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How Does Your Garden Grow?

November 15, 2007 By:
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When Kenneth I. Helphand's book Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime appeared on my desk many months ago, I thumbed through it, stopping for a moment on the chapter devoted to "Ghetto Gardens," and thought a terrible, improper thought: "Holocaust scholars will do anything to find a new angle on a well-trafficked subject." I put the solid, clearly serious volume on the bottom shelf of my bookcase, making a mental note to possibly take a look at it again some time in the future. Then I forgot about it completely.

I -- and Helphand -- have to be thankful that a local friend of the author's persisted in drawing my attention back to the book, which is not only solid and serious, but moving and immensely important. As Michael Berenbaum, late of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., notes on the back cover: "Defiant Gardens is one of those rare works that makes you see something quite familiar in a radically different way."

That is indisputably true, but it is also an understatement of sorts. On every page of this work, I found something that shocked me, woke me up to a new reality and widened my wonder in the world. Quite an accomplishment for any book.

Helphand, who's written several other books on gardens in history, is professor of landscape architecture at the University of Oregon in Eugene. His newest book has been published by Trinity University Press in San Antonio, Texas, and the editors have treated the work with the respect it deserves, providing heavy stock paper and a handsome overall design.

The author has divided his study into seven chapters in which he considers wartime gardens in the 20th century: trench gardens along the Western front during World War I; ghetto gardens in Nazi Europe; barbed-wire gardens created by Allied prisoners of war and civilian internees in Europe and Asia during both world wars; stone gardens that the Japanese-Americans fashioned while in camps in the American Southwest; and gardens planted in the post-World War II period. The final chapter considers the "spirit" that permeates these various and differing acts of defiance.

As Helphand writes in his preface: "The journey that set my feet on the path to write this book began with my encountering a single image: a photograph of French soldiers in World War I standing in front of a small vegetable garden adjacent to their dugout quarters. This evocative picture haunted me for years. Why did these soldiers make this garden? What did it mean to them? What kind of satisfaction did they derive from creating, and tending, and harvesting it?"

'All Manner of Vegetation'

The author's use of the term, defiant gardens, covers a number of different variants on the concept, the only constant being that these patches of ground were begun and tended during periods of warfare. According to Helphand, some of these gardens were made in proximity to battlefields (and thus, imminent death) and some in areas where war was perpetrated against civilians; a number of them also sprang up where people were imprisoned or otherwise imperiled.

"It includes gardens whose makers could safely share the fruits of their labors," notes Helphand, "as well as those who resolutely planted seeds though they were in imminent danger, and never saw them flower. These gardens offer evidence of the profound meanings contained in the experience of gardens."

In his discussion of ghetto gardens, Helphand points out that, where much of ghetto life has been explored in-depth, no one had really looked at gardening in these extreme locales. Helphand went to the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw and was surprised to find that there were numerous photos from the Warsaw ghetto's early period (1940-41) showing "all manner of vegetation." This was a time, the author makes clear, before the ghetto was "compressed and death was omnipresent. In that period, the struggle to stay alive included the making of gardens."

How could this be? Doesn't a Nazi-imposed ghetto stand for the opposite of the life-giving properties of a garden? There were, however, says Helphand, gardens in the four major ghettos of Warsaw and Lodz in Poland, and Kovno and Vilna in Lithuania.

"Gardens, like other aspects of life that could be considered 'normal' -- going to school, park or concert, praying, taking a walk or having enough for dinner -- were all present in the ghetto, but only through extraordinary effort. Ghetto residents carted away rubble and scratched into the earth to plant vegetables, nurtured meager trees in the Jewish prison, and created garden sites at Skra, the Warsaw stadium that yielded its playing field to vegetable gardens and ultimately to mass graves. Though short-lived, like the ghettos themselves and their prisoners, ghetto gardens were mechanisms of resistance to the horrific conditions under which people lived. They were acts of hope and defiance."

The great "flowering" of ghetto gardens -- if that is not too terrible a pun to describe such inhuman circumstances -- was at the very establishment of the ghettos. The psychological conditions of the Jews at that moment, notes Helphand, was somewhat positive. Ghetto inhabitants had no reason to suspect that they wouldn't survive. There was no precedent at the time for industrialized mass murder, and, throughout history, Jews had withstood periods of persecution, even slaughter. So ghetto-dwellers created organizations and participated in endeavors that reflected the life they had led before they were routed from their homes.

But an anecdote that Helphand includes about a children's garden in the Lodz ghetto sums up the fate of these doomed efforts. In the spring of 1942, children from the orphanage turned a "forlorn" piece of ground into a beet garden. They struggled mightily against nearly impossible odds, and the appearance of the first shoots thrilled them.

But when the children discovered they were to be deported, they turned on the patch of ground. "Nothing will grow after we have gone," a 10-year-old girl kept screaming as she tore at the vegetation. The children had no other way of expressing their sense of betrayal.

"As if to thumb their noses at their inevitable fate," writes Helphand, "these small children stamped out what they intuitively knew the gardens represented: hope and life. As they destroyed the beets, so too would their own lives be extinguished."

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