was the young girl who owned this suitcase? Thanks to the efforts of Fumiko Ishioka, director of the Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Center, we now havethe answer. Here is Hana’s story.

Hana Brady as a child. Used with permission of George and Lara Brady.

Hana lived with her parents and older brother George in a small Czech town called Nové Město na Moravě. She was described as a happy, active and athletic little girl who was very close to her family. Hana was just eight years old when the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia. The family’s life became restricted, and they were forced to hand over their radio and other valuables to the Nazis. Their Christian friends stopped playing with them, because their parents feared they would be punished for playing with Jewish children. Hana and George remained close and supported one another during this time.

In March 1941, their mother, Marketa, was assigned to a Nazi transport and taken away. Soon after, they were forced to sew yellow star badges to their clothing along with all the other Czech Jews. When one man in town refused to comply, a Nazi officer was furious and ordered the arrests of all the other Jewish men in town. Hana and George’s father Karel was arrested and taken away a few days later, and the two children were left with the family’s housekeeper.

Later that day, their uncle Ludvik, a Christian man married to their father’s sister Hedda, arrived at the house. He had heard the bad news, and came to bring the children to his home. He helped the children pack, and Hana gathered her belongings in a large brown suitcase with a polka dot lining.

The children remained with their aunt and uncle until May 1942. That was when the children received a notice ordering them to report to a deportation center. They were taken to the center, where they were forced into a large warehouse with hundreds of other Jewish families. After four days in the warehouse, they were put on a train and sent to Terezin.

George as a child. Used with permission from George and Lara Brady.

The train stopped at Bohusovic Station, and Hana, George and the others on their transport had to carry their luggage the last few kilometers to Terezin. The children were separated into homes, and Hana was assigned to the girls’ home in barrack L410. She slept on a thin burlap mattress on a three-level bunk bed and was initially confined to the barrack due to her age.

Hana was unable to see George and missed her brother terribly. Some of the older girls looked out for her, and she became friends with one of them, a dark-haired girl named Ella.

Hana spent her days with the room supervisor and the younger girls, doing chores and attending secret classes in the barrack. They learned songs in music class, the basics of sewing, and art class. Hana’s favorite class was art, and she adored her teacher, famous artist Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. Hana produced many drawings, some of which still survive.

One of Hana’s drawings from Terezin. Used with permission of George and Lara Brady.

After she had been in Terezin for some time, the rules were changed and Hana was finally able to see her brother, who was assigned to the boys’ home in Barrack L417 and was working as a plumber in the camp. The siblings would see each other every chance they could get, and George was determined to do everything possible to take care of his sister. Hana in turn worried about George, and she would set aside her weekly buchta (a sort of plain doughnut) and give it to her brother to eat.

As the months went on, the camp became more and more cramped, and many people died from food shortages and epidemics. And every few weeks, people were assigned to transports heading East, to some unknown destination.

In September 1944, George was sent away on one of these transports. A month later, Hana was assigned to a transport and she was full of hope that she would be reunited with her brother. Hana’s friend Ella helped her to wash her face and hair, because Hana wanted to look nice when she saw her brother again.

The next morning, Hana, Ella and many other girls from their home were put on a dark train, which traveled nonstop for a day and a night. There was no food, no water, no toilet, and no way to know how long the journey was. Hana, Ella and the other girls held hands, whispered stories, imagined they were somewhere else.

On the night of October 23, 1944, they arrived at Auschwitz. The girls were forced out of the car, and ordered to stand on the platform. The guards selected a few of the older girls and sent them to the right.

Hana and the rest of the girls were told to drop their luggage and go to the left, where they were herded into a large warehouse. That night, Hana died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz at the age of thirteen.

George had also been sent to Auschwitz, but he managed to survive the camp, in part due to the plumbing skills he had gained at Terezin. He was liberated in January 1945 at the age of seventeen and returned to the home of his Uncle Ludvik and Aunt Hedda.

He learned that his parents were dead, and for many months searched for news of his sister. Eventually, he met a teenage girl in Prague who knew Hana from Terezin, and learned the horrible truth.

In 1951, George moved to Toronto and started a very successful plumbing business, married and had three sons and a daughter. But despite all his joys and successes, George’s loss of his parents and beloved sister was never far from his mind.

Then, years later, in 2000, he received a letter from a woman named Fumiko Ishioka, the director of a Holocaust Center in Tokyo. She had received a leather suitcase with polka dot lining at her center – Hana’s suitcase.

