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"When Memory Meets Art": An audiovisual initiative inspired by the poetry and artwork created by the children of the Terezín Ghetto

Through the transformative power of art and creativity, the voices of the children from the ghetto resurface in collective memory, offering vivid testimonies of personal stories that demand to be remembered. "When Memory Meets Art" seeks to bridge the gap between the past and the present, fostering sensitivity and empathy in a world that sadly remains blinded by prejudice and hatred.

Drawing made by a child from the Terezín ghetto
Drawing made by a child from the Terezín ghetto.

This initiative is a joint project by Raquel Orensztajn and Effi Shoshani, intertwining the history of the Jewish Holocaust (Shoah) through the poems and drawings of the children of the Terezín ghetto, with music and audiovisual creation.

It is precisely here, at this point where contemplation, reflection, and critical thinking arise, that art, in its multiple facets, promotes. I invite you to discover this inspiring project that challenges us as human beings and urges us to work on memory and its significance in the present.

Raquel Orensztajn was born in Rio de Janeiro and emigrated with her family to Israel at the age of ten. She studied Modern History and Contemporary Judaism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and dedicated her professional life to teaching the Holocaust and its impact on Jewish memory and identity. She led the curriculum in Prague and Terezín (Theresienstadt in German) for the Jewish Agency and led "The March of the Living" in Poland. Nowadays, she works for the International School for Holocaust Studies at the Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem, as a content coordinator for seminars for educators from Israel, Europe, and Latin America.

  • Raquel, when and how did the "When Memory Meets Art" project come about?

In 2019, I was preparing a talk I had to give about cultural life in the Terezín ghetto and was looking for testimonial videos on the subject. That's when YouTube "suggested" an interview, from a few years back, with the Israeli musician Effi Shoshani. In this video, he talked about his trip to Terezín and the musical composition he had made from some of the poems written by children in the ghetto. I found it interesting, looked for more information, and called him.

I have a special connection to the history of the Terezín ghetto. In the 1990s, as part of a team of educators, I created a beautiful project called "Israel Experience" under the Jewish Agency for young people from Latin America. In this travel experience en route to Israel, there was a stop in Prague - Terezín to learn about the history of Jews in Europe, the history of the Holocaust.

So when I heard Effi talk about the poems and his work as a musical composer - I said to myself - I have to do a project! What caught my attention was the encounter between contemporary music and this documentation. The poems written during the Holocaust era became historical documentation of great testimonial value due to the circumstances in which they were written, and they reflect the authentic voice of the child in the ghetto.

As a historian, I focus as much as possible on primary sources. This fusion between the source and music creates a new space and sparks the interest of those who are not historians. Music opens people's hearts, and the words of the children find their space eighty years after they were written.

  • The "When Memory Meets Art" project formally began in 2020 with the production of the first audiovisual. Today, the project consists of seven works. The latest of these, released in 2024, is based on the text written by a thirteen-year-old boy named Franta Bass Z"L. Raquel, what can you tell us about his life and the reason you chose his poem?

Foto de Franta Bass asesinado en Auschwitz en 1944
Franta Bass Source: Wikipedia

His full name was František, but they called him Franta. He was born in Brno on September 4, 1930.

He was sent to Terezín on December 2, 1941, and lived in children's home L-417. He was there until October 28, 1944, when he was sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp on the last transport from the ghetto. He was murdered shortly after his 14th birthday. While in the ghetto, he wrote several poems. Eight of his poems arrived at the archive of the Jewish Museum in Prague.

One of them is "The Garden," which I chose for the production of this video. It's a poem that reveals a agonizing reality. Franta Bass, just entering adolescence, understands with clarity and courage the crushing reality that surrounds him and the almost certainty of the short life ahead of him.

"A little garden,

Fragrant and full of roses,

The path is narrow And a little boy walks along it.

A little boy, a sweet boy, Like that growing blossom.

When the blossom comes to bloom,

The little boy will be no more."

The production process of this video clip began after October 7th, and the choice of the poem was a decision almost made by itself. Its concept was shaped by the impact of this dark and devastating time. I didn't want to see children today singing - the reality of the public sphere in Israel, social media, and the world in general, were filled with photos, faces, and smiles of children who were snatched from their beds on Saturday morning, October 7th. I felt there was no space to see other children.

Hence the decision to make an audiovisual with the voices of children from different parts of the world, singing in various languages ​​the same poem written by another child. The poetry is written by a child eighty years ago, and the vocal interpretation of this text by children gives it a very important emotional dimension. For the visual part of the clip, we relied entirely on drawings also made by children from the ghetto.

The Terezín Ghetto, now located in the territory of the Czech Republic, was a transit camp where families, once they arrived, were separated. On one side there were barracks for men and barracks for women. Based on this decision imposed by the Nazi administration, the Jewish leadership made another decision: to separate the children in order to create an "educational oasis." Thus, children, teachers, and madrichim (leaders) lived together in tents that were called "HEIM" (home), where recreational and educational activities were organized.

Drawing made by a child form the Terezín Ghetto.
Drawing made by a child from the Terezín ghetto.

These drawings were made in art classes that the children received from these leaders organized in the ghetto. The artist Friedl Dicker-Brandeis worked with them with the intention that art would serve as a means of expression where children could channel their imagination and depict the reality of the ghetto in their drawings. These works project to us the perspective of the child, and we see through their eyes the trauma they experience; worlds of color and shadow, of fear and hope.

That's why I decided to start the video clip with a quote from her, which goes:

"For children, art provides the greatest possible freedom."

