Dancing on a powder keg-Ilse Weber   Leave a comment

 

I chose this from netgalley, as a book to review for the publisher. It is published by Yad Vashem as Holocaust literature. My husband is a Holocaust specialist, and so has sparked my interest in the subject, and as a result I am quite knowledgeable, mainly by osmosis!

The book lists Ilse Weber as the author, although several other people have aided the process. The main body of the book consists of a collection of letters between Ilse and her childhood pen pal, Lillian. They begin in 1933 just before Hitler rose to power and continue until 1944, the last few written whilst interned in Tereisienstadt, a concentration camp. They are here translated into English for the first time.

Another section of the book includes poems and songs written by Ilse whilst in the camp, and buried in the garden for safety by her husband, then reclaimed after the war. Many of these are published for the first time in English. It also includes some pictures drawn for her by her patients. (She worked as a children’s nurse in the camp hospital).

The final section fills in the gaps, telling Ilse’s life story and putting the letters and poems into context and telling the sad end of the story. Ilse volunteered to accompany her charges to Auschwitz, when the children were transferred there in 1944; she knew the implications of her act, but wanted to care for and reassure her patients to the end. Her young son, Thomas, 15, accompanied her.

Ilse lived in Czechoslovakia, a section the Germans called Sudetenland, moving to Prague after the Nazis seized control. The letters begin before this move, describing everyday life for Ilse as a young married mother of 1 then 2 small children, but also a published writer, producing poems, songs and dramas for local schools and regular radio programmes. She specialised in children’s stories reflecting Jewish culture.

As events change around her, she talks about them in a matter of fact way. She talks of the Czechs resenting the Jews and the Germans after the Sudetenland debacle. Later she talks of the restrictions placed on the Jews, of antisemitism directed at her by neighbours she has known her whole life. She writes of these things interspersed with family celebrations and holiday plans.

Later Ilse and her husband tried desperately to leave the country, but it was too late. The sections in the letters where we follow their increasing abortive attempts to emigrate are heart-breaking. Eventually, they decide to send their eldest son on the final Kindertransport organised through Nicholas Winton. Their youngest son was too ill to leave. Hanus went to stay with Lillian and later Lillian’s mother in Sweden and survived the war.

There is a sudden break in the letters, and then an official letter explaining the Weber’s emigration to another area, called Tereisenstadt. It suddenly became apparent to me, how little they would have understood of the danger Ilse and her family were now in. These final letters and short and formulaic giving nothing away.

The poems are short and often repetitive, they were usually to be sung by the children, yet they manage to capture a darkness that they must all have lived with. There is one poem which is addressed to her lost son, and that is very touching, Ilse’s heart breaks missing her young son, who she fears she may never see again.

These must have been a wonderful treasure for her son to own, in order to try and hold onto the memory of his mother. However at the same time, Ilse was not unique, and her suffering speaks to us of all of the other sufferers of the holocaust, coping with similar emotions and stress. Apparently a lot of her poems helped many people cope in the camp and were memorised and copies were sent to Hanus and his father after the war. We cannot imagine the power of a few words to unify and strengthen those suffering people.

I would recommend this book as a must read, much as any book which Yad Vashem publishes. Holocaust awareness is vital to this and every following generation. This book is especially powerful, as it is so personal, honest and straightforward in its style. It contains to exaggerations or histrionics, but the words of a young Jewish woman trying hard to cope with the challenges life was throwing at her.

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Posted November 2, 2017 by dianne7 in book review

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