May 2004 Journal

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Art Notes

I Never Saw Another Butterfly, a book published to celebrate children's drawings and poems from Terezin, lends its name to an exhibition of 24 originals and 35 reproductions of the children's art at the Jewish Museum, brought from the Jewish Museum in Prague and supported by the AJR.

It is a pastoral art although the scenes are violent. An art of chugging trains - almost Thomas the Tank - but the journey we know is formidable, and the train has a blank face on a churning track. One figure is discernible: a Jew in a hat. It is an art of hospitals, but the accompanying poem speaks not of cure but of death. And it is an art of fear: a yellow figure, representing Death and wielding a sword, stands on a type of Parthenon, emerging from the shapes of other children, mown into obscurity. The accompanying poem, 'Fear', by 12-year-old Eva Pickova from Nymburk, describes a father's terror, of children choking and dying from typhus. Another yellow painting gives the sense of a child at the centre of a sandstorm, throwing out her hands, her eyes and mouth screaming. Behind her is a structure that resembles a sentry-box with a single hole.

The children, frightened and separated from their parents, were largely inspired by a gifted teacher, the Bauhaus-trained Viennese artist Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, a Janos Korczak of the creative world. Those who returned to school after the war said they learned more from her than their peers who had spent the war in ordinary classrooms. When she was deported to Auschwitz in 1944, she left behind two suitcases containing over 4,000 children's drawings, now preserved by the Jewish Museum in Prague.

These are children who dream like other children but who walk in the land of the shadow, and flit back to us as shadows. We know that a mere 100 survived from the 15,000 under-15s who passed through Terezin. Each flower in a vase screams out its life force; a woman runs towards the memory of her house with every fibre of her being. Home has the status of an unattainable Paradise; a black shadow or a chimney follows it; rigid trees and a tiny garden envelop it neatly, between three mountain peaks and a sun whose rays are tilted towards it in a desperate plea for life itself. This art makes of us all voyeurs into the worst anguish of all: the fragile anguish of childhood extinguished.

It took a visit to the Prague Jewish Museum in 1960 for Vera Gissing to confront the full impact of the Second World War. She was standing in a small room in the Museum filled with the drawings of the children of Terezin. A child survivor and Kindertransportee, who lost her parents and entire family in the war, she told guests at the opening of the London exhibition that this was the first time it had come home to her. A full programme of events accompanies the exhibition until the end of May.
Gloria Tessler

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