Fumiko Ishioka. Used with permission of George and Lara Brady

Almost nothing was known of Hana, and after months of searching, Fumiko had found George and sent him a letter in the hopes of learning about his sister. Later, George and his daughter Lara traveled to the center in Tokyo to meet Fumiko and a group of schoolchildren known as the Small Wings, and to share Hana’s story.

In March 2004, George and Fumiko learned that the suitcase was actually a replica created by the museum at Auschwitz after the original suitcase and many other items from the Holocaust had been destroyed in a fire.

While saddened to hear about the fire, George and Fumiko were grateful that the Auschwitz museum created the replica, which brought them together and allowed them to bring Hana’s story to the world.

Further Reading

Hana’s Suitcase by Karen Levine

http://www.hanassuitcase.ca/?p=107

http://www.cbc.ca/hanassuitcase/

The Artists’ Affair Part 3: Bedřich Fritta

Another remarkable artist who was incarcerated in Terezin was Bedřich Fritta, who was imprisoned along with Leo Haas and Otto Ungar in July 1944.

He was born Bedřich Taussig in 1906 in Weigsdorf (Višňová), Northern Bohemia and demonstrated an interest and aptitude for art. In 1930 he moved to Paris to study art, and eventually settled in Prague where he worked as a graphic designer, technical draughtsman and contributed cartoons and caricatures to satirical magazines. He preferred to be called Fritta, his pen name, and this is what he family and friends affectionately called him.

In December 1941 Fritta was sent to Terezin on one of the first transports along with other artists, engineers and doctors who were assigned to help set up the camp. His wife, Hansi, and their one year old son Tommy accompanied him to the camp.

At Terezin, Fritta was assigned as supervisor to the camp’s drawing studio, where blueprints, construction plans and technical reports were composed. Those who knew him described him as extroverted, outspoken, and strong-willed, a man of great enthusiasm. It seems that Fritta and Leo Haas were the ones who first used materials available to them to secretly depict life in the ghetto. Some of the other men who worked with them began to do the same.

In addition to his work at the camp, Fritta produced over 100 drawings and sketches in Terezin, most of which were ink drawings, finished with a paintbrush and water to add shadowy dimensions. His drawings are characterized by the interplay of light and shadow, and their haunted, despairing figures. Some of his sketches depict barracks, transports leaving the ghetto, the cafe set up in preparation for the Red Cross visit, in which solemn people sit at empty tables while a band plays.

Fritta also created a  picture book for his son Tommy, a gift for the boy’s third birthday on January 22, 1944. The book, which the artist bound with heavy brown paper, was filled with colorful ink, pen and watercolor drawings accompanied by captions. Fritta depicted Tommy’s daily activities, but also images of a happy life outside of Terezin. For Tommy’s third birthday, Fritta and his wife Hansi even managed to plan a special party in the ghetto, complete with presents and a cake.

Following the Red Cross visit, Fritta and Leo Haas hid many of their drawings and paintings, Haas in the paneling of a wall, Fritta in a large tin case that he and some of his friends secretly buried. Tommy’s book was hidden in the ghetto along with Fritta’s other paintings. Soon after the Red Cross visit, Fritta, his wife Hansi, and Tommy were imprisoned in the Small Fortress along with Leo Haas, Otto Ungar and their families.

Fritta endured unimaginable suffering while imprisoned,  and was savagely beaten and interrogated daily. He later contracted dysentery, which depleted all that remained of his strength. When he was moved to a cell occupied by Leo Haas, his friend was horrified at how emaciated and ill he had become. In early August both men were forced to sign an indictment stating that they were guilty of creating propaganda and distributing it abroad.

The following day, they were put on a train to Auschwitz. Fritta was suffering from severe dysentery and malnutrition and was barely able to walk or move. When the group was suddenly forced off the cars at Dresden, Haas lifted his friend onto his back and carried him off the car and through the dark streets. After a check at Gestapo headquarters, the prisoners were sent on to Auschwitz, where Fritta was taken to the infirmary. The doctor tried to keep Fritta comfortable and Haas and other friends visited him and smuggled food. But at this point, Fritta was unable to eat, and drifted in and out of consciousness. The outgoing, enthusiastic, courageous man who risked so much to reveal the truth of Terezin died eight days after arriving in Auschwitz, in late August 1944.

