Raja Englanderova and Willy Groag: Keepers of the Art

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

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.