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Terezín Children's Holocaust Poems with English Translations

Who were the child poets of Terezin and why are they remembered today for their Holocaust poems? During World War II the Gestapo used Terezín, also known by the German name Theresienstadt, as a ghetto and concentration camp. Theresienstadt, located in the Bohemian mountains just southwest of Prague, Czechoslovakia, was a civilian town until the Nazis converted it to their diabolical purposes. More than 150,000 Jews were sent there, and although Terezín was not a death camp, per se, around 33,000 people died there due to the appalling conditions. Another 88,000 inhabitants were deported from Terezín to Nazi extermination camps. Of approximately 15,000 children who were sent to Terezín,  only around 100 survived. Some of the children wrote touching poems about their harrowing ordeals. And while most of the children did not survive, what did survive was a suitcase full of drawings and poems created by the children of Terezín between 1942 and1944. In 1955, after ten years of collecting dust, the suitcase was found and its contents restored. The pictures, poems and prose of the children have been collected in a book, I Never Saw Another Butterfly, and have subsequently been read by millions of people around the world.

compiled by Michael R. Burch, an editor and publisher of Holocaust and Nakba poetry

The Garden
by Franta Bass
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Only take heed, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things which your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your hearts all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children's children.—Deuteronomy 4:9

A little garden,
fragrant and full of roses.
The path the little boy trudges
is exceedingly narrow.

A small boy,
tender like a budding blossom ...
but when the blossoms bloom,
The little boy will be no more.

Franta (Frantisek) Bass was born in Brno on September 4, 1930. He was deported to the Terezín concentration camp on December 2, 1941, and he died in Auschwitz on October 28, 1944. He was only fourteen years old when he was murdered by the Nazis. Yet still his lovely poem endures, to remind us never to allow such appalling things to happen to little boys again.

Jewish Forever
by Franta Bass
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

I am a Jew and will always be a Jew, forever.
Even if I should die from hunger,
still I will never submit

but always fight for my people,
on my honor,
to their credit.

And I will never be ashamed of them;
this I vow.
I am so very proud of my people now;

how dignified they are!
And even though I am oppressed,
still I will always return to life ...

For Olga
by Alena Munkova-Synkova
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The boat whistle has just sounded
and now we must sail
toward some distant port.

We'll sail a long, long way
till dreams become truth.
How sweet the name Morocco!
Listen, it's time!

The wind sings songs of far-off lands!
So look to the heavens
And dream about violets.

Listen, it's time!

Alena Munkova-Synkova was deported to Terezín in 1942 at the age of sixteen and was placed in Girls Home L410, under the supervision of a young man called Willy Groag. She explained the part he played in saving the children's poems and pictures as follows: "When the end of the war came Willy Groag, who was the head of one of the Girls Homes at Terezín, collected everything that had been written by the children and was left there after they had gone. And all of their writings—if the poems' authors had not survived (which was rare) and hadn't taken the poems back—were collected by Mr. Groag and he gave them to the Jewish museum in Prague. That's how they came to be saved." Willy Groag went on to live a long life in Israel with his wife Madla and daughter Eva, who was born at Terezín. The work he collected at the end of the war was later published, eventually reaching a wide audience in the book I Never Saw Another Butterfly. Alena Munkova-Synkova is the only child poet who appears in the book who is still alive today. She recounts: "In 1964 the first book of poetry and pictures by Terezín children was published. I think it was called Poems and Drawings from Death Station. Then in the following years such books were published abroad, in many different languages. Naturally there was a great reaction to them, and Mr. [Franz] Waxman wasn't the only musician to work with them. A lot of musicians worked with those poems and put them to music, either individually or as part of a larger work."

The Butterfly
by Pavel Friedman

The last, the very last,
So richly, brightly, dazzlingly yellow.
Perhaps if the sun's tears would sing
against a white stone ...

Such, such a yellow
Is carried lightly 'way up high.
It went away I'm sure because it wished to
kiss the world good-bye.

For seven weeks I've lived in here,
Penned up inside this ghetto.
But I have found what I love here.
The dandelions call to me
And the white chestnut branches in the court.
Only I never saw another butterfly.

That butterfly was the last one.
Butterflies don't live in here,
in the ghetto.

Pavel Friedman was a young poet who lived in the Theresienstadt Ghetto. Little is know of the author, but he is presumed to have been seventeen when he wrote “The Butterfly.” He was eventually deported to Auschwitz where he died on September 29, 1944. The poem was found in a hidden cache of children’s work recovered at the end of World War II.

Fifth Poem from the Terezín Children's Cantata
by Michael Flack

The heaviest wheel rolls across our foreheads
To bury itself deep somewhere
Inside our memories.

We've suffered here more than enough,
Here in this clot of grief and shame,
Wanting a badge of blindness
To be a proof for their own children.

A fourth year of waiting, like standing above a swamp
From which any moment a spring might gush forth.

Meanwhile, the rivers flow another way,
Another way,
Not letting you die, not letting you live.

And the cannons don't scream and the guns don't bark
And you don't see blood here.
Nothing, only silent hunger.
Children steal the bread here and ask and ask and ask
And all would wish to sleep, keep silent, and
just go to sleep again ...

The heaviest wheel rolls across our foreheads
To bury itself deep somewhere inside our memories.

Michael Flack (formerly Flach) was born in 1921 at Tesin (Tetschen). Before WWII he studied pedagogics and afterwards taught groups of Jewish children who had been expelled from schools. In the ghetto he and Berta Freund ran the children’s home. There were about sixty children aged four to nine, many of them orphans or who had arrived in the ghetto without parents. Flack was a pianist who wrote poetry. One of his poems “Concert in the Attic of the Old School” about Gideon Klein’s music was included in the collection I Have Not Seen a Butterfly Around Here. Flack’s father was an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army who lost an arm in WWI. For this reason Flack's parents and two sisters were protected in the ghetto and stayed there until liberation. Flack was sent to Birkenau in 1944 and from there to a “work camp” at Buchenwald. After Buchenwald was freed, because he knew six languages Flack became the liberation liaison officer to the US army. Later he studied international relations, law and other subjects at Harvard. For many years he taught at various universities.

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