Friday, October 2, 2009

The power of the arts

My latest trek into the world of nonfiction had some moments that moved me.

And I certainly learned some things I hadn't known and that's always a good thing as far as I'm concerned.

My eye was caught by "The Girls of Room 28: Friendship, Hope, and Survival in Theresienstadt" by Hannelore Brenner (ISBN 9780805242447).

I was unfamiliar with this chapter in World War II history and was eager for insight into how folks in the face of unspeakable horror can continue to hope.

Room 28 is in a girls home in Theresienstadt near Prague. The town was used as an internment camp for thousands on their way to Auschwitz.

Room 28 speaks to the power of the arts and education. It is at its strongest when Brenner uses the girls' own words.

Its weakness lies in the number of girls whose stories she tries to tell. I had a hard time keeping them all straight in my mind and the constant usage of complete names was a barrier for me to forming deep connections with any one.

But when it's on target, it's impossible not to be moved by these survivors.

People like Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, a 44-year-old artist who shared her passions with the children of Theresienstadt.
"She awakened memories of what was good in the children's past and strengthened their hope for a better future. ... Proof that she succeeded, if only for a few hours, is found in the more than three thousand drawings created by children under her leadership - each one a child's witness to life in the ghetto."

People like Eva Weiss, not yet 20 and a counselor to the girls. Eva tried to be a surrogate mother to the frightened girls despite her own worries.
As she wrote of her days in Auschwitz-Birkenau,"It was my job to play with them and give them lessons - without books or any other materials. The important thing was to make them forget where they were and what was happening around them."

People like Rudolf Freudenfeld, the 22-year-old musical director of the ghetto's production of "Brundibar." The children's opera was a lifeline to many. As one young performer says, "We didn't have to wear the yellow stars. Even in Theresienstadt we always had to wear the yellow stars - but not when we were performing Brundibar. ... For those moments we were not branded with the yellow star, which meant that for this brief precious time, we were free."

It's hard to fathom focusing on painting and acting in such circumstances, and inspiring to meet those who could.

- Tricia Ambrose

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