Tag Archives: Czechoslovakia

A young mother’s letters and poems testify to the Nazi madness that she did not survive

Dancing on a Powder Keg, by Ilse Weber. Translated with Foreword by Michal Schwartz. Bunim & Bannigan Ltd. in association with Yad Vashem. 340 pages. Hardcover $34.95.

First published in Germany in 2008, this startling book is one of the most revealing eye-witness accounts of the Nazi diminishment of Jewish life and, finally, the destruction of Jewish lives. It is comprised primarily of letters written by the Czech children’s author and radio scriptwriter to her Swedish friend Lilian von Löwenadler. In these letters, written with great regularity and growing alarm, Ilse conveys the growing horror of the Nazi occupation on Czech Jews in general and on her own family in particular.

Beginning in 1939, Ilse wrote many letters to her older son, Hanus, who was taken on the Kindertransport to London where Lilian, who lived there, met him and took him to safety in Sweden. The surface concern of most letters is to offer and report family news to a good friend already acquainted with Ilse’s family, and to encourage letters in return. The more urgent concern, rapidly accelerating, is the one expressed as early as 1936: “Antisemitism is shutting all doors on me.” The context here is the contraction of Ilse’s professional status and opportunities.  

In Ilse’s community, traditional Jewish life goes on without much interruption for many years after Hitler’s rise to power and Czeschoslovakia’s subjugation. Jewish holidays are observed (in the case of Chanukah interwoven with Christmas), and Jewish education continues. But Ilse worries about turbulence in Palestine and the reliability of the Balfour Declaration.

Ilse exhibits no desire to hide her Jewish identity or pretend to be ashamed of it. However, she is very much attached as well to her German cultural identity. Though a Czech, German is her natural language. She is an ardent admirer of German literature, music, and art. Now, as a Jew and a Czech, circumstances distance her from a central part of her identity. She loves her homeland and her adopted culture, but it is all being taken from her. “That I am Jewish is beginning to appear like a curse to me.”

Conditions worsen in her part of Czechoslovakia. For everyone. Milk becomes scarce and electric power is lost. The local broadcasting station is in German hands. “Our homeland is destroyed.” And part of the destruction is the arrival of Jewish refugees from other countries. By late 1938, Ilse is ashamed of her former German friends and acquaintances, who have almost all disappointed her as human beings. She looks away when she sees them.

The dream of settling in Palestine flutters in and out of various letters. It would seem to be the only answer to “a world that so calmly overlooks this violation and robbery of the Jews.” In 1939, Ilse refers with dred to the expulsion (from Czechoslovakia and elsewhere) of the Polish Jews who were forced to leave their homes and businesses but not allowed to enter Poland.

By this time, Ilse is worrying about her failing health and the collapse of medical care. Her second son, Tommy, has lost his physician. She doesn’t know how to prepare for her family’s survival. Life in her town is “like dancing on a powder keg.” She sees a synagogue in flames. Jews cannot leave their homes after eight o’clock. Frequent relocations are necessary. Employment for her husband is now a matter of hard labor, which has ruined his health. The Jewish cemetery is the only garden that Tommy is allowed to enter. The surprisingly free-flowing mail communication is threatened.

And then it happens. Ilse’s desperation and desire to be of use brings her to volunteer as a nurse and teacher in Theresienstadt. There is a break in communications for a while, and when it returns only short passages come off Ilse’s pen. (At this point, I think she no longer has a typewriter.)

These letters are supplemented by an essay by Ruth Bondy, “The World of Theresienstadt,” which illuminates the nature of this combination ghetto and concentration camp. Though brief, it does a fine job of creating a useful context for Ilse’s life there and for the poems that Ilse wrote in Theresienstadt, that make up a major section of the book.

These poems are remarkable for the ways in which they balance intensity with calmness, outrage with understanding. Many of them describe the lives of the children whom Ilse nurses and teaches. She worries about the substandard and uncertain nourishment, she wonders at their innocence. She writes a poem about the concealed lute with which she entertains (although music is prohibited), the horribly crowded quarters, the destruction of family life, the misery in the children’s ward. She invents an inmate child’s moving prayer to God. She ironically celebrates the ration card that allows her to pick from the war’s refuse.

Ilse Weber

These poems are most often rhymed, with a variety of stanza forms being well-exploited. Whether the translations carry these patterns over from the German originals I cannot say. I assume they do.

In one poem, Ilse confesses that her “Judaism was not a gift” but rather “a gray cloud of anxiety.”

It is a very generous selection, perhaps all that Ilse’s husband Willi, who survived the nightmare, was able to hide – and then rescue after the liberation. They deserve a separate publication.