The artists’ wives and children were imprisoned in the Small Fortress for more than a year. Fritta’s wife Hansi died of malnutrition and disease in Terezin a few months after her husband. Their son Tommy survived the war in Terezin, an orphan at just four years of age. He was adopted by Fritta’s friend Leo Haas and his wife Erna. Haas returned to Terezin to recover their hidden paintings as soon as he could, and was successfully able to reclaim the tin box with Fritta’s works. He returned the beautiful, lovingly crafted picture book to Tommy, his last gift from the father who adored him.

Exhibition of Fritta’s Drawings
http://www.jmberlin.de/fritta/en/index.php

Tommy’s Book:
http://www.jmberlin.de/fritta/en/bilderbuch-fuer-tommy.php

Further Reading
The Artists of Terezin by Gerald Green

The Artists’ Affair Part 2: Otto Ungar

Otto Ungar was another artist who along with Leo Haas, was interrogated, tortured and imprisoned in the Small Fortress for depicting the truth of Terezin. Far less is known about Ungar than Leo Haas, unfortunately. It is known that he lived for most of his life in the Czech city of Brno. Before the war, Ungar resided in Brno with his wife and daughter and was a teacher at a Jewish secondary school and an artist. He was described as a very reserved, sensitive and anxious man, which makes it all the more remarkable that he took tremendous risks by creating raw and brutally honest drawings of daily life in Terezin.

Ungar worked in the drafting office at Terezin, along with fellow artists Leo Haas and Bedrich Fritta. All three men were aware of the deception the Nazis were perpetrating at Terezin and sought to record the truth of what happened in the camp in sketches and paintings. Ungar secretly painted the arrival of transports (The Coming of a Transport), and the despair and suffering of elderly adults at Terezin, many of whom had been deceived and told they were being sent to a retirement community (Portrait of an Old Woman).

After being interrogated in July 1944, Otto Ungar was also imprisoned in the Small Fortress, where he endured daily beatings and torture by the prison guards. His right hand, the hand he drew with, was savagely broken by the guards. Two of his fingers had to be amputated as a result, and he lost the use of his hand.

Later that summer, Ungar was sent to Auschwitz, where he managed to survive the selection, despite his injuries. He remained there until January 1945, where he was forced on a death march across the frozen Polish countryside to the camp Buchenwald. Incredibly, Ungar survived the march despite being severely malnourished and ill with tuberculosis. He and the 14,000 other survivors were crammed into Buchenwald’s “Little Camp”, where a typhus epidemic raged. In these final terrible months of the war, in unspeakably horrific conditions, Otto Ungar did something remarkable. He scavenged scraps of paper and small pieces of coal, gripped the coal in his broken and mutilated right hand and slowly, painstakingly began to sketch his surroundings. Even after all the suffering and tortures he endured, despite his sensitive and anxious nature, he never lost his will to create, to reveal the truth. The Nazis could not break his resilient spirit, even though they broke so many others.

Otto Ungar survived the war and was liberated from Buchenwald in May 1945, but died a few months later in a hospital in Germany from complications of tuberculosis and typhus. His wife and daughter both survived the war in Terezin and returned to Brno.

The images that Ungar created in Buchenwald were lost, but many of the works he created in Terezin have survived. They remain today to show us the truth of Terezin and are the legacy of a gentle and sensitive soul that the Nazis could never break.

Further Reading

The Artists of Terezin by Gerald Green

The Artists’ Affair Part 1: Leo Haas

On July 17th, 1944, a group of artists were summoned to the office of Terezin Commandant Karl Rahm. Their names were Leo Haas, Otto Ungar, Bedrich Fritta and Felix Bloch, and they worked in the drafting office at Terezin. Their crime: drawing and painting the true nature of the ghetto. They were interrogated by Rahm, and SS officers Captain Moes, Captain Hans Gunther and the infamous Colonel Adolf Eichmann. The officers wanted to know why the artists painted what they did, and accused them of being part of a Communist plot. The artists denied the Communist accusations, and stated that they simply drew and painted what they saw, the reality that surrounded them. The men were then brought to the damp cellar of a barrack, where they were again interrogated and questioned about their alleged Communist ties. Ultimately the officers stopped questioning them and transferred them and their families to the Small Fortress, where they endured more interrogations, beatings and torture.

