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Poems and Paintings From the Condemned

December 25, 2008 By:
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The Terezín Album of Mariánka Zadikow, recently published by the University of Chicago Press, is a remarkable document, reminiscent of the classic work, In Memory's Kitchen: A Legacy From the Women of Terezín.

The latter is a "cookbook" that surfaced after World War II and was published in book form in the United States more than a decade ago. The original had been put together by an elderly inmate of the concentration camp, which is better known to the world as Theresienstadt. Minna Pachter, a native of Prague (Terezín was situated due north of the Czech capital), had put together this handwritten and handsewn kochbuch, using recipes gathered from other prisoners, and then entrusted the finished product to another inmate, a man who'd been an antiques dealer in his former life, asking him, if he were at all able, to get it to her daughter in Palestine after the war.

The cookbook was, according to its book editor, Cara De Silva, "an accretion of whatever individual contributors felt like setting down." These camp women, literally starving at the time they dredged their memories for favorite recipes, wanted to remember the foods they'd cooked in their kitchens before the war, and Pachter wanted the completed document eventually to go to her daughter, so that she might have a semblance of the culinary tradition that was being destroyed along with the Jews who once brought these dishes to life.

This unusual, moving, little patchwork item turned out not to be an anomaly. De Silva noted in her prefatory remarks to the recipes that two smaller similar manuscripts -- one written in Theresienstadt and the other partly written there -- exist at Israel's Beit Theresienstadt, a kibbutz founded by survivors of the ghetto. And others have surfaced over the years.

With the appearance of The Terezín Album of Mariánka Zadikow, we now also know that many other types of "books" were clandestinely constructed in the show camp that the Nazis set up to fool the world. (Theresienstadt was used particularly to demonstrate to the Red Cross how well the Jews were being treated, and how much freedom and creativity they were being permitted by their captors, although no one seemed to ask why they were being held captive in the first place. The Germans said these imprisoned people were enemies of the state; the Red Cross, and the rest of the world, seemed to accept that explanation.)

Many of the makeshift documents put together at Terezín likely did not survive the Shoah; others may be sitting in repositories throughout Middle and Eastern Europe, waiting for an interested and intrepid researcher to discover them.

Like Minna Pachter's kuchbuch, The Terezín Album of Mariánka Zadikow also came into existence in an unusual manner. "With simple means, without any 'title,' this book should in distant times always be in your memory." These words were written by a bookbinder at the camp in a small blank book he'd crafted surreptitiously in September 1944 out of stolen materials. He gave the finished product to Zadikow, then 21, who over the next several, highly crucial months of the war, solicited inscriptions from fellow inmates.

Some people scribbled hurried farewells before being swept up into transports that would take them to Auschwitz or Treblinka; others wrote out beloved poems or scraps of literature that meant something to them; others drew colorful little pictures; while still others sketched in pieces of music, since there were so many musicians at various times in Terezín (musical performances, ironically enough, made up a considerable part of camp life).

The facsimile pages from the album, beautifully reconstructed by the University of Chicago Press, include the translation of these messages and poems, along with biographical information about the writer, whenever known -- and especially what his or her fate was once World War II ended. For Terezín was not just a show camp; in actuality, it was a transit point for prisoners who often met their deaths in concentration camps in Poland and elsewhere. But death was hardly absent from the Czech site; disease and starvation were rampant, if kept somewhat hidden behind Terezín's false facade.

There is a detailed introduction to the Terezín album done with scrupulous care by famed Holocaust historian Debórah Dwork, which tells the story of the camp and what happened to Mariánka Zadikow and her mother, there and afterwards. (Dwork has also provided the biographical material about the contributors to the Terezín album.)

As for the friends and acquaintances of Mariánka who signed her "album" -- writers, painters, musicians -- a typical one, Elisabeth Wachsberg, who identifies herself as "your barrack comrade," painted a pastoral scene with a barn in the distance and cows in the foreground, and next to it wrote:

Dear Mariánka
If I had the mind of a poet
I would write a beautiful poem for you
on this sheet in your album.
But as I lack this gift
I can only wish you what is most needed:
A very happy life.

Happily, we read beneath this inscription: "Deported to Terezín from the Netherlands, 11-year-old Elisabeth Wachsberg did not paint the Bohemian hills she saw around her; instead, she drew upon her memory to create this typical Dutch landscape. She survived the war."

Then from Franta Stránsky comes this single, nearly enigmatic, unpunctuated line: "Transport is no joke the coffeehouse was better".

Then we are told that Stránsky, who was born on July 3, 1909, "was deported to Auschwitz a few days after he wrote this entry. The coffeehouse he mentions refers to Rafael Schächter and Eda Krása's living quarters [entry 39 in the book], where friends sometimes met after working hours. He did not survive." 

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