Ilse’s life did not end in Theresienstadt. When the youngsters that she nursed and taught were being relocated to Auschwitz, she volunteered to accompany them. Ilse and her younger son perished there. That is, they were murdered, like so many, many others.

This book, the preservation of her writings, is a miracle. It is her afterlife. We can hear her words, feel her pain, honor her compassion and courage.

Dancing on a Powder Keg is concluded with an “Afterword: Against Forgetting” by Ulrika Migdal, a scholar who sought out at the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem “literary voices from the Theresienstadt ghetto.” Her essay illustrates how these letters and poems can be used in the service of remembering and commemorating what must never be forgotten.

This review appears in the October 2017 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota/Manatee).


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The Körbels of Prague and the Demise of Jewish Identity

Prague Winter:  A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948, by Madeleine Albright. Harper. 480 pages. $29.99.

Most Jewish readers attracted to Madeleine Albright’s recent book are no doubt curious about the degree of Jewish identity that attached to the author upon her discovery, late in her life, that both of her parents came from Jewish families. Yes, the 64th U. S. Secretary of State (and the first woman to hold that position) was born a Jew, but she didn’t know it. Many of her relatives, including three of her grandparents, died in the Holocaust, but she didn’t know it. She has no meaningful Jewish identity, but that in itself hints at a story of Jewish families in Nazi-infected Europe that perhaps can never be told. 

The story Albright does tell has three dimensions: it’s a WWII narrative with a Central European focus; more precisely, it’s a Czech-eye view of WWII and its aftermath. More narrowly (and richly) yet, it’s a perspective that hinges on the part her father, Josef Körbel, played in the Czech foreign ministry as press attaché  and ambassador to Yugoslavia, as scribe and mouthpiece for the Czechoslovakian government-in-exile (in London) after his country fell to the Nazis, and as effective subordinate to the major Czech leaders, Edvard Beneš and Jan Masaryk, even through his country’s second fall, to the Soviet Union, after a very brief hope of renewed democratic independence.

Readers will be frustrated once they realize that Albright was barely a toddler when the historical timeline she fleshes out began. She is rarely writing from memory, as she was much too young to have experience-based insights on the events that she relates. In addition, Albright spent very few of her early years living in Prague, and more of them living in either Belgrade or London.

His own future insecure after the Soviet regime took hold, Josef Körbel was able to gain political asylum from the U. S., bringing his family here in 1948 and building a significant career as an international studies professor at the University of Denver. Albright’s positions in the U. S. government and her father’s place in Czechoslovakia’s government gave her access to materials that she fashioned industriously and intelligently. She explores, with clarity and dramatic pointing, the political twists and turns by which the democratic Czechoslovakia that came to life in the aftermath of WWI became a victim of Nazi aggression and then a pawn in the east-west game following Germany’s defeat. The Czechs had the bad luck to be liberated by the Soviets.

Madeleine Albright – official photo as Secretary of State

Madeleine Albright’s narrative of how a small European nation caught in the crossfire fared during the stormy years leading up to and following WWII is bolstered by an abundance of sources, an array of captivating photographs, a cast list of principal characters, a detailed time line, and a bountiful index. Fortunately, this apparatus does not interfere with accessibility. On many occasions, Albright’s personal (as distinguished from professional) voice adds charm and wit to the presentation of unfortunate occurrences.

The story of Madeleine Albright’s response to the discovery of her Jewish ancestry is a leitmotif running through the analysis of Czechoslovakia’s fate. Once their Jewish parentage became known, she and her younger siblings explored family papers, government records, and various archives to piece together a good bit of their parents’ Jewish past. There was no one from whom Albright could receive the answer to this question: What led her parents to convert to Roman Catholicism when Madeleine was still very young and never reveal the truth about their Jewish origins?

Knowing the character of her parents, the author surmises that their decision was meant to be protective. It’s not clear whether or not Josef’s assignment to work with the Czech government-in-exile was intended as an escape from his family’s likely discovery and probable extermination as a Jews. Albright suggests in various ways that the young Körbel couple had worn their Judaism lightly, making it relatively easy to leave it behind.  Prague Winter reveals no information about Albright’s grandparents having relationships with Czechoslovakia’s Jewish communities.

The questions that linger include these: (1) Did Josef Körbel attempt to get his parents and in-laws out of danger? (2) As the Nazis rose to power, how many other Jewish individuals or families disowned their Jewish selves to save (or try to save) their lives? (3) How many succeeded?

This review appears in the August 2012 editions of L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and the Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota/Manatee).

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