Enrtance to the Small Fortress at Terezin

The interrogation and subsequent imprisonment of these men and their families in the Small Fortress of Terezin would come to be known as “The Artists’ Affair”. What follows are the stories of these men, beginning with Leo Haas, the one member of the group who survived the war.

Leo Haas was born in 1901 in Opava, Czechoslovakia and was interested in art from a young age, showing promise in painting and as a piano player. As a teenager, an art teacher recommended that he continue his art studies, and Leo moved to Karlsruhe, Germany to study at an art academy there. To fund his studies, Leo played the piano in local bars and restaurants – and painted the scenes he observed around him. In 1921 he moved to Berlin where his finished his studies and began working in a graphic design studio. He spend time in Paris and Vienna before marrying Sophie Hermann in 1929 and settling in his hometown of Opava. Haas became an established portrait painter and director of a local printing house, and was also known as a caricaturist.

Leo’s first encounter with the Nazis came in 1937, who declared his caricatures “degenerate” and “Communist”, which foreshadowed the events that would happen at Terezin. Haas, his second wife Erna, and her family were sent to Terezin at the end of September 1942. Haas was soon transferred to the graphic department of the ghetto, where his primary task was making architectural charts. Other well-known artists also worked in the department, including Otto Ungar and Bedřich Fritta, who would become a close friend of Haas. The men were often able to visit other parts of the ghetto, and they secretly began to paint and draw what they observed. Haas depicted transports, scenes from the ghetto café – where no food or drinks could be found, performances, bread rations being transported in a hearse, and many other aspects of life in the camp. He was known for being very politically minded, but known for his compassion and unflinching depictions of ghetto life in all its brutality.

He created a secret compartment in the paneling of the wall of his barrack where he hid many of his works. The works remained hidden during Haas’s interrogation and imprisonment in the Small Ghetto of Terezin, where Haas was sentenced to hard physical labor. After three and a half months, Haas and Fritta were again interrogated and accused of distributing Communist propaganda.

At the end of October they were sent to Auschwitz for their supposed crimes. Fritta was ill with dysentery and died a week later. Haas was soon transferred to another camp called Sachsenhausen where he was put to work in a counterfeiting unit due to his artistic talents. He was transferred twice more before being liberated by the Allies on May 5th, 1945. His wife survived the war but was in very poor health, and would remain sickly for the rest of her life. They adopted Fritta’s son Tomáš and moved to Prague, where they lived until Erna’s death in 1955. Haas then moved to East Berlin where he remarried, and worked as a caricaturist and cartoonist. He also exhibited his art around the world, up until his death in 1983.

Not long after the war, Haas bravely returned to Terezin in the hopes of recovering the paintings he had hidden in a wall panel of his barrack. He found all the paintings he had hidden there, as well as some of Fritta’s works, works of art that showed the world the truth of Terezin.

Further Reading
The Artists of Terezin by Gerald Green

http://art.holocaust-education.net/explore.asp?langid=1&submenu=200&id=14

http://www.theholocaustexplained.org/ks4/the-nazi-impact-on-europe/theresienstadt-a-case-study/leo-haas-living-culture-in-the-ghetto/#.WPPA3NLyvIU

http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/exhibitions/last_portrait/haas.asp

Alice Herz-Sommer: A Musician Until The End

Professional pianist and Terezin survivor Alice Herz-Sommer played her beloved aliceinstrument daily until her death at age 110 in 2014. She fell in love with the piano at an early age and her love for music quite literally kept her and her young son alive during the years they spent in Terezin. Alice, originally known as Aliza Herz, was born in Prague in 1903. She was a member of a well off German-speaking Jewish family, and her parents sponsored a cultural salon that attracted some of the most gifted minds of the time. Young Aliza met Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud and Gustav Mahler, among other writers, intellectuals and composers. In time, she too would become a prominent pianist in her own right.

Alice first learned the piano as a child from her older sister, Irma, and even at a young age, was a dedicated pianist, practicing hours each day. A family friend and composer named Artur Schnabel expressed his belief that Alice was suited to be a professional musician. Alice later decided that this was the career she wanted and entered the Prague Conservatory of Music, where she was the youngest student in the school.
In 1931, at the age of 26, Alice married a businessman and musician named Leopold Sommer, and they had one son, Raphael. Alice established herself as a concert pianist and became known throughout Europe. She was forced to stop performing after the Nazis took control of Prague and forbade Jewish musicians to perform in concerts and music competitions.