Friedl Dicker Brandeis

July 1943

Friedl believed in the power of art as a link to spiritual freedom and expression. She was an artist but also a great educator. That's why she took care to preserve the drawings and encouraged each child to sign them to reinforce the individual sense within the collective in which they lived.

For her, the process was important, not the result in artistic terms. It was valuable insofar as art helped the child to release the conditions they had to live in their present with the intention of preserving the souls of the children and young people, helping them grow as worthy individuals while living in a cruel reality that almost forced people to leave their values behind in the name of survival.

See the video - "The Garden"

  • After the war ended, an immense amount of poems and drawings arrived at the Jewish Museum in Prague. How was it possible to preserve them and how did this material come into the museum's collection?

Before being deported with her husband – they had no children – to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp in September 1944, Friedl took care to store 4,387 drawings in two suitcases, which were collected by a ghetto survivor and delivered to the museum after the war.

Another case involves the poems. Michal Flach, a member of the ghetto's educational team, entrusted his mother with an envelope of poems before his imminent deportation. Both survived the war. Michal immigrated to the United States, and in the 1950s, his mother handed the poems over to the museum.

During the communist era, out of fear for her son's safety, she did not provide many details about who gave her those poems. Over time and through research, much was discovered about the children, the poems, and the identity of the children in the unsigned poems.

In 1959, the Jewish Museum in Prague published a book titled "I Never Saw Another Butterfly" in Czech, containing the poems and drawings of the children from the Terezín ghetto. Simultaneously, three other editions were published in English, French, and German.

The book's title comes from a poem written by Pavel Friedmann (deported to Auschwitz in 1944), which reads as follows:

"The last one,

precisely the last one.

So bright yellow.

Maybe if the sun's tears touched the white stone...

So, so yellow.

It flew,

moved gently upwards

It left,

surely wanting to give the world

A farewell kiss.

Seven weeks ago I've been living here

confined in this ghetto.

But I've found my people here.

They call me the little flowers

and the white branch of the chestnut tree in the yard.

I haven't seen any more butterflies.

that was the last one.

Butterflies don't live here,

In the ghetto."

From my point of view, what is distinctive and original about this book is that it was published shortly after an exhibition with these materials was held at the same museum. The original graphics of the book are very special, and most of the drawings are not complete. Sometimes, on one page, there are drawings made by different children. The book itself is a work of art and has become an icon of Holocaust memory.

The book in Hebrew was published in 1963 in Israel. The editor of the Hebrew book was the poet, writer, partisan, and survivor of the Vilna Ghetto, and founder of the Museum of the Diaspora, Abba Kovner, a dominant voice in Israeli society. The translation was done by the national poet Leah Goldberg, and for its edition, the original calligraphy was maintained. Since then, the book has been reissued by the Jewish Museum in Prague and also by the Holocaust Museum in Washington, but they have not preserved the original graphics of the book. Over the years, especially as Prague becomes a tourist city open to the Western world, the Jewish museum publishes new editions in more languages, including Spanish.

Cover of the book I Never Saw Another Butterlfy with poetry and drawing of the the children from the ghetto of Terezín.
Cover of the book "I Never Saw Another Butterfly", Hebrew edition 1963

Part of the production process of the video clip was to adapt these translations to the melody that Effi had composed for Franta's poem translated into Hebrew. For this, I was fortunate to receive valuable help from two Czech teachers with whom we had collaborated on projects and with whom I now have a friendship. One is a French teacher and the other an English teacher, and they helped me adapt the existing poem translations to the music. In the case of the Spanish translation, I relied on Sylvia Asher for the same adaptation work.

  • In 2023, sixty years passed since the last edition of the book, and on this occasion, work is underway for a new publication in which you are actively involved. What new elements are being integrated into this edition?

I have the privilege of being part of the team working on this new edition that will be published in Israel. The idea is to preserve the original graphics and add more information that updates and complements the biographies of the children based on the research I have been conducting for years.

Another very important and special aspect of the book is that each drawing or fragment of a drawing (and there are many!) is accompanied by an explanation about the drawing and the child who made it. There are drawings that were not signed, so we cannot know who made them. In my research, I discovered the identity of the children behind several poems that in the original book were "anonymous".

An important update that I suggested and was incorporated into the new edition was to add photos of the children. I didn't find photos of everyone, but of many. This is very important because it brings us closer to them and their life stories. Unlike a personal diary, in this book, we hear multiple voices through words and drawings, and we can understand a lot about the inner world of the child who was in the ghetto.

QR codes were also added for six poems, which were turned into audiovisuals as part of the "When Memory Meets Art" project. During the process of producing the video clip and the research I conducted around one of those poems titled "Forgotten", I discovered that it was written by Zdeněk Ornest, who survived the war and became a theater and film actor in Czechoslovakia during the communist era. I met his only daughter, and it moves me deeply to know that the project is preserving the memory of her father in this way.

  • Raquel, the Islamic terrorist attack on October 7th, perpetrated by Hamas against both Jewish and non-Jewish populations in Israeli territory, laid bare "hatred towards Jews" in the most brutal and savage manner experienced by the Jewish people since the Holocaust. How are we continuing to work on Holocaust memory in light of this collective tragedy, hatred towards Jews, and the rise of antisemitism worldwide?

I don't have an answer for you. This is the moment to ask questions, to think and rethink, and mainly, a moment of action and reconstruction. The best way to educate is through actions - this is what the educators in the Terezín Ghetto did - they acted in educating the children with optimism, values, and love for life. Hatred towards their enemy was not their motivation.

The Jewish people are in mourning but continue with life, supporting each other, praying for the protection of the State of Israel, its people, and the soldiers, mourning the dead, and praying for the return of the kidnapped.

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