POETRY BOOK REVIEW: CURRICULUM CONNECTION-- A book of poetry for children or teens ideally suited to science, math, or social studies instruction and published since 1995
When I taught The Dairy of Anne Frank, published posthumously by Otto Frank, Anne's father, I presented a question to my eighth grade students for consideration during the study. “If you were facing death, would you approach life with despair or hope for the future?” The children who wrote poems and created art in the Terezin Concentration Camp, as they waited for eventual death during the Holocaust, gave future generations a glimpse of their hope. However, not all the poetry in the anthology, . . . I never saw another butterfly . . . , edited by Hana Volavkova, is a picture of hope. Some of the poems speak of burden and tears. However, the inspiration gleaned from these children’s poetry has been a tender gift for later generations.
As the title indicates, the compilation of poems and art, published by Schocken Books in New York, was produced by children from 1942 to 1944 while they were housed in the Terezin Concentration Camp. This particular edition was expanded by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which prefaces the edition with a note giving background information about the camp itself, and the children who resided there, along with a description of the Holocaust Museum (Volavkova 1993, p vii -ix).
A foreward, written by Chaim Potok, follows (p. xi). He writes about the history of Terezin, a small town in Czechoslovakia. Once a town of approximately 8,000, inhabited mostly by soldiers, Terezin dwindled to 3,700 people in 1941. During the late 1930s and early 1940s, German troops invaded and the town became a ghetto, part of a German protectorate, and was then renamed Theresienstadt. Ironically, the town was used to present Germany in a favorable light to the outside world. In addition, German military leaders allowed reporters to come in at one point during the World War II era to tour the camp. These reporters witnessed a beautifully kept town, run by prominent Jewish businessmen and artisans, when in fact, it was a holding camp for men, women, and children, most of whom were sent to Auschwitz to die.
The anthology contains an afterword by Vacalv Havel who, as a young adult, experienced shame when he watched his Jewish classmates being denied basic human rights. When he reads these Jewish children’s poems now from an adult’s perspective, he says this about their suffering, “They are full of longing for a world different from the miserable life they led, a longing for games and freedom, for gentleness and beauty. Death, which was so close, appears only between the lines” (p. 104).
The book contains a chronology beginning in 1939, and ending in 1945, when Terezin was liberated by the Soviet Army. The last page speaks of the children: “A total of around 15,000 children under the age of 15 passed through Terezin. Of these, around 100 came back” (pp. 105-106).
Distinctive drawings accompany the freestyle poems. At the back of the book are two separate catalogs for the drawings and poems. Each entry gives biographical information about the artists, and the authors of the poems, if known, and the medium of the art. Five of the poems belong to Franta Bass. “He was born in Brno on September 4, 1930. He was deported to Terezin on December 2, 1941, and died in Auschwitz on October 28, 1944” (p. 96). This young man spent his teenage years in the camp. His poem, “The Garden” is one that helps students comprehend the reality of death during the Holocaust for children of any age.
by Franta Bass
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. (p. 70)
Bass had no illusions about his plight, or the fate of other children in the camp. However, his poetry reveals his strength. In his poem, “I Am A Jew,” he writes, “Even though I am suppressed,/ I will always come back to life.” (p. 57).
The combination of these poems and drawings speak to young people today. The poetry reveals the inner thoughts of a younger generation that helps connect emotions heightened by extreme circumstances to the anxiety young people experience now in their generation. Did my eighth grade students understand the underlying meaning of every poem in the book? No, but they felt the passion, the anger, and the fear of these young writers who were facing death. The poetry of these children and teenagers helped my students realize that human emotion spans the ages and is shared, regardless of what is experienced. Even more, my eighth grade students saw the Holocaust in a deeper light through the despair, and in the hope found in the poetry. Both despair and hope are revealed in “Homesick” by an unidentified author: “But no one must give up! / The world turns and times change. / Yet we all hope the time will come / When we’ll go home again, (p. 47).
. . . I never saw another butterfly . . . should be shared with students during a study of the Holocaust. They will learn the meaning of “poignancy” as the poetry helps them perceive a significant time in history that influences our lives today.
Volavkova, Hana. 1993. . . . I never saw another butterfly . . .: Children’s Drawings and Poems from Terezin Concentration Camp, 1942 - 1944. NY: Schocken Books. vii-ix, xi, 57, 70, 96, 1-4-106.