Most of Alice’s family managed to flee to Palestine, but her elderly mother was unable to travel and Alice, her husband and Raphael stayed behind to help care for her. Alice’s mother was sent to Terezin in 1942, and Alice accompanied her to the train station. On this journey, Alice realized just how dire the situation had become, and she found solace in music, teaching herself the incredibly challenging 24 Etudes of Frederic Chopin, often up to eight hours a day.

In July 1943, Alice, along with her husband and son were sent to Terezin, where she performed in over 100 concerts. She continued to find strength in performing her music, which helped to free her from the daily horrors of life at Terezin. Alice also did all she could to provide stability for Raphael, and together they survived the war in Terezin. Alice’s husband and mother were transported to Nazi extermination camps and murdered, and Alice never learned the details of their final moments.

After the war, Alice and Raphael moved to Israel, where they reunited with their relatives. Alice continued to perform and taught at the Jerusalem Conservatory for 35 years, until she moved to London in 1986. Raphael also became a highly accomplished concert cellist, but he died tragically and suddenly in 2001. Alice continued to live on her own in a London apartment, where she continued to play the piano for hours each day, up until her death at age 110.

Alice’s life inspired several books and documentary films, most recently, The Lady in Number 6, which won an Oscar in 2013 for Best Short Documentary. The documentary, filmed about a year before Alice died, is a remarkable tribute. We hear Alice’s story in her own words and learn of her natural optimistic and joyful personality, which the Nazis failed to take from her. It was clear that her passion and love for music and her family were the driving forces in her life, and her ability to see the beauty in music and life is deeply moving, especially after all she endured at the hands of the Nazis. I encourage you to see this film, so that you may see for yourself this gifted, passionate, resilient woman named Alice Herz-Sommer.

Children’s Stories and Poems: Terezin 1942-1944

Recently, I had the good fortune to read and examine one of the original 2000 English copies of the book Children’s Drawings and Poems: Terezin 1942-1944. Two friends who work in Special Collections at the University of Colorado generously gave me a tour of the archives after hours and located a sole book on Terezin in the collection. I returned to Special Collections a few weeks later to review the book in more depth. This hardcover book with its slightly worn dust jacket featured a child’s collage of a solitary humanoid figure. It was published in 1959, an English translation with an initial print run of only 2000 copies. A sticker on the inside cover read “Gift of Professor U.K. Goldsmith, 1973.” I wrote down the name, curious about the person who donated this book.

I own a later edition of this book, which features drawings and poetry from children who were in Terezin. Most of these drawings and poems are owned by the State Jewish Museum in Prague, and they were selected from more than 4,000 drawings and poems in the museum’s archives. Many of these works of art were created from any materials the children could find, such as scraps of paper, office forms, wrapping paper…This original edition featured reproductions that were far clearer and more vivid than the later editions. The paper felt heavy and opaque with beautifully vivid illustrations. Yet for me, two of the most poignant drawings were simple pencil lines depicting the outline of a child’s hand and sketches of butterflies. The hand was drawn by a boy named Frantisek Brozan and the butterflies by Eva Bulova. Almost nothing is known about them, but they were among the thousands of children who were sent to Auschwitz and murdered. There was a section in the back that featured biographical information on the authors and artists, but for most all that is known is what is gleaned from camp records: date and place of birth, date of transport to Terezin, whether they survived or died. In later editions, this section is still included, but all these years later no more biographical information has been discovered. Most of these young creators have been all but lost to history. That was the thought that stayed with me as I closed the book, leaving the two ribbon bookmarks at the page containing the poem “The Butterfly”, the one that captivated me from the start.

A memorial in Prague, illuminated by candles. May we never forget.
A memorial in Prague, illuminated by candles. May we never forget.

Later, after the visit, I researched the professor who donated this book. His name was Ulrich K. Goldsmith, and he was born to a Jewish family in Freiburg, Germany in 1910. He fled the country in 1932, passing through England and Canada before settling in the United States, where he received a PhD in literature from the University of California at Berkley. In 1957 he arrived at the University of Colorado, Boulder where he was the chair of the Department of Germanic languages and literature and co-founded the Comparative Literature department. He was known as a remarkable humanist and scholar of Stefan George and Rainer Maria Rilke. After his death in 2000, the university established a memorial prize in his name. Little else seems to be recorded about him, though surely his former students and colleagues have memories of him. Unfortunately, I don’t know how he acquired one of the original English translations of Children’s Drawings and Poems, or how he came to know the story of Terezin. If Professor Goldsmith were alive today and I had the chance to speak with him I would have asked him about these stories. Most likely, I will never know, but I will always be grateful to him for leaving this remarkable book with the library so that future generations may know the story of Terezin.

