I am still thinking about the idea of “shielding the joyous” and specifically the things that we do to shield our children from the horrors of this life. The story that I am going to attempt to tell has been haunting me for a couple of days now. I’ve told it to friends before, but I’ve never tried to write it out. Here goes.
In the spring of 2004, just a few months before he was diagnosed with leukemia, and just a few months after we had set up house together, Richard and I went to Prague for spring break. He had been a few years earlier, when the Czech Republic was established after the fall of Communism. Prague has suffered under many masters in the 20th century–the Austro-Hungarian empire, then a few decades of republic, then the 1939 takeover by the Nazis, followed quickly by the Soviets. It would take another 40 years to overthrow the Communist stranglehold in Prague’s “Velvet Revolution.”
See? It’s a huge story and I don’t know how to explain it. We know what the Nazis did all across Europe–Prague was in no way spared. Prague had long been a center of Jewish culture, with five robust synagogues in the Jewish Quarter before 1939. This was the city of the “Golem.” But, like 6 million others, most of the Jews of Prague were murdered. Modern-day Prague’s Jewish community finds itself with more synagogues than it needs for worship, so five of the old synagogues have been turned into a collective museum of Jewish history. The Maisel Synagogue holds a permanent exhibit of Jewish history from the 10th-18th century. The Spanish Synagogue (designed in Moorish style) serves as a repository of precious silver artifacts and a concert hall. Klausen Synagogue features displays about everyday Jewish life and traditions. The Old New Synagogue is the home of the Jewish cemetery with graves dating back to 1439. The fifth synagogue–Pinkas Synagogue–is the one that brought me to my knees.
The building itself has been unconsecrated and all ceremonial fixtures have been removed. All that remains are its sandstone walls, a soft and glowing pinkish hue. On those walls have been painted the names of every one of the 80,000 Bohemian and Moravian Jews who were murdered. It took two artists five years to inscribe eighty thousand hand-painted names, with their dates of birth and death. The names of the dead are arranged in families and grouped by the towns and villages in which they lived, so neighbors are reunited in this memorial. Pinkas Synagogue is one of the most holy places I’ve have experienced. Every wall, every silent surface…rings with names. Beside the space for the Holy Ark are painted the names of the death camps where these people were turned into sky and earth and memory. Pinkasova is “a long epitaph commemorating the names of those for whom a tombstone could not be erected.”
One of those names is Doris Zdekauerova, age 12.
How do I tell this next part? How can I explain? Outside Prague lies Terezin, the “transit camp” where many of these Jews began their journey toward the gas chamber. Terezin, or Theresienstadt, was the Nazi’s model camp. It’s the one they let the Red Cross film. It’s the one they made a propaganda film about, called “The Fuhrer Gives a City to the Jews.” Terezin had an orchestra and even staged a children’s opera. It was a prison, but on the surface it looked nicer than most. Still, it was a place of hunger, brutality and terror. Terrified parents and children were forcibly kept apart. The children were housed in large dormitories. Doris lived there, for a time, until she was “sent East.”
The adults of Terezin decided that the best thing they could do to shield their children from the darkness surrounding them was to set up structure. School lessons, plays, art classes–all conducted furtively with whatever supplies could be scavenged. One teacher, an artist named Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, has gone down in history for her work with the children of Terezin. Friedl had trained at the Bauhaus and her lessons with the children grew from the Bauhaus philosophy of exploring emotion and inhabiting experiences. She encouraged the children to paint, draw and make collages to express their experiences. Most importantly, Friedl ensured that her young students signed every piece of their work. It was theirs. Something they had created. Their truth. Their story. Like most of the 60,000 prisoners of Terezin, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis was transported to Auschwitz where she was killed. But before she left Terezin, she managed to fill two suitcases with 4500 pieces of art made by her 660 students. Of the 660 children who signed works of art, 550 were exterminated “in the East.” But their teacher hid their work and after the war was over, the two suitcases were discovered and turned over to the Jewish Museum of Prague.
You can see it. I did. The art collection is on permanent exhibit in the second floor gallery at Pinkas Synagogue, the house of the names. You climb the stairs as if your life hasn’t been changed already by the silent witness of 80,000 names and then you see the children’s drawings. Those rooms are some of the quietest I’ve ever witnessed.
Each piece of art is labeled with the child’s name, date of birth and date of death. The first time I saw one without a date of death–with the caption “Survived”–I sobbed. The drawings are arranged by theme: “Traditions,” “Family,” “Transportation,” many of them feel like “Life Before” and “Life After.”
I found Doris in the section labeled “Fear.” I remember one drawing, by another child, of a screaming guard. That’s what I had expected from a child in the camps who was asked to describe fear.
But Doris Zdekauerova–born July 15, 1932 and died October 16, 1944–drew this:
A princess with flowing blonde hair in a clean white dress with puffy sleeves. Standing calm beside a fire-breathing dragon. That was Doris’ expression of “fear.” She had to have known that her life had descended into the belly of a more dangerous beast, but while looking at this drawing, I felt an overwhelming sense of what the adults at Terezin had been trying to do. They created a world within a world. A safer place for the children to remember a few things about being children. Those adults did such a good job of shielding the children that Doris, when asked to depict fear, drew a dragon. Doris and the Dragon. A girl. The fire. Her name.