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.

Ilan Ramon and Petr Ginz: The Astronaut and the Prodigy

There is an incredible and tragic connection that exists between the young prodigy Petr Ginz and the astronaut Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli in space. He was born Ilan Wolferman in Ramat Gan, Israel. His father’s family fled Germany in 1935 and his mother and grandmother were Holocaust survivors who were imprisoned in Auschwitz. They left Poland after the war, and emigrated to Israel.

Ilan graduated from Tel Aviv University with a degree in computer engineering in 1987 and joined the Israeli Airforce, where he became a highly accomplished fighter pilot and earned the rank of Colonel. During his fighter pilot training he adopted the surname Ramon. In 1997, he was accepted by NASA and began training to be a Payload Specialist, a process which took five years. He participated in the 113th mission of the Space Shuttle Program, aboard the shuttle Columbia.

Though described as secular, as the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan saw himself as a representative of the Jewish people. He opted to eat kosher food on the mission, and consulted with a rabbi on how to keep Shabbat in space. Ilan also brought with him a variety of objects that held special significance. These objects included a small Torah scroll that was saved from the Holocaust, a dollar bill with the image of the Lubavitcher Rebbe – and a copy of a drawing by Petr Ginz.

Petr’s drawing depicted a lunar landscape, mountainous and desolate, with an image of the Earth shining in the distance, though Petr did not live long enough to see the first pictures of Earth taken from space. Ilan took the image to commemorate Petr, who died in Auschwitz, and all the others who were affected by the Holocaust.

**To view Petr’s drawing and NASA portrait of Ilan, please visit: http://www.science.co.il/Ilan-Ramon/

 

Ilan and his crew members completed their mission, but tragically, their Shuttle Columbia broke apart on re-entry, killing all on board. The disaster happened on February 1, 2003, which would have been Petr’s 75th birthday. The copy of the drawing was destroyed, but part of the diary that Ilan kept on the mission survived the disaster. Though badly damaged, after 5 years forensic scientists were able to restore about 80% of its content. One of the pages was a handwritten copy of the Kiddush prayer, another way Ilan expressed his pride in being part of the Jewish people. The diary that Petr kept, along with many poems, stories and articles have been saved. These writings give us greater insight into who this man and boy were, and ensure that some part of them lives on. I greatly admire their many achievements, but they shared other qualities that impress me even more than what they accomplished. Most of all, I remain in awe of how they were able to look beyond their immediate surroundings, to imagine all that lies beyond the confines of Earth and how they had the courage to envision and to work for a better world.

Further Reading

Memorial site for Ilan Ramon:    http://www.science.co.il/Ilan-Ramon/

Petr Ginz: A Prodigy Behind Walls

Petr and Eva Ginz with their parents before the war.
Petr and Eva Ginz with their parents before the war.

The life of Petr Ginz, an artist, writer, Esperantist, magazine editor and scholar, dramatically illustrates the creativity and talent of so many children who died in the Holocaust.

Petr was born on February 1, 1928 in Prague to Otto and Miriam Ginz. His father was a manager in a textile company, and both his parents were passionate about Esperanto. In fact, his parents met at an Esperantist convention and taught the language to Petr and his younger sister, Eva. The children were from an interfaith background; Otto was Jewish and Miriam was Christian.

From a young age, Petr’s intelligence, curiosity and passion for knowledge was evident. He wrote his first novel at age 8 and wrote 5 novels in all before he was deported to Terezin. A skilled artist, Petr also illustrated the novels himself. He was interested in a wide variety of subjects, including literature, art, science, history and geography, was an avid reader and also recorded his experiences in a diary. Petr’s enthusiasm for the arts and learning did not diminish after he was transported to Terezin at age 14, in October 1942. He continued his studies and borrowed countless books from the makeshift Terezin library, and wrote short novels. He also made a major contribution to the cultural life of Terezin when he established a literary magazine called Vedem (We lead), which he published weekly. Petr wrote many of the pieces himself, and other boys from his barrack contributed work as well. The magazine featured pieces on daily life in Terezin, satirical essays, short fiction, poetry and artwork.

A close bond developed between the boys of Petr’s barrack, L417. They called their barrack the Republic of Shkid, and created a flag and national anthem. Their creativity and imagination in such circumstances were remarkable, as was the amount of work they produced for Vedem, much of which survives today.

Petr often wrote very matter-of-factly about the events he experienced and life in Terezin, and even managed to insert some humor. He did write some poignant pieces as well, most notably a poem in which he described how he missed Prague, though he knew it did not miss him. He described how he could not return because he was living like a caged animal but would always long for Prague, his “fairy-tale in stone.”

Tragically, he would never see Prague again. Petr was assigned to one of the last transports to leave Terezin, in September 1944. His sister Eva, who adored him, wrote about the day Petr left in her own diary. After Petr boarded the train, Eva spotted him at one of the windows and managed to pass some bread to him through the window, to hold his hand one more time before she was chased away by guards. Eva wrote honestly and poignantly about how she worried about her brother and wondered if he was still alive.

At the age of 16, Petr was murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, like hundreds of thousands of others. A prodigy was lost that day, and we will never know how many other gifted, talented young people were lost that same day. What remains are the writings and drawings he left behind, which his sister Eva preserved and shared with the world after the war, a poignant reminder of all that was lost the day Petr Ginz died.

Picture of the Ginz Family from Krizkova, Marie R., Kotouc, Kurt J. & Ornest, Zdenek. We Are Children Just the Same: Vedem, the Secret Magazine of the Boys of Terezin. The Jewish Publication Society, 1995. Print. Used with permission.

Further Reading
We Are Children Just the Same: Vedem, the Secret Magazine by the Boys of Terezin (by Marie Krizkova, Kurt Jiri Kotouc and Zdenek Ornest)

The Diary of Petr Ginz (edited by Chava Pressburger)

Raja Englanderova and Willy Groag: Keepers of the Art

Terezin motif collage by Margit Gerstmannova (1931-1944)
Terezin motif collage by Margit Gerstmannova
(1931-1944)

It seems such a shame that there is so little information available about the two people who preserved the poems and drawings of Friedl’s students. In Raja’s case things are more complicated because a famous play entitled I Never Saw Another Butterfly presents a fictionalized account of her Terezin experiences. Given the lack of information available about her, it becomes difficult to understand who Raja (pronounced Ry-ah) truly was.

We do know that she was a teenager, an older student of Friedl’s and had a leadership role in the one of the camp barracks known as “the Girls’ Home”. It appears Friedl trusted that Raja would do as much as she could to preserve the children’s drawings. Why else would Friedl have selected Raja for this task? Raja was somehow spared from the transports to Auschwitz and managed to safely hide the suitcases until the liberation of Terezin.

Willy Groag was a chemist, teacher and leader of a Zionist youth organization called Maccabee Hatza’ir and at Terezin was appointed to manage the Girls’ Home along with Raja and some others. He did what he could to improve the barrack, though there was little that could be done in the ghetto. At night he would make rounds to check that everyone was in bed and no one was missing, and would tell stories to children who were unable to sleep.
When liberation came, Willy was one of the few men in the camp who was strong enough to work. He was appointed Director of Children and Youth, and worked tirelessly to reunite children with their parents. Often it was an impossible task since many of the children were orphaned.

In August 1945, several months after liberation, Raja approached him and revealed Friedl’s suitcases, which she had succeeded in hiding to the end of the war. She turned the suitcases over to him, and he returned the suitcases to the Prague Jewish community. At the time, the community leaders did not express much interest in them, and they languished in storage for over ten years, when some members of the community discovered them. Since then they have been exhibited worldwide, even to this day. For the most part, they are kept safely in Prague, at the Jewish Museum and the Pinkas synagogue and have been published in a number of books and volumes.

Though little is known of Willy and Raja, together they brought the poems and drawings of the children of Terezin to the world. These small works of art are all that remain of so many of the children of Terezin, their only legacy, preserved thanks to the efforts of Willy and Raja.

“Terezin motif” from Krizkova, Marie R., Kotouc, Kurt J. & Ornest, Zdenek. We Are Children Just the Same: Vedem, the Secret Magazine of the Boys of Terezin. The Jewish Publication Society, 1995. Print. Used with permission.